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We don’t play D&D: a timeline

In keeping with this blog’s current trending toward pictureless confessionals and ridiculous ruminations on avatars, here’s more of the same.

I wasn’t allowed to play RPGs as a kid.

More specifically, I wasn’t permitted to play computer games in which you could create or alter your own character. Sometime, maybe a year and a half ago, I mentioned this fact on a podcast which, along with my semi-lyrical overuse of the word “totally,” seemed to arouse some bafflement and curiosity. “Why wouldn’t her mom let her play role-playing games?” some folks wanted to know. I hadn’t elaborated—I’d only mentioned it offhandedly—and perhaps that caused some people to be discouraged.

Of course, I was surprised by their surprise. Do these people not know, I wondered, that playing fantasy games will turn you into a warlock and your bedroom closet into a portal to hell?

I obviously have some lingering issues.

The power of urban myth

I was born in 1982, and I spent almost all of my childhood in a small, conservative town in Texas, during what I’ve now heard called the “Satanic Panic.”

The late 70s and early 80s are banner years for contemporary legend anthropologists. Urban myths—the likes that get a foothold among small-town Christian fundamentalist communities—were running amok. In 1977, Ray Kroc of McDonald’s allegedly copped to being a member of the Church of Satan. Fact. And in the early 1980s, it was common knowledge that Cabbage Patch Dolls themselves were possessed by demons. Duh.

One variation on the Cabbage Patch legend held that Xavier Roberts signed the buttocks of his doll-progeny to signify that he had blessed each one in the name of Satan. These bits of trivia were pronounced at the tables of our elementary school lunchroom as cold, hard evidence that evil dolls could, in fact, murder you in your sleep, if they wanted to.

dd_1

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, urban legends became only slightly more sophisticated. Satan’s workers were everywhere: they were the therapists who hypnotized their patients, the moms who let children play with Ouija boards at slumber parties, the subjects of Chick tracts. One needed to always be on her guard.

Like me, my best childhood friend grew up under a ton of restrictions. For her, R.L. Stine books were tragically off-limits, and so was celebrating Halloween—not because of religious fervor, mind, but because of the razor blades.

From the late 1970s until the early 1990s, and as part of this fundamentalist hokum, it was widely “known” that Dungeons and Dragons warped the brains of my peers, that players were rumored to wander beneath their schools like mole people, and that kids were becoming Wiccans and murdering their families and themselves. In short, D&D was that era’s Marilyn Manson. But the panic surrounding Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games now seems widely undocumented—what a shame, that history has forgotten.

Egbert’s subterranean quest

In 1979, James Dallas Egbert III disappeared into the tunnels beneath Michigan State University where, at the tender age of 16, he was already a student. That much is unequivocal fact. Ostensibly, Egbert went down there to go LARPing; as newspapers told it, he was a D&D aficionado who had simply vanished beneath his school to combat the monsters within. In a way, this wasn’t totally untrue: Egbert intended to commit suicide (his third attempt, in 1980, was successful).

The idea of a misfit teen vanishing into a real-life labyrinth to literally conquer his own demons was admittedly gripping, though, and the fantastic story was widely (and inaccurately) reported by the press. It captured the popular imagination, and the apocryphal story was only encouraged by copycat accounts of D&D players vanishing underground. Other gamers, too, were rumored to have committed suicide or murder.

A novelization of Egbert’s supposed D&D fixation, Mazes and Monsters, was published in 1981. The novel’s popularity resulted in the cautionary, made-for-television movie version of Mazes and Monsters, starring Tom Hanks.

Editor’s note: Because up to this point things have been serious and facts-based, I shouldn’t suddenly embed a video. But, no, this video is awesome.

In 1984, investigator William Dear wrote The Dungeon Master: The Disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III in an attempt to clarify the circumstances surrounding Egbert’s disappearance and suicide. He asserted that Egbert had exhibited antisocial behavior, and he’d abused drugs heavily—both, incidentally, symptoms of what has been called chronic suicide. But Dear’s account of Egbert’s death wasn’t enough to assuage what had become widespread, and often religious, panic.

