This is a transcript from Ethan Gilsdorf’s TED Talk titled Why Dungeons and Dragons is Good for You (In Real Life). I have edited the layout for ease of readability.
Ethan Gilsdorf is a prize-winning poet, Gilsdorf is also co-founder of Grub Street’s Young Adult Writers Program (YAWP), and teaches creative writing at Grub Street, where he serves on the Board of Directors. Follow Ethan’s adventures at ethangilsdorf.com or Twitter @ethanfreak. This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community. Learn more at http://ted.com/tedx
Who do you want to be?
A brave dwarvish warrior, a wizard who can cast spells an elf who is skilled in the art of archery or a stealthy hobbit thief?
You are a member of a team of adventurers! And your quest is to rescue a prince who is last seen near the ruins of an abandoned castle.
As you approach the castle, you see up ahead of you a creature 9 feet tall, green and grumbling and holding in its hands a massive axe! It’s a troll. And it’s chained to the entrance gate to the castle.
What do you do?
Do you rush and attack?
Do you shoot it from afar with arrows or blast it with a magic fireball?
Perhaps you sneak around and try to find another way into the castle. Or something else.
What do you do?
Hi, my name is Ethan and I’ll be your dungeon master for the next 15 minutes.
If I could just ask you to put that scenario with the troll aside for a moment, we’ll return to that later. I want to tell you a different story. I want to tell you a story about why our journey into the world of fantasy can help you navigate the real world.
I grew up around here in the seacoast area of New Hampshire in the 1970’s, and like a lot of kids during those times I played a lot of board games.
Let’s see, there was Risk, Stratego, Battleship, Clue, Sorry, Monopoly and they were good.
But then in 1974, along came a new game a game called Dungeons & Dragons.
Also known as D&D.
It was a game that changed everything. D&D introduced to the planet, rules for fantasy role-playing. And I want to remind you, this is a time long long ago before video games like Minecraft or World of Warcraft. Before cell phones, before the internet, before Star Wars, before twerking.
And when I was 12 in 1979, when I was first introduced to this game it blew my mind, and me and my buddies, we played it a lot.
These are some stills from an actual home movie that I shot in 1981 of me and my buddies playing D&D and the stills you’ll see here will give you some idea of how the game is played. You will see on the table in front of the players assembled some rules books with names like The Monster Manual and Dungeon Master’s Guide. There are maps, and pieces of paper and pencils. There are lots of dice, strange polyhedral dice. And when you roll them, what you roll determines the outcome of your success or failure in the game. There’s also Mountain Dew and Doritos. Important provisions for you on your quest.
Now, you’ll notice that while there is a table there and this is technically a board game there is no board, OK.
This game is played in the imagination.
And the way you play it is each person around the table assumes the role of a character. And each character has skills and attributes which are represented by numbers. So, you might have 16 strengths, pretty good 3 charisma, hmm not so good. And one player, known as the Dungeon Master or the DM; it’s kind of the referee, the God, the creator, the world builder. And sets the scenario into motion, and when you play you describe to your fellow players what you’re going to do so you might say something like “I ask the bartender when was the last time she saw the prince.”
Or “I rush it the troll with my Warhammer and try to smash its skull.” So, as a group, you tell the story together. And best of all, no one knows what happens next.
Now I know what you’re thinking.
D&D and other role-playing games also known as RPGs are make-believe, it’s pretend.
Fantasy games are for nerds! And dweebs and geeks and dorks! And guys, let’s face it, mostly guys who can’t get a date and live in their parents’ basement and have to escape the real world. Am I right? Well, maybe not. What do all these people have in common? What a bunch of losers!
It turns out that all these cool, weird smart people, all cut their creative teeth on role-playing games. And Dungeons & Dragons.
Fantasy games impacted their lives in incredible ways. So maybe these games aren’t a waste of time. Maybe they don’t warp your social skills. Maybe they can be good for you.
Now, as a kid at the time, I was dealing with my own monsters. The same year that I learned to play Dungeons & Dragons in 1979 this woman, my mother was stricken down by a crippling brain aneurysm which left her physically and mentally and emotionally disabled. She was unpredictable, she did strange things and as a kid I was scared. I was already a hopeless introvert and this situation made me feel even more powerless. As if my world had been turned upside down. As if, I was trapped in the maze of my own adolescence.
And so these games allowed me to escape my fears. And to enter into a fantasy world where I could be someone else. Someone with power, someone with control, someone with agency.
And I played these games obsessively through my childhood and then I stopped. And then 25 years later, I began to play again as a 40 something more or less grown up adult male and I realized something.
These games were important.
These games shaped me, these games gave me incredible tools, a coping mechanism to deal with my situation at the time. These games are powerful. But fantasy role-playing games can benefit anyone.
