A Lesson in Stupid Moral Panics: The History Of Dungeons And Dragons Bans

from the hail-satan dept

We talk a lot about the backlash that inevitably occurs against video games, usually whenever a tragedy takes place, or a new envelope-pushing game comes out. This goes on, despite all the evidence and expert opinion stating that such backlash is completely misguided. For those of us who choose to think with reason rather than emotion, it only adds to the frustration that some of the loudest voices against violence in video games will occasionally turn out to be alleged criminals themselves, yet the next grandstanding politician or advocate faces no carryover scrutiny. It can seem enough to weigh down even the most patient person’s faith that eventually sense will prevail and reason will be invoked.

So if you’re one of the disheartened, gather around, because I want to tell you again the story of how moral panics occur in every generation and are almost always defeated. That link will take you through a brief history of all the things society has crapped its tighty-whities about, including the waltz, comic books, rock and roll, romance novels, the telephone, and movies. What folks my age may remember, however, is when it seemed like half the country was insisting that Dungeons & Dragons was a satanic cult ritual causing children to off themselves in record numbers. Annalee Newitz has a fascinating article about the moral panic that existed around the dice-rolling role-playing game and how its history is now curated by the very people that endured its idiocy.

It sounds crazy in our world today, where there are Dungeons & Dragons movies and a rich game industry full of titles inspired by those old paper-and-dice games we played back in the twentieth century. One of the most popular shows on television, Game of Thrones, features plots that my friends and I might have cooked up back on that playground at lunch. Somehow, the popularity of epic fantasy and role playing overcame America’s fear of young people making up stories about monsters and gods. Meanwhile, the literature of the anti-D&D crusaders has become so obscure that it’s memorialized on websites like The Escapist, where scanned-in pages of heartfelt nonsense are heavily footnoted to remind us of the historical context.

As the article says, looking back from the vantage point of a world where entertainment is strewn with the fantasy genre, it’s stunning to see the propaganda that had been unleashed. Unsurprisingly, said propaganda has since been eviscerated, with all the common tales of kids killing themselves being shown to be completely unrelated to anything having to do with children’s games. Still, this kind of thing propagated like hell-fire. For all the normal, non-Satan-worshipping kids out there that were just trying to have a little fun, it must have seemed like insanity would rule the day. Fortunately, it didn’t.

And yet the half-elf thieves and evil clerics and dorky kids with dice won at least one melee in this particular culture war. That’s abundantly obvious when you consider that the media is dominated by D&D-influenced stories. Meanwhile, the anti-D&D campaigns today have been reduced to items like this shabby little pamphlet, digitized by a gamer who wanted to memorialize a hard time in geek history. It’s a clear example of history being written by the winners.

Winners who are now all grown up and who have moved on to their next moral panic, be it violent video games, drill gangster rap, or any number of the next thing the younger generations will come up with. The cycle repeats. Every generation was young, became old, and feared the new young again. That’s too bad, but for those of us still reveling in our youth, real or imagined, it’s nice to know that the moral panic over video games, like all those before it, will eventually subside.

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Comments on “A Lesson in Stupid Moral Panics: The History Of Dungeons And Dragons Bans”

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Ninja (profile) says:

In a sense, you could be a Satan worshiper in such role-playing games. I’m a hairy dude and once I decided I wanted to play a hot hybrid of a devil worshiping elf with some kickass murderous barbarian dude with superhuman strength. The results were hilarious to say the least 😉

But yeah, they were right, I was worshiping the devil and killing at will. In our heads.

ltlw0lf (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“The results were hilarious to say the least ;)”

I can’t remember a single session of D&D that hasn’t been hilarious. I knew a few people over the years who did take the game serious, but I’d usually stop playing with them. Still get a kick over the game where one character through rocks at a tree, which landed near another character, and the hilarity ensued (which led to even more a couple years later when we saw Peter Jackson’s Two Towers take, with the rock throwing Ents.