And in spite of the misconstruction of the facts, Egbert’s disappearance and subsequent death were quite enough to aggrandize D&D fervor for at least the next decade. The reality of what had happened—a singular case of protracted bullying, social ostracism, self-destructive behavior, and intrinsic chemical imbalance—somehow became part of what was essentially, at that time, a broader superstition.

My parents bought into it.

When I say “parents,” though, you should be warned that I have two sets of them.

My daddy loved D&D

I remember watching with great interest as mom, dad, and their friends—all geeks in their 20s—lay around the living room with their beers and put pen to paper. It was the early 1980s, and because I was so small, I was welcome to watch, so long as I remained quiet.

My parents were quintessential 1970s fantasy dorks. They were smart. They drew fantasy art, played fantasy games. They played Haunted House on the Atari 2600 against each other, and I watched.

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons: Treasure of Tarmin, 1982

My childhood was an unhappy one, though, and when I moved from Seattle to Texas to live with my father’s elderly relatives, I was given the Ground Rules. No more playing the Atari or the Nintendo. No Ouija boards or toys of the occult. No more watching Legend on VHS. No reading fantasy novels that hadn’t first been approved by a school librarian. No alcohol, in my life, ever. And above all, absolutely no RPGs.

In short, my birth parents’ tumultuous lives had confirmed for my adoptive parents exactly what they’d always feared: D&D is the devil.

I was terrified into abiding the Ground Rules. I feared that I myself was some kind of Mogwai who, if she reproduced any of her father’s actions, would turn into him. But the Ground Rules didn’t guard me from becoming a pariah. I was bullied, and I had trouble relating to classmates and adapting to small-town Texas life. I felt like I couldn’t communicate, and I was easily frustrated when I couldn’t quite make myself understood. I spent my afternoons reading books and hiding.

I was adopted by my relatives one year after my father’s own suicide (although, to be fair, I should point out that this is a contentious sidenote). He was 35. I was 11 years old then, and that Christmas we got our first computer and modem. As the youngest person in the household, I was the only person who knew how to operate the new machine.

I’m not sure why we got the computer; after all, even James Dallas Egbert III was a noted computer whiz. And I’m not sure why I was allowed to pick out games for the computer, either.

“Computer games,” my new mom sniffed, “are not the same as video games.”

What’s an RPG, anyway?

We needed to make new Ground Rules, some computer gaming Ground Rules. What games constituted as role-playing games, anyway? What would I be permitted to play?

My new mom’s real problem, albeit bolstered by her conservative beliefs, was with unhealthy escapism. Even now, I don’t disagree with her logic. But for her, working on a “character” directly conflicts with the real goal in life, which is to improve your own, actual person.

In that regard, my new parents’ RPG aversion had everything to do with identity and control.

dd_identity

So here I was, an 11-year old, and I wanted to play King’s Quest VI. I was adamant. My new mom was skeptical—It looks like a fantasy game! Fantasy!—so she phoned the Tabones.

The Tabones were a devoutly Catholic family of computer geeks who played adventure games and card games together. Each of the Tabone children was smart, happy, and well-adjusted, and the youngest was, at that time, my best friend.

Mrs. Tabone appreciated my new mom’s concern. She recommended any Sierra adventure game “except Quest for Glory,” because in that game, you could choose your hero’s class: that made it an RPG.

So we settled on computer games with linear narratives that deemphasized action or combat—these games were most like books and least like Atari—and on games that starred “static” heroes. The King’s Quest series was fine. And, by this seemingly strict definition, even JRPG adventures like Final Fantasy VII were probably fine. (Tears were shed over Gabriel Knight II, however, as the ESRB gave that adventure game an “M” rating. That’s a different story.)

Ceding ground

By high school, I was somehow navigating adolescent social terrain like a pro: I had learned to conceal my enthusiasm for adventure games and, very nearly, how to participate in routine conversation. My boyfriend was a smart computer nerd who wore witty T-shirts and watched a lot of Comedy Central and seemed normal, and he encouraged my secret nerd life. He bought me a copy of Gabriel Knight II, and I cried.

I also, at last, tried out Betrayal at Krondor. I logged into MUDs; I downloaded roguelikes. I hoped my parents wouldn’t discover me.

In a moment of weakness, I played Betrayal at Krondor, and I'd DO IT AGAIN, coppers!

