“Safe Haven”: How Dungeons & Dragons Kills Social Anxiety | Role games


AAs pandemic restrictions are lifted across Australia and more face-to-face activities resume, socializing can be a source of deep anxiety for many. But what if, when you meet other people, you don’t have to be yourself? If the decision making is done through a character you create and the consequences determined by the roll of the dice?

Since its inception in the mid-1970s, tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) has brought together a far more diverse range of players than its stereotypes suggest. Earlier this year, the game’s publisher, Wizards of the Coast, released a report showing that of its estimated 50 million players, 54% were under 30 and 40% were identified as female. What he hasn’t revealed is the increased visibility of queer and neurodiverse gamers.

“It has always been a haven for people who might not feel at home elsewhere,” says Jeremy Crawford, the game’s lead designer. “D&D is about a bunch of people with very different backgrounds coming together. come together to create an intentional family and overcome adversity. A group of players is stronger because of their differences from each other. You don’t want four fighters; you want a fighter, a cleric, a thief and a wizard. In other words, you want a group that is powerful in its diversity.

Dungeons & Dragons is guided by a Dungeon Master who takes a group of players through an adventure set in an imaginary world. Photograph: Morfon Media / Alamy

To play, a storyteller – known in the game as the Dungeon Master, or DM – takes a group of players through an adventure set in an imaginary world. It is their role to bring this world to life around the players, to describe or embody the characters or creatures they encounter, and to roll the dice that decide the outcome of the group’s decisions. The games can involve more than a dozen players, but most involve four to six players who gather around a table with books, dice, pencil, and paper. Some can join via Zoom; sometimes miniatures, figurines and maps can be used to illustrate the adventure.

For people like Shadia Hancock, the founder of advocacy group Autism Actually and Dungeon Master for a group of young neurodiverse gamers, the therapeutic potential of the game has always been clear.

“It’s about creating a sense of community,” says Hancock. “I calculate the expectations of the players at the start of a match. Some are really into their character creation, some are more interested in finding objects and exploring the world, others are really interested in how the characters met. We all have a mutual love for the game, but we all want something different from the session.

Certain characteristics expressed by some of Hancock’s players – social anxiety, heightened empathy, difficulty adjusting to change, feeling overwhelmed in loud environments – have become familiar to many Aussies as a result of the blockages. Studies cited by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that reported levels of social anxiety had increased over the past two years across all age groups, with young Australians neurodiverse being even more likely to have experienced a decline in well-being.

“While other people are excited to go out, I am filled with terror,” Hancock tells me. “With the Covid, we [autistic communities] had all of these sudden changes, often with short notice, and there was this need to constantly adapt to the new rules. Not knowing what is going on is really stressful. During the pandemic, it became a shared experience. “

Figures, cards and dice used in Dungeons & Dragons
Figures and cards can be used to illustrate the Dungeons & Dragons adventure. Photograph: Abstracta / Alamy

While there is no shortage of anecdotes about how D&D has transformed the lives of neurodiverse players and their families, the published studies are few and far between.

“Before you start, players may be more withdrawn and not used to more important social situations,” says Hancock. “But once they’ve created their character and got used to the structure of the game, they become more outgoing. It fosters friendships that, in unstructured contexts, wouldn’t be so smooth. Having this activity-based format and a collaborative approach gives players support to try new things. “

Overcoming the fear of failure is one of the most notable therapeutic aspects of the game. Throughout the game, the player or DM will roll a dice to decide the outcome of a decision. Will you notice the secret door in the castle wall? Can you determine the story of an old book? Can you charm a unicorn? If failure is not avoided, it is potentially instructive and, often, a pretext for humor and relaxation.

“I think the game is really powerful,” says Crawford. “It allows players to dare in a way that is difficult in our day to day lives, knowing that if things go dramatically wrong we can laugh about it.”

American game designer Amanda Hamon took inspiration from teenage life for her upcoming D&D book and adventure setting, Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos. Strixhaven is a magically enhanced university where players arrive as students, join colleges, form and manage relationships, and battle sinister forces. The illustrations in the book, some of which are from the collectible card game, Magic: The Gathering, “attracts students and faculty from all over the world and other realms of the multiverse.”

Cover of Amanda Hamon Strixhaven's adventure set: A Curriculum of Chaos.
Cover of Amanda Hamon’s Dungeons & Dragons adventure set, Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos. Photography: Wizards of the Coast

“As D&D grew, the creators realized that this game was for everyone,” says Hamon. “There are a lot, a lot of people playing, and we want everyone to feel welcome and come to the table. I get questions like, “How is it now that D&D is more diverse?” But it always has been. You might not necessarily have seen it because the people who were making things weren’t always thinking, “Hey, there’s this whole big world of people out there. “”

For a multitude of reasons, many players prefer to play D&D on online platforms, such as Zoom, Discord, or Roll20. Others have a hybrid arrangement of in-person and remote players. As technology evolves, D&D continues to gain popularity, with more people finding it appealing to move through conversations and meetings at a more manageable pace and replace the ambiguity of worldly interactions. real by shared adventures of the imagination.


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