For Game to Grow, 2020 was going to be a year of opportunity. The founders of the nonprofit had gathered heaps of anecdotal evidence that tabletop games such as Dungeons & Dragons could help kids who struggled socially — whether they had autism, ADHD, anxiety or other challenges — learn to more successfully interact with others.
And thanks to a partnership with Seattle’s Foundry10, an innovative organization that researches learning and supports educational programs, Game to Grow was getting the chance to collect some data to bolster their case.
The two groups had planned to run an after-school program this fall at a couple of Seattle schools with larger numbers of lower-income students, studying how the kids responded to the game.
Then COVID-19 hit.
Faced with a global pandemic, Game to Grow took the initiative, turning a five-year plan to eventually go digital into a “now plan,” rapidly shifting its operations online, including the pending study.
Adam Davis, co-founder and executive director of the Kirkland, Wash.-based nonprofit, had feared the worst, that the kids would not respond or engage as well in the virtual realm. It seems, instead, that they shook their die and rolled a virtual 20.
“It has been seemingly fantastic to meet our participants’ needs in this way,” Davis said. “It allows us to serve a wider population in terms of their needs and locations.”
Game to Grow assembles small, long-term cohorts of players age 8 to early 20s to engage in games, namely D&D but also Minecraft and the fantasy game Magic. In a game like D&D, players create characters that are elves, dwarves, gnomes, druids, wizards and rogues with unique skills and weapons. Players go on adventures where as a team they solve puzzles and battle monsters, rolling different-sided dice to determine their fates. They game is facilitated by a master who guides and narrates.
The group previously held only in-person sessions in the greater Seattle area, which limited them to afternoons and evenings. In the new, remote reality, they’re drawing players from around the globe, essentially eliminating any time constraints. That has created a larger pool of participants and a greater range of options for creating well-matched cohorts.
About 100 youth are currently participating with nine facilitators.
And while many adults are still adjusting to the awkward give and take of communicating via video conferences, the Game to Grow participants are adapting well to the format, plus it’s a chance to help them learn new skills for connecting digitally.
“We’re doing the next step of meeting them where they’re at,” Davis said. “That’s where the kids are living now and that’s where the world is going. It is a valuable social skill to be able to communicate electronically.”
Now an effort is underway to assemble 16 students in middle or early high school to participate in the project with Foundry10. As schools are struggling to figure out online education for the fall, it’s somewhat difficult to drum up teacher interest for the study. But once they connect with families, the program could be an attractive option for kids to connect socially in a time of isolation.
Foundry10 is covering the costs of student participation in the 10-week project, which normally runs $60 per 90-minute session, with sliding scale rates available.
To measure the impact of Game to Grow, the researchers will do before-and-after surveys with families, inquiring about the students’ curiosity, empathy, confidence and other behaviors. Instructors will take notes on the sessions. And by conducting the games online, researchers will be able to study the Zoom conferences and analyze interactions.
“There are some really cool things about remote learning that we’re eager to tap into,” said Jen Rubin, a Foundry10 researcher who is co-lead of the project for her organization. Foundry10’s other co-lead is researcher Mike Scanlon.
Both groups are excited to collect data to help tell the story of the program’s impact in a language understood in academia and education with the hope that it can spread more widely, as well as provide feedback to Game to Grow on what’s working best.
Davis has observed kids thriving in the program for years: He co-founded Game to Grow in 2017 with Adam Johns, with whom he previously ran a similar organization called Wheelhouse Workshop starting in 2013. Other staff working on the research project are Elizabeth Kilmer and Michael More.
Many of the kids participating in Game to Grow programming have been in therapy for years where the message can be that they need to conform and change their behavior to fit in. With the games, they can be accepted for who they are and have positive experiences interacting with other people.
“[It’s] letting people know their contribution matters and that their presence matters,” Davis said.