Monday, September 8, 2014

How Did D&D Get Such a Bad Rap?

(Author's Note: I normally shy away from controversial topics, but I am also trying to flex my writing muscles. This article does touch on topics of religious and philosophical nature. It is my purpose merely to inform and write about something that interests me. I respect everyone's right to free speech and admire those with personal religious convictions. It is not my intension to offend anyone by the statements and opinions presented here.)

What is Dungeons and Dragons?

In 1974, Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax published a new type of game. Historical wargaming had been around for a long time. In these games, small miniature soldiers acted out the strategies of battle on a tabletop. Arneson and Gygax were enamored with these types of games, as were many hobbiests at the time. But these two men were also enjoying the massive success of fantasy literature that had followed the success of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series. They began toying with the idea of taking the epic fantasy battles of the novels and acting them out on the table.
Gygax and Arneson created a system of rules that allowed them to fight out fantasy battles using small miniatures. This would become the basic rule system at the heart of their famous game. As they played out these battles, they found themselves thinking about the broader stories they could tell. Who were these individual soldiers, what was their story? The game was quickly evolving from a simple combat centered game of annhilation of the enemies tokens, to a more complex game of stories and adventure.
When Dungeons and Dragons was released in the 70s, it was a huge success. It has since spawned numerous incarnations and an entire genre of games. Roleplaying games, are games in which players take on the role of a character and make the decisions of how that character progresses through an adventure. This was a revolutionary idea. Games are generally about strict adherence to rules and specific mechanics. Choices are often limited. But in roleplaying games, the rules are merely there to facilitate the endless number of choices available to players. Suddenly gamers had the freedom to do what they wanted in a game. At its core, roleplaying games are about one thing. Story. Roleplaying games are often described as cooperative storytelling. Like a group of friends sitting around working together to tell an entertaining story.
Now you may be wondering why I am telling you all of this. Well it is important to understand what Dungeons and Dragons is, and what it isn't. Much of what I will be talking about comes from those who have no idea what this game is. So at this point I can stress a few quick points. Dungeons and Dragons is a roleplaying game. Roleplaying games (RPGs) are games of imagination and storytelling. And these games can be literally anything you want.

If you are familiar with D&D and its ilk, please feel free to skip to the next section.

A roleplaying game, D&D especially, is played with the use of a few things. One person, known as the game master, runs the game. Their job is to tell the story, narrate the action, and referee the rules of the game. While players take on the role of individual characters, the game master plays the role of the world in which the story takes place. The easiest way to explain it is to relate it to something we all did as kids. Remember back to when you were small and used to play pretend. Roleplaying games are like kids playing cops and robbers. The players say what they are doing, they take part in the evolving story as it unfolds. The exception is that roleplaying games have a set of rules to govern the fairness of play. If one of the robbers is shot and the cop yells, "I got you!" only to have the robber whine, "No you didn't, you missed!", in an RPG, players have rules to determine what actually happened.
So literally the game of Dungeons and Dragons can be anything you want. The game master and his adventurers, choose what sort of setting they want their game to take place in. Will it be the high fantasy of Tolkien, filled with magic and dark lords? Or will it be the historical fantasy of King Arthur, filled with sword clashing knights and political intrigue. It is the openness to make RPGs whatever you want that is crucial to all of this. It is what makes the games worth playing, but understanding this, also makes all that follows appear as ridiculous as it actually is.