So let me share with you 5 ways that D&D and the power fantasy can help you combat the perils and challenges of reality and help you become a better person in the real world.
Lesson 1: Collaboration and Teamwork.
So, unlike some games in these fantasy role-playing games you’re not some ruthless real estate mogul trying to bankrupt your fellow players and erect hotels all across Middle Earth from Hobbiton to Mordor. No, you work together collaboratively. And collaboration or the understanding of what collaboration is, is all about understanding the power of teamwork and diversity.
So, you can’t go alone in this world. And nor can your culture. And even in these fantasy games you don’t wander around thinking that people and other creatures think like you, and talk like you and act like you.
So, D&D’s lesson is about diversity and collaboration.
Let’s go back to that situation with the troll. Remember the troll? Let’s say you decide to fight it. You and your party have a range of skills and talents to draw from. There’s the fighter who’s good at fighting. There’s the spellcaster who can blast it with spells. There’s the healer who can heal up people when they fall down in battle. There is a group of people and each of them plays their part. And this lesson can be applied to your life with your office’s mates, with your circle of friends, with your family, everybody plays a part. And it’s okay to rely in each other.
I’ve got your back, you’ve got my back. Never split the party.
Now, as you can probably guess, I was too much of a spaz to play team sports in high school. So instead of feeling that sense of victory and mutual accomplishment on the playing field I got that through these games. And besides, let’s face it. Who really needs football when you can cast lightning bolts and fireballs from your fingertips? Am I right?
Lesson 2: Preparedness, Innovation and problem-solving.
So one thing these games are great at beyond providing you with this sort of sense of mutual accomplishment and victory is that they help you solve problems. So, let’s go back to that troll. Let’s say you attack the troll, you kill it, bravo! You ransack the body as you’re supposed to do; you look on the pockets of the troll and in the troll’s right pocket you find a scrap of paper.
Okay? And written in that scrap of paper is this message: LLCRCO. What could that mean? Well, you venture into the dungeon underneath the castle. It’s dark, it’s scary; lucky for you you’re prepared, you’ve got your torches, your grappling hook, your backpack. You’ve brought your magic wand that shoots giant spider repellent.
So point, being life is like a dungeon so please, please don’t wander through life without the tools you need to MacGyver yourself out of these sticky situations.
Now you run around the corner in the dungeon and you come across this. It’s a corridor. And running down the middle of the corridor it’s what appears to be a strange patterns of tiles. Your beloved but somewhat blundering dwarf accidentally steps on that first tile. And you hear this click and then dozens of arrows shoot out of darkness. And at you. And then the screen goes blank. Luckily you have torches! Is there something I can do up here to fix that?
So, it’s dark in this dungeon. It’s really dark. So, it’s probably a good time to camp for the night.
But here’s the thing about these role-playing games…
There’s more than one solution to every problem.
So, maybe instead of doing that you decided to disarm the trap or maybe you take a big rock or a boulder that you find in the dungeon and you roll it down the corridor setting of the trap. Or you find some lonely orc or hobgoblin and you tied it up and push it in front of you down the corridor. And that triggers the arrows, okay?
So, the point is that these role-playing games teach innovation, they train the mind to think of, you know, more than one way to solve a problem and to make unexpected connections. And to help you find your alternative paths through the darkness.
Now let’s go back to that troll. Let’s say that instead of fighting it you talk to it. You release it from the chains that bind it. You befriend it.
So rushing into combat isn’t always the answer.
D&D says that there’s no shame in a well-bargained escape. Don’t fight, negotiate with the troll, with the bully with that uncooperative pain in the ass family member at Thanksgiving. I can think of more than one time during my years wandering the dungeons of Oyster River High School that I was able to talk my way out of an encounter with a troll. Due to the negotiation skills I learned in D&D.
Lesson 3: Character building builds character.
So, like in life in role-playing games you begin at level 1 at the bottom of the ladder, you’re a wuss. You’ve got 4 hit points you have a rusty sword and you can cast one spell that makes pancakes. But have patience, my friends! And you will gain an experience and you will gain in experience points and you will grow in skill and strength. And you do this how? You do this by taking risks. Why? Because risks lead to reward.
So let’s go back to the troll. You’re this newbie player and you just fresh out the farm and you’re fighting the troll; you decided this cookie thing. You climbed up the wall of the castle and during the battle you leap off the wall onto the back of the castle and you’ve got your rock and try to nag it on the head. Why not, right? You’ve got nothing to lose. So, this game is sort of providing you this environment to take risks and to fail in a safe way, in a safe place.
And take it from me, a 17 level nerd. That you will heal from your defeats and setbacks and embarrassments and other mortifying situations.
