There was a time when a loud, if not significant in numbers, portion of the American populace was convinced that the role playing game Dungeons & Dragons was a “feeding program for occultism and witchcraft.” The belief was based on the same premise as the military-produced America’s Army video game: put it in the hands of teenagers and recruit the ones who excel the most at it. Except that rather than recruiting for the Army, the people wary of D&D were certain it was used by witches and Satanists to recruit new heathenly evildoers to carry out Satan’s wishes to battle and undermine God’s will here on Earth.
By now the test of time has generally proven D&D’s critics incorrect. After 20 million people have generated more than $1 billion in sales for the games various owners over the last nearly 40 years, the world is no more evil a place than it was when the game debuted in 1974. Well it is more evil, but probably not because of D&D. And if you ask Steven Pinker, he’ll tell you straight out it probably isn’t more evil anyway.
But in the time that D&D became widely popular among society’s outsiders and the time it’s now portrayed lovingly by writers of popular mainstream network TV shows, there was a lot of hysteria surrounding the game and it was pronounced. As one longtime D&D player and expert put it:
“[W]hen opportunistic hucksters wanted to beat the Devil, they’d point to Dungeons & Dragons. Not ‘roleplaying games’ but ‘Dungeons & Dragons‘. Remember when video games were going to destroy our kids? Imagine if there’d only been one video game.”
Here are a few of the highlights:
James Dallas Egbert III Disappears
In 1979, Dallas Egbert was a 16 year old computer genius attending Michigan State University at a time when there pretty much was no such thing as a computer genius yet. One night in August he wandered into the steam tunnels beneath campus and was thought to have died in the tunnels. Egbert was a fan and player of D&D and during his disappearance, the game took the blame on the premise that it had cut him off from reality and, following a psychotic break brought on by game play, entered the tunnels which he delusionally thought was the entrance to a dungeon. There, driven mad by the game, Dallas Egbert met his terrible fate.
In reality, real reality, Dallas Egbert did have real problems, but they were based on the tremendous pressure exerted on him by his parents to perform academically at the expected level of a child prodigy, which is thought to have led to his substance abuse (the little pisher allegedly was so smart he made his own drugs, although I don’t know what kind and some are easy to make). He was also possibly gay or bisexual and likely on the autism spectrum or, as one MSU psychologist put it at the time, “he was socially retardant, and in some respects could be considered mentally retarded.”
When Egbert entered the steam tunnels in 1979, it was for a suicide attempt. He took with him a bottle of Quaaludes, which he took a nonfatal overdose of. When he woke up the next morning, he went to a friend’s house to hide out while investigators searched for him. During his disappearance, other targets of hysteria were also considered as possible explanations for Egbert’s disappearance: If he was a gay kid, maybe he was kidnapped by a homosexual child molester. Or since he knew how to make drugs, maybe a drug gang was holding him as a forced chemist.
Egbert turned up weeks later working in an oil field outside New Orleans, and although he was alive, the theory that he’d been playing a real life D&D – first posed as a theory by the lead investigator and published by the media – stuck. Sadly, Egbert attempted suicide again, this time with a gun, and was successful. He died in 1980.
Dallas Egbert’s life was a tragic, fascinating and complicated one and worth examining. When the lead investigator published the facts of the case, the media and the public at large had the opportunity to either examine the interesting and factual aspects of Egbert’s life (the same ones that likely drove his decision to take it) and draw real conclusions from them, or they could all just go see this:
Mazes and Monsters
Based on the novel by Rona Jaffe, this 1982 TV movie Mazes and Monsters starred Tom Hanks as a D&D player – sorry, I mean a M&M player – who becomes so wrapped up in his character (a cleric named Pardue) that he has a psychotic break in a cave system he and his friend have entered for a game. Tom now thinks he is on a real-life adventure, disappears as a result. After he is found, alive but still insane, he is brought home to live out his days as Pardue, the Cleric Who Lives With His Parents. Sounds awfully familiar. Here’s Tom’s psychotic break in real time:
During the investigation into the disappearance, the Mayor from Jaws sums up the attitude of the hysterical public toward Dungeons & Dragons at the time pretty well. It’s a little tricky, because you have to substitute “Dungeons and Dragons” in your head when he says “Mazes and Monsters” but if you can do that, you will get the gist:
B.A.D.D. (Bothered About D & D)
Following the tragic suicide of her troubled son, “Bink,” in 1982 wherein he shot himself in the chest with a handgun, Patricia Pulling became convinced that Dungeons and Dragons was to blame for her son’s death. Pulling said in a lawsuit she filed against her son’s school and where he played D&D with a group, that he’d come home the day he killed himself convinced that a curse had been put on him during the game and took his life as a result. The lawsuit was thrown out, as none of the players present that day could recall any such curse. Another lawsuit against TSR, the makers of D&D, is also tossed.
In 1984, Pulling founded B.A.D.D. (Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons), which she touts as an organizational expert on the occult, Dungeons and Dragons and the Satanic influences then at work on teen minds. B.A.D.D. offered pamphlets (free to law enforcement), lectures on cassette, booklets and other materials with titles like “Teen Devil Worship – A Deadly Fad?” and “What is Ritual Abuse?” that portrayed D&D as, “a fantasy roleplaying game which uses demonology, witchcraft, voodoo, murder, rape, blasphemy, suicide, assassination, insanity, sex perversion, homosexuality, prostitution, satanic-type rituals, gambling, barbarism, cannibalism, sadism, desecration, demon summoning, necromantics, divination and other teachings.”
Pulling was a savvy media exploiter, offering her services as an expert in Dungeons and Dragons and the satanic ritual abuse that resulted from it, using any end of the media spectrum that would listen, from writing letters to the editor to appearing on 60 Minutes (opposite D&D co-creator Gary Gyax), to offering for-profit seminars on Satanism and cult crimes to law enforcement. She died in 1997.
Jack T. Chick Publications is a prolific longtime producer of Christian tracts, comic strips meant to serve as icebreaking tools for proselytizing to strangers. The company is responsible for spreading the good word, as well as going to pains to suggest that the god of Islam and the Christian god are not one and the same, that to become a Mason requires possession by a heathen god, and that the new Jesuit pope is in league with the devil.
During the great D&D panic, Chick Publications trained its sights on saving others from the clutches of Dungeons and Dragons and in doing so, produced arguably the best piece of anti-D&D work ever created, a tract called Dark Dungeons. The tract chronicles the fates of Debbie, who is recruited into a coven of real satanic witches by Ms. Snow, her Dungeon Master, and Marcie, a hapless player who is so wrapped up in her elven character Leaf that she hangs herself (in real life) when her character is killed off (in the game). Even after she has begun down the dark path and given herself over to Satan and become a real, spell-casting witch, Debbie is able to be saved by repenting.
Although Dark Dungeons is the most interesting, Chick Publications produced other anti-D&D articles, some very detailed and extensive that are published online today.