When I started my very first game of Dungeons & Dragons (also called D&D, DnD…you get it) a few years ago, I, like many, had no idea what I was getting myself into. I’d seen D&D in TV shows and movies (see: Freaks and Geeks, Stranger Things), but I’d never considered playing.
My friend convinced me over a matter of months to give it a shot, although I have to admit I was reluctant. I mean, I didn’t consider myself to be that much of a geek. In my mind, it was only the dweeby, socially awkward teenage boys from those TV shows who played D&D. That wasn’t me.
I’m not telling you this as a way to insult D&D players everywhere. I’m telling you this to let you know that if you’re feeling weird or hesitant or doubtful about the idea of playing Dungeons & Dragons, you aren’t alone. And just because you feel that way now doesn’t mean the game isn’t for you!
In fact, I have yet to meet anyone who, after playing once, didn’t enjoy it. Sure, not everyone is going to turn around and drop hundreds on a sick dice collection—but everyone I’ve convinced to try it once has come away smiling. And, I like to think, a little better off for having played.
Why is that? What about this silly, nerdy, strange little game is so universally appealing? Besides being fun, I believe there are a number of real-life, adult-world benefits to playing Dungeons & Dragons that you may have never considered.
Let’s dive into each one.
#1 It works your imagination muscles.
If you don’t know anything else about D&D, you probably know it involves dice and talking. And you know what? That’s pretty much all you need. Everything else happens in the group’s collective imagination, with each person adding their own brush strokes to the picture. This game stretches your creativity and imagination in ways many of us probably haven’t experienced since childhood.
Dr. Stephanie Carlson, a childhood brain development expert from the University of Minnesota, estimates that children spend as much as two-thirds of their time in non-reality. That is, in imaginary play. Think back to your childhood. Do you remember talking to your stuffed animals? Running from a monster in your backyard? Now riddle me this: when was the last time you were that immersed in your imagination as an adult?
Before I started playing D&D, I don’t know if I could have answered that question. Somewhere along the road of growing up, we step away from imagination and into reality. And like any other muscle that isn’t exercised, imagination withers as a result. Yet a well-developed imagination is important for us adults as well. Dr. Carlson found that “practice in pretending helps you come up with alternative ways of being—and of seeing an issue—and results in more creativity and better problem-solving.”
Participating in Dungeons & Dragons, especially in a regularly scheduled group, is like scheduling time to work out your imagination. Do you set aside time to go to the gym? Or do you at least think that sounds like a good idea in theory, like me? Well, making time to exercise your imagination is no different.
If you’re embarrassed to tell people, you can just say you’re going to work out. They’ll never know the difference.
#2 It builds camaraderie.
If you’ve ever played a team sport, performed in a play, attended summer camp, or any number of other group activities, you probably know the special bond that a group of diverse people can form when they work together to overcome challenges and achieve a common goal.
I played soccer for most of my life, and I became good friends with many of my teammates. It’s hard not to become friends when you’re running sprints until you can’t breathe. In challenging situations, people turn to each other for support. It’s instinct.
When people endure pain together, be it physical, mental, or emotional, they tend to develop a greater sense of loyalty and camaraderie. Researchers at the University of Queensland conducted an experiment where two groups of students performed a couple of task as groups. One group performed a painful task (i.e. holding their hands in a bucket of cold water) while the other group performed a painless version of the same task (i.e. holding their hands in a bucket of lukewarm water). The students in each group were then asked how they felt toward their group. Not only did the group with the painful task indicate greater loyalty, they also demonstrated better cooperation. The lead researcher, Brock Bastian of the University of New South Wales in Australia, said, “This finding puts the ‘pain as social glue’ hypothesis to a rigorous test, highlighting that people not only feel closer to others, but are willing to risk their own outcomes to benefit the group.”
While Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t include physical pain (hopefully), a group of players can experience emotional pain as they see their characters endure various hardships. I’ve been playing with one group for almost a year now (we’re about to finish the campaign), and we’ve grown closer as friends both in-game and out of game—and I didn’t even know two of the players before I started. I have also seen examples of greater cooperation and self-sacrifice as Dr. Bastian noted: our characters will often step in to save each other, even if it means risking our own character’s safety.
So if you’re nervous about starting or joining a new group, don’t worry. You might not be great friends today, but that camaraderie is sure to follow.
#3 It improves your problem-solving skills.
Most Dungeons & Dragons games are really an extended exercise in problem-solving—just with the most zany, mind-bending problems you never imagined you’d face. Like sneaking past a horde of zombie goats. Or convincing a dragon that he does not, in fact, want to eat you and your friends. When you’re challenged with questions and puzzles you’ve never considered before, you start thinking new and creative ways to solve them.
The arena of DnD also provides you with the psychological safety you need to experiment and make mistakes. A Harvard Business Review article describes psychological safety as “the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.” The researchers studied two working teams and found that the higher performing team “treated mistakes with curiosity and shared responsibility for the outcomes. As a result people could express themselves, their thoughts and ideas without fear of social retribution.”
A fantasy role-playing game can create this same kind of safe space. The act of adopting a fictional character and buying into a collective imaginary space levels the field for many people. We all take off our cool jackets when we play Dungeons & Dragons, and we embrace the silliness. Without the pressure of social acceptance, people feel safe enough to voice their crazy ideas when it comes time to face the zombie goats.
#4 It helps you develop empathy.
If there’s one thing we could all use a little more of in our day-to-day lives, it’s empathy. And there’s no better way to practice understanding how others might feel than to…well…imagine how others might feel. Stepping out of your own perspective and into the perspective of, say, a dwarf warrior who’s trying to save his family from a horde of zombie goats forces you to look at things from a totally new worldview.
Ethan Gildorf, author of “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms,” explained in a TED talk, “The game’s immersive narrative forces you to interact with others (elves, trolls, dragons, bartenders) all the time. In a fantasy world, you don’t wander around assuming people—and creatures—look, act and think like you. And you can’t help but imagine their predicaments and experiences.” He claims playing Dungeons & Dragons has helped him become more compassionate and empathetic, among other benefits.
But don’t just take his word for it. Research has shown that role-playing in general, whether in D&D or other contexts, helps people develop empathy. A team of professors from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute put together a course for engineering students that included role-playing elements to help students understand the social context of the work they’d be doing. In the Department of Ophthalmology at Maulana Azad Medical College in India, professors implemented empathy training and role-playing exercises with opthamology postgraduate students. Before they started the role-playing activities, only about 10% of the students were shown to understand empathetic communication. Afterward, students’ self-rated empathy scores rose from 95.9 to 106.7 (out 140), and their externally rated empathy scores rose from 29.3 to 39.1 (out of 55).
Long story short, pretending to be an elf wizard once a week could help you become more patient, compassionate, and understanding.
Give It a Shot
Whether you’re a self-proclaimed super geek, a well-adjusted adult who’s too mature for kids’ games, or somewhere in between, playing Dungeons & Dragons can produce real benefits in your life outside the fantasy world. So, take off your cool jacket, embrace the silliness, and try it out. Who knows? You might like it!