I want to begin this week’s article with a story from my own personal experience. This happened roughly nine months ago (summer of 2013) in the gaming store my downtown group regularly meets. In this store my group, as well as another group, play at the same time and we can take up 2/3 of the total gaming area. This was the case on the night in question when a mother and her two children, a boy of around eight or nine and a girl around six or seven, entered the store. I picked them out of the corner of my eye as soon as they entered the shop. They were timid and had that “deer in the headlights” look about them as they were obviously first-timers and were curious what the store and the players were all about. I saw the mother move up to the second group of players and look over some shoulders for a bit. Then she asked the other DM, “What game is this?” Politely and without hesitation the DM replied, “This is Dungeons and Dragons.”
What followed was something I had almost forgotten existed and something I hadn't even considered since I began playing in my teenage years. The mother’s eyes went wide and she repeated, “Dungeons and Dragons?” and then, “Oh no, that’s okay, no, no, no,” and she shuffled her two young children out the door with a good deal of haste. The other DM, myself, and our two groups of players sat dumbfounded at the display for a few seconds. It wasn't disgust, or hatred, or annoyance that had caused that reaction, it was fear. It was real fear over a game. It instantly made me flashback to my early days of learning how to play and how keeping my involvement a secret was a good idea because my mother, while quite open-minded about it, was worried about what the rest of my family might think. Where does this fear come from? Where did D&D get this bad reputation that seems to have dogged it for more than thirty years and is it justified?
The issue seems to have sprung out of two separate incidents, the first in 1979 and the second in 1982. The first incident was the case of a Michigan State student by the name of James Dallas Egbert III (See here). He and his friends were avid players of D&D and decided to take the game to a new level. They agreed to actively play out their characters in a kind of “live” version down in the Michigan State steam tunnels (today we call this LARPing). Shortly following one of these sessions, Egbert went missing and foul play was suspected by the local authorities. Questions were asked and D&D came into the spotlight as something that could be exploited and blamed. However, Egbert turned up a few weeks later in Louisiana. When he was asked about his disappearance, he admitted that he had tried to run away because of depression and suicidal tendencies he was having while at school. He emphatically denied that it had anything to do with Dungeons and Dragons. Unfortunately, the damage had already been done. The news media had been quick to put D&D on display as something dangerous and played by weird people. The story even inspired a made for TV movie called Mazes and Monsters (More info.). The movie, starring a young Tom Hanks, was a social commentary on how these sorts of groups and games will only make the loners and geeks of the world feel worse about themselves.
The second incident was much more damaging. On June 9, 1982, a young man by the name of Irving Lee Pulling committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest with a handgun. His mother, Patricia Pulling, went on record as blaming Dungeons and Dragons for her son’s death. She said that a “D&D curse was placed on him during a game conducted at his local high school” (NCTV press release, January 17, 1985). Patricia would go on to organize an anti-D&D group known as Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons or B.A.D.D. as well as author a book, “The Devil's Web: Who Is Stalking Your Children For Satan?”. B.A.D.D. would go on record as describing D&D as "a fantasy role-playing game which uses demonology, witchcraft, voodoo, murder, rape, blasphemy, suicide, assassination, insanity, sex perversion, homosexuality, prostitution, satanic type rituals, gambling, barbarism, cannibalism, sadism, desecration, demon summoning, necromantics, divination and other teachings." (See here) While I don't disagree with many of those items listed above, context is everything, I could easily say the same thing about every library in the world and yet we still send our children there.
During the rest of the early to mid 80's, Dungeons and Dragons quickly became an easy target for religious, educational, and conservative groups looking for a scapegoat. It was blamed for corrupting youth, people turning away from more “productive social outlets”, and even more suicides. Personally, I believe that none of the accusations blaming D&D for suicides hold any water at all. The people pointing the fingers just wanted something easy to blame so they wouldn't have to do any real digging in to the matters. D&D quickly fell into the same category of 'blame-alls' as heavy metal music and Wicca culture. Fairly harmless things that other people refused to try and understand. And don’t ignore the real reason why some people in authoritative positions might be wary of a game like Dungeons and Dragons. After all, here was a game that millions of people were playing for hours every week that none of these groups or people of power could influence. I believe that the imagination, individuality, and creativity required to play a game like D&D was a threat to them. After all, aren't the less creative and the uninspired the easiest people to control?
Regardless of the reasons, D&D quickly gained this nasty reputation for being satanic, a game for fringe dwellers, and something for ‘decent people’ to avoid. There was even a 60 Minutes episode that aired in 1985 underlining the dangers that existed for young people (See it here). Was any of this truly justified? Was there any real proof for any of these claims against D&D? The short answer is no. Just like the Grand Theft Auto games of this generation, D&D was something new at that time to exploit. I’m sure that there were a few people, Ms. Patricia Pulling in particular, who truly believed that D&D was dangerous. However, none of what they said, claimed, or accused had any solid foundation in fact. And what did they ultimately accomplish? From 1979 to 1985 Dungeons and Dragons grew in net worth and in popularity several times over. The player base exploded, the game library expanded, and eventually the bad press faded away. Regretfully, I believe that the only thing that was accomplished was scaring people; people like that poor misinformed mother who forced her kids out of the store that day. I truly hope that those children remember that experience and someday have the courage to find out the truth for themselves.
(Next week, in part 2 of D&D’s Dark Past, I’ll examine the counter arguments that began to spring up against people like Patricia Pulling and how D&D has actually and factually benefited society. Cheers!)