How Moral Panics Can Turn Into Therapeutic Tools: The Dungeons And Dragons Edition

from the medicine-check dept

It seems there must be something in our human DNA, something that hasn't been filtered out over the generations, that causes the masses to engage in moral panics. When you peruse our previous posts about moral panics new and old, it highlights how laughably absurd they tend to be. Specifically, if past is prologue, you get a fair understanding of how our current moral panics will be viewed in the future, as we laugh now at the consternation caused by such demons as telephones, comic books, chess, and pencils. And that laughter causes no pause about the current moral panics surrounding social media, certain forms of music, and video games.

Sandwiched in between antiquity and modernity is Dungeons & Dragons, the popular tabletop role playing game that experienced its own moral panic decades ago, but which has since risen dramatically in popularity. This game, once thought by parents to create potential Satan worshipers out of their little darling children, has already been pushed as a fantastic starting point for would-be creative writers. More recently, however, therapists have begun using the game as a therapeutic tool in sessions with patients. Adam Davis runs one of these groups using D&D in therapy, called the Wheelhouse Workshop, and details one story in which he uses the game as a therapy tool.

Davis, who runs Wheelhouse Workshop out of an office in a large, brick arts building in Seattle, is used to seeing sides of kids that don't usually come out in school. He, along with co-founder Adam Johns, designs D&D games that are less like hack-and-slash dungeon-crawls and more like therapy with dragons. In D&D's Forgotten Realms world, the kids' psyches run amok. Earlier this month, over the phone, Davis told me about Frank (not his real name), a tall, lanky teenager who barely spoke above a whisper. In school, he tended to sit with his feet in front of his face, so no one could really see him. He hated to take up space. After his parents and teachers noticed that his body language seemed a little stand-offish to peers, they enrolled him in Wheelhouse Workshop.

"The character he chose was a dwarf barbarian," Davis recalled. "He was really loud and bumbling and unapologetic. It was a really obvious opportunity for this kid to play with qualities other than his." Adam had Frank sit like his character, spreading his legs apart and slamming his elbows onto the table. In dwarf-barbarian mode, Frank could experiment with new modes of relating to others.

In the link, there are other examples of other groups using D&D in therapy sessions, and it becomes instantly obvious why it's such a valuable tool. Letting kids play the game to work out real life issues, or work on modes of interaction and socialization, is what every tabletop RPG session is to some extent. But for those whose interactions aren't merely escape from reality, but a way to work on their real life interactions, the lessons learned in the game can be profound. Therapists have always used role-playing in therapy sessions, of course, but allowing for an in-game narrative filled with social interaction and potential consequences adds a new layer. When the therapists explaining why they use the game as a tool in this way talk about the benefits, it will likely sound familiar to what the proponents of more recent moral panic targets have to say on the subject.

Because D&D is inherently cooperative and escapist, it urges players to re-imagine the ways they interact with peers. And because each player has their own specialty, like communicating with dragons, they'll have their moment to feel valuable in a group setting.

At worst, kids who are socially isolated can enjoy hacking up some goblins after a crappy school day. "For someone who never leaves their house except for school, to have a peer say, 'I need your help picking a lock' makes a huge difference," Johns told me.

That sure sounds like someone describing interactive multiplayer video games to me, among other things. The point to understand here is that thirty or forty years ago this game was absolutely vilified. Unfairly so, by a public too willing to buy into fears about something they didn't understand and a media environment happy to whip that fear into a fervor. No part of that equation has changed saved for the target of the moral panic du jour. Hell, we've already heard of things like video games and other technology being used in therapy sessions, yet what percentage of parents polled today would have negative things to say about those games?

If moral panics are in our DNA, or perhaps merely in our social fabric, we need more people to have a greater understanding of how often these panics melt away and the benefits of the thing feared are then realized. Maybe then we can at least muffle these types of moral panics.


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  • icon
    Bergman (profile), 5 May 2017 @ 8:20pm

    It's a survival mechanism

    When we encounter something we don't understand, that seems alarming (or those we trust say should be alarming), we as humans react exactly the way a troop of chimpanzees, gorillas or baboons react. Very randomly.

