Dungeons & Dragons has surged in popularity in recent years, and several factors have driven the trend. It was a popular lockdown entertainment option when the COVID-19 pandemic kept people at home. The game’s prominent placement in the Stranger Things television show helped introduce it to new fans, and the company itself has made changes to its language to help make D&D more inclusive.
Alisha Springle, assistant professor and speech-language pathologist at Indiana University South Bend’s Vera Z. Dwyer College of Health Sciences, identified D&D as fertile ground for an approach called the gamification of learning. She was inspired to try her own hand at the adaptation of D&D for SLP purposes after seeing the success of Game to Grow, a non-profit organization based in Kirkland, WA.
They took the table-top role-playing game, they put it in a mental-health counseling perspective, and they trained facilitators. I didn’t necessarily need the mental health aspect, but both counseling and speech pathology deal with social-skills development, Springle said. So I thought of ways to adapt their training into what I want to do.
After contacting Game to Grow for direct consultation, and on the strength of a grant from the Women of IU South Bend initiative, Springle launched her own project, called Development & Dragons. It serves children 10-17 years old, and the goal is to help kids progress in behavioral skills such as frustration tolerance, social problem-solving, and linguistic development. Springle’s graduate students serve as clinicians and dungeon masters.
The first game sessions commenced in the Spring 2022 semester with two groups of players, one meeting on the IU South Bend campus and the other at the IUSB Elkhart Center.
Getting a group of kids together to work as a team, if they have social-skill challenges, can be fraught with difficulties, Springle said. Watching these groups, where I know each kid is working through a challenge, it’s great to see them at the end, saying how much fun it was or telling a parent all about what had happened. I’ve had parents tell me that this is the only appointment that it’s easy to get them to go to.
Before the game begins, Springle’s team assesses each child and assists in creating a D&D character well-suited to the child’s personality. Springle veers away from the rulebook in this case.
In my world, the bad guys never win, so our players are not allowed to create evil characters, she said. In our games, even if you’re a fighter or a thief, you still need to have a good heart.
Some players craft imaginary figures who behave with personality traits that parallel their own. Others create in more aspirational terms a shy child might enjoy playing a character who is bold and brave. They also learn that diversity is strength. A group can include a barbarian who smashes through a door, an elf who can sneak into small places, and a wizard to enchant a foe. Each character has weaknesses, but cooperation helps ensure mutual success.
During game play, Springle’s role is to be a wandering consultant.
If one of the players becomes frustrated or anxious, I can take a spot at their elbow and suggest alternatives and options within the game, Springle said. We validate what they’re feeling, but we separate it from themselves and put it on the character, saying, Your character must be frustrated about this.’ Then the self-calming becomes much easier.
If everyone is trying to speak at once during an exciting moment in the action, the dice come in handy. The players roll for initiative to determine the order of speakers.
At the end of each session, there is a wrap-up period, in which players identify highlights from the day’s adventure.
It ranges from I liked the funny voice you did’ to It was so cool when you threw that flaming fist and it hit that skeleton and blew him to pieces!’ No matter what they say, they’re valuing what other people contribute. It goes to the heart of what we’re trying to do. The key to D&D character growth is working within the team to make something better, Springle said. Do you see another person’s perspective? Can you see their strengths, their challenges? Can you help them be their best?
For more information about future Development & Dragons sessions, contact Alisha Springle at 574 520-4015 or firstname.lastname@example.org.