Answering the RPG Critic: Left Over Lies from the Satanic Panic

Thursday , 5, May 2016 3 Comments

Tom Hanks and 3 other illiterate teens misinterpret D&D and accidentally invent LARPing. Saving Throws are failed.

Darren Molitor played Dungeons & Dragons for many years as a youth and became convinced from a personal perspective that role playing games are unhealthy and should be avoided, and wrote a guide for the interested non-player as a warning.

At first he gives a basic overview of character generation to introduce the uninitiated. Then he explains the role of the Dungeon Master (DM):

The DM is a very important part of the game. Also a very powerful part. He/she plays the sole role of being “god” of the game. The DM controls everything that happens within the game. The only part of the game he does not control entirely is the actions of your character. But he/she may constrict them if he/she chooses.

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He/she is also in control of that player’s character’s life. The DM may decide to destroy the character for some reason, but it should not be for any personal reason and the DM should refrain from doing such actions unless the player of that character has become uncontrollable and has changed the fun of the game.

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– Darren Molitor, “Dungeons & Dragons,” March 1985

“Ye shall be as referees” just doesn’t have the same ring.

Of course, anyone who has ever played an RPG is more likely to view the DM as more of a designer and referee than a “god” (or, if a god, a god against whom the player was free to throw dice or Mt. Dew cans.) Typically, DMs who “kill” player characters for game discipline purposes don’t tend to keep campaigns going beyond that session. In fact, the 1979 edition of the Dungeon Master’s Guide explicitly states:

“all the information you need to referee your ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS® game is in this book”

Whether you’re running a single adventure or masterminding a complete campaign, the Dungeon Masters Guide is the absolute best source for information. There’s no need to guess the rules. You’ll learn spells, monsters, travel, magic lists, and combat rules.

Those rules for the most part, contradicted Molitor’s above interpretation that the DM had sufficient leeway to “destroy the character for some reason.” Admitedly, the rules themselves stated somewhere in the middle of the 1st edition DM’s guide that the DM is, in fact, “a judge, referee, juror and deity,” but this is very much under the more explicit conditions to ensure the following:

As has been mentioned already, the game must be neither too difficult to survive nor so easy as to offer little excitement or challenge. There must always be something desirable to gain, something important to lose, and he chance of having either happen. Furthermore, there must be some purpose to it all…When this occurs, players then have a dual purpose to their play, for not only will their player characters and henchmen gain levels of experience, but their actions have meaning above and beyond that of personal aggrandizement.

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– Gary Gygax, Dungeon Master’s Guide, 1st Edition

Aside from the misinterpretation of “DM as ‘god'” in the game, for the most part, Molitor’s extensive description of the game is fairly accurate. That is, until he attempts to draw conclusions based on a standard combat scenario (orcs vs. humans):

I have had the experience of the game for more than 3 years now and I know the effects of the game. For the majority of those that play it becomes a way to escape reality. It is a way of letting tension and anxieties loose. And that is good. But subjecting the mind to the amounts of violence involved isn’t. It is far more bad than it is good. Especially to a young mind. And an 18 or 20 year old still has a young mind. Its effects are both mental and physical. It is in comparison to drugs, alcohol or tobacco. It is very possessive, addictive and evil. Evil may sound wrong or peculiar to explain a game, but there is no other way to describe it. It is a device of Satan to lure us away from God. It is an occult.

Molitor makes an incredible leap in logic here. He describes the game relatively fairly until this point, but draws no connection between the gameplay and evil. It is, at best, an emotionally compelling non-sequitur. No evidence of the occult, of possession, addiction or evil can be found in the long analysis he gives of the game.

The Core Strategy of Attack

But this specious argument emerges time and time again: games, video games, table-top games, war games are described as: “for children” that “have rules” that “seem benign” but are nevertheless “addictive and damaging.”

That’s a four pronged attack:

  1. “For children” – if you play them as an adult, you are stunted in development. You ought to be ashamed. Furthermore, because of the last two attacks (“seem benign” “addictive and damaging”) not only are these games childish, but they are bad for children.
  2. “Have rules” – these games where you place your mind into imaginative scenarios have rules and authorities that govern your actions. The player, therefore, submits his agency to the rules. If the rules are evil, the player then willingly becomes a puppet for immorality. Ergo, GTA “desensitizes” you, which is a code for “turns you into a real thug.”
  3. “Seem benign” – the truth is that in the majority of cases, a games rules are in truth benign. Malevolent games tend to lose personal harm lawsuits. But it is powerful rhetoric to illustrate perfectly benign rules and then claim they are a mask for some unwritten code. “The rules of basketball may seem benign, but that’s what Dr. Naismith wanted you to think.”
  4. “Addictive and damaging” – This aspersion is the hardest to shake. In real life, people don’t have hit points. You can’t quantify the mental damage they have suffered because of a game. Felicia Day famously spun an internet production career out of her recovery from a WoW addiction, and there’s no doubt that there are some people who have no business consuming fantasy when their health is at stake.