    Some will run towards the danger. Some will run away. Some climb trees, some dig into the dirt, some freeze silently in place, others jump around making lots of noise. When the danger is unknown, that randomized overreaction helps some of the species to survive -- and the rest are killed by the danger.

    Translated into the modern world, it leads people to overreact to things that aren't dangerous -- but they don't know that because they don't understand them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 5 May 2017 @ 11:20pm

    And I bet if you asked a random sampling of people, there will still be those who think its devil worshiping in disguise.

    The scary headlines are long remembered well after its debunked. There are still people who insist that those day care people were devil worshipers who put them on planes and flew them off to be abused. IIRC when one of the centers was torn down years after people paid to have it excavated to find the tunnels, because despite it being shown to have been fraud that screwed innocent people, they were sure it was still real.

    D&D or any of the other roleplaying games sound like a great tool for anyone. It helps build skills & confidence in a safe setting. Working together to win is required, and FSM knows we really need how to work together these days.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Uriel-238 (profile), 5 May 2017 @ 11:58pm

    I played AD&D from ~1977-1990.

    ...and not once did I get a recruitment offer from Satanic acolytes or witches offering to teach me actual magic.

    Disappointed.

    Once I moved up to the Bay Area, I did find some crossover with the tabletop gaming community and the neopagan sector.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Ninja (profile), 8 May 2017 @ 4:31am

      Re: I played AD&D from ~1977-1990.

      I fought Satan head on in one of the games (another system). It was an unfortunate chain of very unlucky events and rolls that led to our awesome demise (no, really, I never died that spectacularly again after it). So yeah, RPGs can summon Satan after all and it's scary.

      After the game was over we had burger and fries with soda. And no, no Satan around.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    My_Name_Here, 6 May 2017 @ 6:01am

    I think the concept of quantifying something as a moral panic is in a way an attempt to talk down an opinion that you did not agree with and which turned out to be wrong.

    I also think it's really easy as a result to frame something you currently don't agree with (but that has not been shown to be wrong) as a moral panic in hope that people will assume it's wrong.

    When I read stories like this on Techdirt, I always get the feeling of a setup, mentally positioning things with your loyal readers so that you can claim "moral panic" on things and have them go along with it. It makes it much easier to put something in a negative light without having to actually show it as wrong, just that it's a panic of some sort.

    I don't really see the point of the story otherwise. It's a sort of lame feel good piece with no real point to it, unless you consider it's re-enforcing of the moral panic message.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Wendy Cockcroft, 9 May 2017 @ 5:48am

      Re:

      Which indicates that you've never seen anything like this: https://www.chick.com/reading/tracts/0046/0046_01.asp

      They're very popular among Evangelicals, whose Glorious Leaders love a bit of grandstanding as a way of getting attention — and your money. I'm not a fan of that kind of thing, it actually freaks me out because the evangelist is not supposed to be the star of the show, God is.

      I've been involved in role-playing circles. It's just a bit of harmless escapist fun. The point of the article, then, is to warn us to beware of being carried along by moral panics and to actually consider what they're about. For the most part it's some authoritarian promising to protect you from an imaginary boogeyman. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, etc. I've got no time for authoritarians of any description and I'm glad Tim debunked the nonsense around D&D.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 May 2017 @ 7:49am

    When I was in grade school, a friend of mine found out I played D&D and told me a story about this one kid played D&D once, and immediately murdered his family.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    McGyver (profile), 6 May 2017 @ 3:46pm

