Panic & Perturbation: When Dungeons & Dragons came Under Fire

Dungeons & Dragons had a bad rep in the 80’s and 90’s and was subjected to the moral bashing of the Satanic Panic during those decades. I’d like to tackle some of those moral implications and compare to some of my personal experiences growing up with RPGs.

Moral panic, according to Google’s dictionary is determined as; “an instance of public anxiety or alarm in response to a problem regarded as threatening the moral standards of society.” Moral standing sometimes seems to be the self imposed mantle of older generations and I guess you could also describe it as a fear of the new, or a fear of change, or of the unknown.

Nearly a month ago I wrote an article on the benefits of games like Dungeons & Dragons for friends and family, outlining the educational needs of not only standard subjects such as math, but also of morals and ethics, which could be learnt through experience in a safe role-play game environment.

We have seen a lot of moral panic historically: Puritans and the fear of Witchcraft in the 1600’s caused the murder of both men and women, purely on superstition. The prohibition era banned alcoholic drinks, where normal people had to go underground to get a drink or two in polite society. Most drug propaganda is scientifically defunct, and has been for years yet people still believe the end times will be the result of drug use. Marijuana is now legal for recreational use in places like Canada.

Back to D&D. I touched on a subject in the original draft which I later removed because some readers thought it would alienate the crowd I was trying to help. This article is the debate I removed; why dungeons and dragons got such a bad in previous decades and is still considered sinful.

I wanted to find out where the bad rep for Dungeons & Dragons came from, and what sources I could muster to get the message across that it is not a masterpiece of the devil, and is actually good for people.

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A simple google search ‘problems with D&D’ finds material related to the moral and ethical implications of playing Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) for kids. Websites like this still exist, where people are denouncing the “dangerous” act of playing this wonderful game. They are also the sort of groups that are pro-life and offer little evidence other than their own testimony. Here’s an excerpt on their opinion of D&D:

“We have serious concerns about “Dungeons and Dragons,” as well as some of the other popular fantasy role-playing games (RPGs).

“On one level, “D&D” is about strategy and mathematical skill, and there are players whose interest would remain strong even if its mystical and magical elements were replaced with other kinds of imagery. That doesn’t change the fact the game includes occultic elements. Some former players have said that “D&D” brought them into contact with demonic activity. Such claims need to be taken very seriously.”

“A second problem is that this game can become an obsession. Some gamers have been known to play for 48-hours straight, forgetting to eat or sleep due to their intense focus on “D&D.” Responsible parents worry about this particular aspect of “D&D,” and maybe you should, too. Entering a fantasy universe and assuming a different personality can be addictive for some gamers, particularly those who tend to be isolated or who have a hard time connecting with people in the real world.”

I’m going to treat this game and it’s creators as innocent until proven guilty – like any good lawyer, I don’t have to prove their innocence, I only have to cast doubt on the allegations.

Now, I’ve been playing D&D for years. It is a wondrous game filled with mythical beasts and adventures that know no real bounds. The sky isn’t even the limit. There’s no evidence provided to back up the claims that this site has made, particularly when it says:

“Some former players have said that “D&D” brought them into contact with demonic activity.”

Who said that, and on what record did they find this? Is it something they have logged themselves and have they reported this to a local authority to investigate? I suspect the answer is no – because the real world does not believe in demonic activity, only human activity, which can be evil.

While I’m at it, have you ever heard the news say that underage smoking is on the rise? Kids will say things to look cool to their peers. In all the people I knew in high school in the UK, a fraction of them smoked, the rest of us didn’t have the money or knew it was bad for you. If you ask kids if they smoke and tell them their answer will remain a secret, a good number of them will tell you they do smoke. Because it’s funny to lie to the authority and get away with it. The same can be said for coming into contact with demonic activity- sure, the demon told me to smoke, take drugs and piss on the grave of the high school mascot.

“Entering a fantasy universe and assuming a different personality can be addictive for some gamers, particularly those who tend to be isolated or who have a hard time connecting with people in the real world.”

I was one of these people who found D&D addictive. But what this fails to realise is that in order for me to play the game, I have to have people with me to play. You can’t play it on your own. It is only as addictive as reading a good book, or spending time with friends. And yeah, I had a hard time connecting with people at school – most of them were dicks. The people I enjoyed spending time with got me into the hobby, it was our escape from shitty high school politics and social constraints. It did us good and they’re all still good friends 25 years later, with families of their own and jobs which help them pay for the stuff they like.

This is the sort of argument which still goes on today. I will freely admit there have been times where I would rather be playing D&D than getting drunk under-aged on cheap alcohol (marketed specifically at kids). And yes, there have been records of people running marathon sessions of D&D for 48 hours – is it no the job of parents to know exactly where their child is and what they are doing?

As a kid, it would be impossible for me to play a 48 hour solid game of D&D and get away with it. I think they are mistaking D&D with online games like World of Warcraft. This is likely another example of a misinformed accusation, a likely bad parenting.

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So where did the moral panic begin with D&D?

There was a tragic series of events which were blown out of proportion, sucked up by the media platforms of the 80’s and 90’s and amplified through TV and various fundamental groups – one of these groups starting with single instigator, probably the most famous.

I don’t have a problem with this instigators, personally. I’ll briefly explain why.

