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Role-playing games pull reluctant school kids into a supportive crowd

For kids with a troubled school life, role-playing games teach valuable life skills such as risk-taking and leadership.

By Ethan GilsdorfContributor / April 9, 2010

Cofounder Ray Estabrook (standing) leads gamers in playing '1968: Gone but Not Forgotten,' a game he and his wife and co-founder, Patricia, invented. The game revolves around local Maine history in 1968.

Ethan Gilsdorf

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Belfast, Maine

When Max Delaney came to rural Maine 13 years ago, his itinerant family moved from town to town, school to school. With few social connections, he felt isolated. Like an outsider.

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"It was hard for me to find people," says Mr. Delaney, now 21. "I was searching for a community." His academic performance suffered, and he didn't get along with his teachers. "I did not do well with authority in school."

Then, the year his family arrived in Belfast, a coastal town of some 6,300 on Penobscot Bay, he discovered The Game Loft and finally found his tribe.

Similar to other youth-development organizations such as Outward Bound or Scouting, The Game Loft also fosters risk-taking, leadership, and camarad­erie. But for kids who find the football gridiron to be a foreign world, The Game Loft immerses them in a different sort of team sport.

Via table-top role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), Game Loft members play characters armed not with football padding and hockey sticks but chain mail, broadswords, light sabers, and magic spells. Working together, they charge onto battlefields and explore underground dungeons, seeking valor in these imaginary realms.

"I took to [role-playing] immediately," Delaney says. He joined as a member of The Game Loft, then started volunteering as a staff member, and finally became an employee. Along the way, the games he played built up his character in the real world.

"Killing dragons is a challenge," says Ray Esta­brook, The Game Loft's codirector and cofounder. His center connects dragon-slaying to the challenges life throws at you. Via gaming, kids test out "roles," but in a safe, nonschool environment, in order to become functioning adults in society – connected, compassionate, and caring. "Good things happen to kids who game," he says.

After opening a game shop, All About Games, in the heart of Belfast in 1996, the husband-and-wife team of Ray and Patricia Estabrook, lifelong gamers, realized their store had become an ad hoc gathering place for youths who wanted to learn and play games. In 1998, they founded their community center in the shop's attic. Twelve years later, the innovative hangout – and the only gaming-focused youth center in the country – is going strong, changing the lives of individuals like Delaney.

"I was [at The Game Loft] to socialize with kids who had mutual interest not only in games but conversation," Delaney says. "It was a place to channel a lot of curiosity." Moreover, he was able to interact with kids of all ages, as well as adults, who treated him as an equal. "The level of respect we got at The Game Loft was different than [at] school."