    Moral panic is more about how the "threat" is presented by "vocal panickers"...
    Most people don't "realize" a thing is a "moral treat" until some righteous watchdog informs them that based on their narrow point of view and need to be heralded as savior of their souls, this threat is of the gravest nature.
    That's usually where the problems start.
    But then again at what point is it legitimate concern and not just misinformed panic?
    The Internet of Things could be a wonderful place where your diabetic glucose monitor orders more test strips for you, evaluating the best prices, keeps your doctor up to date and informs them of any dangerous changes... Or... It could be sharing you medical data without your permission, binding you to a contract for the most crappy expensive test strips and cost you a job when unscrupulous employers decide the don't want to hire people with medical issues and use some program that figures out who might be buying certain medications by what address they receive packages regularly from.
    Sometimes it's bullshit, and sometimes it's foresight.
    It's how it plays out in history and what we decided to make of it.
    Sadly of late, a lot of good ideas and technology have been exploited and abused by people with no morals whatsoever.
    Two different people can be given the same tools... One will create and add to the quality of life and the other will use it to rob others and cause misery.
    It's not the tools or technology, but people that cause problems.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      orbitalinsertion (profile), 7 May 2017 @ 12:56pm

      Re:

      I think the difference is the actual behavior, claims, and the rationality (or lack thereof) of the points which panickers choose to panic about.

      I regularly see actual problematic things for which there are a reasonable contingent of observers, people with warnings, suggestions, etc., and also a moral panic contingent with vague thinking who don't really understand the issues, but merely feed on fear, and imagine all sorts of senseless and unreal consequences.

      And sometimes vaguely felt uneasiness is a decent odds projection that something will change things but not for the better, and be more abused than used for the better. I think you are correct.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    tom (profile), 6 May 2017 @ 4:15pm

    If the DM or GM is good, the game teaches creative problem solving skills. The "How do we..." questions can lead to some very inventive answers. Along with "What happens if.." questions leading to preparing for things going wrong.

    Both useful skills in real life.

    I still have a few folks mention the D&D = Satan thing when discussing the game.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 May 2017 @ 5:25pm

    I thought this was going a completely different direction at first

    Given the title I thought it was about Moral panics as a community mechanism as a 'therapeutic' tool akin to witch hunts to deal with anxiety from other sources. Except then it is more a tool for retaining power by finding a scapegoat to make things NotYourFault (tm).

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    JustMe (profile), 8 May 2017 @ 9:06am

    So many things lately remind me of this great quote

    "We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you, Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things and two things only: making you afraid of it and telling you who's to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections. You gather a group of middle-aged, middle-class, middle-income voters who remember with longing an easier time, and you talk to them about family and American values and character."
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0112346/quotes

    It seems to me that most of the people trying to drum up a moral panic are doing so to inflate themselves and, often, con money out of the unsuspecting/unthinking hordes.


    I also trot this one out sometimes:

    "For the record: yes, I am a card-carrying member of the ACLU. But the more important question is why aren't you, Bob? Now, this is an organization whose sole purpose is to defend the Bill of Rights, so it naturally begs the question: Why would a senator, his party's most powerful spokesman and a candidate for President, choose to reject upholding the Constitution?"

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    David (profile), 8 May 2017 @ 3:19pm

    A good baseline for any law

    Need to know whether a law will provide the intended result?

    Well, one of my solutions is to put it into a game, D&D being one of the best. Gamers bend rules, dodge restrictions, plead with dungeon masters to allow their so very convincing arguments on this one very special but so insignificant change will not cause any problems at all. Oh the irony.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Rekrul, 9 May 2017 @ 5:03pm

    I still remember the 1982 TV movie, Mazes and Monsters which had Tom Hanks becoming delusional after playing a tabletop RPG.

    Then a couple years later, it was video games that were going to destroy society...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Uriel-238 (profile), 10 May 2017 @ 6:42am

      Look in the opposite direction...

      ...and you'll find concerns of people incapable of discerning fantasy from reality regarding: television, cinema, radio and (far enough back) trashy romantic literature.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 May 2017 @ 11:52am

    I started playing D&D when I was about 12, right in the midst of this "panic". My aunt bought me the books for Xmas and when my parents saw them, they asked me about it (having read some stuff in the papers). I told them it was nonsense and that if they truly believed I would be able to summon The Devil, they should return the books.

    I'm now in my 40s, happily married and have two children, one of whom will be joining my regular gaming group when he is a bit older.

    I still love reading the Chick Tracts every now and then. I need the chuckle.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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