D & D and Moral Panics

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Dave Griffey at Daffey Thoughts takes a look at the history of the role playing system Dungeons and Dragons:

So even the New York Times has gotten in on the act, reporting on the latest upsurge in popularity for the grand dame of RPGs, Dungeons and Dragons.  This is about the fifth time I’ve seen an article like this over the last couple decades.  Perhaps I’m more keen to it since my boys dove into the whole Fantasy/Sci-fi world, having grown up in the Fantasy Renaissance Part II, centered around Harry Potter and the Jackson The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Now, I’d lie if I said this is something I know much about.  I know fantasy and wizards and magic was everywhere back in my sons’ day, as publishers and companies sought to jump on the Pottermania bandwagon.  But today things are eclectic enough to see almost any genre at any given time rise up in popularity, then fade away just as fast.  It’s like wack-a-mole with pop culture.

An example the new online RPG players

I would say that, from what my sons indicate, it isn’t that the game is popular again as much as there is some new, bizarre online ‘RPG reality TV’ version of it.  This is not where kids are rushing down to the old hobby shops and game stores to roll up a character, but instead they’re sitting for hours, watching various individuals – including a sizable helping of easy-on-the-eyes girls – playing this game for the cameras.  Something that would have been foreign back in the era of its first big fad when I was a youth.

Speaking of which, I often wonder why anyone who played D&D (or similar games) back then would ever trust the press or the mainstream media culture or upper elite narratives today.  Apparently within the whole modern RPG world, there’s this strange myth about how the evil religious fundamentalists sideswiped the game back in the 80s and ended up pushing it into the sewers of underground culture.

That seems to be a narrative that many – especially more liberal and secular – players of the game seem content with.  But that’s not how I remember it.  They insist that religious fundamentalists ran around screaming ‘It’s of the Devil!” and eventually took a toll on the game’s popularity.  But here’s the thing.  Those religious fundamentalists did the same thing about rock music and heavy metal, about drugs and smoking and drinking, and about sex outside of marriage.

Guess what?  Most kids I knew happily ignored those religious fundamentalists.  In fact, in some cases – like rock music or heavy metal – the targets of religious zeal actually became quite popular, perhaps even because of the furor and outrage.  So it always struck me as odd to think that suddenly those same religious fundamentalists exercised such influence when it came to a game about hunting down dragons and wizards.

June 1982: When Elliott’s jock brother plays D&D (from E.T.)

In fact, I don’t think it happened that way at all.  I’ve often said the first time I actually saw anyone doing anything with D&D was my freshman year of high school, in the fall of 1981.  It happened this way.  A few guys were in study hall, not studying, but drawing strange shapes on graph paper.  In those days, if you had graph paper it was because you were in shop class or math.  What they were doing appeared to be neither.  I asked what they were doing, and they explained the basics of the game to me.

What’s important is that the guys doing it were a hodgepodge.  A couple might have been geeks and outcasts, but one was a quarterback, one other a soon to be varsity letter man.  In fact, as I discovered how many guys were playing it (and yes, it was mostly guys), it included the unpopular, the popular, the football team captain, the varsity basketball player, class president, valedictorian, druggy, computer nerd, you name it.  There  was no rhyme or reason.  The game seemed to have as much stigma about it as the other big fad game at that time called Trivial Pursuit.  That is, no stigma at all.

Yet, by 1985, the year I graduated, I’d say the bulk of those guys wouldn’t get caught dead playing that game.  Even if they were already upperclassmen in 1981, they were nowhere near it by my own senior year.  So what happened?  Those religious fundamentalists get the better of them?

No.  What happened was that American upper class media society came down on the game like a ton of bricks.  The press, doctors and medical experts, child behavior specialists and mental health professionals, politicians, and even pop culture began taking shots at it.  Soon, the narrative had been assembled and was being presented rather consistently: this game was for losers.  Not just geeks and nerds, but freaks, outcasts, morons, nobodies who couldn’t get a date if they had a cage and a trap, as well as the psychotically inclined.

Starring a young Tom Hanks

Even by the time the laughable made for TV movie Mazes and Monsters was released in late 1982, the winds were beginning to change.  Back then, special made for TV movies were actually well known and often talked about the next day.  I remember kids talking about this movie, where a  bunch of outcasts and losers play an obvious D&D knockoff, and one ends up going bat crazy and nearly dying.  It was loosely based on a later debunked news story that was one of many the press was running with back then.  The important thing about the movie, however, was not that it portrayed the game as something that would turn you into a social loser freak.  It portrayed the game as something only social loser freaks would play in the first place.

