How Playing Dungeons and Dragons in Portsmouth Slayed My Anxiety

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Depression and anxiety are at record levels in the UK. Claire Pearse explores the potential of role-playing games to boost confidence and self-esteem amongst young adults.

Imagine you’re in the depths of an enchanted forest; a large orc is fast approaching. What do you do? Fight? Flee? Negotiate? Imagine that the trees are now buildings in Portsmouth, and that the orc is a stranger approaching you in the street? Would you have the bravery to talk to them? Or would you run?

Thankfully there aren’t any orcs in Portsmouth but, for some people, bumping into a fellow human being on the street can be as scary as encountering a fantastical monster. According to Birmingham University, one in ten children suffer from a diagnosable mental illness, yet only one in four receive treatment. The same study estimates that, by 2020, only one in three teenagers will have access to mental health treatment. With government cuts depriving young people of the care they need, is it time to consider more unusual, creative treatments?

Given that two of the main drivers of depression are loneliness and social awkwardness, any therapy that builds confidence is welcome. As a young adult studying at university, I am expected to spend my Saturday nights bunched between sweaty dancers at a nightclub, or sinking shots and Snakebite in the corner of a cramped bar.

For the past two years of my university experience, however, I’ve elected to spend my weekend nights playing Dungeons and Dragons with a collection of my friends. I’ve found that to be a much more rewarding experience than getting hammered at the Student Union.

Dungeons and Dragons (or D&D) is a table-top role-playing game. It has a straightforward setup: you only need a set of D20 (20-sided) dice, a miniature figure, a pencil and paper, and your imagination. A group of players take on the roles of characters with a range of alignments, backgrounds and classes. One player is nominated the Dungeon Master (DM), who devises the goals and parameters of the game and narrates the players’ journey to achieve these goals.

A number of well-known celebrities have been known to play, including actor James Franco, author Stephen King and Conservative politician Michael Gove.

Clubbing or dice-rolling – which is most socially fulfilling? You can imagine the answer most young people would give. It’s seen to be socially beneficial to ‘put yourself out there’ in a club, as a kind of one-size-fits-all confidence-boosting class, infinitely preferable to ‘shutting yourself off’ from the outside world and escaping into an imagined universe.

To test that hypothesis, I reached out to the people it might apply to: the members of High Rollers, a D&D stream run by the Bristol-based Yogscast YouTube channel on the streaming website Twitch. I asked them if playing D&D had helped improve their social skills. Chris Trott, a YouTuber and former student at the University of Portsmouth, agreed it had. ‘Without D&D,’ he said, ‘I wouldn’t be gaming three times a week with different social groups.’

Katie Morrison, an acting graduate and Talent Manager for Multiplay, told me that two things had greatly developed her confidence in college: acting and D&D. ‘It gets you to see your friends,’ she said.

Finally, the Dungeon Master of the stream and Community Manager for the Yogscast, Mark Hulmes, old me, ‘D&D improves your life skills, social skills and problem solving.’

Based in Providence, Rhode Island, Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist and author of the awarding-winning book Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks – An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms. In a talk for TEDx, Gilsdorf discusses 5 different lessons that D&D teaches to help people in the real world: collaboration, innovation, character building, tolerance and the power of imagination.

Gilsdorf’s own experiences of Dungeons and Dragons taught him teamwork and problem solving, and that rushing into conflict isn’t always the answer to the challenges that arise in both real life and in the game. ‘There’s no shame in a well bargained escape,’ Gilsdorf says. ‘Don’t fight. Negotiate.’ He also discusses how D&D gives players an environment in which to take risks and fail in a safe way, which generates the kind of wisdom needed to take on real-life risks. There are opportunities to develop compassion by interacting with different people and creatures. ‘I can think about that bully I encountered with a little more empathy,’ Gilsdorf says.

Finally, Gilsdorf believes that, in the digital age, we have become passive consumers of packaged narratives: players of computer games like Call of Duty or Super Mario must follow fairly strict plot arcs, their actions restricted by a handful of locations, objects and characters. With D&D, however, a player’s imagination is the only limitation. ‘The key to confidence and the key to self-reliance is in controlling your own narrative, telling your own story.’ Gilsdorf says. ‘And stories connect us, stories provide hope. Deep inside all of us, inside our metaphorical dungeons, there is a dragon, but we don’t know if we can slay it or befriend it unless we try.’

I can vouch for Gilsdorf and say that D&D has made me more resolute and helped me overcome the metaphorical dragon of my anxiety; not only did it help me, it helped D&D players from all over the world, some of whom I had the privilege of interviewing.

Charley Micu, a third year student at the University of Portsmouth, told me, ‘DMing [playing the Dungeon Master], in particular, really helped me feel comfortable being myself. In other settings I would feel out of place, but the game built my confidence a lot.’ Katrine Dankertsen from Egersund, Norway, said, ‘D&D helped me to find other people with the same interests as me, and thanks to that I have made a lot of new friends.’ Sam Elgart, a middle school student from Virginia, says the game helped her to be more outgoing. ‘Creating my own stories, and building new universes and characters has improved my confidence, and gotten me to enjoy my creative side a lot more.’

That the very first edition of Dungeons and Dragons, released in 1974, had a male-dominated audience makes it even more exciting that the above players I spoke to were all female. Not only does it counter the stereotype of D&D as a game only for introverted, antisocial boys, it shows that it’s an inclusive game for all genders, all ages – indeed anyone who wants to become more worldly and self-reliant.

I know it’s a stretch to suggest that D&D can single-handedly solve the epidemic of depression amongst young people suffering, but I feel that collaborative, creative and social gaming can be a step in the right direction. Dr Raffael Boccamazzo, the Clinical Director of Take This, a non-profit charitable organisation that promotes awareness of mental illness, told me that he uses D&D to assist teenagers who have difficulties with socialising. ‘Kids who were previously unable even to maintain eye contact started to take commanding roles in the games they played,’ he said.

Let’s hope that other therapists follow Dr Boccamazzo’s lead and we can slay a few more demons of depression. So, in the words of Ethan Gilsdorf: ‘Arm yourself with pencil and graph paper, gather around the fire of each other’s imaginations and go on an adventure.’

Interested in playing Dungeons and Dragons?

Visit the official Dungeons and Dragons website here.

Here you will find free downloadable resources including the Player Manual, Monster Manual, The Dungeon Master’s Guide and Character Sheets. You will also find plenty of recourses teaching you how to start a campaign as well as the basics of character creation and a breakdown of the introductory rules of the game.

Image by Sarah Cheverton.