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Counseling center’s fantasy play connects students

By TCU This Week

Remember Dungeons and Dragons? The fantasy role-playing game so prevalent in the 1980s (yes, that’s what they’re playing in the blockbuster television series “Stranger Things”) is enjoying a resurgence.

Your mother may have thought it was a time-waster, but the TCU Counseling & Mental Health Center has reimagined what a role-playing game can do for students who are looking for non-traditional ways to connect with others. Dungeons and Dragons is being utilized in the TCU Counseling & Mental Health Center to foster healthy relationships, develop empathy and use problem-solving skills.

“Even during the pre-group meetings, students were commenting that they would have connected with the counseling center had it not been for this pilot,” said Eric Wood, director of the center.

The fall pilot program consists of two groups that are both at capacity. There were originally 12 slots open among the two groups, but they were filled within a week and a half.

“The counseling center has never seen a response like that before,” Wood said.

Watch Video: Master of Education in Counseling Student Joe LeConte Leads His D&D Group

It’s eliciting a similar response from faculty. The counseling team met with members of the English department and is in discussions about collaborating with the class on creative writing for gaming. Wood said the possibilities include presenting sessions on the pilot and discussing the social/psychological benefits of gaming at future conferences.

“There is a work team of professors at TCU who are very much supportive of this pilot, and we even made an announcement about it in academic classes,” Wood said.

One of the broad appeals is its success in connecting students.

“My group meets on Friday nights,” said Joe LeConte, one of the group leaders and a Master of Education in Counseling student. “I have two commuter students in my group and some transfer students. I’m happy that we’re giving students who have joined TCU later in their academic career and live off campus a chance to connect on campus in a way that they find meaningful and fun.”

So, how does it work? LeConte explains that, in a role-playing game like Dungeons and Dragons, working together to solve problems and create a story creates a bond.

“Having that kind of face-to-face social contact in an experiential context, even a fictional one, can give players a chance to learn about themselves and develop new skills,” he said. “Players of all ages and skill levels develop their social skills, creativity, problem-solving and leadership skills through collaborative storytelling. The game system of D&D simply provides some guidelines and thematic inspiration for that to occur.”

With what was known about such programs, the team hoped these student bonds would form, but they are still evaluating its future. The other group’s leader, Kyle Roderick, said he had originally envisioned the groups becoming self-sufficient and breaking off from staff to become student-led. But after gathering more feedback, he’s now hoping to employ a rotating group model if the pilot can continue.

“This is common in D&D circles – that a player will fall away and another will be grafted in. This allows for rich, large-scale storytelling to happen over years,” Roderick said. “In my group, we have three seniors who will graduate in May. Next fall, the three players who are forming bonds in my group right now could pick up where we left off and forge ahead, bringing in new students to help write the next chapter in the larger narrative of the game.”

This makes the possibilities seem even greater. The goal of all peer support communities, like this one, is to develop a network of like-minded individuals who can meet needs that therapy simply cannot meet, Wood said.

“Obviously, the counseling center believes that therapy is important,” he said, “but adding a program of peer support communities in addition to therapy services has expanded our ability to serve the student body.”