I have sympathy for her – she lost her son, a gifted young man who was considered a bit of a genius. Patricia Pulling lost her 16-year-old son to suicide and like any parent she wanted to find the cause of it. It’s a natural reaction. Since she did not understand one of her sons’ hobbies and likely had a religious upbringing herself, the game of D&D become the target of her concern. Likely she feared its nature – fantasy and fiction. As the Jedi say, fear leads to hate and hate leads to the dark-side. Right up until her death in 1997, she campaigned against role-playing games like D&D.

Why?

She believed her son had fallen foul of a real-life curse through playing D&D. Occultism played a large part in the moral panic of that era. People genuinely believed that D&D was a gateway to doom or the devil. But why? What events in the universe allowed this tenuous link to take hold?

The Devil, Satan or whatever you call the moralistically-challenged entity that some people believe exists to tempt mankind to hell, is seen in all manner of daily things. Large businesses and corporations are surrounded by conspiracy theories. Some people think the Starbucks logo is the devils head upside down, in the form of a goat-like being. Of course, Reddit was the source of much amusement for this one.

I digress.

People thought that playing in a fantasy world would allow kids of the era to lose control of themselves, lead them into madness and dark places, struggle with reality. The fact that the world was already a dark place, with war, corruption, famine, plague and terrorism on the rise, meant nothing to these groups – it had to be the thing they thought they understood and ultimately feared.

So, what is wrong with the argument that playing D&D is likely to end up with your soul lost in the other world, unable to escape (other than sounding like the main plot for Stranger Things)? Well, other than not believing in the popular misconception of the occult (I’ve read too much horror fiction), it’s that you would have to play the game with some seriously shady people to act as the third-party sales person to Hell.

I play with respected friends who are now doctors, teachers, nurses and therapists, how about you? We all started in the spare room of a family home, secluding ourselves away to enjoy an adventure of the imagination. I enjoyed the ride and not once did I feel my soul pulling away. But what about the moral implications of playing a game where the moral alignment of a character gets murky?

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To see an original copy of the text that Puller was circulating to police, schools and other authorities, check out the escapist, who has scanned in the text for you to read. There’s a good page by page critique if you’ve got the time to read it too.

Most of what is said or argued is pretty loose when it comes to examining the details, and evidence is really pushing it as a description. Now, admittedly this was in the time before the internet – people didn’t have as much information at their fingertips. Education was something you either got from school, the library or church. No offence people of the 80’s, it wasn’t your fault.

The moral ambiguity partly stems from the alignment game mechanic. In D&D there is an axis of Law to Chaos, Good to Evil, with neutral being in the middle of both. You pick one from each axis, for example you could play lawful-good (a really upright member of a community) or lawful-evil (most politicians today), chaotic-good (Robin Hood sort of chap) or chaotic-evil (rampant, crazy and undoubtedly evil). So, what is to stop us all playing chaotic and evil characters and indulging in some crazy killing spree?

Well, nothing really.

But here’s where it is interesting – D&D creates situations where you may not have considered your actions thoroughly. The referee of the game, the Dungeon Master (DM) acts as the storyteller and explains what happens by interpreting the dice rolls of the players, gauging the success or failure of their actions and endeavors. The DM also tells or shows the story, acting as the narrator. A good DM thinks ahead. This DM/Player interaction is shared between a group of people, so the chances of it turning into a descriptive, murderous, sex-spree is unlikely. People are normal.

If a player wishes to play an evil character, they are usually the odd one out, and the DM, as a good referee of the game will point out that acting in evil ways will always have consequences, often resulting in the death of the evil character.

There are safe moral lessons in D&D – we may think that killing Orcs and Goblins in their cave lair is the right thing to do, but what happens when we stumble upon their young? It makes your players stop and think for a moment, asking themselves if there is a different way to approach this?

There are some powerful fictional deities in the fantasy world of D&D – do enough evil and you will attract the attention of the lawful good gods, controlled by the DM. Your character won’t last long.

Finally, D&D is a cooperative game, an evil character in the adventuring party is usually at a ratio of 1:4 – they will be outspoken by the other players and their game will not be as fun.

Ethan Gilsdorf says it better than I can in his book on fantasy role-playing. It was given to me as a gift by a good friend when at University who I had introduced to the game. Gilsdorf says:

“For me, the most interesting D&D games ask players to face murky ethical and morals situations, and force them into questionable behaviour” … “Does your ‘good’ character torture a goblin to get useful information that serves a higher goal? Is it okay to use a magic item that exerts mind control over other creatures to defeat a foe? D&D poses all these questions and provides opportunities for role-playing and testing ideas and decisions, all in a safe way, one that has no consequences in the real world but does teach us important lessons about how we might, or should, behave in the real world ourselves. Triumphing over that evil force helps reset our moral compasses.”

Ultimately society has to become far more objective and skeptical when we are approached by people trying to help us out, who tell is that we need to fear something based on their knee-jerk reactions and anecdotal data – even those who act as scientists have fallen fowl to speaking up without actually collecting facts and viewing them with an objective eye.

Fortunately science was able to correct the problem in the mid 90’s and sort out much of the lies and misinformation and admit that some of what was said as fact by therapists and officials was simply wrong. Science is good, but is easily misconstrued by false prophets.

Ultimately we have to learn, as a society, to see a moral panic when it happens. If we can do that, and not get caught up in the stinking mess, we may actually stand a chance at peace and harmony. Particularly if we learn from the mistakes of our ancestors – something which we need to maintain now that the generations of the world war are nearly gone.

J.D Ferris, CC

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