RPGs, imaginative play, and libraries

More good news for fans of fantasy role-playing games (or RPGs) like Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder!

An article by Merrill Miller posted last week on The Humanist presents the findings of a recent study published in The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion that explores the link between imagination and irreligiosity.

There is a growing body of literature exploring the links between imaginative play and cognitive and creative development (I’ve included a sample below), on everything from teaching chemical formulas to middle schoolers to helping students learn diplomacy.

Organizations like The RPG Research Project are spearheading research on the positive effects of collaborative gaming on ethics, problem solving, empathy, racial and gender stereotype attitudes, and verbal and writing skills. There are also therapeutic applications, from treating PTSD, depression, bi-polar, and autism-spectrum disorders.

To my knowledge though, this is one of the first studies to examine the impact of role-playing and storytelling on current religious status. Miller reports in the article that “individuals who did not change their religious or nonreligious identification were less likely to have engaged in pretend play. Converts and switchers, however, were more likely to have played pretend, and apostates were the most likely to have often engaged in pretend play.”

As a librarian, I’m interested in the educational and creative applications of RPGs, especially for children and teens. However, as a secular American, I can’t help thinking of the words of Thomas Jefferson to his nephew Peter Carr in 1787: “Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.”

I had a fantastic conversation at ALA in San Francisco with two guys at the Paizo Publishers booth. They were thrilled to hear that I’m a newcomer to role-playing and to Pathfinder, and that I’d just started building my first character—a half-elf bard named Casevar (for your who-cares notebooks). I also learned that Pathfinder has a growing presence in the teen sections of many libraries, and that some librarians even keep a copy of the core rulebook as a reference material for in-library groups to use.

This gets to the core of our mission as librarians: that providing access to tools and information will help inspire, invest in, and produce better informed, curious, and compassionate individuals who are engaged and critical thinkers. RGPs such as Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder can reinforce this work through conversations about ethics and morality, experiencing consequences of one’s own and others’ actions, and the priorities of different qualities (such as intelligence versus strength or charisma) in a character in the context of group dynamics. It’s a remarkably complex and philosophical exercise!

I’m also curious if there are similar benefits to virtual cooperative gaming, but from my personal experience with Pathfinder campaigning, being at the same table, in person, is quite different from interacting online.


Further reading:

Chen, M., Wong, Y., & Wang, L. (2014). Effects of type of exploratory strategy and prior knowledge on middle school students’ learning of chemical formulas from a 3D role-playing game. Educational Technology Research & Development, 62(2), 163-185. doi:10.1007/s11423-013-9324-3

Newman, M. (2001). The Academic Achievement Game: Designs of Undergraduates’ Efforts to Get Grades. Written Communication, 18(4), 470.

Schmitz, B., Schuffelen, P., Kreijns, K., Klemke, R., & Specht, M. (2015). Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes: The impact of a location-based, collaborative role-playing game on behaviour. Computers & Education, 85, 160-169. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2015.02.012

Schneider, E., & Hutchison, B. (2015). Referencing the imaginary: An analysis of library collection of role-playing game materials. Reference Librarian, 56(3), 174-188. doi:10.1080/02763877.2014.1002716

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Why Secular?

It seems appropriate that I’m writing my inaugural post here in San Francisco at the 2015 American Library Association conference! I had every intent of starting sooner, but from classes to travel to the general running-aroundness of life… well, that just didn’t happen.

So, to the big question—why secular librarian?

To answer this, I’d start by relating an anecdote from this past January at MLIS orientation at St. Catherine University. We were playing a get-to-know-you game of collecting interesting facts and details about each other, and one of the questions was if you had a website. I shared with one of my cohorts that I was starting this blog, The Secular Librarian, and she asked what “secular” meant.

“It means that I’m not religious,” I said, in the same voice that I use to describe my vegetarianism.

She krinkled her nose for a second and cocked her head slightly, and said, “Oh.” I wasn’t sure what kind of an “Oh” this was, because I hear many variations—an “Oh (that’s interesting)” or an “(Oh (so you worship Satan)”.

In any case, when it came time to relay some of the interesting tidbits we’d learned, she mentioned the name of my website. I instinctively tense up whenever being outed about my non-belief (either by myself or others) in a group setting, but it passed with no comment and we moved on.

But another student sitting next to me leaned over and whispered, “Wow, I thought I was the only one!”

It was that comment that helped cement my resolve to start this site. Because even though we live in a supposedly pluralistic society, it’s still a risky move to come out as atheist/agnostic in the United States, where studies and polls have found that atheists and rapists occupy about the same level of trustworthiness to a majority of the American people.

But secularism is not a synonym for atheism, although both terms are perceived that way, and many secularists are atheist. It’s unfortunate because secularism is one of the most democratic forms of society there is. In short, secularism is committed to the separation of church and state; to the setting aside of public spaces as either religion-free zones or zones where all beliefs are given equal treatment and access; and to the dismantling of religious privilege in society, institutions, and government.

You know… in a nutshell.

And in terms of librarianship, this is right in line with the LBR—number two in particular:

Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.

So just as some librarians bring their own unique cultural or minority perspectives to their practice of librarianship (e.g., LGBTQ, Chicano, Asian-American, etc), secular librarians can also add value and benefit to their libraries and their collections.

This is the theme I plan to continue exploring over the next few months, and throughout the life of this blog.