My 11 year old and his friends are in the midst of a massive Dungeons and Dragons campaign. Their adventure opened as they hung upside down, enmeshed in the webbing of giant wasps, blood running to their heads, and the sounds of howls echoing in the distance. In the following weeks, they have saved themselves from rampaging werefiends, tramped across desserts and into the ambushes of the Goblins of Oogie Boogie, and, as their last meeting closed, had defeated Boss Goblin and watched him spiral slowly into an abyss.
For those readers who aren’t familiar with Dungeons and Dragons, D & D is a fantasy game where the players invent a character for themselves – they can choose to be a cleric, an elf, a warrior, a sorcerer, a ranger, or a range of other roles. The Dungeon Master then makes up a series of adventure for them to move through, the outcome of which is determined by the role of dice (many, many sided dice). The players begin with special abilities and weapons, each of which determines how the dice rolls are multiplied and whether they will win or lose with encounters with all the imaginary challenges that come their way.
It’s a story whose ending isn’t known. Put another way, it’s an adventure video game that unfolds in slow motion and is invented anew each time a group sits down and starts a new campaign. Campaigns can last for weeks or months or even years, depending on how often the group gets together, how long they play at a sitting, and how the dice roll.
I had more than a moment’s hesitation when the kids decided they really, really, really wanted to start playing D & D. My older son had started to play in college. I knew nothing of the game, other than that it had always epitomized the height of geekdom. In fact, one of Sean’s friends had said just that when it was first suggested – “Why don’t we just print ‘nerd’ across our chests?”
But the idea grew on them.
My hesitations were multifold. First, I was worried about what kind of social world this choice of activity would lead him towards. Younger kids’ activity choices can be initiated by themselves, friends, or parents, but the ones that really stick are ones that the kids themselves love. Activities influence kids both because of their content (what kids do in them and the cognitive and social stimulation they offer) but also because of the peers that kids encounter through the activities and the social norms those kids share. For example, kids who participate in sports tend to do well in school, have high self-esteem, and hold high academic values (above and beyond the selection effects of who tends to choose to participate). But they also tend to drink a lot, because that’s also part of that social world.
I didn’t know what kinds of kids would participate in an activity like D & D, although everything I’d heard about it suggested they’d be male, smart, and not incredibly socially gifted. On the other hand, my son would be playing with his best friends and I liked all of them.
Another hesitation was the Dungeon Master. The Dungeon Master creates the world that the players inhabit and writes the adventure they will encounter. They are the master storyteller. The kids couldn’t do this themselves yet. And that’s what often happens when young kids want to begin D & D – they need to find a Dungeon Master who is willing to let them join the game. And here you have another typical risk – young kids moving into a crowd with older kids who have different interests, different norms, and will lead them into activities that may be too old for them. Again, though, this seemed okay for now. My college aged son had wanted to try his hand at being a Dungeon Master and was willing to run their first campaign while my husband watched and learned enough to carry on a second campaign if my older son got too busy or tired of it. And they were getting together at 11AM Saturday mornings in my kitchen – how far astray could they go?
Watching them play D & D has been fascinating for me as a developmental psychologist. These kids are in 5th grade, what Piaget has described as a transitional period between concrete operations – when kids can manipulate ideas about concrete things skillful – and formal operations, when they can deal with abstractions. They are at the perfect age for manipulating and arguing about who would be stronger in particular situations, which weapon is better and what it can be used for, and the relative powers of gnomes and kenkus (whatever they are). This is the age for all those games with all of those obscure creatures with strange powers – bionicles, pokemon, and all the other card games.
These kids spent a full month arguing about who was going to fill what role. A good D & D party of adventurers balances knowledge (a cleric), magic (sorcerer or wizard), the skills of a tracker (ranger), and warrior (paladin). But who would be what? What type of creature would have each skills and what weapons would be carry? A month of sincere lunchtime discussions and recess arguments ensued.
As the campaign began, the arguments intensified. In fact, I think their favorite part of the whole game is arguing. What should we do best? Why is a long spear a good weapon to attack the goblins and why isn’t it good within 5’ and only for 10? Who is going to back me up? What language do I speak and can the goblins understand my cursing in Italian? Does Italy exist in this world? Do we want to be religious and worship the god, Winslow? Or should we give in to the adamant atheist in the group? And is our lack of piety why we got defeated?
Piaget noted that boys, in particular, love to argue and that argumentation sharpens their cognitive skills and encourages the development of more complex schemes for understanding their world. This world has certainly become more complex and developed it’s own laws of physics and social interactions. They’ve even been arguing about religion in discussing which god to pray to, what powers it has, and whether it will help their group if one of them is a firm atheist. Piaget and Gilligan both noted that girls will tend to change rules of games like baseball to smooth relationships – friendship trumps abstract rules. For these boys, rules trump all else – the whole point is winning. Recent research on video games suggests that this difference shows up in complex games as well. Girls use games like Grand Theft Auto to cruise around check out who is doing what, and play with the radio. It’s a game that facilitates socializing, which is the important game. Guys tend to play Grand Theft Auto to steal cars, following the rules and competing for points.
D and D is really, really complicated. It is perhaps and exaggeration when the cartoon Foxtrot shows a bookshelf of 20 volumes that need to be read before the game can start. But it is no lie that half the fun is reading two books – the Players Manual and the Monster Guide – to really understand what’s going on. And Dungeon Masters have a whole book just for them to get started.
The only reason these kids can navigate this very abstract set of possibilities (solidly formal operations) is because of scaffolding. Scaffolding is a term introduced by Vygotsky to describe the process whereby two people together can do something more complicated than one person alone – especially when one of the people has greater skills. For example, when you’re first starting to do long division, it helps to have someone remind you of each step and to help you keep your place and prompt you for the next step. In this game, it’s my older son, the Dungeon Master. He reminds the kids of the next step. He tells them what rules they’re about to break. He shapes their arguments to focus on the key points. He suggests what he might do when listening to the screams and high pitched maniacal laughter emanating from the nearby village. And he joins in their arguments and keeps them going until they come up with an idea that might actually work that they all immediately recognize and adopt by acclamation.
He helps them keep track of adding the dexterity bonuses to the dice rolls and subtracting out the points for temporary blindness. He also reminds them to keep track of their current status on the paper forms. He keeps their arguments in hand by shouting “Respect the hat!”, pointing to the Dungeon Master cap he always wears when running the game, and making a decision that can’t be argued with.
All in all it has been an intensely social bonding experience for the guys. And I’m not surprised that this is the age where lots of different types of games that have these same qualities are popular. Oh, and my son’s best friend says I need to write that it’s just really, really fun.
Late note for D & D readers: How To Tame A Dragon has a whole spate of D & D references. Even a D & D Players Guide lookalike. My son caught them all and laughed hysterically.