From the Satanic Panic Files
Updated: Apr 7
A brief look misrepresentations and untruths about Dungeons & Dragons from the past.
by R. Nelson Bailey
While perusing a book titled, Sports & Recreation Fads, by Frank W. Hoffman and William G. Bailey, published in the early 1990s, I was surprised to find a section on Dungeons & Dragons. This struck me as strange that a book featuring topics such as bowling, dance marathons, and baseball card collecting would include anything on a role-playing game. Also, as a lifelong gamer, I never thought of D&D as a “fad”. (Apparently some people did, though not so much these days.) I was even more surprised that one of the first things the authors mentioned about the game was the controversies that surround it.
That a book on the ideological neutral subject of fads would delve into these accusations shows us what the general dialogue about D&D was like at the time. Personally, I find these claims about D&D to be endlessly fascinating with their bizarre misrepresentations and ill-logical conclusions. This article takes a brief look at a few of the specific controversies mentioned in Sports & Recreation Fads, many of which persist to this day.
Included in this conspiratorial cauldron
was the game of Dungeons & Dragons.
To put the criticisms in context, let’s first look at a brief summary of their origins. The early 1980s saw the rise of a new form of moral panic, one later dubbed the “Satanic Panic”. Leaders of morality in the United States and abroad claimed that shadowy groups of Satanists were hard at work undermining the cultural and moral landscape of society. These evildoers participated in ritual murder and abuse, most notably in daycares; they sent out messages to their followers in rock music with backmasking; they promoted their evil cause through heavy metal music; and they indoctrinated new converts with New Age ideas and Wiccan religion. Included in this conspiratorial cauldron was the game of Dungeons & Dragons. The role-playing game first entered the public consciousness with the disappearance and death of James Egbert in 1979. This story was sensationalized in William Dear’s 1984 book, The Dungeon Master. More importantly, it linked a death to D&D thereby birthing a new offshoot of the Satanic Panic. The fears over D&D reached a crescendo in 1985 with the airing of a 60 Minutes segment and Newsweek article on the game’s purported ill-effects on its players.
The average player’s mind is
an empty vessel waiting to be filled.
The authors of Sports & Recreation Fads mention the following criticisms of Dungeons & Dragons that were prevalent at the time.
1. Reality vs. Play: One issue the authors bring up is that players become so obsessive with the game that they cannot differentiate between reality and fantasy. They quote the first edition Players Handbook that the game is “so mind-unleashing that it comes near reality.” This accusation would make you believe that your average D&D player is a vacuous moron who cannot think for themselves.
2. Encourages Violence: The book quotes a physician and gamer who claims that, "The level of violence in this make-believe world runs high. There is hardly a game in which the players do not indulge in murder, arson, torture, rape, or highway robbery." We all joke about characters being murder hobos, but this quote fails to give any context to the game where these actions occur. Are villainous NPCs committing these acts? Sure, some player characters might commit these crimes in the course of a game session, but, as noted here, to claim that it occurs in most games is a stretch. Furthermore, this quote gives the reader the impression that the D&D rulebooks endorse these actions. I scarcely need to mention that most people playing D&D have enough sense to differentiate between make-believe violence and real violence. However, the authors seem to not be able to differentiate between the two. Finally, blaming the media and games for violence is nothing new. Comic books were blamed for the supposed moral turpitude of its readers in the 1950s; same with television in the 1960s; metal and rap music along with movies in the 1980s; and video games from the 1990s to the present.
3. Occult Connection: Some moral leaders claim that the use of spells and the supernatural in the game encourages its players to dabble with “demonic spirits” and to “promote the influence of the occult”. This belief persists to this day with D&D and other books and movies, such as the Harry Potter series. This accusation would have you believe that the average player’s mind is an empty vessel waiting to be filled with all sorts of evil influences.
4. Worshipping Gods: The authors of Sports & Recreation Fads find it “disconcerting” that the Deities & Demigods rulebook encourages player characters to worship the gods listed therein. Once again, the authors believe that a player character following Arioch equates to the player worshiping the god in real life. Once again, we all know the difference, however, the authors do not.
These lurid accusations about Dungeons & Dragons did not originate with Hoffman and Bailey; they simply repeated the baseless claims formulated by other writers. It was important enough to them to devote one-third of the section about D&D to its criticisms, however. While they did do their homework researching Gary Gygax, TSR, and how D&D is played, they wholly accept the accusations of its critics uncritically. They do quote a TSR spokesman who dismissed the claims and added that the game “has more benefits than dangers”. To those who are familiar with role-playing games, the points listed above are laughably absurd distortions of reality. However, a large segment of the population did, and to a degree, still does believe disinformation about Dungeons & Dragons without question.