And if you’re shy and fearful and stupid as I have been in my life, I get to play in a game something that is wise and courageous and maybe a little bit smarter. And over time as I model that behavior in the game, I soon get to feel like I’m ready to be wise, and courageous and brave and smarter in real life. And soon I can level up in real life. And I can confront that arch-nemesis at work. Or I can confront that mother at home. Or I can give a TED talk. And I will live, and I will level up to fight another day.
But how will I fight? Will I fight honorably or as a backstaber? Am I going to behave according to some you know, universally accepted sense of what is the common good and the right thing to do or by some private moral code? So role-playing are constantly putting players into these murky ethical situations. So let’s go back to that troll; let’s say that you decide that you’re not going to fight, you’re going to capture it. And once you’ve got it captured, you’re going to try to get information from it. Are you going to torture it? Does that make you still a good character if you torture it? Maybe it’s evil and so it deserves to die. Is the troll evil or was it just raised that way?
The point being as you build your character… These games pose character building thought experiments that are testing human or orcish or dwarvish behavior. And allow you to model and to experiment to think about what might be the right thing to do. How you could behave, how you should behave in the real world.
Lesson 4: Empathy and Tolerance.
So the next step in your journey to building your character is thinking about connection: empathy and tolerance. The problem is it. I am me and you are you. There is the self, there is the other. Dwarfs are from Mars, Elfs are from Venus. How do you bridge that gap? You bridge that gap through the intersection of role-playing.
So, the fantasy games role-playing space that gets created while you play creates this opportunity to inhabit someone else’s skin. You can play yourself, sorry, someone who’s like yourself or you can play someone who’s not like yourself. And because of the immersive narrative of the game, you and your fellow players are constantly put into situations where you’re interacting with other people and creatures, dragons, bartenders, dwarfs. You get the picture. And you can imagine what their predicament is, what their situation is, what their point of view is. So this is why these fantasy role-playing games are the perfect empathy training machine for the real world.
And so because of the game and my experiences with the game I can look at my archi-nemesis at work.
I can think about that guy on I-95 on the drive up here who cut me off. I can think about that bully that I encountered in high school. I can think about my broken… sorry… My broken and sick mother with a little more empathy. And little more of compassion. And a little more love.
My final lesson. The Power of Narrative and The Imagination.
None of these games works without a story, without the imagination.
Take a look at these maps and drawings I made back in the Reagan administration. I want you to focus on this for a second aside from admiring their amazing artistic skills.
What goes on in your mind when you think about those? When you see those and imagine them on your minds? What I argue is that what’s getting activated in your minds is the wandering mind. You begin to wonder what goes on here? Who lives here? What’s the story? What happens next?
Now, for sure we have movies and we have television shows and video-games that offer these immersive, richly textured narratives and worlds. But they don’t engage our imagination in the same way. And I think it’s precisely because of role-playing games crude tools dice and pieces of paper and maps. And, those silly little figurines. You’re required to bring your imagination to the gaming table to complete the picture. Okay? We used to sit around the fire telling each other stories. And it seems to me that today we’ve settled for being passive consumers of prepackaged narratives. Stories, movies which are created by millions of Hollywood dollars and thousands of digital animators. It seems as if the power of storytelling has been taken from us. And role-playing games return that power to us.
And they also spark the imagination. I can think of so many areas and interests that were sparked or kindled through my experience of playing these games. Everything from history to poetry, to geography to languages, to the natural history and biology of elvish maidens. All because of this game. It made me want to be a storyteller and a creator, and a world builder. And to take that imagine of leap to imagine a better world. So, thanks to fantasy role-playing games I use my imagination. And I’m prepared, and I can think out of the box solutions to problems. And I know that I don’t have to go alone. I found my team, I know I can rely on friends who have multiple talents and skills who can get me out of scrapes.
And I know there’s more than one way to defeat the monsters and solve the riddles and escape the darkness of my own life. And this leads me to role-playing games’ most powerful magic. The key to confidence and the key to self-reliance is in controlling your own narrative. It’s telling your own story. And stories connect us. And stories provide hope. In all of these role-playing games there’s a rule: If you want to do something no matter what it is however, slims the odds you take this 20 sided dice and you roll it.
And if you get a 20 you’ll do it, it happens. You slay the dragon with a single blow. You kiss the girl. You love your mother. Deep inside all of us inside our metaphorical dungeons, is a dragon. But we don’t know if we can slay it. Or befriend it. Unless we try.
So, to you I say get out the Doritos and Mountain Dew. Arm yourself with pencil and graph paper. And gather around the fire of each other’s imaginations. And go on an adventure. Thank you.