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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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?”
“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.
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.