Game-Based Learning

Supporting Student Development With Role-Playing Games

Playing imaginative games like D&D can help learners acquire skills that are essential in the classroom and beyond.

October 12, 2023
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I was 10 years old when I was introduced to Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), a game that likely saved my life, and certainly changed it for the better. Ever since I can remember, I was always a creative outcast unable to fully embrace the values and desires of my peers. I imagined things they couldn’t, and it made me feel alone.

My imagination was the proverbial “blessing and curse” throughout childhood. But then one day, a game became the frame upon which I could hang my wild imagination, a way to make it make sense to learn about close reading for purpose and understand charts, systems, geography, governments, religions, history, ecology and other sciences, and probabilities—things I never would have cared about in such detail because I was too busy running through a field or building a fort (which is cool too).

Tabletop Role-Playing Games Help Build Essential Skills

I learned how to focus, pay attention and participate in conversation, and (once I found them) make friends who had so many similar interests and intelligences—all from a game. This game opened up a world I never could have imagined, and these friendships would become the bonds that I would keep and seek out for the rest of my life. D&D and friendship; the two things would become synonymous. I now extend this gift to my students.

I’ve been utilizing D&D in schools for 10 years as an English language arts teacher. I’ve been playing D&D for 34 years. I’ve taught in Title I schools; I’ve taught for affluence. The data I’ve collected on my students’ reading skills is clear, the anecdotal proof is astounding. D&D saved my life, I’ve seen it profoundly help others, and I’d like to see as many young people as possible embrace, or at least be exposed to, tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs) like D&D. I’ve seen its positive effect in every demographic.

Teachers can and should harness the power that these games (or any games really) can provide for their students. There isn’t a single player of TTRPGs that would say they shouldn’t be used in school. It’s just so obvious to us.

TTRPGs Support Instruction and Promote Unity 

Teachers first need to learn how to play these games in order to harness what they can do. That’s why in the school district where I teach, we do a spring D&D teacher training session for graduate credit through the University of Sioux Falls. Teachers learn how to play D&D and get their continuing education credit for recertification. It’s been highly successful for various reasons, but the most pervasive seems to be the instantaneous teacher-to-teacher connection formed around the game table, a reflection that they were able to extend upon the idea of their students playing as well, a powerful sentiment as we reach a time when social and emotional learning is at the hub of all that we do.

Also, John Hattie’s research shows that teacher unity is the strongest cause for student growth available above all others. Thus, if a game like D&D makes teachers friends so quickly in your building or district, the data suggests that the magic of this unity will follow.

A Good Dungeon Master Makes a Good Teacher 

How do I know all this? While I was getting my teaching degree, the strategies to form us into teachers of excellence were all very familiar for some reason. Class after class about reading comprehension, various literacies, choice and advocacy, collaboration, engagement, student focus, ownership, management, bookkeeping, differentiation, modeling, scaffolding, special sensitivities; on and on it went, but I could never put my finger on why it was all so recognizable to me. 

I realized that all of those same strategies are in the Player’s Handbook and the Dungeon Master’s Guide to some extent or another, and my whole life as a role-playing character and storyteller was student centered and differentiated by its very nature because my choice and voice guided everything I could become in that fantasy. 

Implementing A TTRPG in the Curriculum

This understanding gave birth to a series of tasks that I begin every year with in my classes. My students start with character creation, a process laden with personal choices that creates uniquely individual characters. They then fabricate a visual model on Hero Forge using the source material (Player’s Handbook) and their character sheets as their guide. From this highly personalized visual model, they write a head-to-toe description of that character with a focus on using sentence variety. This is my students’ first writing task, and it starts on day four or so.

As we continue through the days of school, learning the hero’s journey, students write a backstory, or “Call to Adventure,” again using the text from the Player’s Handbook to inform them of the racial origins and the background they selected for their character and how that character becomes an adventurer. This is a highly individualized activity, and the task of going back to text over and over again, and using online videos and sources that help them understand their characters’ race or class, teaches them the basics of research and demands its creative application to their task.

Later on in the year, the kids will create adventures utilizing what they’ve learned through gameplay and storytelling—these get played by their peers throughout the rest of the year. It just doesn’t seem to get more student centered than this. 

For 24 years now, my friends from college (because of D&D) have shared a game once a week. People want to know why D&D is beneficial to students. My friend group alone is enough to show me its value, but now that I’m a teacher, so much more is clear, and the impact of TTRPGs in my classroom cannot be overstated.

I have a hundred stories about the positive things I’ve seen D&D do for children, and the first of them was me. You can help your students by starting a tabletop role-playing club at your school: Pick your favorite genre (there are hundreds of games, and you could make one together—I’ve done it, and it’s super-cool and very hard!) and watch the kids grow. And as a memorable student comes to mind, I’ll say, “We’re wasting time! Let’s go!”

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Filed Under

  • Game-Based Learning
  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • English Language Arts
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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