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The Dungeons and Dragons panic of the '80s

How a game of make-believe became a youth crisis in America

Essay

  • Author:
  • A staff writer
    National Library of Scotland

This is a story about truth, and about panic. It is a story about how fact and fiction blur, and how make-believe can be amplified in the media. 'Fake news' is nothing new.

Sweden, 2017

On 15 September 2012 BBC news published an article entitled 'Sweden's Rape Rate under the Spotlight'. The article, sitting at a snug 1,200 words, explored how Swedish police record rape cases. The by-line reads: 'The Julian Assange extradition case has put Sweden's relatively high incidence of rape under the spotlight. But can such statistics be reliably compared from one country to another?'

The article gained little traction, being 'retweeted' from the @BBCWorld Twitter account less than 100 times.

Four years later this BBC article was featured in a YouTube video by Ami Horowitz. Horowitz, an ex-investment banker now-amateur filmmaker specialised in provocative and outrageous 'journalism'. This video, released on 16 December 2016, claimed that 'rape and violence had exploded across Sweden due its [sic] immigration policies'. The title of the 2012 BBC article was superimposed in the video, with both publication date and context removed. None of Horowitz's argument was supported by the BBC article.

Some months later, on the 17 February 2017, Ami Horowitz was invited to speak on Fox News' 'Tucker Carlson Tonight'. On the show Horowitz is introduced as a 'filmmaker', and states that 'there was an absolute surge in gun violence and rape once they [Sweden] began this open door policy'. The interview garnered over three million live viewers. One of these viewers was Donald J Trump.

The very next day the 45th President of the United States announced in Melbourne, Florida: 'You look at what's happening in Germany. You look at what's happening last night in Sweden. Sweden. Who would believe this? Sweden. They took in large numbers and they're having problems like they never thought possible.'

The global response was instantaneous. Sweden, having only accepted 163,000 asylum seekers from North Africa and the Middle East, had little-to-no major problems to speak of, especially in light of a number of serious terror attacks in France earlier that year. Ridicule towards the American president erupted online, with #JeSuisIKEA and #IStandWithSweden trending globally. 'Sweden? Terror Attack? What has he [Trump] been smoking?' tweeted Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt.

On the 19 February Donald Trump took to Twitter. To his 40 million followers, he announced that his statement had been 'in reference to a story that was broadcast on @FoxNews concerning immigrants & Sweden'.

Within three days an instance of inaccurate and partisan amateur filmmaking had made front page news, affected international relations, and furthered xenophobic rhetoric.

Mazes and Monsters, 1981-1982

In 1982 McDermott Productions released 'Mazes and Monsters'. The film was an adaptation of the 1981 novel of the same name by Rona Jaffe. The subject of the film is Robbie Wheeling (Tom Hanks), a college student who becomes deeply engrossed in a fictitious fantasy roleplaying game entitled 'Mazes and Monsters'. Through the course of the film Robbie becomes convinced that he is in fact the fictional warrior Pardieu, tasked with a divine quest to find the Two Towers. Robbie's friends eventually rescue him from a suicide attempt, and he lives the rest of his life in a delusional haze.

The fictitious game 'Mazes and Monsters' did not actually cause controversy. Parents did not forbid their children from playing it. A national organisation was not created to combat the insidious influence of 'Mazes and Monsters' on law enforcement. CBS did not air a '60 Minutes' special which suggested a link between 'Mazes and Monsters' and a series of murder-suicides. These things did not happen because 'Mazes and Monsters' did not exist outside of the 1981 novel and the 1982 film. However, all of these things did happen to 'Dungeons & Dragons'.

Dungeons & Dragons, 1974

In 1974 a company based in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin began distributing the rules for a new table top board game. The company, called Tactical Studies Rules, Inc., was the brainchild of wargame enthusiasts Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. The company operated out of Gygax's basement and produced 1,000 copies of this new rulebook, distributing them for $10 each, with an additional $3.50 for a peculiar set of polyhedral dice. However, unlike other board games such as 'Monopoly' or 'Scrabble', 'Dungeons & Dragons' consisted of merely three rule books. The board was the players' imaginations.

The concept of 'Dungeons & Dragons' was relatively straightforward. One player would serve as a game referee, called a Dungeon Master, who would describe a series of traps and monsters. The other players would design 'characters' with various attributes and skills to survive the challenges posed by the Dungeon Master. Tests of skill and luck would be adjudicated by the roll of different types of polyhedral dice.

