Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Big Game Wednesday - The Satanic Panic

In 1979, a year before I ever played Dungeons & Dragons, a college student named James Dallas Egbert III went missing from Michigan State University.

The case made national headlines, because not only was Egbert a young genius (started college at 14, a 16-year-old sophomore when he disappeared) but police were speculating that his disappearance had something to do with a game called Dungeons & Dragons. Not only was Egbert supposedly an avid player, but there were rumors that some students had been playing a live-action variant in the steam tunnels below the campus, and a push-pin map of the steam tunnels was found in Egbert's room. Perhaps Egbert had been injured in a game, or perhaps he had become despondent over the death of a favorite character and decided to kill himself. Perhaps he had become so obsessed with the game that he had lost his grasp on reality. Speculation ran rampant.

When Egbert was found some time later (as detailed in private investigator William Dear's book, The Dungeon Master), the truth was much more mundane, involving drugs and issues of sexual identity. But those details never received the press that the D&D speculation did, especially when Rona Jaffe wrote a novel inspired by the idea called Mazes and Monsters, which in turn was made into a crappy TV movie starring Tom Hanks. When Egbert killed himself the next year, in August of 1980 (about the same time I was first being introduced to the game, in fact), the truth no longer mattered. In the eyes of the world at large, Egbert was a D&D suicide.

If he had been the only one, there wouldn't have been a problem. But in 1982, Irving Pulling killed himself, and Pulling's mother, Patricia, claimed it was because a curse had been placed on him during a D&D game. Pulling sued TSR, the publishers of the game, and founded a group called B.A.D.D. (Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons, intentionally copying the initials of Mothers Against Drunk Driving).

When Pulling's group hooked up with the National Coalition on Television Violence, she was able to get her message to newspapers across the country. According to this article, Dr. Thomas Radecki was NCTV's only member, but as someone who sorted mail at a newspaper in the 80's, I can tell you he put out a lot of official-looking press releases and got the organization's name in a lot of papers. Radecki even lobbied the FTC and the Consumer Protection Agency to prevent the game from being sold.

Meanwhile, religious groups had been objecting to the game's content from the start, and after two suicides, they stepped things up. Dungeons & Dragons was just another element of the general Satanic panic that really got into gear when the McMartin Preschool trial hit the headlines. They just seemed to fit so perfectly together, a shadowy international conspiracy of Satanists using an addictive game as a recruiting tool.

I remember being in a game store, watching a teenager try to wheedle money out of his grandfather to buy some fantasy wargame, with the kid saying, "It's not Dungeons & Dragons, Grandpa," to which the old man replied, pointing at the illustration on the box, "Well, I don't know. That sure looks like a dragon right there. Isn't that a dragon?"

One summer when I was home on vacation, my mom called me back to her room to listen to a letter they were going to read on TBN (the Trinity Broadcasting Network) about the game. It went something like this:

Dear Paul and Jan,

A dear friend of mine has two teenaged sons and recently got married again, to a man who is not a Christian. He has recently taken to calling himself the Dungeon Master and started playing a game with the boys called Dungeons & Dragons. When my friend and the boys came to stay with us for a couple of days, they brought the game with them. As soon as I saw the books, I knew they were from the Pit.

The boys went into another room to play the game, so I sat down with their mother and told her how wrong the game was. We prayed about it together, then brought in the boys and told them what we had been discussing. They are good Christian boys, so eventually they agreed with us that the books should be destroyed.

We dumped the books into a metal trash can to be burned. When I touched a match to the pages, the books screamed.

At which point my mom wanted to know what the hell it was I was doing every Saturday up at college. And the hits just kept on coming. After Egbert's disappearance in 1979, his suicide in 1980, the TV movie and Pulling's suicide in 1982, and the McMartin trial in 1983 (which was unrelated to D&D, but helped crank up Satanic hysteria to new levels), some douchebag named Sean Sellers had to go and kill his parents in 1986, then offer D&D as a defense at his trial (Sellers later backed away from blaming the game per se--that was just something his lawyers had hyped up, he claimed, because the real reason he'd killed his parents, demon possession as a consequence of Satanic rituals, wouldn't fly in court).

And that brought it all together nicely--Satanism, Dungeons & Dragons, and violently deviant behavior all in one package. Sellers became the poster boy for everything bad about role-playing games, and helped contribute to the image of the D&D player not as socially awkward genius, but as loser outcast hanging onto sanity by the thinnest of threads and ready to snap. [And then, of course, I ended up marrying one of Sellers's closest friends, but that's a different story]

It kind of sucked to be a gamer there for a while, when every time you mentioned the game to non-gamers, the reaction was, "Oh yeah, wasn't there a kid who went crazy and killed himself?"

The bad publicity didn't kill the game's popularity, though. Dungeons & Dragons is now in its fourth edition and is still the 800-pound gorilla of the RPG world, and nowadays, when you tell people you're a gamer, the reaction is either, "Oh yeah, I played that for a while when I was 13," or maybe "Is that like WOW?", or else they just think you're a socially maladjusted loser (which, to be fair, may be true). But at least they don't think you're an incipient Satanist just one bad die roll from murder/suicide.

That honor has now passed to video gamers courtesy of Doom.


Anonymous said...

I went through high school in the late 80s as both a gamer AND a heavy metal fan...yeah, I was pretty much Satan incarnate there. Not being a christian sure didn't help either. As among my fellow students if you didn't worship god, well, there wasn't anybody else to worship except the Big D.

Marc Carlson said...

So what does it mean when you go back to it as an adult?

Besides, I always thought it was great with the books screamed...

TheyStoleFrazier'sBrain said...

This is the internet. We don't deal in your so-called "meaning" here. We splatter our thoughts against the wall and let the reader take what he will. Any meaning to be found is being realized by some NSA computer, collating millions o posts on this and other unrelated subjects and achieving a Lovecraftian sort of consciousness in the interrelation of them all.

Or something.

Seriously, for me, going back to gaming after so many years away, is pretty much a function of living alone for the first time in so many years + having found people with more-or-less compatible gaming styles to game with. Something that gets harder as you get older, it seems.