Tuesday, February 18, 2014

D&D vs. Bullying

As some of us are all too painfully aware, bullying is a big problem in our society today. As I write this in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the ripples from the Rehtaeh Parsons case (See here) still conjures strong feelings in the community. As well there was a recent case of an eleven year old boy attempting suicide after he was ridiculed at school for being a fan of My Little Pony (See here). I’m sure that no matter who you are or where you live, you have seen, heard, or even experienced bullying on some level.

I know that some people will point out that bullying existed in the past, perhaps even worse than today, but young children, teens, and even adults didn't try to kill themselves over it. But what those folks don’t understand is the depth and relentless nature of the bullying that is made possible by today’s technology. As little as twenty years ago we did not have Facebook, Youtube, Google, Instagram, blogs, or even text messaging (unless you want to count pagers!). Back then, the internet was a strange and awkward place still trying to find its sea-legs within society. If you were bullied at school or work, even if it was so bad as to last for weeks, you could still go home at the end of the day and on weekends and have a break from your torment. These days, there is nowhere to hide.

24-7 the majority of the masses are immersed in social media. When someone is bullied today, it spreads like a fire and the fuels are texts, posts, messages, pictures, and videos created and uploaded in mere seconds. In less than an hour, an entire school or work place can be in on the “joke”. In less than a day, the whole world can be involved. And going home, or on vacation, or calling in sick, or even transferring to another school/workplace, can make little difference. It’s out there and it will follow you. In some cases, it may not be the bullying itself that is the most damaging. It might be the shame, embarrassment, and constant fear of who might be reading/watching after the fact that drives some to extreme actions. I believe this to be one of the major social problems for our time and I know that solving it, or at least curbing it, is very much on the minds of our governments and educators.

So, as I’m sure you are aware, this blog is about D&D. You might be asking: what does bullying have in common with dragons, swords, magic, and fantasy worlds? Well, in my personal experience, D&D is a haven for those who seek refuge from the real world. It is full of boys and girls, men and women who have, for as many reasons as you can imagine and more, found something comforting within its pages and dice. At the same time, it is a truly interactive social game that can forge bonds and create lifelong friendships. Sort of sounds like the opposite of bullying, doesn’t it? Although disagreements can arise and people can have differences of opinion, it is fundamentally a team building game. And, even better, it is a game where people who have often experienced negative social interactions in the past can now experience positive ones in a mostly accepting and open-minded theatre.

I see D&D as almost the opposite of bullying. Bullying is primarily about putting others down and making fun of them in an effort make yourself or others look/feel good. In Dungeons and Dragons, we strive to lift others up and have fun with them in order to make ourselves and the group look good. And, one of the first thoughts that snapped into my head after making that statement was: Why can’t we act that way in real life? I know that there is no simple answer but I suppose it has something to do with our combative human nature. For hundreds of years we have ingrained into our thinking the idea that we must be better, smarter, quicker, stronger, and more innovative than others to be considered “great”.
Part of the reason why I love D&D, and roleplaying in general, is the underlying foundation that everyone needs everyone else to succeed. In a game like that, the thinking has to change from “I need to be the best to survive” into something like “I need to do what I can to help my group succeed”. Imagine if we had that kind of mentality in general society! What a shift it would be to see towns and cities filled with people striving towards a common goal with common purpose. I know that that sounds slightly Communist but the Buddhists call it Sangha or the harmonious community. Even if we were to make this subtle shift in our daily thinking, I believe that it would make a difference. The future is coming where the “greatest” people in our society won’t be those who are the smartest, or the strongest; it will be those who can collaborate, negotiate, and interact with the group in the best way possible. And that is exactly the same qualities that make a good D&D player.

Essentially, I believe that bullying is a by-product of ignorance. People bully others because they don’t understand them. It could be about racism, or sexism, or classism, or even about the high that comes from asserting their dominance. The reason why matters little, what does matter is the how. How do we prevent it?  

I may not be na├»ve enough to imagine that Dungeons and Dragons and other games like it can cure the bullying issue. However, I do believe that teaching the principals that make it a great game would benefit our younger generation, and people of all walks of life for that matter. Where do our children go to learn teamwork? Where do adults go to learn about collaboration and compromise? Where do our teens go to learn compassion and empathy? Where do we all go to learn imagination? These are the lessons that eliminate ignorance and they are rapidly being ignored. The institutions that used to lead the way in these areas, (schools, workplaces, religious groups, and communities) are able to provide these services less and less for a variety of reasons and the results are beginning to show.  

Can D&D save all of that? Sadly, I doubt it. But I do feel that it is a good place to start.  

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