Therapists Use Dungeons & Dragons Campaigns to Help Kids Open Up
Wheelhouse Workshop is a Dungeon & Dragons therapy group that was co-founded by Adam Davis and Adam Johns. Their goal is to work with kids who are having social issues and give them the option of not having to sit in a boring counselor’s office, and start asking the right questions. Instead of asking, “Have you tried joining clubs” or “Why aren’t you doing your homework?” They are asking more engaging questions like, “Who has the axe? Is it two-handed? What specialty of wizard do you want to be?”
He runs Wheelhouse Workshop out of his office in a huge, brick arts building out in Seattle, and more often than not he is accustomed to seeing the sides of children that don’t come out while they’re in school. Davis and Johns designed Dungeons & Dragons campaigns that are less of the hack-and-slash dungeon runs and more of a therapy session with dragons. In this realm of Dungeons & Dragons these kids’ imagination run wild.
During a phone interview Davis told Kotaku about a special case of a teenager who never spoke above a whisper. While he was in school he would sit at his desk with his feet up to hide his face. He despised taking up space, and his body language told his parents and teachers that he should visit the Wheelhouse Workshop.
Davis says, “The character he chose was a dwarf barbarian. He was really loud and bumbling and unapologetic. It was a really obvious opportunity for this kid to play with qualities other than his.” This kid really got into his role slamming his elbows down on the table and sitting with his legs spread apart, classic barbarian style. This allowed him to learn how he could relate to others outside of the game.
What made this D&D group different from any old D&D campaign is, “intentionality”. It is carefully designed to give players consequences to their actions, as an example, they won’t protect a player who is overly-impulsive who runs head first into the dragon’s den. If their character is hurt badly, that was the natural repercussion to that action. If a player were to ransack an orc village, they make sure they show the effects on the orc children and mothers in the village.
During one campaign Adam Johns from Wheelhouse Workshop designed a one shot campaign where the player is supposed to infiltrate a royal dinner party to locate intel on a politician. To gain access to the dinner party they had to wear royal airs. So, they walked right in and told whoever asked them, that they came from some imagined kingdom. “I had them sit down at our table as their characters would,” says John, “[He] would reach over and grab the bread from the waiter with tongs, knocking the bread out of his hand, slurping his squid ink soup. Everyone else at the table thought he was royalty.”
According to the patient’s parents, the most common issue with the kids who go to the Wheelhouse Workshop is flexibility. The rules and structure of the game helps these kids who have autism cope with this dizzying world, and this makes social interactions less difficult.
This doesn’t mean that Dungeons & Dragons is going to become the new Rorschach test but there is an obvious connection between the escapist fantasies and player’s internal lives. They are attempting to leverage these fantasies for therapeutic purposes, but in short Dungeons and Dragons will never be marketed as a therapist’s tool, it will always just be a game. Which is why it catches on with kids who need to break out of their shell.