Illustration by Lyra Seaborn ’22.

Lyra Seaborn ’22 (she/her)

Last November, I attended a talk hosted by the psychology department about drama therapy. Child psychologist Katie Lear and her friend and coworker, Zachery Byrd, spoke about the Dungeons and Dragons campaign they were facilitating with adolescent girls dealing with mental health difficulties. They explained how the participants were able to develop social skills, confidence, creativity, and self-advocacy through play.

As a child, my friends and I would spend hours pretending to be horses, cats, mermaids, celebrities, and any other creature that struck our fancy in the moment. Perhaps a symptom of being an only child, I also constantly created worlds, characters, and stories in my head. This process went (and continues to go) beyond mere daydreaming: I can divide the phases of my life into the various “Dreamworlds” I had at the time. In fifth grade, I began co-crafting a new, intricate fantasy world with my best friend. We passed nearly every recess engaged in collaborative oral storytelling. Though we didn’t roll dice or obey any formal rules, we did have “our” characters, which we guided and inhabited through our shared universe (which, in typical fifth-grader fashion, we named Awesomeville). We did all of this without a hint of inhibition or shame.

And then I entered seventh grade. The carefree roleplaying I’d loved my whole life suddenly seemed like “kids’ stuff.” My new goal – which I pursued and clung to like Gollum to the One Ring – was to become “popular,” and cool kids didn’t LARP. I still aspired to make art and one day write a novel, and I still spent a large portion of my waking hours cultivating and living in my ever-evolving Dreamworlds; still, on the outside, I wanted nothing more than to not be seen as a nerd.

High school brought a dissolution to the rigid hierarchy of middle school, but I’d already lost the ability to explore my passions and identity without fear of judgement. Ninth grade also ushered in my first major depressive episode, an eating disorder, and other mental health struggles that would continue to occupy the bulk of my attention until graduation.

Despite my relatively newfound and intense self-consciousness, it was during this period that I became even more obsessed with my Dreamworlds. I ached to return to the joys of my childhood play, and I started viewing the label “nerd” with a sense of pride and aspiration. A couple of my friends and I joined the school’s (all-male) D&D club, but our Dungeon Master abandoned us after just one meeting. Though I still wanted to learn how to play, I was more worried about academics and didn’t think much about it until the psychology lecture.

I was particularly struck by a quote from one of the speakers: “Depression isn’t just caused by bad things; it can also be caused by a lack of good things.” The COVID-19 pandemic had taken away a lot of good things, and I figured a structured creative outlet could combat some of the loneliness and frustration I was feeling. Inspired anew, I finally joined a campaign led by one of my friends over winter break. 

Fantasy often gets a bad rap, and for good reason. The genre and roleplaying spaces are often cisheteronormative and misogynist, and a lot of fantasy “races” are built upon white supremacy and antisemitism (think of the greedy hook-nosed goblins from Harry Potter, or the suspiciously Aryan elves from Lord of the Rings). But what can be so freeing about D&D is its customizability. For instance, our campaign has queer and gender non-conforming characters and cities operating on non-capitalist systems. Our sessions are less about sticking to a set of rules and more about having fun and developing our character arcs.

I have always used my Dreamworlds as a tool to gain insight into the world and myself. While quarantining with my parents at the beginning of the pandemic, I was able to realize and investigate my own queerness through the characters in my head. They also serve as a mechanism to vicariously navigate politics, mental illness, friendship, and anything else I’m curious or angsty about. D&D provides me with another, more tangible way to channel my creativity and interests. Though I may be physically stuck in my dorm room, I can still travel to foreign places, battle monsters, learn extraordinary new skills, and escape the pressures and anxieties of this realm.

Playing doesn’t come anywhere near as easily to me now as it did when I was a kid, but I’m working to overcome my embarrassment and suppress the instinct to cringe. D&D has done wonders for my mental health this semester. I believe that everyone has an inner nerd that is waiting to be nurtured (if it isn’t being already), and it’s past time we stop shaming each other for tapping into the things that make us geek out.