It's time to tell the truth about Dungeons & Dragons
Geek hobbies take a lot of heat these days, but it’s hard to think of a hobby that has been maligned as thoroughly as Dungeons and Dragons.
The largest gaming convention in the world is GenCon, originally held in Lake Geneva, Wis. – the birthplace of D&D. Lake Geneva was home to the game’s creator, Gary Gygax. This year GenCon decided to honor Gary by collecting money for his favorite charity, specifically the Christian Children’s Fund.
CCF didn’t explicitly turn down the money, but they refused to lend their name or promotional materials to the event. Cheri Dahl, vice president of international communications and fundraising for CCF issued this statement:
“When GenCon contacted CCF about its auction, we were pleased to accept donations. However, we couldn’t lend our name for publication because our policies have specific criteria for endorsements. This decision was in no way intended to be a reflection on Mr. Gygax, gaming enthusiasts or the game Dungeon and Dragons. We have the utmost respect for the gaming community and were touched by the generosity expressed through your auction.”
Dahl’s statement is very gracious and clearly supportive of the gaming community. I’m not sure this letter will be clear enough or specific enough to dampen the outrage that has grown up around this incident, but I’ll give CCF full points for damage control. Apparently the Christian Children’s Fund didn’t want anyone to think they were sponsoring or endorsing this event.
CCF is too polite to say it explicitly, but I suspect your average Christian charity donor does not have a high opinion of Dungeons and Dragons or the people who play it.
Most misconceptions about D&D come from the early ’80s, from a Tom Hanks movie called “Mazes and Monsters.”
Hanks plays a troubled college student who loses himself in a roleplaying game similar to D&D. Driven insane by an abusive home life and memories of his missing brother, Hanks’ character immerses himself in the game to the point where he can no longer tell fantasy from reality.
The movie was based on a 1981 novel of the same name written by Rona Jaffe. Jaffe based her novel on (woefully exaggerated) news stories written about the disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III in 1979.
A private investigator named William Dear explained the details of the case and exposed the resulting media myth in a 1984 book called “The Dungeon Master.”
Jaffe’s novel was a fictionalized account of this incident, but many people who saw the movie assumed it was true. Some parts of it were true. Egbert was an avid D&D player and gamers really did conduct live action games in the Michigan State steam tunnels.
But there was a lot more to the story. Egbert was a child prodigy obsessed with chemistry and computers. He was also a deeply troubled young man. Dear capitalized on the media frenzy by using “Dungeon Master” in his title, but readers of the book will realize D&D was the least of Egbert’s problems.
Egbert’s story is a cautionary tale, but it’s not a cautionary tale about D&D. It’s a warning to the parents of gifted children, a warning about what happens when extraordinary kids are put under extraordinary pressure.
Egbert’s disappearance created a media frenzy that endures to this day. Public health advocates tried to link D&D to mental illness while Christian groups linked it to Satanism.
The most blatant example of this is a Jack Chick tract called “Dark Dungeons.” This tract plays up all the worst stereotypes about D&D, as the protagonists become obsessed with their characters and engage in recreational Satanism.
One girl becomes suicidal after the death of her in-game character, claiming that she can’t face life without “Black Leaf.” This has become a running joke in gaming circles. “Black Leaf” is now slang for players who take the game too seriously, a condition that most gamers try to avoid.
Common usage is, “Ron’s girlfriend went a little Black Leaf on us, so we asked her to leave.”
Not really victims of mental illness, most “Black Leafs” are simply people who don’t know the difference between acting and over-acting.
These stereotypes are regrettable because they are so far off the mark and so easily disproved. Anyone who’s ever seen a real D&D game will laugh at the caricatures put forth by people like Rona Jaffe and Jack Chick, but the mainstream perception remains.
D&D isn’t popular because kids dig Satanism; it’s popular because geeks love numbers. Modern gaming is about getting the math just right and twisting rules to beat the odds.
One professor recommended D&D as training for law students because arguing the fine points of arbitrary rules was good practice for court. The media stereotypes are particularly sad these days because they’re driving kids away from a healthy social activity and into the lonely, sterile world of video games.
Parents and church leaders are so determined to protect their kids from phantom Satanists they can’t see the real benefits of gaming. In an age when our culture is encouraging kids to be bad at math, hopeless at science and functionally illiterate, D&D inspires literacy, imagination, logical thinking and familiarity with basic math.
Most critics reject D&D for religious reasons, but I’ve known parents who didn’t approve of Star Wars or Star Trek games, either – as if the very act of using your imagination is offensive to God.
How many writers have we lost because of this? How many artists? How many poets? How many scientists and teachers have we lost because acts of imagination were dismissed as frivilous or wrong?
Gary Gygax created a game that has brought joy to millions of people. A generation of gamers grew up with his hobby and now have children of their own. Some of those gamers are playing D&D with their children now, sparking their imaginations and teaching moral lessons on the way.
Gary Gygax died in March of this year. Let’s honor his memory by telling the truth – by seeing his game for what it is and celebrating friendships that couldn’t start any other way.