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.
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The Game Loft addresses another concern: the proliferation of video games. In an age when parents worry about the potentially isolating and addictive effects of computer and console-based games such as World of Warcraft and Halo, The Game Loft offers an antidote. No electronic games are allowed within its doors. Rather, kids play games like D&D and Star Wars Miniatures face to face, with pencils and paper and plastic figurines, not with pixels and high-bandwidth Internet connections. A role-playing game is participatory, not passive. The kids don't absorb prefab plots from movies, books, or video games, but tell their own stories of their characters' exploits. Players around a gaming table interact, completing quests and, yes, killing monsters who stand between them and their booty. In their imaginations, they are linked to humankind's narrativemaking past of heroic ballads and campfire tales of derring-do.Skip to next paragraph
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Each weekday at about 2 p.m., between 15 and 35 kids ages 6 to 18 (about one-quarter of them girls) break down the front door, pour up the stairs, and burst into The Game Loft's "Great Hall." The adjacent kitchen serves up hot food, sometimes the only nutritionally sound meal kids might get all day. They grab a brownie or bowl of chicken soup, separate into small groups (usually fewer than eight players) and head to the various rooms that host the game sessions. Once settled and fed, the kids quickly get down to the business of role-playing as elves and wizards, or plotting strategy as Jedi knights and military commanders.
But an unsupervised, free-for-all role-playing game can be just as cruel as a playground game of dodgeball. That's why game moderators like Tom Foster structure "intentional games" with outcomes that reinforce the center's principles such as fair play and cooperation.
In one room, called "The Savage Room" and decorated with maps and a suit of armor, Mr. Foster, who has been playing D&D since the 1970s, ran a multiweek, modified D&D game. He schooled his 12-to-15-year-old protégés in surviving the elaborate dungeon he'd designed and stocked with traps and monsters.
But when the adventuring party – "a group of misfits," as Foster affectionately called them – stepped on a tripwire, a cage opened that unleashed a bloodthirsty rhino.
Hands shot up, offering solutions. "I'm going to hide!" one girl shouted. "I've got an epic plan!" blurted another. "I want to jump on its back!" said another, whose character, inexplicably, took his clothes off and, via magic, turned invisible.
"Hold it, everyone! Focus," Foster said. "You've got a very large animal with three horns after you and you're arguing among yourselves." Eventually, they tricked the rhino into running into a vault and slammed the door. Success.
"Here, the idea is to get them from playing a game to solving problems," Foster later says. "To integrate."
Still, parents can be skeptical of the pedagogical goals. Some think their kids are just goofing off, says Kali Rocheleau, director of volunteers and membership. "But once we get them in the door, they have that 'aha' moment."