One night, my boyfriend and I went to the class valedictorian’s house to play D&D. I respectfully declined to play, choosing instead to watch. As the game wore on, I felt myself disappearing.

I was also scared. “I wish you wouldn’t play this,” I whispered to my boyfriend. I wasn’t invited to another game night after that.

Despite my newfound social skills, I didn’t want to be cruel to my very oldest geek friends, so some mornings, I’d find my nerds. My nerds and I went way back, like, all the way back to elementary school. Now, though, they were the willfully isolated crowd who played D&D and Magic: the Gathering in the hall before the first bell rang. I’d hover over them, maybe a little condescendingly, and watch them play card and tabletop games. They were a quiet, smart bunch; they kept to themselves and they wore long coats. They embarrassed me, but I’d grown up with them.

After the Columbine shootings, someone came to my classroom, called out my name, and hustled me to the school’s main office. There, an administrator sat down across from me and glared at me sidelong.

“You know those kids who play games before school, right? They’re your friends, right?”

I nodded.

“Some kids are calling them like a ‘Trench Coat Mafia,’” she said. “What do you think?”

I was horrified. I was outraged. I was offended for them. What, because they’re weird and they wear coats? I gave the school administrator a lecture on bullying.

In the years following, I’ve become convinced that D&D and other dweeb-hobbies don’t cause depression or criminal behavior—they only turn you into a moving target for other people’s lack of understanding.

New terrain

I eventually scuttled away to college. I pierced my ears; I bought a PS2 and another Atari 2600; I joined a rock band. I played first-person shooters. I spent a summer living in a frat house filled with Warhammer and Maxim enthusiasts. I graduated in four years. Then I took on a part-time job playing RPGs for money—because of the time investment, RPGs paid more than other games, or so I explained to my parents on the phone. The truth is, by now, I’ve played tons of RPGs.

Here, it seems important to acknowledge that, as time has passed, games aren’t as limited by genre distinctions. It follows that “RPG” has come to encompass more than just D&D and tabletop -like games. No longer necessarily an acronym for “role-playing game,” the RPG genre includes Zelda and other fantastical adventure games, or tactical strategy games, action-y sandbox games, games that don’t essentially rely on level-grinding, XP, and character attributes. My elderly parents’ definition of an RPG is now worn and dated.

Still, I’ve never actually played Dungeons and Dragons. I’m not really sure what that means.

Once, though, in college, my friend Alex and I dug out an old Ouija board. Alex was the drummer in our band. We used to practice in our frontman’s mom’s basement, which was this subterranean labyrinth of antiquated odds and ends: there was a dartboard, barstools, a ton of pinball machines, and old, boxed board games stacked into spires. And we found this Ouija board, unboxed it, and put it on the floor between us.

Alex and I had our fingers on the pointer, and the planchette was moving across the bottom of the board, and Alex was asking dumb questions about boners. And then the planchette stopped on 3, and then, again, on 5.

I whispered, “I wish we wouldn’t play this.”

Postscript, belatedly: Over at The Escapist, in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, Russ Pitts wrote a pretty great column, The Devil in Ms. Pac-Man.

10 responses to “We don’t play D&D: a timeline” »

  1. Kevin Bunch says:

    It’s interesting that you posted this up now. Only two weeks ago I started playing D&D for the first time ever. I’ve played other RPGs, but not the quintessential one.

    And it’s strange. There’s just something about D&D that makes playing it a different experience than the Star Wars game I played in a while back, or any console RPG. I think it may well have to do with the social stigma you mentioned from the 80s and 90s; I certainly would probably never have gotten around to try it had it not been for the efforts of socially well-adjusted geek friends who love the game. Honestly? For all the weirdness, it’s pretty neat.

    But then suburban Detroit, I think, is a different realm entirely from conservative Texas.

  2. Adam R says:

    I never wanted to play D&D as a kid, but I can guarantee that my parents would not have let me. It had a reputation for warping the minds of children even outside of the religious community.

    I have vague memories of seeing a tv show—it’s too long ago to remember which one, but it was a 60 Minutes type show—describing how players received missions in the game which they had to accomplish in real life e.g., killing animals, stealing, causing chaos. As a kid I didn’t know much about D&D, but I remember thinking of the dungeon master (I didn’t know the term back then) as a type of cult leader.