By 1976, within two years of its release, 'Dungeons & Dragons' was making Tactical Studies Rules inc. $300,000 in annual income. The game was a phenomenon

What set 'Dungeons & Dragons' apart was the harnessing of its players' imaginations. Variations of the established rules sprang up instantly, most notably found in the pages of 'White Dwarf' magazine. Science fiction, dystopia, and high fantasy, each could be utilised within the mechanics presented by 'Dungeons & Dragons'. The success was immediate and unmistakeable. The first print run of 'Dungeons & Dragons' sold out in 10 months. A second print-run of 1,000 copies sold out in five months.

By 1976, within two years of its release, 'Dungeons & Dragons' was making Tactical Studies Rules, Inc. $300,000 in annual income. The game was a phenomenon.

Within a decade it would be the subject of a media firestorm sparked by the death of a 16-year-old boy.

CBS '60 minutes' special, 1985

In 1985 CBS News aired a special '60 minutes broadcast'. The episode began with a solemn introduction by 19-time Emmy Award winner and Robert F. Kennedy Award for Excellence in Journalism recipient Ed Bradley: '[Dungeons & Dragons] has become popular with children anywhere from grammar school on up. Not so with a lot of adults who think it's been connected to a number of suicides and murders'.

The episode featured interviews from Patricia Pulling, founder of the 'Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons' (B.A.D.D.) coalition and Dr Thomas Radecki, the president of the National Coalition on TV Violence. Pulling, whose son had died by suicide just three years earlier, sat flanked by her husband and daughter and explained how 'roleplay is typically used for behaviour modification. If you are doing behaviour modification and doing violent roles, negative roles, these children … [begin] to have violent dreams or violent thoughts'.

Radecki was equally scathing. He was introduced as having linked 'Dungeons & Dragons' to 28 murder/suicide cases. 'It is not coincidence,' he began, 'not when you have careful documentation.' Radecki later continued: 'We would like an impartial inquiry by the Consumer Product Safety Commission to look into these deaths. Call the police, call the detectives forward, bring forth the parents. Let's have an open and public inquiry'.

Bradley went on to interview Gary Gygax, who could barely conceal his incredulity and frustration. 'This is make-believe. No one is martyred, there is no violence there. To use an analogy with another game, who is bankrupted by a game of Monopoly? Nobody is. The money isn't real … There is no link, except perhaps in the mind of those people who are looking desperately for any other cause than their own failures as a parent.'

The search for James Dallas Egbert III, 1979

On 22 August 1979 William Dear was called by the Egbert family to investigate the disappearance of their son, James Dallas Egbert III. Dallas, as he was known to his friends, was a child prodigy, having graduated from high school two years early and offered an academic scholarship to Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dallas opted to study at the smaller, more IT-orientated Michigan State University, and enrolled at the age of 14.

William Dear, born 1937, was a Texas-raised, old-school private investigator of 15 years, having handled 'thousands of cases'. This case promised to be straightforward. Dallas, an eccentric and wildly intelligent young boy, had gone missing from his college dormitory. Of the students who could claim to be friends with Dallas, a number claimed to know him through their mutual love of Dungeons & Dragons. Part of this, Dear discovered, involved venturing with friends into the steam tunnels underneath the university as a form of high stakes live-action roleplaying.

Dear began to speculate that Dungeons & Dragons was involved with the case. In a press conference on 2 September he announced that '[James] Dallas Egbert was playing Dungeons & Dragons in the tunnels beneath the campus'. National media was already interested in the case, with Dear's associates fielding calls from CBS news, Time Magazine, National Broadcasting Company, Associated Press, and United Press International.

An extract from 'Dallas Morning News' read: 'The teenager, James Dallas Egbert III, disappeared August 15, and police have searched without success eight miles of steam tunnels underneath the campus where Egbert was believed to have played a medieval fantasy game called 'Dungeons & Dragons' … 'I personally think if he's alive, he's playing … we're pawns in this game and we're being utilized to satisfy his own needs,' Badgley said [Captain of Michigan State University police]'.

On 13 September 1979 James Dallas Egbert III was found by William Dear in Morgan Louisiana, and released into the custody of his uncle. Less than a month had passed since the investigation for the missing college student. Yet the story of a dangerous new game that exerted hypnotic and destructive habits onto its players would remain.

