Thirty years ago, a war raged between the dorks who played Dungeons & Dragons, and the conservative parent groups who believed that gaming was debauched at best and Satanic at worst. Lives were ruined. People died. And now that war is over. I still can't believe we won.
Illustration from Expedition to the Barrier Peaks
When I was in sixth grade, D&D was pretty much the only fun thing to do at lunch. My friends and I would hide away in a little-used corridor leading to the backdoor of a classroom, far from the jerkoffs playing tetherball or freaking out on the parallel bars or whatever the hell people did who weren't on an important quest. I was always a half-elf thief with 18 charisma, because I was eleven years old and that made perfect sense. We made our way through all the weirdest, most absurdly difficult dungeon modules available — like the one where you go inside a crashed spaceship and meet Cthulhu bunnies, or another featuring thousands of levels of hell and psionic battles with spider demons.
We heard rumors about how some kids weren't allowed to play D&D. There was a pretty big evangelical Christian community where I grew up, and it wasn't uncommon for other kids to point out that we were probably worshiping the devil. Which — I think one of my friends was a lawful evil cleric, so maybe there was some devil appreciation when a spell went right. But I classed these accusations in the same category as my friend's evil cleric status. They were fantasies.
Still, unlike my fantasy of being a hot half-elf, the Christians actually had some control over our lives. My best friend got kicked out of Catholic school for playing D&D, which we counted as a win because it meant she could come to our shitty public school and play D&D with us. Outside our southern California town, however, D&D players weren't getting off so easily. They were ostracized by their peers, kicked out of public schools, and sent to glorified reeducation camps by parents who feared their children were about to start sacrificing babies to Lolth the spider demon.
It sounds crazy in our world today, where there are Dungeons & Dragons movies and a rich game industry full of titles inspired by those old paper-and-dice games we played back in the twentieth century. One of the most popular shows on television, Game of Thrones, features plots that my friends and I might have cooked up back on that playground at lunch. Somehow, the popularity of epic fantasy and role playing overcame America's fear of young people making up stories about monsters and gods.
She could totally be a half-elf thief. Just saying.
Meanwhile, the literature of the anti-D&D crusaders has become so obscure that it's memorialized on websites like The Escapist, where scanned-in pages of heartfelt nonsense are heavily footnoted to remind us of the historical context. I was particularly moved by this page:
A gamer called only "RPG Advocate" put together The Escapist's archive on the "Banning D&D" campaign, and glosses this page like so:
Here, a list of suicides are presented, with location, race, sex, and date of death for each. These are the names that were usually the first ones trotted out when the 'dangers' of D&D were discussed. Along with them, we get some supplemental data - all were white males between the ages of 12 and 18, three were honor or gifted students, all deaths but one involved a weapon, and - the most curious coincidence of all - half of these deaths occurred on a full moon.
The significance that the lunar phase has on these deaths is briefly elaborated upon in this booklet, when the topic of lycanthropy comes up. That's right - BADD is suggesting here that a portion of these deaths (possibly as many as half of them) happen because D&D players are led to believe that they are werewolves.
James Dallas Egbert III was a child prodigy who was attending college at the age of 16, had incredible amounts of pressure to succeed from his family, and was secretly a homosexual and drug addict. His suicide attempts were not connected to Dungeons & Dragons, but the private investigator who took his case did not reveal this for several years after his death, once the book about the case was released, in order to protect Egbert's family from a tarnished reputation. When he finally succeeded in killing himself, he had not played Dungeons & Dragons for about a year, which hardly qualifies him as being 'heavily involved' in the game. This is the case that began the entire controversy over D&D. To learn more, visit the Basic Gaming FAQ.
Michael P. Dempsey committed suicide with a handgun in his bedroom on May 19th, 1981. Few details about the circumstances surrounding his death are available, as the only source of information is Dempsey's father, who is strongly against the game. His father claims to have seen Michael summoning actual D&D demons into his room before his death, and described the odors of sulfur and garlic (which he claims are part of a demon summoning ritual) after his death.
Irving Lee ('Bink') Pulling III was BADD founder Patricia Pulling's son. Bink was known for having a few emotional problems - he used to run around the back yard, howling at the moon, and right before his suicide, it is believed he viciously killed several family pets. After his suicide, a police investigator asked Pulling if her family worshipped the devil, and showed her the Dungeons & Dragons books and notes in Bink's collection, which she knew nothing about. (So much for being 'heavily involved' in D&D!) This was very likely the seed that was planted in Pulling's mind and began to grow into a vast Satanic conspiracy of secret murders and suicides. Pulling would later claim that a curse put on Bink's character in a school D&Dgame drove him to kill himself, but when questioned, none of the members of the school group knew of such a curse. To learn more, visit the Basic Gaming FAQ.
Harold T. Collins did not commit suicide, he died in a failed attempt at auto-erotic asphyxiation. Dungeons & Dragons does not condone or even mention this type of activity. Therefore, this death is not connected with D&D at all.
Daniel E. and Stephen (Steven) R. Erwin (sources on this case never seem to agree on the spelling of the younger brother's name) were brothers who carried out a suicide pact together. Daniel, the older brother, was facing sentencing for auto theft, and was extremely afraid of the criminal justice system. The Erwin parents have always maintained that D&D had nothing to do with the death of their sons, and were enraged when a 60 Minutes story connecting the two was aired in September of 1985.
"THE DEATHS ABOVE DO NOT REFLECT ALL SUICIDES, DEATHS AND ATTEMPTED SUICIDES DUE TO DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS" - This was a mantra for Pulling and her group, the claim that hundreds of these deaths were really happening under our noses, but no one was reporting on it. The fact is, for suicide within a group as large as D&D players to even be a problem, there would have to be thousands of successful attempts, and nearly twenty times as many failed attempts. For more on the suicide statistic fallacy, visit the Basic Gaming FAQ.
His point is that these kids weren't driven to suicide by playing D&D. Instead, their deaths were blamed on D&D during a time when it looked like imagination games might actually lose the war being waged on them. These kids were called victims in this war, despite the facts. And these suicides were used routinely in scare stories about gaming to make parents believe that their gamer children were in danger.
When anti-gamer advocates claimed these tragic suicides as casualties of D&D, many other kids were punished for dreaming about triumphing over adversity, and for daring to imagine that they could be something more magical and powerful than what they were. It was a national craze, and it's not as if this forgotten war on the imagination was unique. Similar battles are being fought today over videogames and social media.
And yet the half-elf thieves and evil clerics and dorky kids with dice won at least one melee in this particular culture war. That's abundantly obvious when you consider that the media is dominated by D&D-influenced stories. Meanwhile, the anti-D&D campaigns today have been reduced to items like this shabby little pamphlet, digitized by a gamer who wanted to memorialize a hard time in geek history. It's a clear example of history being written by the winners.
When D&D types win a war like this, however, they don't try to erase the perspective of the enemies who once threatened them. They have too much respect for the source material. In the 1980s, angry mobs of parents burned their kids' D&D books. Those kids, now grown up, digitize and annotate the pamphlets that once condemned them.
It's a weird kind of progress, but progress nonetheless.
Annalee Newitz is the editor-in-chief of io9 and this is her column. She's also the author of Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction.