Last week we participated in Gaming for Change, “Hong Kong’s first ever symposium examining the intersection between social change and interactive mediums.” We were fortunate enough to be invited on the panel talking about how different gaming formats could be used as a catalyst for change in Hong Kong. That panel featured some amazing people and initiatives, each of whom advocated for different formats towards the goal of positive social change:
- Vince Siu, Press Start Hong Kong – moderator
- Clarence Tam, Unlikelihood – applied theater, live-action role-playing
- Sharon Yeung, Singing Cicadas – interactive documentaries
- Princeton Wong, Electioneer – strategy board games
And of course, we talked about the benefits of tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs) like Dungeons & Dragons.
It was during this panel that we were posed a very interesting question. “What are the strengths and weaknesses of your chosen format towards the goal of social change?” This was a very good question. Because while we do believe in the power of D&D and other TTRPGs as positive social forces, we are still quite conscious of its shortcomings. And if nothing else, analyzing our own format’s strengths and weaknesses can help provide us with a framework on how we can move forward. So let’s dive right in.
D&D’s key strength, is (and always will be) as a medium for storytelling. The ability for the Dungeon Master (DM) to weave an interesting narrative that captures the players’ imagination can be a very powerful thing. Since the DM has full control over the world that they have built, they can integrate various social issues into the story itself, making them the key issues that the players need interact with. And designing the encounters (social, combat, or otherwise) to encourage the players to think about an issue from various points of view, and encourage them to try and approach it from different angles.
It is through D&D’s act of communal storytelling that empathy is built within the player. The empathy of actually having to be another person other than yourself (your character). As well as the empathy to relate to the different non-player characters (NPCs) that they meet. D&D takes a social issue from being a discussion, to something that can be experienced in the imagination. It also allows the participants to have a direct impact on the issue within narrative world that DM and players have built together.
However, we are not oblivious to the shortcomings of D&D as a format. The biggest weakness D&D faces is that it is not something that can directly inspire action. Bringing an issue to someone’s attention is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for change to occur.
D&D’s format also puts a lot of emphasis on the DM. Since the DM is responsible for the planning, writing, and implementation of a game, they bear the biggest burden in terms of what makes a session good or not. This is especially true when you include the added challenge of seamlessly integrating a social issue story element. While they are not the sole person responsible for a good gaming session, the DM does possess a disproportionate amount of power over what makes a game good or not.
What’s more, the sheer availability of DMs act as a bottleneck as well. In order to be able to do so much for a game’s preparation, a DM needs to have a wide skillset in order to be able to effectively run a game. This can span from storytelling skills, public speaking, improvisation, game design, acting, etc. It can be very difficult to find people whom possess all of these requisite skills. And if there’s no DM, then there’s definitely no D&D game.
Despite these weaknesses though, we still wholeheartedly believe in the power of D&D (and other TTRPGs). While it can be challenging to work with D&D in the context of trying to address social change, there are still inherent benefits to playing the game. Creativity, empathy, team work, problem solving, these are all skills that are cultivated in the sheer act of playing the game, regardless of if a social issue plot has been put forward or not. This can then feed towards being the catalyst for positive change within our society. Moving forward, these are the things that we hope to accomplish in the short-term at the Glowing Fool:
Get more people involved. This continues to be our primary objective. We are committed to creating a world where everyone has played D&D. We work towards this objective through our D&D Introduction sessions, and talking about the benefits of playing D&D to various stakeholders in our society.
We are excited at the prospect of building up a community of people who enjoy D&D here in Hong Kong. Whether it be through participating in events like Gaming for Change, our own events, or even our own WhatsApp group.
Train more DMs. The lack of DMs is still a major bottleneck for the widespread adoption of D&D as a whole. And it is a major limiter on how fast we can expand as a community. So training up more DMs is certainly on the top of our priority list when it comes to promoting D&D. We’ve started to take the steps in that direction by starting our DM Training Sessions this month. The hope is that we will slowly be bringing in new cohorts of DMs who would be running their own home games for their friends. And hopefully also help us with our goal of making an impact with D&D.
Reach out to communities. We believe that communities would benefit a lot from playing D&D. Either as a creative outlet, a form of personal development, or as just something to do in the afternoon with friends. We have started reaching out to social initiative programs in Hong Kong to see if they would be interested in introducing D&D into their programs. These could include communities that provide aid to asylum seekers in Hong Kong, or domestic workers, or even to after-school programs.
We are very optimistic with the reception of gaming as a force of positive change. And if the turnout at the first Gaming for Change event was any indication, there is a growing acceptance of different formats being viable paths to the goal of making our society better, as well as a growing number of different projects and initiatives that are looking to bring innovative new ideas to the forefront. We realize that we are just a small part in a grander trend of gaming and social change, but we are eager to do our part to make our society better for everyone.
Earl is what you would call a Dungeons & Dragons addict. He watches D&D shows, prowls the D&D forums, and basically lives, breathes, and eats D&D (It’s no joke, he literally listens to the D&D Podcast while eating). He likes to be thought of as the “lead fool” as he guides us all through the silliness of D&D.
For his day-job. Earl is an ERP Consultant with the Nomura Research Institute (NRI). He is also a Shaper with the Global Shapers: Hong Kong Hub.