Satanic Panic

The late 70s and most of the 80s saw not only the rise of D&D's success, but also the social phenomena of "Satanic Panic". Satanic Panic was a form of moral panic that spread through North America during this time and left many people fearing for both their moral and physical safety.
Moral Panics are a form of hysteria that spread among groups of people within a specific society. Sociologists define it as "an intense feeling expressed in a population about an issue that appears to threaten the social order".  These are essentially controversies that involve social tension, and are often hard to refute or disagree with from inside the community affected, because the matter may be taboo and therefore cause more problems trying to argue against, than just letting it stand.
Most famous of these social phenomena would be the witch hunts during the sixteenth century or McCarthyism during the height of the Cold War. These famous incidents can also help illustrate the main factor in the spread of moral panic. The realistic fear of war, lead to a heightened state of unease in the US during the 1950s. It is not enjoyable to live in a constant state of fear. Especially when the thing we are so afraid of, is intangible or not easily understood. We look for things to blame, something more present and visible to rally against. In this example, it was the opposing ideology of communism that became the focus. Soon conspiracy turned to scapegoating, and a culture of fear was born. As word spread, and the media reported on the subject, soon everyone was worrying about the person next door and their political leanings. By simply reporting the facts, the media fanned the flames, generating more anxiety and panic. This constant build up, of one thing adding to the next, is what sociologists call a positive feedback loop. Made worse is that often, moral panics are fed by groups who stand to gain from such unrest. Whether it be gained attention to their issue, or merely monetary or political gains, these can be like gasoline on the slower building fire of social panic.
In the 80s Satanic Panic was at its height. Worried citizens had federal agents looking for supposed "thousands" of underground cults operating secretly in the US. Sensational stories of ritual abuse and animal sacrifices were becoming part of the common media discourse. There was no evidence for any of these things. In fact, there is still nothing to back up the outrageous claims of this time. No cults were ever found, no evidence of occult crime or ritual sacrifices every emerged. But that didn't slow the flames of panic.
Soon, those paranoid citizens, no longer looking for hidden communists, were on a witch hunt to root out the evilness they believed was rampant in their society. Coalitions and organizations were formed to find the devil in games, movies and even music. Dungeons and Dragons would then become the poster child for evil. A Satanic recruitment tool used to lure children into the darkness.
A lot could be said about the social implications of moral panic, and the reasons they emerge in the first place, but that really isn't my purpose here. There are many amazing texts on the topics out there. Including this excerpt from the great book on junk science, Why People Believe Weird Things, by Michael Shermer. You can read the segment on Satanic Panic, here.

Egbert, Jaffe & Pulling

So by the 80s we have a culture of fear, concerned with the spread of evil. Adults are suddenly "remembering" events of their childhood in which they were abused by Satanists. Public speakers and religions leaders are coming out, on their supposed encounters with dark cults. And most importantly, the media is reporting on all of this, adding to the state of fear in the nation.
A number of writers saw value in this opportunity. Books warning about the horrors of the occult were flying off of bookshelves. And whether authors were enticed by the money, or the chance to get their story heard, the stories were propagating like mice. It is actually a few of these books that connects D&D to the Satanic Panic. If not for these odd circumstances, the game would probably have been left alone.
In 1979 a man named James Dallas Egbert III, went missing. The story was that he had escaped his college campus, fled down to a series of steam tunnels and committed suicide. As the story goes, he was an avid gamer, and it was his involvement in D&D that lead to his tragic end. Well none of that is really true. Egbert did play D&D, but it had little to do with the incident in question. He entered college at the young age of 16, and cracked under pressure of post secondary education. A perfect storm of mental illness, a disconnect with his peers, many twice his age, and the common drug use of the time, lead to a downward spiral. Egbert was also homosexual, and his fear of being outed in a time and place that did not see much acceptance, caused him to become depressed. He did head down into the steam tunnels with the intention to kill himself. But he did not. Instead he skipped town and disappeared. William Dear, a private investigator hired by Egbert's parents, managed to track him down to where he was living in Louisiana, sometime later.
Dear wanted to write about the case. But Egbert's parents did not want either his drug use or sexuality in the news, and so Dear was forced to search for other angles in the story. With the current atmosphere, he took the opportunity to ride on coat tails and ensure his book would sell. He played up a ridiculous theory that Dungeons and Dragons was at fault for Egbert's problems. A work of supposed true crime, created entirely out of thin air, the media of course ate it up.
Hot on Dear's trail was romance author Rona Jaffe. Despite knowing nothing about the game, she decided to pen a fictionalized account of the Egbert case, sensationalizing the horror inherent in Dungeons and Dragons. In 1981, she published Mazes and Monsters, about a boy who plays too much of a certain roleplaying game in college and ends up losing his ability to distinguish the fact from the fiction (much like its author).  Again, the book hit at just the right time, in the right climate of fear, that it sold well, despite depicting roleplaying games as one of the most boring and ridiculous things a person could spend their time doing. Inevitably, the novel went on to become a TV movie, starring a very young Tom Hanks, who somehow convinces himself that he is the character he plays in the game and therefore things he can fly off the top of a skyscraper.
The same year that Mazes and Monsters came to television, a young person did sadly lose their life to suicide. A tragedy that I hope could now be prevented with better attention to mental illness, but at the time would have a greater impact on this topic than either Dear or Jaffe's books. In 1982, Irving Pulling died. Rather than focusing on the troubling issues the teenager was facing, and unlike the Egbert case, Pulling's parents believed that his involvement with playing Dungeons and Dragons was the cause of his death. Patricia Pulling, Irving's mother, claimed that her son was "cursed" and attempted to sue both the publishers of D&D and the high school principal who introduced Irving to the game. Both cases were thrown out. Not detered, Pulling formed an organization with the specific purpose of pointing blame at roleplaying games for the evils in the world. BADD (Bothered about Dungeons and Dragons), published numerous booklets connecting the game to other supposed acts related to the Satanic Panic. The grieving mother made herself an "expert" on the occult (though not on the game) and went on a public crusade against roleplaying games. She became the president of the National Coalition on TV Violence, bringing the still common thread of TV and game violence and impact on people, to the forefront. On one of her shows a, now debunked, psychiatrist even quoted from a letter written by a fictional character in Jaffe's novel, as proof that Dungeon and Dragons inspires suicide.

