Teens putting down phones and picking up dice
Eli Mcamis is 14 years old. He and five other young teens sit around a table, each rolling dice and flipping through game manuals — thick binders, each with hundreds of pages of information.
“The character I’m playing this week? Its a Feeshan, they’re a race of sort of cat-like people. His name's Chevrolet Uno,” Mcamis says.
The kids here are all taking part in a mission, a long-form story where participants act out exactly what their characters are doing in real time. These missions takes place in the invented world of Abantey, where magic is real, cooperation is key, and player’s decisions can have lasting consequences.
Consequences Mcamis is familiar with. “Like if you go in and try and negotiate a solution, you talk it out with a person, you try and fight or whatever," he says. "If you talk it out with them and get a solution through a nonviolent approach you get a reward for that, but if you go in guns blazing and kill everyone in the room, that’s not as good. That’s kind of an awful thing to do really.”
This is the Roleplay Workshop — an afterschool program that’s been around since 1989. Tucked away on the second story of an Oakland comic book shop, teens are getting together to do everything from combating Tyrannosaurus Rexes to negotiating with various guild leaders.
“When we first started the kids were eager acquirers of knowledge. They would try to figure out how to make characters, to write things down, to just do it themselves,” says founder and director Becky Thomas.
You can find her here most days supervising the games. She says the kids are always excited to be here, but recently she’s noticed them having a harder time completing tasks on their own. It’s become necessary to explain even simple things like opening and reading the game manual.
“It is becoming less and less possible for kids to do that," she says. "They need more and more outside assistance, they don’t open the book unless you tell them to. They’ll stare blankly at a page and not extract information until you tell them what sentence to read.”
Thomas thinks that more screen time is part of the problem. She says that over the last 5-10 years, the kids in her program have increasingly had trouble solving problems in a group. So what started as a game created simply for fun has evolved into platform that’s helping kids build basic skills. Skills like picking up on various social cues.
“We take on all of those roles. In some sense it is very much that we act each and every person that those characters interact with,” says Thomas.
What she's invoking is in part what some psychologists refer to as ‘social learning theory,’ which boils down to the idea that we learn in social contexts by observing and interacting with others.
“So if I'm a good game master and I’m a good roleplayer, then when a player’s character interacts with a sad person, I’m doing all the facial expressions and intonations of a sad person,” says Thomas.
Jared Dale is 13, and has been playing Abantey for about a year. One of the harder parts of the game, Dale says, is actually the roleplaying itself.
Sitting here at the game table, it’s easy to see what he means. The players are each constantly going over their in-game actions so as to not overlook anything that might harm their chances of success. Today, Dale is taking the lead at the table.
“I've kind of learned a little bit of leadership," he says. "I'm trying to become a staff member of Abantey and this week being one of the most experienced players, I've kind of learned to direct the younger, less experienced players.”
Thomas says she sees more and more kids like Dale developing confidence: “To me that’s the power of an RPG, is you’re getting to do things you could never do in real life with a person who would commonly choose to be someone we don’t think we can be. Whether we're afraid we aren't it, or wish we were bigger, taller, stronger, faster, whatever. And you get to be a hero, you get to figure it out, you get to save the day.”
And if you look around the room, kids here are immersed in their books. They’re eagerly talking with each other and making jokes. But most importantly, they’re getting to be kids.
To find out more about the Roleplay Workshop, visit their website: roleplayworkshop.com