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Want to Be Creative? Play Dungeons and Dragons

2012 June 28
by Eric Horowitz

Screenwriter John August (Go, Big Fish) often attributes his success as a storyteller to playing Dungeons and Dragons as a kid. When the game is played at a high (i.e. fun) level, players create detailed histories for their characters and come up with complex explanations for various outcomes. This ultimately builds the creativity, imagination, and storytelling ability that make for a good writer.

There is also some scientific evidence that supports August’s theory. A study forthcoming in Thinking Skills and Creativity found that people who play table-top role playing games (e.g. Dungeons and Dragons) engage in more divergent thinking (a common measure of creativity) than people who play electronic role playing games (e.g. Final Fantasy) or people who don’t play any role playing games.

What makes a game like Dungeons and Dragons so beneficial is that it gets at the cognitive core of what creativity is about — the act of connecting existing knowledge in a novel way in order to generate new knowledge. This new knowledge can be a pleasant way to place paint on a canvass, a plan to stop the leak in your sink, or a way to explain how a Dwarf’s Level 3 Fire spell is repelled by a Dark Ogre.

One of the many things that’s unfortunate about American schools is that students are rarely placed in environments that necessitate this kind of thinking. One reason for this is that art and music (and to a lesser extent, drama) tend to hold a special place in the school day under the guise of teaching creativity. There’s nothing wrong with art and music, but if we think they’re important skills then we should teach them on their own merit. And if we think it’s important to enhance student creativity, then we should allocate instructional time designed to accomplish that goal. Lumping creativity and music into one glob does a diservice to music (by forcing it on kids who aren’t interested) and creativity (by “teaching” it in a half-assed manner.) This shouldn’t be taken as a screed against art and music in schools. It’s a screed against art and music’s monopolization of school time dedicated to creativity.

I think there are two better ways to foster creativity in schools. The first is to present students with specific scenarios in order to generate original thinking. For example, “Your spaceship crash lands on a primitive alien planet. An alien approaches and spots your iPhone. What do you say the iPhone does, and why?” Suddenly you have kids theorizing about the alien, what it thinks, what it wants, what it believes, and what you’re capable of saying.

The second way to teach creativity is to literally do nothing. Strip everything away. Leave students with a box of crayons, or a guitar, or a video camera. Let them explore their own minds by doing whatever they want.

Right now we seem to be getting the worst of both worlds. Because art and music classes are designed to teach art and music, kids don’t have the freedom to truly make connections among whatever chunks of knowledge are floating around in their heads. On the other hand, art and music class also lack the structure to foster the more controlled type of creativity in the alien example. Obviously this isn’t the most pressing issue in our education system, but if we think that creativity is important we should actually try to foster it, not simply assume it’s being taken care of by classes that are designed to teach other things.
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Chung, T.S. (2012). Table-top Role Playing Game and Creativity. Thinking Skills and Creativity DOI: 10.1016/j.tsc.2012.06.002

5 Responses leave one →
  1. June 29, 2012

    So D&D provides a bonus of +1 INT.

  2. Cassandra permalink
    July 6, 2012

    I’ve never really put a lot of thought into “how” creativity is taught in schools. And I agree that creativity in student should be encouraged and creative thinking should be taught within the classroom but in the current structure of classrooms I think creativity is still learned. The learning may be latent but children learn to be creative. At home or during recess or through playing games, writing stories, or creating pictures.

    But kudos on the mention of D&D, perhaps instead of story time classrooms could play the game lol.

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