"Dungeons and Dragons," "Champions," and "GURPS" are the titles of three of the most popular role-playing games, yet most non-gamers have never heard of them. If they have heard of any of them, "Dungeons and Dragons" is likely to be the one they recognize, but not for its positive aspects. "Dungeons and Dragons," or more popularly, D&D, is considered the epitome of the role-playing game, or RPG. Many non-gamers equate it with a group of stereotypical nerds or geeks sitting around a table eating pizza, rolling dice, and playing make-believe, and to a great extent, they are correct. After all, stereotypes are based on common perceptions. What the non-gamer misses, however, are the many benefits that RPGs provide. As an avid role-playing enthusiast, or simply, a "gamer," since the age of ten, I have benefited greatly from RPGs, and now at the age of forty, I look back on my gaming experiences and realize the role that they have played in my life from an educational perspective. Playing RPGs improved my literacy skills, strengthened my creativity, and gave me strong analytical skills.
"Verisimilitude," "maladroit," "perquisite"—all words that I learned and knew the definition of by the age of eleven. The single most important aspect of role-playing games is the ability to read, comprehend, and recall information, and to use that information to communicate with the other players. Much like the popular games "Monopoly," "Life," and "Clue" that we all played as children, RPGs have rules that control the game and determine outcomes, but these rules tend to be written in books that are at least thirty-two pages long, much larger then the couple of pages of a typical board game. Because the rule books are also typically written by well-educated individuals for adult audiences, as a young boy, I found myself stumbling over the words and having to look them up. I wanted to because it was not school work, it was a game. The rule books spoke of fantastic ideas, places, and creatures that compelled me to find the original sources—the literature that inspired the games. I found myself consuming books such as King Kong, The Lord of the Rings, and I, Robot, not as school assignments, but as background material for the RPGs that I played. My friends were doing the same, and when we got together to play RPGs, we each brought new words to the table. I was learning words in the RPG books that I read that were years ahead of my fellow classmates. Many of these words were showing up in the purchased adventures, or modules, that we used for our games.
Many RPGs that were published in the late 70s and 80s had adventures that gamers could buy, which one player, the game master, or GM, would read and then use as a story to lead the other players through. The GM would present the setting, describing the area that the players’ characters, or PCs, would be adventuring in, and the players would then use that information to make decisions about what they wanted their characters to do. This typically involved overcoming an obstacle, righting a wrong, or discovering a secret. In other words, the players were pretending that they were mythical heroes, and their characters provided the abilities that their heroes had via the mechanics of the game. The restrictions placed on the PCs meant that the players could not simply say they overcame a given obstacle. The player would have to use only the abilities that their character had, much like real life in the sense that no one can do everything and we have to find solutions to problems using our own experiences and abilities. This lead the players to come up with surprisingly creative ways to overcome the problems that the GM presented. Eventually, I outgrew the published adventures and found myself creating my own scenarios. I used what I had learned in those adventures and the various novels I read to create my own unique worlds and puzzles for the players to solve.
The puzzles and obstacles in RPGs are where a great deal of analytical thinking is done. Players and GMs alike have to use analytical thinking in RPGs to solve problems or create sophisticated obstacles, respectively. Although it is the same thought processes that a writer goes through when creating a story, in the case of an RPG, the writer has no idea what his protagonists will do in a given situation, and more often then not, they do something the GM never thought of. At the same time, the players are the readers of the novel, not knowing where the story is going, or what the characters are thinking, and their control of the story lies only in their ability to influence events from their perspective alone. This, in turn, requires the GM to be able to think through the series of causes and effects at a moment's notice to keep the story moving, and to fit the players’ actions into the story. Another way of understanding the concepts would be to look at an RPG as a group of actors performing improvisational theater with a set of guidelines that control their behavior with random elements being presented by the director.
By now, it should be apparent to the reader that role-playing games improve literacy skills through reading and communicating with fellow players, boost creativity by exercising the imagination of the players, and strengthen analytical skills through the creation and solving of complex problems. I have played many RPGs over the years, in a number of genres and settings, and I am continually impressed with the general intelligence level of gamers in general. When I step back and look at my own educational experience, I see many times that role playing was used in the classroom—without it being a game—such as when I had to present reports on Alexander the Great and Thomas Edison, and I dressed up like the characters and presented their biographies as if I were those people. It is no surprise then that RPGs themselves are starting to find their way into the classroom, and some teachers are even sponsoring RPG clubs at their schools.