The peer consensus was that, whatever this game, it was definitely for those loser types over there.  By the following school year (my junior year), I’d say half of the kids I knew who had played it had put in on the shelves and wouldn’t get near it again.  Some even denied having ever played it.  While it was interesting seeing the alliance between the 700 Club and Tipper Gore, I always thought that the real torpedo in the side of its popularity came from this coordinated assault from every angle of our social and media outlets.  The same coordination we see more and more about a host of social and moral issues today.

There were no doubt other reasons for its demise.  Fads do wane after all.  Poor business decisions were apparently a part of the problem.  Also, some have argued that while kids usually ran out of the house when the parents were home to take drugs, smoke, drink or have sex, they stayed home and played D&D.  Thus the game was there in the presence of the parents.  I remember a Cross Country coach once saying he didn’t let his kids play D&D, since he heard them playing it once and using language he had never heard his sons use before.  We had news for him, they used that language all the time, just not when he was around.

Nonetheless, perhaps it was an easy battle for the parents, who probably weren’t playing their own D&D games, but might have been a bit fast and loose where drinking or pot or even the odd Playboy magazine (or at least Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue) was concerned.  A convenient symbolic scapegoat. Society says it’s dangerous, look at me:  I’m being a good parent.

And since the press/educators/Hollywood/experts had all agreed that only the worst moron, loser, freak and mental outsider would ever play the game to begin with, it was a hill that most teens just weren’t willing to die on.  Sure, let mom and dad have their victory here, we’ll be at the KISS concert, smoking up in the parking lot and hoping to get lucky with the girls afterwards.

That’s just a thought that came to mind as I pondered the press’s sudden interest in yet another resurgence of this game that will never go away.  If I were a D&D player, the last thing I would do is assume that if the majority consensus of our elite betters is that something is true then it must be so.  After all, it wasn’t just those religious types who did in the game they love back in the day and made its loathsomeness something of a dog bites man narrative.  It was the very press and other social betters who banded together to make it happen.


Go here to comment.  The late Gary Gygax, one of the creators of D&D, and the founder of the company TSR, was an old time war gamer who accomplished the miracle of becoming rich through pioneering role playing, an unlikely feat that many gamers since have tried to recreate and few have succeeded at.  Back in the dark ages of the late sixties and early to mid seventies, war gaming was all the rage among mostly male teenagers and a few females.  It sort of was a default hobby, because of a lack of competition in that area, due to the fact that video games were just beginning to come in and reasonably priced personal computers were still a decade and a half in the future.  This phenomenon of preexisting board gaming groups was the springboard for the creation of the role playing gaming hobby.  D&D had the added advantage for teenage male gamers that teenage females were much more interested in it  than they ever were in playing games like Diplomacy, Panzerblitz, or other board war games.   It was also quite a bit of fun and still is.  Go here for the Knights of the Dinner Table site, which my bride and I subscribe to, and which is a hilarious read on the rpg hobby.

All of this was harmless enough, keeping the geeks, my people!, off the street and giving them an outlet for their intelligence and imagination and allowing them to learn social skills in their gaming groups.  Most adults treated this as a semi-amusing example of stuff that teenagers do.  However, a handful of parents took alarm, and the media was filled with alarmist tripe about how the hobby would make a generation of head cases.


This helped end the first golden era of rpgs.  The hobby survived, but many of the initial players fell away, most by the onset of adulthood and the tendency of fads to run their course, and the advent of personal computers and more widespread video games, giving gamers another, and more convenient, way of getting their gaming fix.  Now we have a new golden age of boardgames and rpg games, as a new generation learns the value of face to face play in developing friendships and having a good time.  The hobby of gaming, which I have been involved in for 49 years, follows a patterns of cycles, unsurprising in a hobby which depends upon influxes of the ever changing young.


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  1. I’ve only seen the video of people playing stuff very recently– seemed like an obvious twist on some of the really good privately made series that were halfway between LARP and making a series based on your D&D game.

    My husband is running two campaigns right now, and is involved in two more, thanks to Roll20– you don’t need to actually DRIVE to where people are. Last night one of the guys was on the voice-chat and at the virtual table-top from a camper in the woods, since he’s deer hunting with his dad. (Cellphone hotspot+ laptop= game anywhere!)

  2. “All the world’s a stage,
    And all the men and women merely players;
    They have their exits and their entrances;
    And one man in his time plays many parts,
    His acts being seven ages.”
    ― William Shakespeare, As You Like It

  3. Man, I wish I’d sunk all the money I sunk into Dungeons and Dragons into, say, Apple stock shares. Oh well. I made Gygax, TSR, Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman, and Ed Greenwood some coin. I hope Larry Elmore got royalties for his artwork too.

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