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Rolling for Morality: How D&D Shapes Young Minds

I only discovered the enchanting world of Dungeons and Dragons at the precipice of my adult life. I wasn’t a high schooler eating lunch with the other D&D kids, I was already paying taxes and rent when I first rolled a D20 and realized all that I had missed – and this is something I regret not experiencing earlier in life. For me at this stage in my life, it's an amazing game that provides immense fulfillment and joy through its exploration of character, fantasy, and storytelling.

However, as I DM for four kids aged 11 - 14 in my community game hosted at a local game store, I've come to see that it represents so much more for them. Dungeons and Dragons is not just a game for these kids; it's a doorway to boundless imagination and a platform for developing creativity and social skills. It's a privilege to witness the impact this game has on them, and it's a reminder of the magic and wonder that comes with embracing imagination at a young age.

After just finishing my sixth session with these kids, I can already say we've experienced so much together. The campaign (a heavily modified Curse of Strahd) started off rough, with player characters divided between those leaning towards murder-hobo behavior and others aspiring to be classic heroes. This divide led to a lot of interpersonal conflict at the table, requiring me to draw on my many years of experience as a classroom teacher to maintain the peace. This said, amidst the challenges, I've also witnessed tremendous growth in their camaraderie!

This was highlighted in a particularly memorable moment when our murder hobos, faced with the death of their party members, returned to a battle with a Spider Hag (homebrew) and emerged victorious! I had been certain this combat encounter would result in a TPK and serve as a teaching moment about the importance of cooperation, but instead, it showcased their newfound unity and determination and allowed me to reward their cooperation instead of punishing the lack of it!

In a study by Wright, Weissglass, and Casey (2020), researchers explored the use of imaginative role-playing games, specifically Dungeons & Dragons, as a tool for fostering positive moral development in young adults. The research involved twelve college students who participated in six gaming sessions using a customized game system based on Dungeons & Dragons. The games included social and moral dilemmas, such as whether to torture a prisoner for information, which the participants had to navigate as a group.

The results showed significant growth in moral development among the participants, as measured by the Defining Issues Test and the Self-Understanding Interview. This growth was not observed in two control groups that did not participate in the gaming sessions. These findings suggest that imaginative role-play games, like Dungeons & Dragons, can serve as an engaging and interactive "moral training ground" that promotes moral development in young adults. The study also highlights the difference between antisocial and prosocial violence, indicating that these games can help players understand and navigate complex moral issues.

At my current table, I've witnessed firsthand how Dungeons & Dragons can be a powerful tool for fostering moral development and promoting teamwork. In that same battle with the Spider Hag, the players realized that the menacing creature intended to devour the pet birds of several players, whom we'll call Sarah and Billy who each had been given the pets earlier in game. This scenario presented a moral dilemma that required the group to work together and make decisions that would not only affect their characters but also reflect their personal values.

Billy, who had previously embraced a more aggressive playstyle, often leaning towards the "murder hobo" archetype and choosing to protect only his own character and pets. However, in a surprising turn of events, when faced with the grim fate awaiting Sarah's beloved bird as narrated by myself, Billy chose to deviate from his usual behavior. He decided to intervene and save the bird which included having to turn back and run towards danger even after having already saved his own pet! This demonstrated a newfound sense of empathy and compassion I had not expected to see. Billy then carefully placed Sarah’s bird in his bag, protecting it from further injury, and returned it to Sarah, much to her relief and gratitude.

This incident highlighted the positive impact of imaginative role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons on moral development and interpersonal skills. Through their characters, the players were able to explore complex moral dilemmas and practice empathy, cooperation, and problem-solving!

As the campaign progresses, I'm seeing the kids truly embrace the collaborative storytelling aspect of Dungeons and Dragons. They're not just playing characters; they're building a shared narrative, learning to compromise, negotiate, and work together towards common goals. It's incredibly rewarding to see them develop these skills, especially in a world where cooperation and empathy are sometimes in short supply. Despite the initial conflicts, the group is now more cohesive than ever, and I'm excited to see how they continue to grow and evolve as both players and individuals in our future sessions.


References

Wright, J. C., Weissglass, D. E., & Casey, V. (2020). Imaginative role-playing as a medium for moral development: Dungeons & Dragons provides moral training. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 60(1), 99-129.


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