Huddled in the sub-level conference room of a research lab building, a young cadre of summer campers bent over maps, paperwork and dice last summer - old-school three-ring binders were even in evidence - the youngest experimenters in the building, but also the most old-fashioned.
The cooperative players of Gaming Together use tabletop games, medieval-tinged fantasies that owe so much to J.R.R. Tolkien and his literary descendants. Collaborative game universes like Dungeons & Dragons add peer interaction to the world of imagination. Anna Doherty, who founded Gaming Together as an after-school program and expanded it into a series of camps during school holidays, said math and social and leadership skills spring naturally from playing extended campaigns in a small group.
"The game itself is all about physics - if you’re going to use a fire spell in the carpenter’s workshop - oops, you just burned the building down. Let’s talk about flammable sawdust," she said. "The connections that kids are able to make in the game are hard to replicate in the classroom."
In Dungeons & Dragons, players work together on an imaginary adventure led by a Dungeon Master (DM) who acts as part referee and part storyteller. Solving puzzles, doing battle and navigating how to respond to challenges in the story rely partly on rolling dice and partly on group reasoning and decision-making. For Gaming Together, college students and Doherty team up not just to guide the narrative, but also to fill the game experience with philosophical and emotional moments to learn.
"It’s storytelling and creativity and crazy dice and imagination and exciting and saving the world and all kinds of fun things," Doherty said.
She played D&D with her brothers growing up, and taught herself to DM when her son was finishing third grade. Three other kids at his school had parents interested in joining in, and the three grew to four to 10. Clubs started forming, kids grew up to run their own games. Five years later, Doherty’s son is now running games for their family as well as doing his own campaigns with friends.
She leads groups of three to five students between grades 4 and 9, and describes the structured, turn-based format as a place where kids can flourish even if they are not yet confident in groups.
Last summer a band of five elementary-school-aged players were traveling the world of D&D’s "Waterdeep: Dragon Heist," guided by books, maps, tiny figurines and a box full of dice of different dimensions. They weighed pluses and minuses of capturing versus killing a murderer they had been sent to stop. At the whiteboard, Doherty led them through the process - what would the city guard think? What other interested parties might affect their decision? What were the contingencies and ethics to weigh before rolling the die on a chosen action?
Foothill College student Ryan Crowley ruled over the table as DM, guiding the story action while Doherty weighed in at the God-level with observations about what to consider at each turning point. Shakira, a somewhat bloody-minded female member of the troop, pondered whether she could hide a trident under her cape or render it invisible as she planned out a scheme for capture. Other young players fiddled with the objects scattered across the table or questioned Crowley about the possibility of other strategies.
Doherty’s D&D campaigns lean more heavily on agency than chance, letting the young players take on powerful characters, and she has introduced a system of in-game monies that she can hand out to draw attention to players who are contributing to the team’s outcome with their focus. She started leading the games for a student cohort that included many players who might identify as neuro- atypical. But the style of supportive, adult-moderated fantasy play has evolved into a setting that draws children with a wide range of social styles.
"The fact is that Dungeons & Dragons is the best skills-development tool for the young that is out there, hands-down, at all, regardless of neurotypicality," Doherty said, cataloging the teamwork and communication skills, math visualization, perspective-taking and other social skills included. "I don’t need to emphasize the nerd-diverse support because the people who need it are going to realize it is there. Basically, if your kid has a full-time aide at school, they should bring one to camp, but everyone is welcome."
Springing traps real and imagined
"It is super important to me that I set expectations kids can succeed at. I don’t ask them to stay at the table, I expect them to be fidgety and need something to mess with, with their hands, and be wiggly," Doherty said.
In addition to mapping out social expectations and learning to decode puzzles through group discussion, Doherty describes crafting a consensus process for kids that evolves from writing down a huge list of ideas to repeated rounds of voting to nominate a course of action.
"We talk about noticing - human conflict arises in the gap between what I just experienced and what you just experienced, what I heard and what you heard," she said. "The important thing is to step into those gaps, and notice them."
The games include analytical skills like map-reading and logic, but also requires human communication that can be hard for players. Doherty believes in creating a space for inquiry - and self-disclosure - in a warm context.
"There is a reason humans do better in a group - my individual failure does not doom the group," Doherty said of leading from a position of vulnerability herself. "What’s important to me is that we all accept whatever everyone’s bringing. We lead by example. Let me tell you about my social awkwardness. I’ve never fit neatly into anybody’s societal expectations, and I don’t think it’s wise to conform yourself to anyone’s societal expectations - it is a trap, why would you do that?"
Doherty has been leading after-school programs and camps around the Peninsula and opens new ones when a school community wants to play host at a new location.