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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Sian Evans, whose two sons are Game Loft regulars, was one of those leery parents. She was no fan of video games, either, and wondered if fantasy games were too violent. But once she observed her sons in action, she noticed them begin to pass not only Pokémon cards back and forth across the gaming table, but also concepts.Skip to next paragraph
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"When you're playing D&D, you're talking about ideas," Ms. Evans says. "It's not games, it's life skills." She recalls a time that Taran, her 11-year-old, came home bubbling with enthusiasm about what had happened that day in the game: "Oh Mom, I got turned into a dwarf!"
"This is so special to him because he's active, he's part of the story," Evans says. "[Taran] would like to put a bunk bed in and live [at the Loft]."
The Game Loft's tools and settings aren't all fantasy. One custom-made game, 1968: Gone but Not Forgotten, re-creates life in a galaxy not so far, far away: Maine. "It's role-playing in an imaginary county, but touching on real history," says Patricia Estabrook.
"Our Maine history game is Dungeons & Dragons without the dungeons or the dragons," Ray Estabrook adds.
Games that let kids inhabit other selves from local history give them a stake in their own community. So do service projects that ask teens to take a break from battling orcs to give back. Townspeople see teens engaged in work like shoveling sidewalks for the elderly, not loitering downtown.
"It's important for youth to be involved in the community, not stuck behind some walled high school perimeter," Ray says.
For those at risk of dropping out of high school, The Game Loft can provide empowerment, accountability, and a way back in. Take Damion Saucier, 17, who felt oppressed by his school's educational system. "Me and school never clicked," Damion says. But at The Game Loft, he found "a big family," learned how to work with others, and also learned the necessity of obeying authority – sometimes. Now he's recommitted to school and volunteering as a game-session leader, teaching next-generation geeks. They look up to him. "You are like a god to them," he says. "It gives you a sense of helping these kids be social, and they're having fun."
The Game Loft has managed to turn the lingering "gaming is antisocial" stereotype on its head.
As for Max Delaney, just this March, after 11 years, he left his job at The Game Loft. The small-town kid moved to the faraway realm of Portland, Maine. He felt a little nervous, but also confident. After all, he knew how to role-play.
"We role-play in all situations in our life. It's unconscious," Delaney says. A job interview is really just role-playing, he notes, and games are a gateway to interaction. "We want to try to be someone else for just a little while, to experiment with it, to see who we can be and what others are."
Like a character in a D&D game, who outfits himself before an adventure, then gains experience and grows in mastery, Delaney is well prepared for his next adventure – be it a job in social services, teaching, or wherever his quest may take him.