How a life among monsters can help you learn


RPG gamers: come out of hiding! Photo by Flickr user greenwise art.

Once upon a time, role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons were something kids and teens played in secret, for fear their parents would find out. Some parents had become convinced that these games allowed kids to flirt with the occult or even suicide and murder. Today, we mostly laugh at those ideas, and those who hide their RPG tendencies do so less out of fear of what their parents will think, and more out of fear that they’ll be branded as nerds stuck in childhood. Some stigma remains.

Which is why, when an accomplished writer like Samuel Sattin writes about his history as a role-playing gamer in Salon, it’s in somewhat hushed tones:

Now, I realize I’m risking no small amount of social capital by putting my history with Dungeons & Dragons into print. I’ve made similar confessions concerning my long time love of video games, a medium many respected cultural arbiters—Roger Ebert comes to mind—says can never be art. New forms of media, new forms of creative exploration, especially when they try to assume dignity or—shock—artistic respect, are bound to be repudiated by establishment critics who maintain genre is divorced from aesthetic permanence. There’s a reason Ursula K. LeGuin hasn’t won a Pulitzer yet, and it’s not because she isn’t amazing. It’s because there’s a war going on right now, especially in the literary world, over the definition of cultural value.

That, however, is not really the point of Sattin’s essay. Instead, the point is that his experiences playing D&D actually gave him the skills he needed to write his debut novel, League of Somebodies, which is coming out next spring. He talks about how all those hours spent creating characters and stories provided the building blocks for his imagination to craft a story and that, someday soon, we will all be able to experience. Tolkien and Lewis, Milne, George Lucas — they have all created worlds that don’t exist, but that do now because of their imagination, and to some extent they were all role-playing.

Okay, so maybe you don’t want to write stories. That’s not the only useful thing to come out of RPGs. Take, for example, 12-year-old Julian Levy, whose D&D monster manual helped his dad, psychologist Alan Kingstone, solve a conundrum about human behavior. Kingstone was studying where people look when examining a new creature; usually it’s the eyes, but what if the eyes aren’t in the expected place?

The recordings showed that when volunteers looked at drawings of humans or humanoids (monsters with more or less human shapes), their eyes moved to the centre of the screen, and then straight up. If the volunteers saw monsters with displaced eyes, they stared at the centre, and then off in various directions. The volunteers looked at eyes early and frequently, whether they were on the creatures’ faces or not.

This isn’t just an academic exercise, says Kingstone. “If people are just targeting the centre of the head, like they target the centre of most objects, and getting the eyes for free, that’s one thing. But if they are actually seeking out eyes that’s another thing altogether,” he says. It means that different parts of the brain are involved when we glean social information from our peers. It might also help to explain why people with autism often fail to make eye contact with other people, and which parts of the brain are responsible.

Kingstone’s research paper is called “Monsters Are People Too,” natch.

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