    So yeah, there is no way my parents were going to let me play that.

  3. Dale says:

    I’m only a few years older than you, born in 1979, and I definitely remember the paranoia going around. My friends and I didn’t even know anyone who played D&D, but we sure had it drilled into our heads that this was a bad thing to get into. I remember a story about some kid in Ohio who thought the game was real and killed his friend because he thought they were demons. Or, at least, that’s how the story went by the time it got to us. There’s been multiple permutations, countless variances.

    Ah, but then, my parents were pretty hypocritical about this stuff. My dad turned off “Howard The Duck” when they started talking about “overlords from another realm”, but then let me watch “Robocop”, “Mad Max” and “Terminator.” “Bedknobs and Broomsticks”, on the other hand, well, that was witchcraft. We wouldn’t have any of that in our house. Crappy B-movies and slasher flicks were just fine, though. He’s also the one who introduced me to video games when he brought home an Atari 2600 one day. Eventually, we upgraded to the NES, but he found that too complicated and never bothered with video games again. Kind of a shame…

    My mom, on the other hand… She took me to see “Gremlins” and loved it. While most mothers were screaming and running out of the theater with their kids, she was laughing the whole time. She says she doesn’t like scary movies but I’ve caught her watching flicks like “Rosemary’s Baby”, “The Exorcist” and “Poltergeist”. As for games, my mom bought “Mortal Kombat” for me for Christmas. I specified that I wanted the Genesis version because “it has blood in it” and she didn’t have any problem with that at all. Later, she got a real kick out of running people over in “GTA 3”, even thought it was hilarious when I showed her how to pick up a hooker and then “get your money back.” D&D, however? Straight out of the question. No, nay, never. Again, my parents didn’t really make a lot of sense.

    Great article, by the way. I passed the link on to a couple of my friends.

  4. Luana says:

    I was a voracious reader, having started to read at the age of three. As a result, I became very paranoid about my Halloween candy, a reluctant participant in a book burning (I believe I “sacrificed” a Christopher Pike book out of peer pressure), and Magic/D&D. Something about “the occult” just felt wrong, and to this day, I attribute it to the Chick tracts that would end taped on our door.

    When cleaning out our house for my in-laws’ arrival, we found the Chick tracts that Lor got in her bag. Even though I know better than to buy into their messages, they still held a strange power over me. We pored over them online with two of my friends during our New Year’s celebration. One of them, having grown up and remained very devout, had never even heard of Jack Chick. She laughed and scowled at the things she was reading. I sat on the armchair, eight feet away, still unsettled.

    Some things just stick with you, I guess.

  5. Larry M says:

    I grew up around this time and I my childhood was not all that dissimilar. Sub in Indiana for Texas and, yeah, that’s pretty close.

    I also bounced from Christian School to Christian School which added an extra dollop of mind-frakery to everything. Kids I were friends with weren’t all that concerned about the normal things kids were concerned with when they are in 2nd and 3rd grade. Instead we all had weighty theological questions to deal with like whether Star Wars (which we all loved) should be considered an advocation of Satanism thanks to the presence of the Force, or whether the Force could be considered a metaphor for Jesus. Seriously. In Christian Schools and Fundamentalist Churches Satanists ran wild in the streets, the Anti-Christ was coming, and hell was very real to a small kid. And the smallest infraction could send you spiraling downwards.

    The only reason my Parents relented and bought me a Nintendo and relented again and bought me a Super Nintendo was to keep me out of the arcades (this didn’t actually work until the PSOne rolled out). But even then I had ground rules, and one of those was no games with magic, or demons, or Satan in them. So when I wanted to play Castlevania, or Legend of Zelda I just lied. Flat out. I mean, how would anyone know if that two tone sprite was Dracula or Cyborg Hitler anyway? And whenever some explicit form of magic or sorcery was called for to clear a level I always made sure my Mom and Dad were out of eye shot of the second T.V. they set up for my NES in the living room.