Dark Dungeons, 1984

In 1984 Jack Chick published a comic book entitled 'Dark Dungeons'. The comic followed the story of Marcie and Debbie, two high school students enthralled with a new game called 'Dark Dungeons'. When Marcie's character is killed by a poison trap, the game's ringleader Ms Frost banishes Marcie from the game. Marcie, distraught, dies by suicide surrounded by dragon and wizard figurines. Debbie is encouraged by Ms Frost to forget about her friend, claiming that Debbie is now powerful enough to 'really cast spells' alongside Ms Frost's coven of witches. Debbie is confronted by a friend, who takes her to see a preacher. The preacher orders any evil spirits to leave Debbie, who then accepts Jesus into her life and burns her 'Dark Dungeons' materials.

Jack Chick, publishing independently under his own company Chick publications, specialised in evangelical Christian comic books. These comic books, known as Chick Tracts, were typically three-by-five inches, and 20 pages in length. Beginning publication in 1961 with 'Why No Revival?', Chick aligned himself with 'new evangelicalism', a Christian movement that was as oppositional and militant as it was conspiratorial. Amongst Chick's favourite scapegoats were the Vatican, feminism, homosexuality, and communism.

It is tempting to dismiss Chick as a hack sensationalist. Yet his work was a staple of Christian bookstores, with an estimated total publication of 500 million items. Of these, 'Dark Dungeons' was by far the most widely distributed. To bolster his 'credentials', Chick associated himself with Alberto Rivera, a former Jesuit priest who claimed the Catholic Church secretly orchestrated the Holocaust, and Dr Rebecca Brown, a physician who accused her former hospital of being overtaken by a coven of witches.

The CBS special again

One year later (1985), Dr Thomas Radecki would declare on CBS news that: 'In one case the parents actually saw their child summon a dungeons and dragons demon into his room before he killed himself. In another case the kid thought he had the ability to astral travel, that he could leave his body and come back. He rigged it up, just according to the rule book, he was surrounded by his materials … he put a bullet in his head and he's never come back'.

How do you map the life-cycle of a conspiracy theory? At what point does truth become fiction, and can fiction ever become truth? Could the detractors of 'Dungeons & Dragons' really believe that it gave its players occult powers? Or did this fear manifest itself as a benign uneasiness that something was very wrong with the children?

Patricia Pulling looking straight into the camera, her voice terse and direct said: 'If it is the truth you can't change it. The children are dying, Ed. The children are dying out there, and people aren't telling'.

What actually happened

This is a story about truth.

In 1977 James Dallas Egbert III was sent to university four years earlier than his peers. He became an active member of the universities Gay Council, an activist group that promoted gay rights at Michigan State University. He loved fantasy, science fiction, and computers. A shy boy with epilepsy, he became involved with the university's drug and party scene, and would party at the local Michigan gay bars. He would also get involved with games of 'Dungeons & Dragons' with his peers, although several students considered him to be immature.

By 1979 Dallas was deeply depressed. As a sophomore he had made few lasting friendships, and was under increasing pressure to perform academically, despite studying amongst peers five years older. His attempts to come out as gay to his parents were met with scepticism and resistance. His love of 'Dungeons & Dragons' had evolved into a form of Live Action Role Playing (LARP'ing) in the steam tunnels under the university, and trestling, lying on the inside of train tracks and letting locomotives pass overhead. By August Dallas was suicidal, and attempted a drug overdose in the university's steam tunnels. When Dallas awoke some days later, he fled the university.

Within a month William Dear was employed to find the missing Dallas Egbert. He travelled to Michigan State University and interviewed several students on the campus. Dear learned about a game called 'Dungeons & Dragons', but did not understand what it was. A growing fascination with the mystery of the university steam tunnels, amplified through the 24-hour news cycle, turned the case into a national sensation.

The myth of 'Dungeons & Dragons' as a dangerous game was beginning to spiral out of control

Between August and September 1979 Dallas travelled over 1,000 miles to Morgan City, Louisiana, and began working in an oil field. He attempted suicide a second time, but when this second attempt failed, and by now aware of the scandal surrounding his absence, Dallas turned himself in to William Dear. Dear collected him from Louisiana, and drove him to Texas. Dallas confessed his depression, suicide attempts, and homosexuality to Dear, and swore him to secrecy. Dear agreed. Within a year Dallas died as a result of suicide. In 1981 Rona Jaffe published 'Mazes and Monsters', a thinly-veiled reimagining of the Dallas investigation. The book was a bestseller, and fast-tracked for a motion picture one year later. The myth of 'Dungeons & Dragons' as a dangerous game was beginning to spiral out of control.

