Last summer, a group of 9-year-olds gathered for a weeklong, self-led expedition into the unknown. They would be on their own, relying only on themselves to make decisions and solve whatever problems might crop up. It would be dangerous. Their mission: to negotiate a peace treaty between the dwarves and goblins.
This is Adventure Quest, a day camp hosted each summer by Renaissance Adventures. Kids play the roles of heroes, taking up foam swords and embarking on fantastic weeklong quests in local parks and trails.
They really are on their own, in a sense — while quest leaders supervise each group, the kids are allowed total freedom in their in-game choices.
This freedom lies at the heart of Adventure Quest’s success. It imbues the fantasy world with a feeling not only of fun, but of reality. Kids take part in this world, free to make decisions, work together, solve problems, make mistakes — and their actions have consequences. As an educational tool, the effects are profound.
“It’s like sitting down with your child and co-creating a story together, except that we’re outside in the sun and nature, hiking around, swasher-sword dueling, role-playing and embodying it,” says founder and director Mark Hoge. “We’re learning in our bodies how to be brave and how to stand up for what we believe in and how to speak the truth.”
The first order of business for new questers is creating a character. Options range from hair color to personality to abilities to species (elves, centaurs, tree-people — pretty much everything’s fair game).
The element of choice opens up what might otherwise be a niche game to a wide range of kids. Kids who like sports will enjoy sword dueling, while others might prefer to reason their way through the game’s challenges, and more extroverted kids will take interest in the game’s social and theatrical aspects. While the summer programs are open to kids aged 6 to 17 (depending on the particular program), questers are grouped by age and the depth and complexity of their activities varies accordingly.
“We have all kinds of kids there, and those kids can take any kind of a role,” Hoge says. “If the kid likes make-believe, and most kids do, they’re going to probably love the camp.”
Adventure Quest is a live action role-playing game (LARP), a type of game inspired by table-top fantasy games like Dungeons & Dragons, but differing in the fact that it’s acted out live and outside. Questers and quest leaders co-create their world — the leader acts as a link between the kids and the world (describing what they “see,” and acting out whatever they encounter). The story that results is an unpredictable collaboration, much like the make-believe games we all played as children, but structured and driven by professional-level storytelling.
Renaissance Adventures offers a variety of programs apart from the standard, summer Adventure Quest. Alternate quest programs include Star Quest (Adventure Quest’s sci-fi incarnation), Quest and Quill (where time is divided between questing and creative writing) and Heroes Academy (a more in-depth and open-ended Adventure Quest for teenagers). The weekend-long overnight and the Sword Skirmish Club are immensely popular, not to mention their birthday parties. Teens who may feel too old to participate in questing are encouraged to attend quest-leading workshops and to apply to be knighted as Counselors-in-Training (CITs).
“In the teenage years, people’s interest in imaginary things dwindles, and they’re really looking for ways to get involved in something that feels more real,” says Harper Stone, who was the program’s first CIT and has since become Renaissance Adventure’s Washington branch manager. “As CITs, teens can stay engaged in the questing world while helping other kids and learning the skills that it takes to be a quest leader at the same time.”
Since his own formative years, Hoge has felt a deep connection to roleplaying games.
“Dungeons & Dragons became my lifesaver as a teenager,” Hoge says. “It gave me a great opportunity for social skills and camaraderie with friends. Creating quests and going on quests was an incredible creative outlet.”
When introduced to LARPing in his mid-20s, he knew he’d found something special. At the time, he was directing a creative arts summer camp in Connecticut, and decided to give it a try with the kids. He organized a surprise, three-day, Native-American-themed LARP for a group of boys on a camping trip. But Hoge was in for a surprise of his own: they loved it.
“The kids were just sold,” Hoge says. “I realized that adding story to the activity is the magic key.
“After so many years of working with kids, it was mind blowing to see how they responded. When you add a story to almost any activity, those kids get more engaged and more alive,” Hoge says. “Laziness goes right out the window.”
The weekend LARPs became immensely popular — it worked so well that Hoge decided to found Renaissance Adventures upon returning to Boulder County in 1995. He owes its success in part to our love for stories.
“Story sparks one’s imagination. You want to know where it’s going — how’s the hero going to bypass this challenge? How are they going to succeed against the odds?” Hoge says. “Stories excite kids because it’s showing them a new world, and it’s showing them new ideas.”
But Hoge believes we can take storytelling one step further by becoming part of the story.
“When they play Adventure Quest, those kids are free,” he says. “They’re feeling the level of empowerment and respect that they really need and crave — that everybody needs and craves.”