Some parents and teachers despair as they witness the erosion of sustained reading, particularly fiction, with today’s screen-obsessed youth. Whether this genuinely heralds an intellectual Armageddon, or merely marks a benign transition into a new phase of the life of the mind, remains to be seen. Whatever the future holds, those who wage a pitched battle under the standard of literacy may find a valuable ally in an old nemesis.
“Dungeons & Dragons is a gateway drug to reading,” said York University professor Ian Slater, who runs Dungeons & Dragons campaigns for schools and events. “Children who do not read regularly or read for pleasure will start reading the gaming books almost as soon as they sit down, and they carry that outside of the game.”
Worldbuilding is no small task, and there are literally thousands of physical and online pages dedicated to the nuances and minutia of bringing the encyclopedic Dungeons & Dragons universe to life. Once kids are bitten by the bug, they spend hours pouring over the reference guides, web pages and forums, and some even turn to fantasy novels. They often don’t realize that an unintended consequence of their game play is that they become better readers and writers. This, however, has not been lost on many parents and educators.
The Magic of Motivation
“The most impactful thing about using D&D as a literacy tool is that the information has to be synthesized, meaning they have to glean out of the reading what is necessary to make a character act in the imaginary world," said Texas teacher Kade Wells, who uses Dungeons & Dragons with his students. "Kids read the information intrinsically because the success (and power) of their character is directly linked to what they can find in a book. No child wants an ineffective character.”
Students who play are intrinsically motivated to exercise a host of complex and interwoven literacy skills, which they may be more reluctant to practice without the incentive of the game. Alexandra Carter, who incorporated a modified version of Dungeons & Dragons with a primary class, reported her students were similarly incentivized.
“Students willingly used and further developed their reading and writing skills while creating stories, narratives and presentations for the project,” wrote Carter in a paper describing her use of D&D in a Grade 3 classroom. “The students struggling in these areas academically enthusiastically poured through books and took careful notes. They felt invested in what they were doing and were excited about the goal-oriented work they were producing. One student reflected on his progress in reading and said that he ‘felt like he was actually reading for something,’ rather than ‘having to read.’ ”
In these cases, kids are inspired to read to better participate and perform in the game, but New Jersey educator Sarah Roman used the game as a lure to immerse her students in the classics.
A high school English teacher, Roman adapted D&D for her senior Honors and AP literature classes to actively engage her students with the course readings. She designed a yearlong campaign that featured characters, setting and events from classics like Beowulf and Macbeth.
“I saw a big jump in the willingness to read,” said Roman. “They knew that I had crafted my campaigns around the details in the texts, so if they were to be successful, they would have to actively know that material and be able to synthesize it.”
In an ingenious ploy characteristic of an experienced D&D player, Roman set up her class so that the game and the books on the reading list mutually informed each other. Students were motivated to read The Canterbury Tales because it improved their performance in the game, and success in the game reinforced a greater understanding of Chaucer’s work.
Her unorthodox approach led to a marked improvement in more traditional modes of assessment. “I fundamentally saw a positive change in how the students are learning the works through their analytical essays and more practical assignments,” wrote Roman in her blog. Roman’s integration of D&D in her class is not only creative and engaging for her students, but it meets mandated curricular standards, which illustrates that a resourceful educator can break with traditional methods of delivering course material to teach in a more engaging manner and still fulfill the curricular mandates.
An Apprentice in Worldbuilding
Best-selling authors like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Cory Doctorow, comedian Stephen Colbert and Game of Thrones mastermind George R. R. Martin all played Dungeons & Dragons. It’s not surprising that burgeoning writers would be drawn to a storytelling game, and it presumably contributed to the development of their craft.
Sci-fi writer and professor Trent Hergenrader also credits his youthful fascination with tabletop role-playing games as a wellspring for his creative output. Today, Hergenrader also teaches English and creative writing at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where he uses role-playing games (RPGs) like Dungeons & Dragons as the primary tool to instruct his students on how to write fiction.
“I began using tabletop RPGs to steer students away from writing stories that had some cliched deep meaning and instead get them thinking about getting into a character’s head. The idea was that spending time on character creation exercises would help them develop well-rounded characters, and that plot would emerge from the decisions their characters make during their RPG sessions,” said Hergenrader. ”The Player’s Handbook walks players through developing their characters’ family histories, personality traits, and even phobias and personal shortcomings.”
Players are essentially co-authors who regulate each other for plausibility, and their ongoing interactions contribute to deep and nuanced character development. As the narrative ringleader, the Dungeon Master is responsible for spinning a rich and engaging story that, when done well, has all the twists and turns of a page-turning novel. The game fuses literacy and orality in a unique interactive storytelling exercise, which may better develop creative writing skills than simply reading or writing in isolation.
“Playing D&D is a completely different experience of story than reading and analyzing a novel, short story or play," said Brian Foglia, who infuses Dungeons & Dragons in the curriculum at the South Jersey Sudbury School, which he founded. "It gives the students a better sense of character agency, as well as a felt sense for plot. It also opens a whole world of imagination for them, one that doesn’t ask them to be passive recipients of words on a page or pictures on a screen.”
Fiction is a transportation to another time and place, and Hergenrader uses the worldbuilding aspect of RPGs by having his students work together to flesh out the details of their setting, whether historical, contemporary or fantastical.
“The act of creating a world with others really highlighted the way writers attempt to represent people, places and things in their fiction, which in turn reveals these writers’ assumptions about how our shared reality works," said Hergenrader. "The act of worldbuilding then becomes a stage for debating the role of government, economic systems, issues of equality along the lines of race, class, gender, and more. The RPG rule system we use helps give the world structure and consistency, but the writers have near-complete freedom when it comes to developing the world further.”
Kade Wells also used RPG conventions to structure a collaborative creative writing assignment with his Grade 9 English students. Wells acted as DM and led his students in the creation of “Radioactive,” an elaborate story set in a nuclear holocaust.
“We had to generate all kinds of things in the world: politics, survivor groups, locations, sicknesses, even monsters,” said Wells. “This creation forced a great deal of cross-curricular research for them, which they did gladly and naturally, looking things up to fill in the gaps in their knowledge.”
Like Hergenrader with his college students, Wells used RPG character creation techniques to encourage his students to develop rich and nuanced personas to populate the fallen world.
“Even the lowest writers wrote vigorously on their character stories in the “Radioactive” world. I watched as struggling writers fought through their lack of mechanical know-how, to get to the expression of their ideas in writing. In short, they were proud of their ideas, therefore willing to write them down, no matter how hard,” said Wells.
By leveraging the playful and dynamic features of an RPG, educators empower reluctant readers and writers to participate in the art of storytelling. This not only imbues them with the skills for analysis and invention, but also equips them with the technical and imaginative resources to write and rewrite the stories of their own lives.