Playing roleplaying games (often called “gaming”) is a lifelong hobby for me. I started gaming when I was 10, and am still gaming regularly more than 20 years later. Without exaggeration, I can say that many of the best aspects of my life can be traced back to gaming. (If you’d like some background on me, check out my personal website.)
This article is about the positive ways that gaming has impacted my life. It’s intended to serve as an introduction for parents, significant others, and friends who don’t know much about Dungeons & Dragons or other roleplaying games, and might be a bit wary of a hobby that can — at first — sound a little odd.
(If you’re a regular reader of Gnome Stew, this article is a bit different from our usual fare, though it does have an application for GMs: You’re the person in your group most likely to have to deal with the fallout from a player who can’t play due to misconceptions about our hobby. I hope you enjoy it, and if you know someone who might benefit from reading it, I hope you’ll pass it on.)
What Is a Roleplaying Game?
A roleplaying game — like Dungeons & Dragons — is a cooperative social activity that combines elements of acting, storytelling, screenwriting, and board games. Typically, one player acts as the “game master,” describing situations that take place in the fictional game world to the other players, who act out what their characters say and describe what they do in response.
That’s where the term “roleplaying” comes from: the players are playing their roles in the game, just as actors do on stage — except in this case, they’re seated around a table, and describe their actions instead of actually performing them (as a stage actor would).
Every game includes its own set of rules — much like a board game does — for how to play. Much of what happens during a game session is governed by the game rules, which provide a framework for the creativity and problem-solving that are at the heart of gaming.
If you’d like a longer or more specific explanation that that, I recommend picking up a roleplaying game book (for Dungeons & Dragons, you’d want the Player’s Handbook) and flipping to the very first section. Most rulebooks include a description of what the game is like and how it’s played, and they don’t assume you already know how roleplaying games work.
Everyone Should Give Roleplaying Games a Shot
If you’re a parent wondering whether or not it’s OK for your kids to play D&D, it’s more than OK — it’s an opportunity you should encourage them to take. If you’re a spouse concerned about just what it is that your significant other does every Saturday night with their gaming buddies, the answer is that they’re having fun, exercising their brain and their creativity, and blowing off some steam.
Just like sports, painting, acting, playing an instrument, writing poetry, and hundreds of other hobbies, I think gaming is a hobby that everyone should try at least once. There’s nothing dangerous about it — quite the opposite, in fact.
When my daughter is old enough, I plan to introduce her to gaming. My wife and I also intend to introduce her to lots of other hobbies, too, from organized sports to artistic pursuits and everything in between. We’ll expose her to lots of options, and support whatever she’s interested in.
I know a lot of gamers. This article is based on my own experience, as well as on things I’ve observed about fellow gamers and the roleplaying community as a whole. Gaming is one of the cornerstones of my life, and I’m here to tell you why it’s been such a positive experience for me over the years.
Along the way, I’m going to generalize — I’ll try to do it without stereotyping, but it’s hard to be broad with simplifying things a bit.
Satanism Is Not Involved
Most of the unfounded prejudices about gaming died out by the early 1990s, including the idea that Dungeons & Dragons is somehow mixed up with worshiping Satan, but these stereotypes aren’t entirely dead. As a lifelong gamer, a husband, and a father, let me state unequivocally that there is no connection between roleplaying games and casting “real” spells, devil worship, or anything even remotely similar.
As a hobby, gaming fits into a broad cluster of hobbies that includes theater acting, storytelling, fiction writing, board and card games, comic books, and video games. It’s no more dangerous or worrisome than any of those related hobbies — just less mainstream.
With that out of the way, here are 10 ways that roleplaying games have been a positive force in my life:
1. Roleplaying Games Foster Creativity
It’s very rare to meet an un-creative gamer — as a general rule, we’re a pretty creative bunch. This is because gaming requires an active imagination and the ability to think on one’s feet, and because just as smart people are often drawn to gaming, so are creative types.
This has benefits outside of the game, too. Being around creative people and engaging in a creative hobby has, in turn, made me more creative.
2. Roleplaying Teaches Problem-Solving
A lot of what gamers do when they get together is team up to solve problems, another skill that comes in handy in just about every other aspect of day-to-day life. During a game, you’re regularly presented with situations you weren’t expecting, and just like an actor without a script you’re forced to improvise and make use of whatever is at hand to deal with those situations.
Creating your character for a game also involves comparing numerous options, evaluating different possibilities, and (in many games) crunching numbers to see what works best for you — problem-solving of a different sort, in other words.