    In a weird way that experience started me down the path to my current agnosticism and detest for organized religions. Initially I felt a certain amount shame at my perceived “sin” of playing Zelda or Final Fantasy, then I began to think to myself, Wait, so God is going to reserve the same eternal punishment for me because I played Zelda that he would also reserve for someone that murdered a person. Really? Even at 10 years old that made no sense, but that was what, in essence, the Christian Fundamentalists were all but teaching.

    Anyway, thanks for writing this. I found deeply cathartic and entertaining

  6. Tom K says:

    Fascinating stuff. I love your thoughtfulness and honesty.

    I suppose every gamer (religious or not) who is also serious about his or her real life has to wonder—is it right to put so much of myself into these machines? Sure, I have ‘a life’ and all, but am I really just running it at 70%? Small wonder if it seems less fulfilling that way… or am I just depressed and looking for the scapegoat my mother might have pointed to?

  7. Ifer says:

    I was lucky, I guess.

    I grew up playing mostly educational computer games, collecting Pokemon cards and reading low-to-high fantasy at a high-school level during elementary, then switched to pure fantasy, with adventure games and Magic cards after middle school.

    Only in high school did I first learn about the religious stigma surrounding fantasy-based activities and found it quite ridiculous, frankly.

    My parents, while practising Christians, are quite lenient and accepting people and encouraged my sisters and me to explore our boundaries, within reason, and decide largely for ourselves what was appropriate, though they were willing and able to help with preliminary research and suggestions beforehand. We played a few homebrew pen-and-paper sessions with a family friend as a family activity, and got our first video game station (PS2) to play DDR on when my youngest sister entered grade 9.

    As a technology-friendly, logic-based household, I guess I was in some ways quite sheltered (we didn’t used to listen to the radio or watch much on TV that wasn’t E-rated, though we were free to do so if we wanted), and in other ways abnormally wordly. As such, I guess I simply wasn’t exposed to the same kinds of stigmas that the average person is. shrug

  8. The number of people who are well-adjusted and play RPGs would astound you. Many of us break the stereotype. Being able to play due to open-minded parents allowed me to develop a more secure since of myself. It gave me the curious spark to find out about others.

    Its essentially just acting and cooperative story-telling; and the idea that it should be thought of as any more or less never crossed my own mind. In fact, I was a full 3 years into the hobby before I discovered the stigma. But I can remember going to the park with my friends when I was young, grilling out over the bar-b-q in suburban Atlanta with two of the dads, and then the group of boys playing D&D. One of our most common ‘watchers’ at this age was a devout catholic who was an avid fan of Tom Clancy.

    I can remember going to another friends house, and having his mom cook us supper, while we played D&D until the wee hours of the morning, only to step outside and realize it was fully light out. This gaming group continues to this day, even after about a decade.

    I’m not saying my hobby is superior to yours. I’m just saying its not so different. You wouldn’t believe the number of people who play D&D. Political Pundits, Actors, even an inmate and Wisconsin wanted to play. Here is a short list, not that it should matter, I think it is neat to know the number of people who play. Stephen Colbert. Vin Diesel. Dame Judi Dench (Taught the Game by Vin on Set). Jenny McCarthy. Lexa Doig. Robin Williams.

    Charles Manson (Okay, that didn’t help my case, except that everyone plays).

    Its just a hobby, no more, no less.

  9. Reese says:

    Great little trip down memory lane.

    I was born in 1975, and remember well the hysteria about playing D&D. My two older brothers, my neighbor and several friends played it any day it was raining in summertime. We all carried around a pouch at all times with various sided dice. We wrote our own adventures and took turns being the “Dungeon Master”.

    Not only did I not become a Satan worshiping, black coat wearing, wiccan spell casting demonizer. I actually went on to become a Christian Youth Pastor, and taught a new generation of youth the exciting games of my youth like Risk, Axis & Allies, D&D, and Shogun.

    D&D especially helped nurture the creative side of my personality, helped me develop patterns of decision making, consider consequences of actions, not to mention math, geometry, nature, and measurements.

    Anyhow, thanks for the trip down memory lane.

  10. delusion says:

    I was in the D&D group during high school in the late 80s – nothing organized, just one of the few kids who played it. Physics class was a talking shop for just about anything other than the subject of physics, so it wasn’t uncommon for me and three or four friends to be discussing role-playing games, computer games, and computers more generally.