On 9 June 1982 Irving Pulling died by suicide. His mother, Patricia Pulling, was distraught by this tragedy. Patricia discovered Irving's love of 'Dungeons & Dragons', and became convinced of its culpability in her son's death. Pulling filed a lawsuit against Tactical Studies Rules, Inc., but this was dismissed before reaching court. By 1983 she founded the public advocacy group B.A.D.D., and began to publish information that accused 'Dungeons & Dragons' of encouraging devil worship and suicide. Pulling later became a director of the National Coalition on TV Violence.

In 1984 Jack Chick published 'Dark Dungeons'. The comic was a sensation, and began circulating amongst Christian bookstores. Chick, whose other tracts included 'Allah had No Son' and 'The Gay Blade', aligned himself with Alberto Rivera and Dr Rebecca Brown. Three years earlier an exposé by 'Cornerstone Magazine' revealed that Rivera had arrest warrants issued in New Jersey and Florida, and was wanted by the Spanish police for fraud. In 1984 Brown was stripped of her medical licence for misdiagnosing mentally ill patients with 'demonic possession'.

That same year William Dear published 'The Dungeon Master', an autobiographical account of the Dallas investigation. Dear continued to struggle to define 'Dungeons & Dragons', and prefaced the book with a disclaimer that any descriptions of the game may not be an accurate representation. Sphere Books, the publisher, courted controversy and described the book as telling the story of 'a dangerous adventure where a lonely boy's fantasies became a terrifying reality'.

In 1985 Patricia Pulling, alongside Dr Thomas Radecki of the National Coalition on TV Violence, and 'Dungeons & Dragons' creator Gary Gygax, appeared in a '60 minutes' feature by CBS News. Dr Radecki's medical faculty accreditation was revoked in 1985 by the University of Illinois, but he continued to claim accreditation until 1991. Radecki's medical license was revoked in 1992 and 2012 on allegations of unprofessional conduct with patients.

Over the next few years several legal cases were brought against Tactical Studies Rules, Inc., yet none of them successfully managed to demonstrate that 'Dungeons & Dragons' was responsible for instances of murder or suicide. Despite this, in 1989 the second edition of 'Advanced Dungeons & Dragons' removed all references to demons, devils, and other potentially controversial subjects. These would not be reintroduced until the third edition of the game, published in 2000.

Today, the 1980s 'Dungeons & Dragons' scandals and concurrent 'Satanic Panic' are considered a peculiar footnote in late 20th century American cultural history. 'Dungeons & Dragons', now owned by a subsidiary of the Hasbro brand, has since published the fifth edition of its rulebook. Its detractors have fallen into relative obscurity. Chick Publications is still in operation.

It is difficult to imagine how 'Dungeons & Dragons' became the centrepiece of a full-throated culture war. Yet in an era of instant communication, when politicians encourage the distrust of journalists, and when one individual can communicate to the world with a few strokes of a keypad, the truth becomes a rare and valuable thing. Alan Rusbridger, former editor of 'The Guardian', wrote in 2018: 'We have created the most prodigious capability for spreading lies the world has ever seen. And the economic system for supporting journalism looks dangerously unstable. The stakes for truth have never been higher'.

Reading list

  • 'Breaking News : the Remaking of Journalism and Why it Matters Now' by Alan Rusbirdger (Edinburgh : Canongate Books Ltd, 2018) [National Library shelfmark: HB2.218.9.36].
  • 'Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic over Role-Playing Games Says about Play, Religion, and Imagined Worlds' by Joseph Laycock (Oakland, CA : University of California Press, 2015) [National Library shelfmark: PB8.215.228/3].
  • 'Dungeons & Dragons : Men & Magic' by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson (Renton, WA: Wizards of the Coast, 2013) [National Library shelfmark: PB7.215.22/2].
  • 'The Dungeon Master' by William Dear (London : Sphere Books Ltd, 1985) [National Library shelfmark: HP1.86.52].
  • 'Mazes and Monsters' by Rona Jaffe (London : Hodder and Stoughton, 1982) [National Library shelfmark: N3.82.149].
  • 'Religion of Fear : The Politics of Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism' by Jason Bivins (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2008) [National Library shelfmark: HB2.208.10.1580].
  • 'Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s' by Kier-La Janisse and Paul Corupe (Surrey : FAB Press, 2016) [National Library shelfmark: PB8.218.156/12].

 

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