Slaying the Monster of Social Anxiety

On a crisp autumn Tuesday, four teenagers gathered in a West Seattle community center found themselves in trouble. An evil king was threatening to attack their village, and the only way to survive was to enlist the help of a two-headed monster.

But the monster’s two heads would not stop arguing with each other, and time was wasting. One head of the monster insisted on a swift attack while the other head called for strategy before action.

The teens were engaged in a match of Dungeons & Dragons—a tabletop role-playing game that requires players to create their own characters and participate together in a story. But they were doing more than exercising their imaginations. Guided by game master Adam Davis ’06, co-founder and executive director of Game to Grow, the teens were learning real social skills such as problem solving, collaboration, frustration-tolerance, and perspective-taking (a psychology term for taking someone else’s viewpoint into account). 

Adam created the nonprofit last spring with his business partner, Adam Johns. The two founders, along with three other game masters, meet with nearly 40 kids each week throughout the Seattle area. Their goal is to help kids with underdeveloped social skills by mimicking the unstructured play of childhood—a crucial step in social development. “What we need to do is meet them where they’re at and help them come along the way,” Adam explains. 

During the game in West Seattle, Adam introduced the two-headed monster specifically to address two socially isolated teens who argued excessively. “They had to figure out how to mediate the conflict between these two monster heads, which of course are mirroring the same conflicts that they always had,” Adam explained. “That’s really what makes this work different than just going to play Dungeons & Dragons at somebody’s house. We are really targeting those real-world skills with in-game scenarios.”

Adam has always wanted to help people. As a student at Puget Sound, he had been a political science major who dreamed of finding an internship in Washington, D.C., and then running for office so he could “make the world a better place through politics.” But he also loved theater and performed in Puget Sound’s student production of The Laramie Project in 2001.

The play is based on interviews conducted with Laramie, Wyo., residents following the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a college student who was murdered in that town for being gay. “The things that they say on stage are taken from actual interviews, so it’s super real, very literal, and very impactful,” Adam says. The performance led to important conversations both on and off campus, and Adam realized that he didn’t want to be a politician. He wanted to be an actor.

Three years later, after graduating, he began working as a teaching artist with Seattle Children’s Theatre, where his goal was not to make children great actors but “to allow them to get to know themselves better and to give them insight about how they related to the world.”

In 2014, he earned a master’s degree in drama therapy from Seattle’s Antioch University, where he first realized the social skill-building potential of Dungeons & Dragons. He met his business partner, Adam Johns, there. With a copy of the game and the drama therapy and psychology techniques they’d learned in graduate school, the two Adams created the for-profit company Wheelhouse Workshop in 2013. They conducted outreach to local schools, and spoke at countless conventions and conferences to build a following. Five years later, with dozens of children and teens attending sessions regularly and a successful crowdfunding campaign behind them, they founded the nonprofit Game to Grow in March of 2018.

“What we’re doing is providing an opportunity for kids who don’t have positive experiences being social to have a really positive experience,” Adam says. “It’s really a fantastic vortex of feedback loops that help kids feel the rewards of being more social. And they get to kill monsters.”


By Anneli Fogt
Photo by Sy Bean
Published Jan. 28, 2019