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Magical transformation

At this role-playing camp, kids take their video-game skills and apply them to live-action play. Imagine that.

Lured away from their computer screens, at least for a few hours, these kids get to engage in more physically challenging and socially interactive versions of games they already love. From left: Claire Westerman, 9, Isaac Bernoff, 10, and Liam Johansson, 9, battle at Wizards & Warriors camp. Lured away from their computer screens, at least for a few hours, these kids get to engage in more physically challenging and socially interactive versions of games they already love. From left: Claire Westerman, 9, Isaac Bernoff, 10, and Liam Johansson, 9, battle at Wizards & Warriors camp. (Wiqan Ang for The Boston Globe)
By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / July 11, 2009
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BURLINGTON - Many a summer camper has tales to tell of spirited tug-of-war battles and campfire ghost stories. Few can boast of encountering sword-wielding spiders and dragons that spring menacingly to life from behind a sewer grate.

At Wizards & Warriors day camp in Burlington, though, taking up foam swords and crossbows against a sea of troublesome villains - human and otherwise - is all in a day’s work. And play.

Thus, on a recent afternoon that brought the camp’s first week to its epic finale, two dozen costumed players, some as young as 7, girded themselves for combat. The action was intense, the rebel forces victorious. In the end, order was restored to the fictional realm of Sidleterra.

Afterward, several campers indicated they’d be returning the next week to pick up where their characters had left off. Others looked forward to attending a two-week overnight camp later this month, where the storyline and fantasy setting promised to be even more elaborate.

“It’s like experiencing the past but in your own way,’’ said Duncan Sharp, 12, who had modeled his game character on a figure from the card game Magic: The Gathering. Nearby, Liam Johansson, 10, exclaimed: “You get to fight with swords. How much better could a camp get?’’

Joseph Hall, 15, a hard-core Harry Potter fan returning for his third session, said the role-playing camp is completely different from the other camps he attends each summer. “There’s no way this is going to help you later in life,’’ mused Hall, whose self-designed costume evoked that of a Roman gladiator. “There are no professional foam-sword fighters. It’s just plain fun, but it’s having fun in an atmosphere that everyone helps create.’’

What some might dismiss as a geeky alternative to more traditional camps, where sports and arts classes rule, is actually a precious, even irreplaceable resource to the population it serves, say campers, parents, and staffers involved with Wizards & Warriors. Lured away from their computer screens, at least for a few hours, these kids get to engage in more physically challenging and socially interactive versions of games they already love. For many, the excitement comes from playing characters of their own creation in a multilayered adventure story their actions help shape. For others, it’s all about the sword fighting. But everyone seems to agree on the value - and fun - of turning video-game material into real-life play.

“For a lot of these kids, this is their first camp experience,’’ notes Meghan Gardner, a martial arts and fencing instructor whose company, Guard Up, runs the camp. “They usually don’t fit the classic camp mold, where kids go from place to place doing what everyone else is doing.’’ Rather, she says, “We’re taking their dreams and making them happen in a safe environment.’’

“In most games, dying is a big deal, because you may not get back into the game,’’ adds Gardner. “We made dying cheap. At our residential camp, you have a chat with Death, who’s in full costume, and negotiate your way back into the adventure. In gym class, you might stand on the sidelines for the rest of the game. Here, because there’s no winning or losing, kids are more likely to take risks - and that’s what we’re trying to teach them to do.’’

Twenty percent have a high-functioning form of autism, according to Gardner, who says the camp was not specifically designed for special-needs kids but evolved instead from swordsmanship and martial arts classes she’s been offering to kids for the past 10 years.

Her staff gradually began integrating fantasy role-playing games into these classes, says Gardner, and over time, “We decided to make them more about learning life skills like teamwork and creative problem-solving than beating on each other with swords.’’

Meanwhile, the fantasy genre was exploding in popularity, propelled by the Harry Potter books (“Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,’’ the sixth film based on the series, opens this summer) and by World of Warcraft, a multiplayer online role-playing game wherein players go on quests and acquire new skills over extended periods of time. Gardner studied live-action versions of these games and wondered why there were none geared toward children. If closely supervised and scripted to be age-appropriate, she reasoned, they could be a hit. And they have been, Guard Up having started its overnight camp last summer and adding an after-school program this fall when it moves to a more spacious facility in Burlington

Weekly fees run from $335 and $600 for the day camp, $1,200 to $2,000 for the overnight camp. Who signs up? Kids who are computer savvy and into fantasy subgenres like anime and manga. In many cases, at least one parent works in the high-tech industry. “Our demographic is very specific,’’ says Gardner. “Households where the home computer is a dominant part of family life. Almost all our marketing is online, though our website [www.guardup.com].’’

According to counselor director Christopher Wiley, the biggest beneficiary is a child with an active imagination but underdeveloped social skills. “Most of our kids are kind of introverted in general,’’ Wiley says. “But they become extroverts once they get out there waving swords and bumping into each other.’’

Boys outnumber girls about 3 to 1, but that gap is narrowing, say staff members. Gwen Wilbert, 12, was among the handful of girls attending camp’s first week. She got interested in the camp after taking swordsmanship classes at Guard Up. “I like doing this more in real life than in a computer game,’’ Wilbert said. “It’s more interactive, more spur of the moment. You don’t choose from a set of things to say and get a canned response.’’

She’ll also attend the residential camp, held in Charlton on the site of an annual Renaissance Fair. There she plans to role-play a character of her own invention called the Ice Queen, whose back story includes being raised by polar bears.

Parents are encouraged to become active participants in the camp experience, another distinctive feature of Wizards & Warriors that puts it on an even more theatrically interactive footing. In Charlton last year, the first time the summer camp took place, mothers and fathers dressed up as zombies and other creatures as part of the final battle sequences and all-camp feast that closed out the session.

Louise Hall, Joseph’s grandmother, came by to pick up her grandson at the end of camp’s first week and admitted she had doubts about the camp’s value at first.

“The role-playing realm was never something I was interested, so I’d thought this was weird,’’ Hall said. “But I have to say, it’s been a great release for him. He’s very agile, very into swordplay. But he’s also one of the most well-adjusted, least angry kids I know.’’

Along with his fellow campers, Hall finished the final day by recording his heroics in the Book of Deeds, a resource for future wizards and warriors. Staffer Nate McNiff stood nearby, still costumed in a black hooded cloak he’d worn in battle. McNiff had also helped script the week’s plot line and was already looking forward to shaping the next installment.

“Even if we can’t turn them all into master fencers, we can make every kid a good fighter,’’ McNiff said. “And a happy, well-adjusted kid, too.’’

He promisedalso that those who had successfully battled ogres and bartered with bandits the first week could expect more trouble ahead. “This week, kids were told there was a problem at Monarch’s Glen they had to solve,’’ McNiff said with a wink. “Next week they’ll find out it was part of a bigger problem.’’

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.