Each new iteration is what it always has been, people getting upset about other people sitting around the campfire telling ghost stories, usually because they didn’t get involved in the fun themselves. My parents were happy I was socializing…

Jay (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Through d&d, me and my friends got the chance to discuss the political backgrounds of our enemies, engage in the overthrow of dictators, fight or sign peace treaties with other nations, change our way of thinking based on an alignment of our choosing, and conform or bend rules to suit our purposes.

You learned how to talk to people, male plans, analyze and criticize, or find loopholes and contradictions in how rules worked.

And we were doing this before learning that those skills applied in the real world.

That is the power of a game.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Indeed! We built a game system from scratch (well, one of my friends did with his RPG friends) and I got into the action later. There were 2 situations where things could got either epic or awry. When you rolled a d20 and got 20 you had a critical success and rolled again. On a second 20 you were basically god for that turn. Now if you rolled 1 twice… You’d end fighting a balrog and an Anubis knockoff. Because reasons. That specific game was insanely funny. And we all died, obviously.

Anonymous Coward says:

The War on Imagination has no end

Whether it’s fiction or technology, science or entertainment, each generation seems to respond to new explorations with fear and suppression. The problem seems to be a fear of the unknown, or perhaps conflation of “I don’t like this” (which is a perfectly fine opinion to hold) with “This is immoral and evil.”

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Re: The War on Imagination has no end

That was a horrible movie. (And yes, I’m aware it’s based on a book. I never read the book, so I can’t comment on it one way or another.) If I had known beforehand that the plot was going to be about a bunch of smart people (whose defining characteristic is “they are the intelligent ones”) being evil and trying to take over the world, I’d have never gone to see it.

mcinsand (profile) says:

Re: OBD (old buzzard disease)

I am old enough to be on the younger end of being an old buzzard, and this does seem to be an intergenerational pattern going back as long as we have had entertainment innovations. In the 1800’s, parents would worry about kids rotting their brains by reading novels. Later, we learned that reading isn’t so bad. The same is true with video games. As a parent of four, I have no doubt that video games are very valuable for exercising the mental muscles. Granted, you don’t want for this to be a person’s only activity, but there is a lot to be said for encouraging planning, teamwork (a big thing in multiplayer), puzzle solving, and creativity. I can only roll my eyes when my peers rant and rave about how video games are ‘destroying’ a generation.

A lot of it is laziness, but, at the core, this is a form of xenophobia; if whatever is new and not in my realm of experience, it must be evil. For heaven’s sake, learn about something before pronouncing it to be a problem. While you’re at it, if your only source of information about a new phenomenon is someone like Nancy Grace, see your proctologist and have your head pulled out.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: OBD (old buzzard disease)

It always confuses me when people rant about how they sent their kids outside to play and they just took their DS with them–how imagination is gone and kids are rotting their brains. But then they reminisce fondly about how they were sent outside to play as a kid and they took a book with them.

Kronomex (profile) says:

Re: Re: OBD (old buzzard disease)

As I sit in my wheelchair and gumming my gruel my mind wanders (more like wonders where my mind went) back to late 1974, early 1975, and the arrival of this game called D & D in Australia. Ah, the joys of wasting many hours wandering around in dungeons…oh look, there’s my mind…it was a fun time and imagination ruled supreme.

Deimal (profile) says:


I remember all of this hoopla about Dungeons and Dragons, and got to experience some of it myself.

Many, many years ago, I learned to play Dungeons and Dragons while hanging out with a new kid that moved into the neighborhood. My mother went damn-near apoplectic when she found out. I was forced to watch this ridiculous movie called Mazes and Monsters (kid goes batshit nuts winds up in psych ward). I was also excoriated for playing an “evil and satanic game”. My dad called the sourcebooks “smut”, and had understanding of it beyond the book titles and some bad headlines in the news.

This was an interesting experience in the end, as it was actually my parents who came around to my point of view after YEARS of arguments. See, as a kid, I was stubborn as hell, and I was going to do it anyway. The longer I played without turning into a schizoid freak (regardless of their rules), the more they came around to understanding that they massively over-reacted. Nowadays, each time there’s a new moral panic around, they are extremely skeptical about it and generally ignore it.

Carl "Bear" Bussjaeger (profile) says:

Ah, memories!

