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Role-playing games pull reluctant school kids into a supportive crowd

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"Killing dragons is a challenge," says Ray Esta­brook, The Game Loft's codirector and cofounder. His center connects dragon-slaying to the challenges life throws at you. Via gaming, kids test out "roles," but in a safe, nonschool environment, in order to become functioning adults in society – connected, compassionate, and caring. "Good things happen to kids who game," he says.

After opening a game shop, All About Games, in the heart of Belfast in 1996, the husband-and-wife team of Ray and Patricia Estabrook, lifelong gamers, realized their store had become an ad hoc gathering place for youths who wanted to learn and play games. In 1998, they founded their community center in the shop's attic. Twelve years later, the innovative hangout – and the only gaming-focused youth center in the country – is going strong, changing the lives of individuals like Delaney.

"I was [at The Game Loft] to socialize with kids who had mutual interest not only in games but conversation," Delaney says. "It was a place to channel a lot of curiosity." Moreover, he was able to interact with kids of all ages, as well as adults, who treated him as an equal. "The level of respect we got at The Game Loft was different than [at] school."

The Game Loft addresses another concern: the proliferation of video games. In an age when parents worry about the potentially isolating and addictive effects of computer and console-based games such as World of Warcraft and Halo, The Game Loft offers an antidote. No electronic games are allowed within its doors. Rather, kids play games like D&D and Star Wars Miniatures face to face, with pencils and paper and plastic figurines, not with pixels and high-bandwidth Internet connections. A role-playing game is participatory, not passive. The kids don't absorb prefab plots from movies, books, or video games, but tell their own stories of their characters' exploits. Players around a gaming table interact, completing quests and, yes, killing monsters who stand between them and their booty. In their imaginations, they are linked to humankind's narrativemaking past of heroic ballads and campfire tales of derring-do.

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