Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Thoughts on the “War” on D&D

I’m not sure why a lot of “War on D&D” blips were flitting over my internet radar the past week or two, but they’ve shown up for some reason and attracted my interest. From my earliest days playing roleplaying games D&D has had controversy surrounding it, though for me it was thankfully playing out in the distant background and hardly affected me directly. Certainly it was unlike any other game the general public had ever seen, let alone understood. When combined with fear-driven sensationalist associations with suicide and Satanic rituals, D&D passed beyond mere curiosity and became a controversy. The reaction in public communities and private families varied from zealous opposition to quiet acceptance. Whether one might call it a “war” on D&D or simply society’s growing pains in understanding and accepting this creative phenomenon remains open for debate.

I never would have considered my experience in the “Golden Age of Roleplaying” (the early 1980s) anything like a war, though I was aware of a certain degree of controversy about D&D and kept my head down for the most part. I was fortunate to have parents who – though they might have had concerns about the effects of the game on young minds – encouraged my various interests, including roleplaying games. After my initial exposure to some neighborhood kids playing D&D I devised my own game, what later became the extremely basic Creatures & Caverns. After observing this interest my parents bought me the Moldvay edition Basic D&D boxed set...as an Easter gift in 1982. I played with neighborhood kids and school friends frequently throughout that year and into high school. Through these activities I made a few close, lifelong gaming friends who continued their enthusiasm for roleplaying games well into adulthood.

I’m fortunate to have grown up in a town where controversy about D&D was minimal. My junior high school had a D&D club occasionally over the years; I vaguely recall a debate about the game and club years later, but don’t remember what they key issues were or how the school system resolved it (it was one of those clubs that required a very dedicated faculty sponsor). I played my home-brew games (including Creatures & Caverns) during free time in my early high school years. About the worst that happened was we were kicked out of the library by a British librarian who did no approve of us using dice for “gambling.” The local public library even sponsored a summer D&D program for which I volunteered one year.

At no point do I recall parental threats to have my games taken away or burned, though there was always the implied rule that schoolwork took priority over other activities. I don’t recall in my church-going youth ever having anyone confront me about D&D’s ability to poison my soul, though church wasn’t the place to talk about such diversions anyway. The people I knew who played kept it to their homes or the public or school libraries. Although my non-gaming peers looked askance at me, even ridiculed me for my oddball hobby, I didn’t endure any more abuse than any introverted, bookish teenager would have in those days. Most adults encouraged my hobby, one that expanded to include a voracious appetite for science fiction and fantasy literature, interesting historical periods, and, ultimately, writing and publishing.

I’ve heard stories from others who weren’t so fortunate. Parents taking away, trashing, or burning D&D books. Church leaders vehemently condemning the game. Adults who, seeking to gather informally in the workplace, had to explain the game to other employees and management to dispel conceptions they played in maintenance tunnels and summoned demons. School systems that outright banned the game and anything remotely associated with it. Perhaps the most damaging on a national level were people like Patricia Pulling who – seeking any answers in her grief over a son’s suicide – waged a crusade against D&D using propaganda techniques, speculation-as-fact, and a media bully pulpit ravenous for sensationalized stories. Her organization, Bothered About D&D (BADD), became the motivating force behind the game’s controversy in the mid-1980s.

Pulling claimed the game used Satanic elements to control young people and force them to commit murder and suicide. Her opinions gained national attention in 1985 when the CBS news magazine 60 Minutes ran a feature on the game, including interviews with co-creator Gary Gygax and Mrs. Pulling herself, as well as other concerned “experts” with opinions on the subject. I don’t recall specifically watching this with my parents, or whether we discussed it around the house; but I continued to enjoy playing D&D and other roleplaying games with neighborhood kids and other school friends until my high school graduation in 1986.

The Pulling Report

The adventure gaming industry didn’t sit back and take the criticism. For many years game designer and author Michael A. Stackpole lead the defense of D&D and gaming against such sensational attacks, speaking out in the public eye, debating critics, and ultimately publishing a lengthy examination of Pulling’s activities to tie D&D to suicide and Satanism. The Pulling Report, released in 1990, scrutinizes and refutes Pulling’s background, claims, and tactics, demonstrating her ability to twist the truth to her agenda. “Her methods and tactics, at their very best, taint any evidence she might offer and, at their worst, construct a monster where none exists,” Stackpole wrote.

