16 June 2016

Remembering the 1980s panic over Dungeons and Dragons


I finally got around to watching this ‘retro-report’ from the New York Times: When Dungeons and Dragons Set Off a ‘Moral Panic’.

I think that it’s quite good. It summarizes some of the main elements of the great D&D panic of the early 1980s, including the claims that playing D&D ‘causes’ suicide and murder amongst teens (by making them loose touch with reality, by glorifying violence, and the like), and that it promotes ‘Satanism’ and ‘the occult’.

It has some interesting clips of Gary Gygax from 30+ years ago, as well as other news reports from that era, and some recent comments from Tim Kask. It also includes some contemporary reflections on the hobby, including great remarks from well-known authors like Cory Doctorow and Junot Diaz. Towards the end of the report, Diaz touchingly comments on the value of role-playing games like D&D in cultivating creativity, providing a ‘safe place’ for ‘unpopular’ kids to socialize and develop self-confidence, and so forth. It’s a very ‘pro’ D&D piece overall.

Watching the report reminded me of my own experience with the 1980s hysteria over Dungeons and Dragons. Fears of ‘Satanism’ and the like concerning the hobby were never as intense or widespread in Canada as they were in the United States. (I think this was, at least in part, because of the absence of anything comparable to the American ‘Bible Belt’ in Canada. While of course there are Canadian fundamentalist Christians, they are a much smaller portion of the overall population than they are within the United States.)  Nonetheless, there was something of an echo of the panic in Canada, and especially in southern Ontario where I grew up, probably because of its proximity to Michigan (where one of the famous incidents that inflamed the D&D panic occurred in 1979, as explained within the retro-report).

Here’s what happened to me. There was a role-playing club in my high school in London Ontario (I think it may simply have been called the ‘Dungeons and Dragons club,’ even though we played games other than D&D; I can’t remember now). One day, in 1985 I think, a news reporter and a cameraman from the local television station asked to film one of our games. Needless to say, this was quite a thrill for a gang of nerdy adolescent boys!  And it was especially thrilling for me, since I was the Dungeon Master. I was dizzy at the prospect of having ‘my’ game displayed on television. The glory!

So we played our game for about an hour. Afterwards the reporter asked us some questions about it. Stuff like:

  1. “Were you scared when the creature in the well surprised you and attacked your character?”
  2. “Why is your character named ‘Feldene’? Isn’t that a drug?” (I’m amazed that I still remember this.)
  3. “Do you get upset or angry when your character is hurt or killed?”

 We gave pretty boring answers to all of her (rather leading) questions:

  1. “No, I wasn’t scared, this is only a game.”
  2. “My dad is taking Feldene, and I thought it sounded like a cool name for an elf.”
  3. "I get a little upset when my character dies, but, you know, this is just a game.”

Over the subsequent two weeks I watched the six o’clock news like a hawk, waiting for my 15 minutes of fame. But it never happened. There never was any news story on our amazing high school RPG club. I was crushed.

One of my friends in the group understood why: “We just weren’t controversial enough; actually, we weren’t controversial at all.” If only my friend had named his elf ‘Heroin’! Or if only one of us had started weeping and screaming at the prospect of his third-level cleric being killed!

Perhaps having a DM like Ms. Frost would’ve helped us get on TV:


*sigh*

11 comments:

  1. The Satanic Panic -- great name for a band, that -- has always seemed a bit quaint to me. Britain in the 80's wasn't awash with fundamentalists either, so we didn't get the same sort of outrage. I think there was a minor fuss over the levels of violence in the Fighting Fantasy books, but nothing like what the US faced; I was reading an article the other day from someone who was introduced to D&D at his church group!

    Our equivalent panic was probably the "video nasty" scare; perhaps that took all the attention away from other potential threats.

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  2. How about the 2010s panic over Dungeons&Dragons, though?

    Then, it was "satanic"; today, it is "problematic". Then, it taught people "ritual sacrifice"; today, it teaches people "rape culture". Then, it drove people into suicide and insanity; today, it drives people into Gamergate and Donald Trump (or what have you).

    All in all, it has stayed a remarkably naughty game, and God bless it for that.

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    2. They're not making movies or books because that's not the go-to for these kinds of messages anymore. Nowadays its blogs and social media. Likewise, being worse "where you are" isn't a matter of geography, but a matter of where on the internet you go. Certain forums are now very hostile if you question to socio-political orthodoxy that's been adopted with regards to games.

      In that regard, D&D is just a subset of the larger moral panic that's going on with regards to games - a lot of it is centered around video games more than it is the tabletop.

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  3. How you should have answered:

    1. "Yeah, I wet myself. Wanna see?"
    2. "Why? You buying? 'Cause I got some really good stuff here..."
    3. "NOOOOOOO NOT BLACK LEAF!"

    ;)

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    1. Better yet:

      1. Hail Satan
      2. Hail Satan!
      3. HAIL SATAN!

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  4. You know what? I think I just realized where the nature of the comments are about to go.

    Yeah, Akrasia, I totally remember the Satanic Panic. I'm glad it didn't stick around. I have a copy of Mazes and Monsters on DVD because it's hysterical.

    ...I used to have that Chick tract, but I think I tossed it ages ago.

    Oh, and my grandma made my mom read this:
    https://www.amazon.com/Turmoil-Toy-Box-Phil-Phillips/dp/0914984047

    D&D got an entire chapter unto itself.

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  5. Quite right, Gary McCammon and DungeonMastahWieg. Our replies were rather lame. We were young and far too deferential. Indeed, we were (ridiculously) in awe of being in the presence of a real live television person.

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  6. I attended a private Christian school in California. I was 12. Some acquaintances outed me to the senior pastor of the church that ran the school. I was corrupting his son and other students. I was a "bad friend." You see, I introduced these innocent children to AD&D. My parents were called in. They were told that my soul was in danger. The school threatened that if I kept playing D&D that I would be expelled. I was confronted by my folks and went along with the hype, for a few years. Decades later, I am running a wonderful AD&D game, and my parents are very supportive. Never lost my soul or my faith.

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    1. Interesting story, Jomo Rising. I'm always amazed that things like this happened. My own parents were (and remain) devout Christians, but they never had any worries about my gaming. If anything, they thought it was a positive activity, as it greatly increased my reading and kept me "out of trouble."

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I'm a Canadian political philosopher who divides his time between Milwaukee and Toronto.