Dark Dungeons

The reason I started writing this article in the first place is that I play roleplaying games (though not D&D specifically). Growing up in a religious home, my first knowledge of this game's existence came through similar claims that it was evil and lead to spiritual turmoil. I was taught to fear it. That is until I actually had a chance to see what it was that I was supposed to be fearing.
It is not an erroneous correlation that the rise of Satanic Panic in the 80s came about at the time of the rise of the religious right and the ultra conservative movements in evangelical churches. Many groups have grown up out of the warnings of fire and brimstone from the world's evils. The religious climate of the US changed drastically in the 80s, so it no wonder than many of these conservative movements were behind the fast spread of moral panic.
In the mid 70s, a Christian fundamentalist named Jack Chick began publishing small comic strip booklets he called tracts. These series of comics were in a sense Chick's attempt to spread the word of God among the secular masses. But they did so by demonizing nearly ever topic that Chick, in his fundamentalist view, found evil. They covered every topic from rock music to the secret evils of Catholicism.
In 1984, Chick published his most famous tract, entitled Dark Dungeons. Chick saw the game of D&D as a Satanist conspiracy. Feeding off of the groundwork laid by Dear and Jaffe, as well as the tense climate built up by Pulling, Chick connected roleplaying directly to the occult. This, for many Christians, was all that was needed to prove that these games should be avoided by all with any sort of moral compass, and that not only could they lead to tense spiritual issues, but might insight someone to kill themselves.
Sadly it is the trail of paranoia and out-right lies, that lead to this point. It allowed so many to whole heartedly believe something that wasn't necessarily true.
(On a more humorous note, the ironic popularity of this comic strip among gamers, has lead to it being made into a new parody film: check out the oddball trailer here.)


So what does all this matter? Am I just hear to point out human errors and spread the word about a game? No not really. Mostly my point was to shed some light on a topic I find interesting. It is one I have seen in my own personal life, but with some basic investigation and research, managed to better understand.
I wrote out the long section at the beginning, explaining what a roleplaying game was because I think knowing that is at the heart of this controversy. Dungeons and Dragons, or any other roleplaying game, is a game of imagination. It is the most customizable game in existence. If you do not like one element of the game, don't use it. If you don't feel comfortable playing a game set in a world of magic, take your characters to another world of your own creation.

