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How Moral Panics Can Turn Into Therapeutic Tools: The Dungeons And Dragons Edition

It seems there must be something in our human DNA, something that hasn’t been filtered out over the generations, that causes the masses to engage in moral panics. When you peruse our previous posts about moral panics new and old, it highlights how laughably absurd they tend to be. Specifically, if past is prologue, you get a fair understanding of how our current moral panics will be viewed in the future, as we laugh now at the consternation caused by such demons as telephones, comic books, chess, and pencils. And that laughter causes no pause about the current moral panics surrounding social media, certain forms of music, and video games.

Sandwiched in between antiquity and modernity is Dungeons & Dragons, the popular tabletop role playing game that experienced its own moral panic decades ago, but which has since risen dramatically in popularity. This game, once thought by parents to create potential Satan worshipers out of their little darling children, has already been pushed as a fantastic starting point for would-be creative writers. More recently, however, therapists have begun using the game as a therapeutic tool in sessions with patients. Adam Davis runs one of these groups using D&D in therapy, called the Wheelhouse Workshop, and details one story in which he uses the game as a therapy tool.

Davis, who runs Wheelhouse Workshop out of an office in a large, brick arts building in Seattle, is used to seeing sides of kids that don’t usually come out in school. He, along with co-founder Adam Johns, designs D&D games that are less like hack-and-slash dungeon-crawls and more like therapy with dragons. In D&D’s Forgotten Realms world, the kids’ psyches run amok. Earlier this month, over the phone, Davis told me about Frank (not his real name), a tall, lanky teenager who barely spoke above a whisper. In school, he tended to sit with his feet in front of his face, so no one could really see him. He hated to take up space. After his parents and teachers noticed that his body language seemed a little stand-offish to peers, they enrolled him in Wheelhouse Workshop.

“The character he chose was a dwarf barbarian,” Davis recalled. “He was really loud and bumbling and unapologetic. It was a really obvious opportunity for this kid to play with qualities other than his.” Adam had Frank sit like his character, spreading his legs apart and slamming his elbows onto the table. In dwarf-barbarian mode, Frank could experiment with new modes of relating to others.

In the link, there are other examples of other groups using D&D in therapy sessions, and it becomes instantly obvious why it’s such a valuable tool. Letting kids play the game to work out real life issues, or work on modes of interaction and socialization, is what every tabletop RPG session is to some extent. But for those whose interactions aren’t merely escape from reality, but a way to work on their real life interactions, the lessons learned in the game can be profound. Therapists have always used role-playing in therapy sessions, of course, but allowing for an in-game narrative filled with social interaction and potential consequences adds a new layer. When the therapists explaining why they use the game as a tool in this way talk about the benefits, it will likely sound familiar to what the proponents of more recent moral panic targets have to say on the subject.

Because D&D is inherently cooperative and escapist, it urges players to re-imagine the ways they interact with peers. And because each player has their own specialty, like communicating with dragons, they’ll have their moment to feel valuable in a group setting.

At worst, kids who are socially isolated can enjoy hacking up some goblins after a crappy school day. “For someone who never leaves their house except for school, to have a peer say, ‘I need your help picking a lock’ makes a huge difference,” Johns told me.

That sure sounds like someone describing interactive multiplayer video games to me, among other things. The point to understand here is that thirty or forty years ago this game was absolutely vilified. Unfairly so, by a public too willing to buy into fears about something they didn’t understand and a media environment happy to whip that fear into a fervor. No part of that equation has changed saved for the target of the moral panic du jour. Hell, we’ve already heard of things like video games and other technology being used in therapy sessions, yet what percentage of parents polled today would have negative things to say about those games?

If moral panics are in our DNA, or perhaps merely in our social fabric, we need more people to have a greater understanding of how often these panics melt away and the benefits of the thing feared are then realized. Maybe then we can at least muffle these types of moral panics.

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Author: Timothy Geigner

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