3. …and Teamwork
Dungeons & Dragons, like nearly every other roleplaying game out there, is about teamwork: A group of friends in the game’s fictional world helping each other, even in the face of adversity. As a kid, gaming taught me teamwork by example — and when I gamed with people I didn’t know at conventions, I learned about teamwork in an environment not unlike what I’ve often encountered at work.
The combination of creativity, problem-solving, and teamwork that roleplaying games teach and encourage is a potent one. All three skills are of lifelong utility and importance, and gaming makes learning those skills fun.
4. Roleplaying Comes with a Social Network
When you become a gamer, you make new friends. I started gaming at a time in my life when I was having trouble making friends, and the social network that I joined in the process was enormously beneficial to my development as a teen, and remains beneficial to me as an adult.
This can be a valuable thing for any kid, even the ones who make friends easily. Even as an adult, just as with any other hobby I find that having roleplaying in common makes it easier to make friends with fellow gamers.
5. Gamers are Smart
The vast majority of gamers I’ve met are smarter than average. I’m not saying it’s gaming that makes them smarter, just that on balance smart people are more likely to be drawn to gaming than are folks of average intelligence.
Hanging around with smart people my entire life has made me sharper, more open-minded, and more thoughtful about life in general.
6. Gamers Come From All Walks of Life
I go to an annual roleplaying convention, GenCon, that draws thousands of gamers from around the world; I’ve been to other conventions in the past, as well. And something I’ve always loved about this hobby is that it affords me the chance to meet and interact with all sorts of people in an environment that’s much less judgmental than everyday life can sometimes be.
I’ve gamed with people in their 60s, and with kids as young as 10 or 12; with handicapped, disabled, and able-bodied gamers; with socially awkward and socially adept people; with skinny people and fat people; with lawyers, doctors, writers, professors, and folks from any other profession you can think of. And we tend to get along just fine, and have fun gaming together — regardless of how different we are as people.
7. Running Games Teaches You a Host of Skills
Running a roleplaying game for your friends (what this site, Gnome Stew, is all about) teaches you: planning, leadership skills, organizational skills, project management, decision making, situation analysis, storytelling, writing, and a wide range of other useful skills.
Being the game master (or Dungeon Master, for D&D) is mentally demanding, intellectually challenging, and a whole lot of fun. And like so many other aspects of this hobby, you learn a lot of things by running games that you can apply elsewhere in your life.
8. Gaming Is a Great Way to Learn Etiquette
When gamers get together, we observe social contracts that wouldn’t be out of place anywhere else: We listen when others are speaking, take turns during play, assist new players in learning the ropes, and generally try to make sure everyone else at the table is having a good time.
When you play an organized sport, you learn many of those things as well, just from a different perspective. I’m a more well-rounded person for having done both — played organized sports (mainly soccer, in my case) as well as roleplaying games.
9. Roleplaying Games Can Open Doors
I’m a proposal writer for a Fortune 100 company in part because of roleplaying games. Gaming is what got me into blogging, as well as into freelance writing for the roleplaying game industry — both of which were factors in landing me my day job.
Without roleplaying, I might never have ventured into freelancing at all; and without my published credits and previous work experience as a writer, I wouldn’t have gotten the job. The many skills you can pick up from roleplaying, from writing to problem-solving to social skills, can be a boon when you’re job hunting, as well.
10. Gaming Builds Lasting Friendships
Nearly all of my friends are gamers. I’m still close friends with folks I met in high school through roleplaying, still close friends with gamers I met in college, and still forming new friendships with the same common starting point: roleplaying games.
Many of my most enduring and fulfilling friendships wouldn’t have existed without gaming. If there’s one thing about this hobby I’m most grateful for, those friendships are it — I wouldn’t trade them for anything.
Both as a child and as an adult, gaming has played an overwhelmingly positive role in my life. It might sound cheesy, but I reap the benefits not only every time I play — gaming is one of the most entertaining and intellectually stimulating hobbies I’ve ever come across — but every time I become friends with a fellow gamer, land a freelance writing gig, tackle a complex problem, or do a wide range of other things.
I’m not here to tell you what to think about Dungeons & Dragons and other roleplaying games, or about the gaming hobby as a whole. But I am here to tell you about the impact gaming has had on my life, and on the lives of many, many people I’ve met — and gamed with — over the years. Thanks for reading, and I hope you found this article useful.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention The Escapist, Bill Walton’s long-running RPG advocacy website. Bill is a smart, friendly, dedicated guy with a passion for explaining what a positive force roleplaying games can be for kids and adults.