Foxtrot is the copyright of Universal Press Syndicate and Bill Amend
I am not getting into the deeper philosophical or religious debates here, the concepts of evil, etc. But I do feel the need to point out the inherent flaw in demonizing something that you do not understand. To do that, I feel I need to address some specific issues pointed at the game.
Is D&D evil? No. Some may take issue with its use of magic (it is a fantasy setting after all). Or some may say that the game promotes knowledge of evil. D&D does contain information about fictional monsters, including demons. These are presented in the same light as any other creature from myth and folklore. But again, the game is what you choose to make it. If you don't want those monsters in your story, don't use them.
Does D&D teach you magic? No. No more than Monopoly teaches you high finance. If players choose to use magic in their game, they are not losing themselves in a character, forgetting where reality and fiction seperate. Nor are they learning mystical incantations and dark lore from forgotten books bound in human skin. In a game, when a character uses magic. He says what magic spell he is using, as listed in the book, and follows the rules of what dice to roll to see if his decision was a successful one.
Does D&D lead to suicide? This is the oddest idea to me. I have never met anyone who is so attached to their character in a roleplaying game that they would choose to die in real life if something happened to their character. This would be like an author being distraught over a character he wrote about. Most game masters are pretty lenient, they want the players to succeed and tell a good story. Sometimes death factors into it, but often it does. Characters can die though. It is their potential demise that leads to the excitement of the game. But it is also a work of fiction. If a character dies a magical artifact could bring her back. Or a new character can easily be made for the next game. I think the fact that there has never been a documented case of this actually happening is proof enough of this ridiculous claim. But if we look at it more closely, perhaps the bigger issue is our lack of understanding  of mental illness. This is a subject dear to my heart. It pains me to see the state of our mental healthcare system. Before we start blaming games or other things, maybe we need to take a deeper look at the problem itself. Perhaps the bigger problem is a lack of care for the people who need it, and a lack of building a culture of compassion rather than one of blame.
Moral panic will never disappear. Many sociologists say that we have built up a climate perfect for it right now. We live in a society of hatred and finger pointing. Economic decline, political strife, and many other issues leaves us vulnerable to becoming a culture of fear. The change in the media to polarized sensationalism, as well as the ease in which information (true or not) spreads via social media, makes us a prime target for this sort of thing. We give in too easily to easy answers, not stopping to think about what this information means, or where it came from. Truth has become so relative, that junk science is rampant not only on our Facebook pages, but on Capital Hill.
Perhaps we need to do something about these issues. And one thing we can do is calm down! We get so worked up over the world's controversies. Maybe that is precisely what I am doing right now. Not getting worked up over things, doesn't mean we stop caring. We just take a more rational approach to dealing with the things that make us uncomfortable. We take a step back, look at things from someone else's perspective, and move forward making calm rational decisions.
Maybe we just need to play more games. Garner friendships and build up a sense of community. Games like Dungeons and Dragons open up an infinite number of possibilities. It can build courage and character. It can teach the skills of writing. Some say it can even give you greater opportunities to succeed inlife. And like life, it is entirely what you make it.

I don't expect to have changed anyone's mind on this topic, but I certainly hope to have added to your knowledge. I am a firm believer in the idea that eliminating ignorance, eliminates strife. After all, as GI Joe said, "Knowing is half the battle".
If you want to know more about any of the topics in this article, check out the links within the piece itself, as well as some other great articles and resources listed below.

The History of Dungeons and Dragons
More About D&D
Pulling's Anti-RPG Propoganda Booklet
Satanic Ritual Abuse and the Spread of Satanic Panic
The Exploitation of the Egbert Case
and a fantastic article on the entire topic including lots of links and a more in depth analysis of each element: A Short History of the Satanic Panic

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