Dungeons and Dragons and Demons and Dopes

So last week I shared a little video on Facebook, adding some mocking comments. Here it is:

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Oh Pat. PatPatPatPatPat. What are we going to do with you, you crazy knucklehead, you!?

I decided, at the time, not to post it here because it gives Pat Robertson a kind of credibility and importance he’s never had. No one cares what Pat Robertson says aside from the droning callers who dial in wondering if their used clothing might be possessed by demons, and liberals and atheists who like to pretend all Christians are dopes like Pat.

Look, this video is just Pat performing a central part of his job description: Offering Meaningless Opinions and Lies On a Subject About Which is Completely Ignorant. (He not only lies about it “literally” destroying people’s lives, but makes a confusing leap from videogames with magic to the D&D hysteria of the 1980s.) In other words, it’s a Dog Bites Man story of amusement to my gamer friends and me, but few others. No one really still believes any of that bunkum about the dangers of D&D.

Or so I thought. Turns out some people really still believe that Dungeons & Dragons is Satan’s Very Own Playground, complete with a set of Swings of Damnation and a Slide Into Eternal Hellfire.

Okay then.

I was informed that it was no different from a Ouija board in terms of summoning spirits and demons. I even had one fabulist spinning outright lies about an overzealous bunch of “D&D LARPers” committing a series of grisly homicides inspired by the game.

Yeah, okay: so that never actually happened, but do go on. I sense that an early Tom Hanks movie is about to break out in the middle of your story, and I love me some Rona Jaffe.

Also: “D&D” and “LARPs” are two different things. It’s technically possible to have a D&D LARP, I guess, but it’s not something people really do.

I asked for a single example of D&D leading to actual real-life homicide. My interlocutor let his Google fingers do some walkin’ and replied, minutes later, with a link to the Lieth Von Stein murder. I didn’t even need to follow the link, because I knew the case already. Chris Pritchard murdered his stepfather for a $2 million dollar fortune. A murder-for-money story was too tame for notorious liar, hack, and Sarah Palin stalker Joe McGinness, so he spun the murder into a “young men obsessed with D&D story” for his ridiculous book, Cruel Doubt, which was later made into a ridiculous TV movie: the final stage in turning Legend into Fact.

It must have been irresistible for ole Joe: Pritchard and his D&D group had mapped the same steam tunnels allegedly tied to “the disappearance” of James Egbert: the seedbed of all “obsessed D&Der goes wacko” legends. (It, too, was a media-generated hoax.)

See, the thing is this: “Murders by people who also play D&D” is akin to “Murders by people who also eat pizza.” Correlation is not causation.

For example, a few years ago the game industry was rocked by the murder of a Microsoft Games employee by her jealous husband, who then killed himself. The husband worked for Wizards of the Coast on the D&D line, but the case had nothing to do with games other than proximity. It was about a decaying marriage, accusations of infidelity, and domestic violence.

In the minds the anti-D&D folk, however, either the murderer had rolled badly on a D20 and had no choice but murder-suicide because the game told him to, or it was simply a gateway through which demons poured to possess him.

That’s not how D&D works. The idea of role-playing games confuses people because it doesn’t follow any familiar game form. The “game” aspect, in fact, is secondary. RPGs are group storytelling. A DM (Dungeon Master) creates a story for a series of player encounters. He begins with simple scene setting: “Your group is in the tavern, relaxing after your long journey. A frightened young woman approaches your table and begs for you to help find her family, who disappeared into the Dark Forest. What do you do?” Then you’re off and running: talking to people, fighting, gaining treasure, leveling up, getting new skills, and so on.

The game is as good or bad as the DM makes it. They can weave elaborate stories, and the players then shape the way those stories unfold. At critical decision points, players use various skills, usually combat-related, which require dice rolls for results. The game continues until a quest is completed. The end.

And that, folks, is that. People don’t attempt to actually summon demons. (D&D doesn’t even have real “demons.”) Characters may, in fact, be evil, and they may choose to perform evil or immoral actions in the context of the game. But the player is not is the character. That’s why it’s called a “character.”

Unlike a Ouija board, players are not directly attempting to contact spirits. Every RPG player plays not as himself, but as a dwarf, elf, fighter, magician, or whathavethee. It’s play, like cops and robbers for adults, or like a fantasy novel you and your friends create in real time. It’s no more demonic than Harry Potter.

Of course, there are many who are opposed to fantasy fiction (particularly Harry Potter), believing no Christian should enjoy it because they make magic and the occult seem alluring. That’s an entirely different debate, and one that I respect so little I’m not going to bother engaging it. Magic, fantasy, dragons, myth, and even the occult have been fit topics for fiction since we’ve been spinning tales in caves, and Christianity didn’t change that. In fact, it re-energized it.

Is it possible for gamers to go too far? To become entranced by the occult? To take it too seriously and lose perspective on their lives?
Anything’s possible, I guess, but the fault is being placed on the wrong side of the ledger. There can be bad gaming groups, because there are bad people. (See also: Fall of Man, Original Sin, etc.) It’s not only possible, but demonstrably provable, that Catcher in the Rye has inspired more than one murderer. Is that the fault of the book?

Of course not. Catcher in the Rye is just a really bad book by a wildly overrated writer. Its negative effect on certain disturbed psyches is not the fault of the book, but of the psyches. Charles Manson thought The Beatles “White Album” ordered the Helter Skelter murders. As comedian Sam Kinison observed, “He would have gotten the same message out of The Monkees.”

I’ve written about play and games for a couple decades: everything from ancient board games and playing cards up to RPGs and high-tech interactive entertainment. Play is woven deeply into the human experience. Ancient game boards have been found carved into roofing tiles discovered in Egyptian ruins and cut into rock in Ethiopia.

Play is an exercise of the intellect and the imagination. It is fundamentally social, and few games are more social than RPGs like D&D: a non-competitive exercise in communal storytelling in a collective battle against evil. Christian parents have nothing to fear from role-playing games. Kids aren’t summoning demons and searching out eldritch tomes to learn dark spells for their games. I take the threat from demons seriously, and believe that possession and oppression are real. I just don’t believe it has anything at all to do with a game.

My aspie son found a home and a community in the local D&D club, and even a position of leadership when he founded his own. He now writes elaborate tales before each session, and is highly respected in the group for his vivid imagination and storytelling abilities. For kids who tend to be misfits and out of the mainstream–for those who aren’t athletic or traditionally social, who don’t share the musical or materialistic obsessions of their peers–an RPG club can be a godsend. After my son started a D&D group at his school, they began to incorporate it into socialization lessons for ASD students because it taught important skills.

Even RPG hysteria can be good. After all, it gave us the best gaming comic in history, and the entire career of Tom Hanks:

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.


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