If you’re a non-gamer who’s interested in learning more about the hobby, and about what’s involved in playing a roleplaying game like Dungeons & Dragons, start with The Escapist.
This article grew out of an email exchange with a Gnome Stew reader who had encountered prejudice about his roleplaying hobby from someone close to him. It was affecting his gaming group and the friendships involved, and he emailed me to ask if I could help. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I had a lot to say on the topic. You know who you are — thank you for the inspiration, and I hope this helps.
Thanks very much for this list. I’m about to open a shop in Scotland and I’m building a set of “Introduction to X” leaflets for parents. Once I’ve got them compiled I’ll send them over if you want.
I’ll likely steal the majority of this content for the RPG one if that’s ok?
Oh and I echo the Bill Walton / The Escapist praise.
Great article, Martin. It’d be nice to see some statistics on table-top gamers like there are for PC gamers: number of people who game, average ages, average income, etc. In short, something to lend some evidence behind that which we all know and have experienced.
It’d be nice if more people would just accept it as a hobby, which it is. It isn’t a “lifestyle obsession” or some geeky yet secretive cult. Chances are, if you’re sitting on a city bus with 25 other people, a few will be gamers.
Part of the misconception of gamers is that the ones most open about their hobby are often the most annoying. Typical “normal” gamers just keep it to themselves, so what non-gamers see are the loud stereotypes with no social skills.
I guess the point is that we should not be afraid to talk about gaming to non-gamers (in moderation).
@escapistthx – Please drop me an email so we can discuss this.
@Rafe – I think WotC’s the only major RPG company that has stats evenly vaguely along those lines, though I could be wrong. I’d love to see them as well.
@Nicholas – re: “Part of the misconception of gamers is that the ones most open about their hobby are often the most annoying.”
This can certainly be true, but it is true for all hobbies. The people you hear about hockey from are often annoying, loud-mouthed hockey fans. You may hear about XBox games from (or be most exposed to XBox gaming due to) obnoxious, inconsiderate teens. You may learn about a new author via a die-hard “fanboi” who won’t stop talking about how awesome the book is. The list goes on.
Why is gaming different? My personal take is that the reality has not caught up to the expectation or perception. As Martin said and most of us know, gamers carry a lot of negative, if unfair, baggage from the ’80s. Even with gaming becoming fairly mainstream, old prejudices die hard.
@MartinI’ve sent you a message via Facebook. Let me know if you don’t get it and then I’ll email you. Cheers.
Good article. I like the way you bring up the positive, ground it in your experience, and don’t oversell. I’ve been looking for a good “what is roleplaying” link again for a while… this will do the trick nicely.
Here’s an interesting, possibly-related article: a born-again Christian arguing why more Christians should play D&D. It’s not a belief system to which I ascribe, but if you’re running up against accusations of Satanism, it’s a valuable resource.
Great article, mainly because of the positive viewpoint.
I’m no bible-thumper, but at the risk of being labeled the “house apologist”, I submit:
The Christian Gamer’s Guild – The FAQ is extensive and appears to be well-documented.
Gary Gygax was a Christian.
Fight ignorance with truth, not anger.
I think one of the other benefits of gaming, at least for younger audiences, is that games typically require more reading than most other hobbies. When I was in school, I was definitely a reader for other reasons, but I had no problem sitting down with a monster manual or adventure description and just reading about all of the cool stuff. Some of my friends did the same thing, even though they weren’t into reading in other capacities.
This is tangentially related to both the Teaches You Skills and the Gamers Are Smart points, but if Harry Potter can be praised for increasing reading comprehension, then the Iron Golem and Mind Flayer entries are probably the next step.
Some info from very reliable sources indicates that some of your feelings about gamers are wrong.
“Army frowns on Dungeons and Dragons”
Another country’s army came out with a statement that they agreed with the IDF, but I can’t find the story.
@powerlust – *shrugs* They’re entitled to their opinion, too. There are certainly gamers who fit that stereotype, but in my experience they’re vastly outnumbered by the rest of us. 😉
Hmm. Not sure these would all be great reasons to show to a non-gamer, though I perhaps see where you’re coming from.
This is exactly one of the articles I need to send my Dad. He’s fine with me playing rpg’s. He just doesn’t understand them. I’m sending him the link for this article & the ones provided by Trimeta & Telas.Thank you, all three of you.
I never considered how roleplaying games can teach problem-solving. My son likes to play roleplaying games but is growing tired of the one he has. I will be sure to find a good place to buy and sell RPGs so that I can continue to foster a problem-solving environment.