Specifically… I was helping out as a studio cameraman in a little New Mexico independent TV station back in the mid ’80s. I had to run a camera during a live interview with some woman explaining how evil D&D is. She had little lead figures of “demons”, some plastic commercial dolls. She spent a great deal of time telling the interviewer and audience how gamers gather around the table to worships strange and evil gods, and how the game spells are real.

As an active gamer at the time, I had just a wee bit of trouble containing the laughter. Finally had to wait for camera cuts to reposition my cam as fast as possible, then get the hell away from it so I wouldn’t make it shake.

She had very clearly never even talked to a gamer, much less seen a session. Yet she was an expert traveling the country to lecture and grant interviews about it.

For some reason I didn’t get to run a camera for live work after that.

My Name Here says:

Cool story Bro

Cool story bro. However, this really wasn’t a moral panic, it was one very small group lead by a parent who’s kid committed suicide looking for something to blame. There was no widespread moral panic against DnD.

If you want to look hard enough, you will find people trying to push to ban everything and anything. There are always nutjobs out there. However, it’s a monumentally huge jump to go from a few whackjobs trying to ban DnD to some of the other issues at hand.

Nice try, but so massively fail.

Anonymous Coward says:

Quite a few years ago ,I decided to get/give my nephew a box of D&D items that I had come across at a yard sale . While I was discussing this with co-workers at lunch one of the older women called me a satanist, and went on to stating that I was sentencing my nephew to a life of hell ,she honestly decided i was the devil incarnate. For two years she gave looks and talked about me being this scarey evil being ,well I got fed up and purchased a voodoo doll and mentioned It kinda looked like her ,she took it as a threat and I was released (I really didn’t care) But the months following she started accusing all the other employees of being In my cult and worshipping me. In the end she was sent for psychiatric testing not sure what happened to her.

Anonymous Coward says:

Here are the facts, as they where reported to me when i was a kid playing dnd.

1. its a really fun game
2. Its a addiction
3. Its evil

I know its evil because my books where burnt once. what science told me was that smoke would come out and true to form it did appear that smoke was coming out, however, its a demonic trick and its not ‘smoke’ its evil spirits.

Please dont take my sarcasm seriously…..true story though

Anonymous Coward says:

The moralists have no high ground. At best, they turn out to be idiots; at worst, even bigger scum than the people the condemn.

The ones who demonize homosexuality are the ones caught with their pants down/in a men’s room glory hole (I can’t pick just one).
The ones trying to ban porn “for the children” are the ones who are the most dangerous to children (Patrick Rock).
The ones most vocal about video game violence corrupting children are the ones who accept bribes and illegally smuggle weapons (Leland Yee, a notorious hater of both the 1st and 2nd Amendments).
And of course, the ones trying to hold science back as “witchcraft” are the ones who use the Lord’s name in vain to kill or manipulate people (many centuries worth of examples). The worst part: these types are still around.

Who knows what new thing will bring out what type of hypocrites?

M. Alan Thomas II (profile) says:

Attacks continue, although they tend to be personal rather than institutional; we’re not so far from the ’80s that some of the same idiots aren’t still out there.

In fact, one retired detective still supplements his pension by getting paid taxpayer dollars to bring moral panics about “kids getting into the occult” to law enforcement agencies. Dr. Thomas Radecki (of the National Coalition on TV Violence, among others) was, up until 2012, still a practicing psychiatrist, although he did take several years off due to having his license revoked for “engaging in immoral conduct of an unprofessional nature with a patient.” (He was caught at it again in 2012 and, at last report, was under arrest for trading drugs for sex.)

In the immediate aftermath of Columbine, there was some attempt to blame RPGs and “goth culture” on the grounds that the shooters wore black.

In the post-9/11 security state, a ferry guard in NY seized a kid’s D&D manual because it had a demon on the front (IIRC).

And, of course, it’s only been four years since the 7th Circuit upheld a ban on D&D in Wisconsin state prisons because a member of the prison staff said it promoted gang activity.

Plus all the low-level hassling people still get from clueless parents et al.; just look at the number of book challenges in libraries each year for “occult themes” or “promoting satanism.”

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