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From Recess to Red Teams: Why Business Needs Role-Players

Gamers come to tabletop role-playing games (TRPGs) from a wide variety of backgrounds and in my case, it was through a Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) program. When my son was accepted into a similar GATE program it raised the question: Will Dungeons & Dragons be part of the curriculum? Should it be?

Gamers come to tabletop role-playing games (TRPGs) from a wide variety of backgrounds and in my case, it was through a Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) program. When my son was accepted into a similar GATE program it raised the question: Will Dungeons & Dragons be part of the curriculum? Should it be?

[h=3]Leave Us Kids Alone[/h]The first step to playing any role-playing game is exercising imagination, which requires flexing the creativity muscle that all children begin with. Adam Grant in the New York Times explored what it takes to raise a creative child:

One study compared the families of children who were rated among the most creative 5 percent in their school system with those who were not unusually creative. The parents of ordinary children had an average of six rules, like specific schedules for homework and bedtime. Parents of highly creative children had an average of fewer than one rule.

Dustin Timbrook explains how this works on Medium:

Let children pursue their own interests and they will find their way to all areas of study as part of the exploratory process. Let the child who is in love with fire trucks continue to obsess over fire trucks. With proper guidance he will soon find himself learning civics, engineering, history, physics, chemistry, sociology, economics, and everything in between — all of his questions fueled by a simple aesthetic attachment to the pretty red fire truck.

The path of exploration through self-education is a natural one for budding role-players, who may begin with a set of introductory rules -- or in some cases, an incomplete set of rules like just the Monster Manual -- and then begin digging into a fantasy universe. Fleshing out a fantasy setting can expand a gamer's horizons as they read about everything from history to literature to science. Gary Gygax, co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, explains in Master of the Game that building a library of reference material and fiction is part of mastering the game. By voraciously reading and gathering this information, it makes for a well-rounded gamer:

Quite frankly, there is virtually no work which won't be found to be of some value to the aspiring Grand Master GM, for as orchestrator of a whole world, the RPG milieu, you have to know everything. Good luck! You are consigned to a lifetime of reading and research—with criticisms from those who happen to find some flaw, real or imagined, in the fabric of your creation. That too can be useful. Find their sources, peruse them, and use whatever you like. Being a Renaissance Man (or Woman) is a tough job, but someone has to do it.

Grant posits that freedom to be creative is what allows children to discover their own path:

Yes, parents encouraged their children to pursue excellence and success — but they also encouraged them to find “joy in work.” Their children had freedom to sort out their own values and discover their own interests. And that set them up to flourish as creative adults.

Why then, do GATE programs encourage children to play role-playing games?
[h=3]The Gift of Role-Playing[/h]Joseph P. Laycock explains how gifted programs embraced D&D in Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic over Role-Playing Games Says about Play, Religion, and Imagined Worlds:

The Association for Gifted-Creative Children endorsed D&D, claiming that it encouraged children to read more challenging works, such as Shakespeare, Tolkien, and Isaac Asimov. Henrietta Wilson, a reading teacher, also praised D&D, commenting: "My students know how to read. But they don't know how to synthesize information, how to take what they have and reconstitute it. If D&D can help them get analysis and synthesis down pat when they're adolescents, what can they do when they're in their twenties or thirties?"

Timbrook argues that every child is gifted -- what's missing in their education is opportunity, time, access, and attention:

The change that will secure your children’s safe passage through the future comes when we strip creativity of its mysterious, unearthly status. Artists are not magical geniuses. We are simply people who were either privileged enough or stubborn enough to hold onto something that every living person is “gifted” at birth. Assume that your children have limitless creative potential and begin to nurture it. Assume that your children’s ingenuity is the one true safety net available in times of rapid change.

Gary Alan Fine made the connection between creative children and role-players:

Schafer (1969) found that creative adolescents are more likely to have had imaginary companions as children. These studies lend credence to the belief of gamers that their fantasy reveals their imagination and creative powers.

Tsui-shan Chung agreed in "Table-top role playing game and creativity":

It is found that TRPG players score higher in divergent thinking tests. Priming and instruction giving methods lower the performance of all participants, in particular, when the instruction is memory provoking. ERPG players score lowest among the three groups. TRPG could be regarded as a form of improvisation. It could also be a preferable activity for the promotion of creativity.

So how do these children perform as adults?
[h=3]Welcome to Adulthood[/h]There is evidence that creative children turn into creative adults, as Grant explains:

Evidence shows that creative contributions depend on the breadth, not just depth, of our knowledge and experience. In fashion, the most original collections come from directors who spend the most time working abroad. In science, winning a Nobel Prize is less about being a single-minded genius and more about being interested in many things. Relative to typical scientists, Nobel Prize winners are 22 times more likely to perform as actors, dancers or magicians; 12 times more likely to write poetry, plays or novels; seven times more likely to dabble in arts and crafts; and twice as likely to play an instrument or compose music.