    One day, when the conversation turned toward AD&D, we were discussing high-level adventures that dealt with “evil” powerful entities, such as demons, daemons, and devils.

    The girl in front of me who was in a popular clique but was one of those social butterflies who could (and would) talk to anyone, in a lull in her own conversation, was listening in, then turned around and asked me “which of those are real?”.

    My answer, after a few seconds of blinking silence, was “well, none of them”. I meant this in a specific as well as a more general way.

    “Right, I know it’s just a game and it’s all just imaginary, but which of them are most closely based on actual creatures from hell?”

    “I’m a deist. I believe in a god we can’t know much if anything about. Hell is a fantasy.”

    Now since then, I’ve abandoned my then-recent deism for the nonsensical house of cards it is, and journeyed through the lands of agnosticism and headed toward the horizons of atheism.

    It’s important to note that this girl was not a sheltered religious fundamentalist Protestant (or a Catholic who in our community would have been an even more unusual entity). This was a normal, intelligent, popular girl who considered herself Christian and wasn’t waiting for Rapture or anything nutty like that. But this was, I think, about 1987 or 1988 and this was the height of Satanic Panic. Where she was merely curious as to which faction was closest to “fact”, a lot of people were a lot more than curious. It didn’t help that since the earliest days of D&D that some of the artwork had been controversial, including topless female figures (bare-chested amazons, harpies and female devils come to mind). I attribute this to the imagination of young boys more than anything intrinsically related to D&D. The funny thing about this is how bad some of the artwork was – the various incarnations of the game was almost entirely devoid of “good” artwork until about 1981 when the bizarre artwork of Errol Otus graced the cover of the re-designed D&D Basic Rules boxed set, and it wasn’t until the late 1980s when you simply didn’t see any amateurish artwork in any TSR product whatsoever. The idea that we were going to be titillated by something like this: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wi.....ons%29.jpg (mildly suggestive, NSFW) was a non-starter. We all had access to real pornography at that time and age, just like boys that age do today, and all the kids I kept up with have managed to have healthy relationships with women.

    I had cousins who were expected to attend church every Sunday and were most certainly not allowed to play Dungeons and Dragons or Ouija, and were taught to feel deep-seated shame if a word like “shit” accidentally escaped their lips. I was worried about, in some circles, for a host of indiscretions throughout my life such as being interested in the internal workings of animals, shooting birds with bb guns, playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, listening to thrash metal (Ann Thrax? Who’s she? – well before “anthrax” would have entered the popular lexicon as a disease everyone had heard of), playing with fireworks, and eventually for ceasing to believe in God.

    Logically, this paranoia about people who behave differently is absurd, is destructive to community, and helps to isolate the very people at target for “anti-social” behaviour. I was a typical computer nerd in school – we did not wear pocket protectors or tape up our glasses, we did not wear pants that were too short, and we didn’t have annoying laughs. We were intelligent, ultimately good kids, and I wonder if this rush to judgement wouldn’t have been at least ten times as bad had I been much younger and been in school during the Columbine era.

    News flash – most kids in high school who wear longcoats do so because they look good and are a classy alternative to the gaudy “true to your school” color jackets, and are about the best-looking option period if you’re a tall guy. I never understood the paranoia about long coats – was anyone really ever wearing a trenchcoat – a 1950’s style icon – to stick it to the man?

    Given the choice between a boogeyman like:

    heavy metal, AD&D, rejection of majoritarian religious doctrines
    or
    drugs, social isolation, bullying, heavy underage drinking

    most social conservatives and other victims of panic-news fads like “Satanic Panic” don’t feel the need to choose at all – they’re all facets of the same thing. For them it was a matter of course that listening to Judas Priest led to the suicide of two young boys, and if you countered that with “yes, but they were also doing drugs and were drunk at the time”, you haven’t countered it at all, you’ve merely reinforced the belief.

    Nobody wants to believe their kid committed suicide because his life was difficult and he didn’t have the tools to deal with parental neglect or bullying or destructive peer pressure. They look for a cause to blame so they can help “save” some other poor parent from the same tragedy, and simple answers are easier to offer as solutions.

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