Pulling had built herself up as an “expert” in the field of cult crimes to the point where her agenda influenced police departments and local governments when making judgments on D&D’s impact on their communities. In his report Stackpole – with an impressive background in the game industry himself – dispels Pulling’s mythical associations of roleplaying games and the occult with the reality of statistics and fact. Yet Pulling’s motivations were understandable; as a parent myself I can sympathize with a fellow parent’s grief over the loss of a child. Stackpole puts this in perspective in the report’s conclusion:
Without a doubt, Mrs. Pulling started searching for a way to prevent other children from following in her son’s footsteps. Her efforts on behalf of his memory were obviously well intentioned, but as the anti-game hysteria bled over into a war against Satan, the ends began to justify the means. What became important was to sound a clarion-call concerning the dangers of Satanism, and any method that worked to get that message out was perfectly acceptable.”
The Pulling Report remains perhaps the best documentation of the D&D controversy published to date. Other game industry professionals spoke out against the controversy or published pieces mean to educate the general public about the realities of roleplaying games and the benefits they might bring to young people. Such efforts aren’t seen much today considering the burgeoning popularity and acceptance of the adventure gaming hobby.

Casualties of War

Whether you call the D&D controversy a “war,” it certainly had casualties.

Several unfortunate young people who lost their lives – in some cases people who might have found solace and an encouraging community through roleplaying games – had their tragedies blamed on D&D. Those who took their own lives might have sought an escape from their everyday problems. Those who blamed the game for violent actions used it as a scapegoat. It doesn’t make it any easier to accept the loss of a life.

The anti-D&D hysteria eliminated this pursuit from some kids who might have benefited from it. Parents, school boards, teachers, and preachers forcibly cut off young people’s option to enjoy an imaginative game which could have allowed them to improve math, literacy, leadership, and socialization skills. Roleplaying games provided a haven for introverts, creative spirits, and others shunned by their peers, a safe place where they could indulge their fantasies and share their enthusiasm in a supportive social network. Who knows how many young people took their lives because they didn’t find an outlet for expressing themselves through D&D or a community of like-minded friends?

Why Now?

Why all this interest in the D&D controversy now? For some reason a host of notable internet media pieces about the controversy recently surfaced: a video of former TSR editor Tim Kask talking at this year’s Gary Con about the James Dallas Egbert incident; Bonnie Bertram and Meral Agish’s Retro Report video “D&D: Lessons from A Media Panic” (including other links to similar stories across the internet); Annalee Newitz’s evocatively titled article at io9, “How We Won the War on Dungeons & Dragons.”

But this still doesn’t really explain all the recent interest in the D&D controversy. The steam tunnel incident hit the media in 1979 with the 60 Minutes alarmist story airing in 1985, 37 and 31 years ago respectively. Patricia Pulling died of cancer in 1997 after having left BADD in the wake of Stackpole’s report. We’re two years past the 40th anniversary of D&D’s publication and the initial releases of the game’s fifth edition. Why, with a general societal acceptance of fantasy and roleplaying games, does the controversy behind D&D still linger in the public consciousness? Perhaps the Retro Report video best puts the issue into perspective:
The American Academy of Pediatrics says that in this media saturated age, it’s important for kids to use their imaginations in free play. And in a twist, the role playing games that set off a moral panic in the past, may look more like a solution than a problem to today’s parents.”
In disappearing down an internet rabbit hole while exploring this issue I discovered a host of relevant, possibly interesting resources touching various aspects of the D&D controversy: Dungeon Master: The Disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III by James Dear, the private investigator who first insisted on D&D’s prominence in this particular incident (more for its value as a primary source than as an accurate analysis of the controversy); Gary Alan Fine’s Shared Fantasy: Role Playing Games as Social Worlds; and Michael Tresca’s The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games, among others. I’m not sure they’re worth my time and money – or a place on my bookshelf of “academic works on gaming” – but I’ll have to see if I can find used copies (the local library doesn’t have them...) or afford new ones to expand my interest in this chapter in the formative days of the roleplaying game hobby.


Can you recommend some good books on the D&D controversy? Want to share your opinion? Start a civilized discussion? Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.