I grew up as a very socially awkward boy in a conservative religious family and a game of Dungeons & Dragons when I was 11 years old changed my life forever. That game at a friend’s house one day after school set in motion new ways of seeing and interacting with the world that changed my life and made me a much better person than I would have ever been without it.
I was 11 years old in the fall of 1987 and by then I had already been dealing with social anxiety and depression for six years. Mental illness ran in my family, but so did a strong political and social conservatism and the religiosity that went along with my parents’ Mormon faith. I had never felt entirely “at home” in Mormonism; it was a decidedly social religious community and I had a hard time relating to other people, especially boys my own age. I was also a nerdy little boy, and poor. I didn’t have the toys other kids had, I couldn’t afford the trips and experiences other Mormon boys I grew up with were able to take, and I liked reading. I loved stories. The one part of Mormonism that did work for me was the stories. One Halloween I dressed up as an adventurous sword-wielding character from the Book of Mormon. I liked stories of magic and miracles and adventures and exploration. Sword fighting, sailing ships, and epic battles were just icing on the cake. I sought things like that out and because I was reading well above my grade level from a very early age I read widely and deeply in the canon of Anglo-American fantasy literature.
One day a friend from school named Aaron asked me if I’d ever played Dungeons & Dragons. I hadn’t, and I told him so. What I didn’t tell him is that I wasn’t supposed to play it. During the 1980s god-fearing parents across the nation was gripped by a “satanic panic” where urban legends about satanic cults thriving in secret all across America were being given credence in the media and even by law enforcement officials. We’d heard of Dungeons & Dragons as an evil game of demon-summoning, devil worship, and wickedness. I was intrigued. He told me it was a storytelling game where we could make up our own adventure tales like the ones I loved to read. Instead of just reading about dragon-slaying heroes, I could be one!
I headed over to Aaron’s house after school and he pulled out a stack of three books with monsters and heroes and even a statue of a demonic-looking entity on the covers. He showed me the strange many-sided dice we would be using and walked me through creating my first character and a short adventure. It’s been 26 years but I still vividly remember the excitement as I, in my imagination as Lord Percival the Tall, led a group of followers through a dark, wild forest. I encountered a family of travelers who had been attacked by a ravenous beast who had killed their servants and then disappeared into the dark woods with a child. Through some clever, for a precocious 11 year old, detective work I tracked the beast to the castle of the local baron. When Percival and his men entered the castle as guests I recognized traditional signs of lycanthropy from folklore and realized that this baron was a werewolf! My men and I made short work of the bestial villain and returned the child to the grateful family.
This was thrilling for me. I couldn’t wait to play again, though I knew I would have to do it in secret – my parents would never understand or allow it. I had not only found a way where the weird and obscure “facts” I had accumulated in my reading were actually useful, but I had been able to fully connect with one of my peers without any reservations or feelings of awkwardness. I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons ever since that day, with Aaron and his friends, and then with new friends I made on my own. It has sometimes been my main form of social recreation and at other times it has been a casual thing my friends and I have picked up from time to time.
That day didn’t just introduce me to a hobby that I would love for decades, though. It planted a seed of doubt about things I had been taught growing up. That seed of doubt would lead to me leaving the Mormon church a few years later when I realized there were so many inconsistencies and illogical answers to the questions I had. I knew that what my church and parents taught me about Dungeons & Dragons was wrong, what else was wrong about my beliefs? It also didn’t hurt that Aaron was of Japanese American ancestry, and through him and Dungeons & Dragons I met Darryl, my first Black friend, and Jose who was my first Latino friend. The conservatism of my background had previously given me a shockingly white circle of friends and acquaintances.
The ability to question received wisdom that Dungeons & Dragons gave me eventually led to my realization that I was an atheist. Not only that, but that I had decidedly liberal politics. It led to my feminism, which is an important part of the social justice activism I do today. It allowed me to meet and befriend people I never would have otherwise. I learned that the things we are taught as children aren’t always true. It gave me the knowledge that while some of us might be weirdoes and misfits, but there are other weirdoes and misfits we can connect with and learn from.
Because of Dungeons & Dragons I was able to grow from a poor, anxious and lonely little boy who believed some very strange and honestly quite appalling things about the world into a much more confident man who cares deeply about his fellow human beings regardless of their religion, race, gender identity, sexuality, or ability.
Dungeons & Dragons taught me that I can be who I want to be and that we can change the world and have adventures, in our imaginations and in the real world.