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How Dungeons & Dragons inspires new academic techniques — and almost redefined copyright law

For decades, Dungeons & Dragons has been the  trailblazer of role-playing games, or RPGs.

D&D was in the news recently when its publisher and owner moved to tighten its copyright.  Backlash from fans and content creators was swift, and the proposal was walked back. So, what happened? And what is the appeal of unscripted roleplaying?

Think of RPGs as a group exercise in creative writing. Players find themselves in worlds where, with loose guidance, they are able to make their own choices to navigate and create story within the game. Popular shows like "The Big Bang Theory" and "Stranger Things" have brought one RPG in particular into the mainstream. 

Dungeons & Dragons has been around since the 1970s. All it takes to play is a handbook, dice and imagination. D&D has inspired countless fans to create their own fantastical characters and RPGs. Some content creators have made a living playing the game online.

But last month, D&D’s publisher and owner, Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro, stirred up its world-wide fanbase by  attempting to change its Open Gaming License. 

Noah Downs is an attorney who specializes in Intellectual Property. He also  co-authored the petition calling for D&D to keep its original license, which lets people create and profit from derivative work based on D&D’s handbooks. The new proposed license could have given D&D partial ownership of all future content from third party creators. 

“They said that this would only affect 20 or so creators when in reality it would affect tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of creators," Downs said.

Downs says if Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro hadn’t  backed off, they likely would have faced litigation, and also a possible obligation to redefine copyright law. 

“Game mechanics are not copyrightable. So the gray area becomes when game mechanics are so tied to a particular system that it's hard to distinguish what is the lore and setting and building blocks of that system from the mechanics themselves," Downs said.

But why does this all matter? Well RPGs are not only a tool for fantastical escape. Role playing is a growing technique in the worlds of business and academia. 

At Arizona State University, students of at least one professor play an RPG  for credit. Sarah Amira de la Garza teaches at the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication. Her D&D inspired game takes students to the world of DiGlossia, where they interact with the RPG’s most nefarious obstacles: cognitive dissonance and prejudice.

De la Garza says intercultural communication concepts are usually taught one by one, but in the real world, everything is happening at once. 

"We put a lot of responsibility on the individual students to somehow sort of figure out how all this goes together when they're in actual real life situations. And I would say it would be the remarkable student that's capable of doing that at a very deep level," de la Garza said.

In her game, each student plays a character that has appeared on the island of DiGlossia from their own lands and have to deal with each other despite polarizing differences. Diglossia itself is a linguistic term meaning “the coexistence of two varieties of the same language.” And to de la Garza, culture is a language.

“We oftentimes don't realize that everything that we do is encoded, and that those who understand the culture can read behavior, which is a language. And if you can't understand the culture, then you misunderstand, and you misspeak through your own behavior," de la Garza said.

She says absorbing the theories of intercultural communication could lessen everyday discomfort, and also address more systemic issues.

“In general, when people experience culture shock, their initial response is extremely negative about the people, and ways that they're encountering, and kind of wanting to go back to their own ways, thinking about the superiority of their own ways, insisting on doing things their own way," de la Garza said.

She says roleplay helps to get people in a different frame of mind.

Conner Leshner is a former student of de la Garza and a current Ph.D. candidate in social psychology, personality, and health. He studies how and why we represent ourselves as we do in digital spaces. And to him, roleplay means being ourselves but in a new environment. And he puts forth the idea that in the digital world, from social media to virtual reality, when we create an avatar, we are roleplaying. 

“The way to define this …especially in like the more digital terms of VR, is this idea called body transfer. Body transfer is this … idea of we have our actual selves, and then when we go into the VR setting, we are now transferring our body, we are transferring our consciousness to a different body. And as a result of that, even if we make an avatar that is exactly the same as us, we aren't us," Leshner said.

De la Garza is organizing a panel on how roleplaying, gaming, and VR are being used to teach communication theories. If accepted, it will be part of this year’s National Communication Association convention.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been modified to replace a photo from De la Garza in which the doll had been digitally removed.

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Jill Ryan joined KJZZ in 2020 as a morning reporter, and she is currently a field correspondent and Morning Edition producer.