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Toys and Tabletop Games

The Dungeons & Dragons game rescuing kids from their social anxieties

A company called Game to Grow plays D&D with children who have trouble socializing to help them connect with their peers.

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The founders of Game to Grow, Adam Johns and Adam Davis.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Games of Dungeons & Dragons often involve saving the world. Sometimes they end up saving the players themselves.

Game to Grow believes that. The company uses a tailored Dungeons & Dragons experience as a platform to help children who have trouble socializing. The goal: provide them with a safe space to solve problems and learn to express themselves.

Game to Grow was one of the official charity partners of the Gen Con board game convention in Indianapolis last weekend. The company officially launched a couple of years ago, but the founders, Adam Johns and Adam Davis, each have more than eight years of experience using games as a means to help children become more comfortable in social situations.

Based in Seattle, Game to Grow is a nonprofit organization that runs "tabletop RPG therapy gaming groups" weekly for kids from ages 8 to 20. They work with more than 50 kids a week, many of whom are on the Autism spectrum.

I had a chance to chat with the founders -- the Adams as they call themselves. Here's how Game to Grow works and why this version of Dungeons & Dragons might actually save the world -- at least for the children who participate.

Targeting the issues

If you're not familiar with Dungeons & Dragons, it traditionally involves exploring a world, battling monsters and working together to solve problems. The dungeon master or game master uses a prewritten adventure or one of their own designs, then describes where you, the player, are in the world and what's happening. You respond and tell the game master what you'd like to do as your character. The game master follows certain preset rules to determine if you're successful.

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Each player plays a role as a fantasy character -- a wizard, a rogue, a warrior or any other variation. The dungeon master fills out the world by playing the part of any other character the party of players might come across. Your goal in one game might be to slay a monster, but your goal in another could be to talk to various people at a party to try and solve a mystery, or convince a king to sue for peace with a neighboring government.

With Game to Grow, the mission and the game are specifically designed to tackle the challenges of the participants. As groups are formed, facilitators call parents to understand each child's particular goals and challenges. Each session lasts an hour and a half and involves reflection questions before and after the actual game, giving facilitators a chance to see what aspects of the story are most interesting to each participant.

Many of the children involved have autism, ADHD, anxiety or depression, but Adam Johns calls the company "agnostic to diagnosis." 

"Diagnoses can be informative," he explains. "They can give us information, but at the end of the day I still want to know, really, where the goals are. Somebody has a diagnosis of autism, that doesn't tell me anything about what their goals are or even what are their challenges."

While the company grew from Adam Davis' degree in drama therapy, he distinguishes the program from traditional therapy in a couple of key ways. Kids with social disorders are often taught how to blend in and mask who they are to fit in better. He calls it "social camouflage" and mentioned the "institutionalized shame that comes with who you are as an autistic person."

That's not the goal of Game to Grow.

"We see kids that are burned out on therapy, that don't want to come back to therapy, but they come to our group, week after week. It's the one thing they don't want to miss," Adam Johns says.

"Part of what we do is we say you are yourself and that is OK," Adam Davis says. "You can participate and we can celebrate your uniqueness and your unique skill set."

Spreading the fun

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Game to Grow was an official charity partner of the Gen Con board game convention.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Game to Grow has a waitlist. The company picks groups by hand while looking for the best fit for each child, so when there's an appropriate opening, a child can find a group within a week. The company itself is growing and now has employees to help facilitate groups, but you need to be in the Seattle area to participate and demand is growing.

That's where Critical Core comes in. Critical Core is a boxed version of D&D tailored to help those with social challenges. Game to Grow launched it earlier this year via a crowdfunding campaign in collaboration with occupational therapist Virginia Spielman.

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Critical Core

The Critical Core kit includes guides and adventures to get started. It's aimed at therapists, parents or any party interested in using roleplaying games as a therapeutic activity. Thanks in part to a shout out from Matt Mercer of a popular Dungeons & Dragons web series called Critical Role, the Critical Core campaign soared past the fundraising goal and is due to ship this winter.

For Game to Grow itself, expansion is on the table, but they're still figuring out the best way to go about it. "In the short term, our goal is expanding our group so that we can serve more people in the greater Seattle area," said Adam Johns. 

The Adams mentioned the possibility of an official certification program and even expanding their own operation to different cities in the future. For now, they're training therapists, teachers, librarians and community leaders through consultations and presentations at various conferences. 

"We know we're never gonna run groups across the world," said Adam Johns. "Instead, we'd rather train other people to get their own group started." 

Does it work?

"Even when kids report that they're doing fine [in everyday life], a lot of times that's because they've never had an opportunity to know what it is to have a friend and know what it is to feel connected," said Adam Johns. "When they come to our groups they build that connectedness, they build that opportunity for relationship with other kids." 

Game to Grow doesn't have official inbound or outbound evaluations to determine progress. All of their results are anecdotal -- parents will relate that their child dealt with their own aggression better or socialized more. Adam Davis notes the company's 94 percent retention rate as an indicator that the kids enjoy being there and want to come back.

The facilitators will check in with parents as necessary, but for the most part, once the kids are in a group, the focus is simply to give them the space and structure needed for them to express themselves in a friendly social setting.

"The most amazing thing about it, maybe beyond all the behavioral changes," Adam Johns beams, "is the appreciation for coming and doing something social that they've never had before."