Timbrook believes the expression of creativity is a skill that, once developed, makes for happier and more fulfilled adults:

It’s inherently human to want the objects in our lives to communicate feelings and ideas to us and about us. The constant searching for an assignment of meaning dwells in everyone, but the artist is the person who exercises this muscle regularly enough to control it. The person with creative literacy — a basic understanding of the mental, emotional, and sociological tools used for creative thought and communication — is able to find purpose and apply meaning to her world rather than having meaning handed down and purpose assigned to her. The painting student completes his senior thesis exhibit with a head full of many more lessons than just how to paint. He’s now equipped with an ability to see problems, connections, and solutions where others see only a blank surface. I assure you this ability is not limited to the canvas.

This skill is a key part of role-playing, as Fine attests:

Although a meaningful empirical test is difficult, gamers are probably somewhat more imaginative than their nongaming peers (Holmes 1981). Players share a belief that imagination is one of their collective attributes, although they recognize that players are imaginative to different degrees.

If creative children make for productive adults, how do they perform in the business world? Increasingly, companies are realizing they need independent, creative thinkers more than ever.
[h=3]In the Red[/h]Dungeons & Dragons' grounding in mythology, fantasy, and history leads its young adults to certain career choices, as described by John Gravois:

...I had spoken to some youngish scholars who said they found their way to medieval studies via an adolescence spent playing D&D, the iconic role-playing game. I spoke to scholars at elite universities and scholars at sleepy institutions; to associate professors, adjuncts, and graduate students; to men and women. All of them had cast spells, slain goblins, and rolled the many-sided dice of Dungeons & Dragons.

But what of the other professions? As gamification has spread to the business world, the need for gamers has spread with it. Micah Zenko, author of Red Team, explains how gamification has transitioned from a military skill during the Cold War to a business necessity in 2004. The purpose of these teams is to provide a different perspective. A red team...

...probes the plan for weaknesses, runs a range of simulations and brainstorms about why the plan might fail. It looks at the strategy from an adversary’s perspective and predicts how an enemy would respond. When a red team finally signs off on a plan, leaders can be confident that the plan is sound.

These teams have become an important part of managing risk in the business world:

The private sector is increasingly embracing red-team evaluation tactics, however executive resistance is a barrier more widespread use of this tool. Businesses that adapt such red-team techniques as simulations, “alternative analysis” and “vulnerability probes,” can challenge assumptions, spark creativity, mitigate “cognitive biases,” and minimize the homogenizing, conforming power of groupthink.

Companies run red teams through business games to test their strategies, including war games and simulations:

They might run simulations when launching a new product or trying to limit financial and brand damage amid a business disaster. New executives may commission games to establish a fresh emphasis for the organization or to distinguish themselves from previous leaders. Directors sometimes institute war games as a warning to underperforming executives.

Who makes the best red team member?

Staffing a red team with the right personality types ensures its success. Red-teamers often describe themselves as “oddballs” – they think differently and are dubious about authority. Worthy red-teamers are likely to be quick thinkers, self-starters and tenacious truth-seekers. Seek employees who are naturally curious, widely read and good writers. They should have broad experience in your field. Finally, they must be tactful. The team should avoid making the institution or its people look bad – its aim must be to help the organization improve its situation.

All these attributes are found in gamers, who develop independent thinking by flexing their creativity as children and later as adults in role-playing games. As Gygax said, most gamers are widely read and if not good writers, at least good readers. Although every gamer might not love the tactical aspects of role-playing games, they will certainly have enough experience with groups to understand the fundamentals of teamwork. Coupled with a penchant for playing games and simulations, tabletop gamers are a perfect fit for red teams in the business world.

Are GATE programs raising the red team members of tomorrow? Not all GATE programs teach role-playing games as frequently as they once did when Dungeons & Dragons was at its peak popularity, but role-play is still an integral part of teaching gifted children. Jeffrey Shoemaker explains on his blog:

It is important to use role play and simulations, and virtual tours in the classroom. If we expect out children to learn about history, math, science, or any other subject we need to place them in learning situations. Role play and stimulating simulations are a great way for students to feel as if they are part of the history, or story of the simulation, or have the opportunity to gain some self esteem through trial and error. Students need to be exposed to as much information as possible, and be able to talk about what they are learning and experiencing.

In an interconnected world where mistakes can cost companies millions of dollars, we need creative, independent, and tactical thinkers more than ever...in other words, gamers.

Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, and communicator. You can follow him at Patreon.

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


My older brother was introduced to the game in his gifted and talented program as well. And because of his exposure in that class, the game was brought into our house and I was introduced to it. Funny thing is I started a lunch time campaign at my job about 2 months ago.


First Post
Don't limit it to just TTRPGs. The complex rules sets from tactical board games like Star Fleet Battles can also prepare a gamer for life in the real world. As someone who has played D&D since before 'Advanced' was added to the name, I was known around the office where I worked as the 'out of the box' guy. Was also frequently asked to 'Give this document a quick look over'. It was a rare document that didn't generate several questions, comments or concerns. If you can understand SFB rules, 20 page documents are simple. Wound up writing many of the pre-purchase bid specs as well. And I was primarily an IT network admin.

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