by Sean Demarest
Dungeons & Dragons (or D&D) is a role-playing game invented by Gary Gygax and first published by TSR in 1974. To those that have never played it must look so strange. There is no board and weird multi-sided dice. The game allows each player to come up with their own character and go on adventures in a fantasy world. Their characters choose between a race and a class (common races being humans, elves and dwarves and class being essentially jobs like barbarian, cleric or wizard). A Dungeon Master (commonly referred to as the DM) serves as the game’s referee, storyteller and essentially creator of the world the game occurs. They maintain the setting in which the adventures take place and play the role of the inhabitants of the game world. The characters form a party and they interact with the setting’s inhabitants and each other. Rolling different numbered sided dice, they work together to solve puzzles, battle monsters, and gather treasure and knowledge. The more they play; the characters earn experience points (referred to as XP) in order to rise in levels. As they rise in levels their characters become increasingly powerful over a series of separate gaming sessions.
During the 1980s a fear swept over the United States and other parts of the western world of an evil that was considered a threat to all Americans, but especially the American youth. No, this threat was not the Soviet Union and their nuclear arsenal; it was Satan himself. The Satanic Panic took place mostly in the 1980s but has early roots in the mid-1970s. It was a response by concerned parents and conservative groups to what they saw as a corruption of the youth by different aspects of popular culture. The notion of “we must protect women and children” became prevalent in society and among lawmakers (Jenkins, 2006, pg. 271). This movement offered many scandalous images for the media to terrify the people with. Big name news personalities, such as Geraldo Rivera hopped on the topic with his two-hour program, Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground. It seems almost every level of news from the local paper to the nationally televised 60 Minutes ran segments and articles on the dangers threatening youth. The common images of “children and teenagers being stalked by sex rings, seduced by drug dealers… and [being] ensnared by evil cults” (Jenkins, 2006, pg. 129) filled the airways. Concerns about cults and satanic influence over the youth greatly increased by the mid-1970s. For some this eventually devolved into a fear of actual satanic cults and a hysteria not seen since and often compared to the Salem Witch Trials.
Parents looked for anything they could blame for what they saw as corruption of the youth. One of their biggest targets was in fact the game Dungeons & Dragons. Many crimes and suicides were blamed on the game. The original being the disappearance of seventeen-year-old college student, James Dallas Egbert the III, which Private Investigator William Dear would say was caused by the boy’s obsession with Dungeons & Dragons. Egbert was eventually found in Louisiana (after an attempted suicide) and returned to his family. He would later die by suicide on August 16, 1980. Dear wrote a book about his investigation of Egbert’s disappearance in 1984 and wrote many more stories about his other investigations. His latest book published in 2012 O.J. Is Innocent and I Can Prove It, argues that O.J. Simpson’s son killed Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman (Ewalt, 2014).
For almost the entirety of Dungeons &Dragons’ shelf life it had a connection with the lonely outsider. This is what also pushed players of this game away from the mainstream and made it a “cultural bugaboo – seen, along with Satanism and heavy metal music, as a corrupter of youth” (Ewalt, 2014, pg. 157). Which is why the irony of it being used in the classroom should not be lost on anyone. A role-playing game that was once feared and banned from several schools being used to teach is genuinely funny.
How can Dungeons & Dragons be used in a classroom? The question is, how can it not? The game is built around working together with others to solve a problem. Most Dungeons & Dragons games are really an extended exercise in problem-solving—just with the most zany, mind-bending problems you never imagined you’d face. These challenges can be anything from fighting a horde of zombie hamsters or convincing a giant not to step on you. A creative teacher can use this set up to sneak a lesson into the game. For example, say during the game the students’ characters go into a dungeon and need to solve a puzzle to get inside. This puzzle could be math equations or even chemistry related questions. Another example could be that students’ characters help reform the government of a small town after a dragon attack. This will allow the class a chance to learn about basic civics. This may seem farfetched, but it has been done before. Ethan Schoonover is the Technical Director at the Lake Washington Girls Middle School (LWGMS) in Seattle. He is also the Dungeon Master of the Dungeons & Dragons club turned Dungeons & Dragons class. Initially while playing Ethan would supplement math into the games, having students calculate their own modifiers, calculate the size of the chambers they were in and one example of them calculating the volume of the mist based on the size of the room and depth of the fog itself. He also sees the great potential in using the role-playing game to teach other subjects, such as history, ecology, political science, etc. (Knox, 2018)
Dungeons & Dragons may be the largest name in role-playing games, but it is far from the only one. Patriots, Loyalists, and Revolution in New York City, 1775-1776 is a roleplaying game used to teach pre-American Revolutionary war and the build up to the war. Students assume the roles of actual historic patriots, loyalists and moderates. The classroom is transformed into New York City in 1775, where Patriot and Loyalist forces fight for advantage among a divided populace. Confronted with issues like bribery, the loss of privacy, and collapsing economic opportunity along with ideological concerns like natural rights, the philosophical foundations of government, and differing definitions of tyranny, students witness how discontent can lead to outright revolt. It is just one of several Reacting to the Past games that take students into the past and try to interact with the content they are learning.
A similar approach to this can also be done with Dungeons & Dragons. The role play and basic gameplay mechanics of the game can be applied to practically any setting from a fantasy world of elves and dragons to the dangerous streets of the French Revolution. The idea of students embodying characters or historical figures can go very far in engaging students in the content. Is there a level of engagement higher than being in the content? That is what this role-playing gaming mechanic popularized by Dungeons & Dragons can offer a classroom.
Role playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons and Reacting to the Past can be incredible tools for an educator to use. Giving their students a chance to either fully immerse themselves in the content or simply go on a fantasy journey with their lessons dropped in throughout. The irony that a game that was so feared a little over thirty years ago being used successfully in the classroom to promote hands on learning should not be lost. Using this game to fully dive into content should be used in every classroom.
Ewalt, D. M. (2014). Of Dice and men: The story of Dungeons & Dragons and the people who play it. New York: Scribner.
Jenkins, P. (2006). Decade of nightmares: The end of the Sixties and the making of Eighties America. Oxford University Press.
Knox, K. (2018, May 23). This Girls Middle School D&D Club Is a Font of Inspiration. Retrieved from https://geekandsundry.com/this-girls-middle-school-dd-club-is-a-font-of-inspiration/.
Offutt, W. M. (2015). Patriots, loyalists, and revolution in New York City, 1775-1776. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.