However, maladaptive fantasy behaviors are in no way caused by the games themselves; it is quite clear that the reverse is true: patients prone to such behavior have a tendency that can be met by any number of different games or media, or even none at all. In other words, even though people who are prone to life-inhibiting fantasy are better off avoiding outlets for such fantasy, they don’t need any single object to become obsessively (possessively) consumed by fantasy.

Molitor himself is an excellent example. Years after he wrote the above words, he was quite surprised to discover that they were circulating on the internet:

“It is hard to believe that my ‘letter’ is still being distributed through the country…At the time of the writing I was under a lot of tension and completely in confusion because I was still awaiting my trial. I say this because I may have gone a little overboard.

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….Though I no longer feel the game is dangerous for everyone as it was for me I do feel it can be harmful if circumstances occur.”

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– Darren Molitor, nearly a decade after writing his initial letter.

And the Truth Won’t Make all Free

Darren Molitor was convicted of murder (although it seems reasonable to believe his confession; that he and his accomplice had no intention to kill their victim – a mutual friend of theirs – upon whom they were playing drugged and drunken all-night “mind games”) in the 1980s, and was held up as an example of the dangers of RPGs, but strangely not of the “addictive and possessive” effects of beer, pot and teenage sleeplessness that happened to be the only actual contributing components of the teens’ activities on that fateful night. The accident/murder did not occur in relation to D&D in any way.

Even in the 80s there were rational adults who could see through the lies and express the truth:

I would ask, “How was school?” and he would say “Fine, except Mark got killed today.” After planning an appropriate sympathy call on the bereaved parents I learn Mark was killed by “Cyclopskin.” I learned not to react too quickly to news of death and dismemberment…

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…over the course of holiday shopping, while facing a surly sales clerk, I thought how nice it would be to conjure up a “Dracolisk” to turn her into jello. Pretty soon I was going to the Monster Manual myself to find an appropriate end to every phone solicitor from a Commodity House who called during dinner and every person who opened the car door into me.

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Maybe there is something to this D & D stuff.

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– Linda M. Weiss (the mother of a D&D kid) February 14, 1985, in a Letter to the Chicago Tribune

But the deeper message: that gamers need to grow up, stop submitting to arbitrary, benign-sounding rules, and lose their damaging addictions, persists to this day.

And there’s only one good answer to such a demand:

No.

3 Comments
  • Cambias says:

    I hope some enterprising historian or sociologist has studied the “D&D is Satanic” hysteria, and related outbreaks over video games, anime, online MMORPGs, and possibly social media as a whole.

    The fact that D&D is played at a table, with books and papers and pencils, may disguise the fact that the reaction was (at least in part) driven by technological unease.

    All of these “X is eevil!” fads require several common features:

    X must be new. A new technology, a new form of entertainment, a new style.

    X must be most popular among a marginal or obscure group, possibly a low-status one (black Americans for early rock music, high school nerds for D&D), but then spills out into a broader audience.

    X must have some superficially “bad” features: in D&D you are KILLING THINGS and DOING MAGIC SPELLS and going into DUNGEONS. Those all make good scare words.

    Finally, and this may be the most important, X cannot have an obvious practical motive. “Why on earth are you doing that?” has to be a likely question.

    Combine these elements and you get “creepy low-status people are making my good kids do scary-sounding things for no good reason!” Put it in the church newsletter or call up your local TV station and you’re on your way.

  • Alex says:

    See, it wasn’t until Hanks and his friends STOPPED playing D&D and decided to take up more outdoorsy pastimes like spelunking that things went to shit.

  • Cambias says:

    The historical origin of Rona Jaffe’s novel is also interesting: the disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III from Michigan State U. in 1979.

    What’s interesting is that D&D had ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO WITH IT. Egbert had some rather serious emotional problems, including depression and drug addiction, and basically had a breakdown. He left Michigan, went to New Orleans, and wound up working on an oil rig.

    Enter Bill Dear, SUPER DETECTIVE. He took one look at Egbert’s dorm room and deduced he had obviously gotten too immersed in that addictive Dungeons & Dragons game he’d been playing. Dear wasted days hanging around Michigan State, prowling around the steam tunnels, and playing D&D with Egbert’s friends. And giving lots of interviews.

    Then . . . he CRACKED THE CASE! Well, actually, James Dallas Egbert called him up and told him where he was and agreed to come home. Dear wrote a book, called THE DUNGEON MASTER, all about his amazing experiences unraveling this baffling case.

    Rona Jaffe read Dear’s account, ladled on some mothballed Freudian psychology, changed some personal names, and wrote MAZES & MONSTERS, which became the film with Tom Hanks. And millions of D&D players’ relatives became convinced that Dungeons And Dragons Makes You Crazy.

    I’d say that unless you’re a self-important private investigator, D&D doesn’t seem to cause delusions.

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