"Dungeons & Dragons Defended"
Skeptical Inquirer on Dungeons & Dragons
on Tuesday 09 March 2010
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The Winter 1994 edition of Skeptical Inquirer magazine talks about RPGs and the bad name they get in the press.

OK, so I might be a little late to this party, but better late than never, right? If you're a gamer and you're over the age of 30, you no doubt remember the late 70s and early 80s when Dungeons & Dragons started its major growth spurt. Gaming groups were springing up everywhere, with new players being introduced to the idea of the role-playing game. Kids were bringing their character sheets and campaign notes to school and playing on their lunch breaks as well as before and after class, and it was sweeping through college dorms like the flood from an uncorked Decanter of Endless Water.

Doesn't really seem like something that Skeptical Inquirer, the publication of The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of the Claims of the Paranormal (now known more simply as The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry), would be interested in covering, does it? But while the phenomenon of D&D was new, it and other RPGs of its ilk still managed to attract far more than their fair share of negative attention. Inevitably, though, into every hobby that has fascinated and entralled young adults, some controversy must creep. D&D was no exception, and it all started back in August of 1979, when James Dallas Egbert III went missing from Michigan State University.

Instead of a normal missing persons case, what the nation got was reports from the media and the private detective hired by Egbert's family that blew everything all out of proportion, and advanced a number of theories based on slim or nonexistent evidence that Egbert had gotten so caught up in a game of Dungeons & Dragons that he became convinced that he and his character were one and the same, and headed down into the steam tunnels under the college to live out his heroic fantasy.

So, why was Skeptical Inquirer involved? Because Paul Cardwell, Jr. decided to conduct a study of the way roleplaying games were presented in the media, and his findings were unbelievable. Between 1979 and 1992, the Associated Press and United Press International ran one hundred and eleven stories mentioning RPGs. Out of those 111 stories, Cardwell discovered, 80 were blatantly anti-gaming, nine were neutral, and only three presented them in a positive light (the 19 remaining articles held no majority of opinion one way or another). This is to say nothing of the books, TV shows, and films which were written to portray D&D specifically or RPGs in general, in a negative light. Rona Jaffe was quick to jump on the media frenzy with her novel Mazes & Monsters, in which a character much like Egbert begins to treat the titular game he and his friends play as his own reality with predictably dire results. Tom Hanks got one of his first starring roles playing Robbie, the student who loses what tenuous grip on reality he had before the story starts, in the film follow-up. William Dear, the PI hired to locate Egbert by his family, later published The Dungeon Master, a 'true crime' account of his efforts to track down the MSU student. And all over the television, tabloid talk shows were discussing this "phenomenon" of gamers committing suicide. And while the Egbert case happened all the way back in 1979, people were still talking about how RPGs affect the minds of those who play over a decade later. Joe McGinniss, in 1991, managed to work D&D into his book Cruel Doubt, a study of a brutal murder (and attempted murder) which was precipitated by a desire for a multi-million dollar inheritance. It didn't help that Cruel Doubt was turned into a film one year later, reintroducing a fresh wave of D&D panic to the world. Jerry Bledsoe also wrote a book on the crime entitled Blood Games which was turned into the 1992 made-for-TV film Honor Thy Mother. Like Cruel Doubt, a significant emphasis is placed on Dungeons & Dragons as a catalyst to the crimes in both the book and the movie.

Cardwell notes in his nine-page article that, "While diminishing in frequency, attacks on role-playing games are still popular with the mass media." He breaks down and debunks the attacks made by such groups as B.A.D.D. (Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons), points out the incorrect conclusions presented by William Dear in his book, and seeks to correct what he feels is a gross mis-labeling of the phenomenon. "The collection of anti-game anecdotes," he writes, "has sometimes been called a 'modern urban legend' [...] Actually it is a collective delusion."

He couldn't be more correct. It seems easy for society to vilify that which it does not understand and thus does not desire its youth to get involved with. We've seen it with comic books, with music, with films, and most recently with video games. A thorough debunking of all the nonsense surrounding these false issues was a long-time coming. And while it might be fifteen years too late to report on this now, it's still worth pointing out when and where the voices of reason have been raised to defend our hobbies of choice, especially in a forum outside of the gaming world itself.

Those wishing to read the article in its entirety can find a copy of it archived here.

I was aware of the issue, and the story but being born in the 80s, I never saw this article. While you're definitely "a bit late to the party" it is good to remind people that controversy is no new problem and it is often followed by its children censorship and hysteria.

[ Comment by RedConversation :: 22 Jun : 11:34 ]

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