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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Rosary Found in Mystery Tunnel
Taking the Devil Seriously
Embracing Mystery
Auschwitz From Above
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.

  • Tim Jones

    I can’t believe you so glibly dismiss the dark influence of The Monkees.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    Michael Nesmith is a genius.

  • Beccolina

    This is the first time I’ve read your blog, but thank you, thank you, thank you. Thank you for pointing out how bad “Catcher in the Rye” is, and for saying what I’ve been saying about RPG’s for years. I spent years feeling guilty about loving fantasy stories (Even writing (bad) fantasy stories), because fantasy was a gateway for evil, according to my parents and grandparents. It’s taken a long time to get over. I stopped writing completely for years, stopped drawing because what I drew was fantasy-related. I’m finally starting to come back to both.

  • http://www.accordeonaire.blogspot.com Gary Chapin
  • http://www.accordeonaire.blogspot.com Gary Chapin

    I knew you wouldn’t be able to resist. Just as, when you write, “That’s an entirely different debate, and one that I respect so little I’m not going to bother engaging it.” I think, “So that’s what I’ll be reading about next week.”

    I like that you stress the communal aspect of it. The DM creates the frame, but the story unfolds from all participants. It doesn’t just rest on the DM’s skill, but on the willingness of all to engage. Well done.

  • Harry Piper

    I wish I had peeps who played D&D – kinda isolated at University at the moment. Still, I was talking to my brother the other day – who’d always made fun of me for playing it when I was a kid – on Skype and he reluctantly admitted he had started to play the game with his Uni friends. I proceeded to laugh and laugh and laugh at him, as was my right due.
    Also, please give us your opinion on Bioshock:Infinite soon. THAT ENDING, man. THAT ENDING.

  • http://www.JonathanFSullivan.com Jonathan F. Sullivan

    Great post, Thomas, and thank you for pointing out that RPGs (I would add board games as well) are fundamentally social activities — they’re about getting together, playing pretend, and making up a story. (I had a friend in a long-running RPG group in high school who later admitted that he didn’t care about the game, he just wanted an excuse to hang out with us.) I think there was actually one study that showed that roleplayers tend to less inclined to suicide and murder because of the stable, supportive relationships that form in groups.

    If you’ve got an hour or so I highly recommend listening to Wil Wheaton’s 2007 keynote from the Penny Arcade Expo. It’s very NSFW due to language, but it’s a beautiful love letter to the social aspects of gaming: https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/274280/01%20-%20PAX%202007%20Keynote%20Address.mp3

  • Beccolina

    I really miss the community of role playing. I’ve tried a little online, but it isn’t the same, and I haven’t been satisfied with the groups I’ve found.

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  • Howard

    25 years ago, D&D certainly used to have both demons and devils, with the distinction being between Chaotic Evil and Lawful Evil. I know it’s been revised several times since then, but it’s hard to imagine that “D&D doesn’t even have ‘demons.’” I mostly agree with your main points, though. When I was an undergrad I played D&D (or better yet, DragonQuest), but there were not many DM’s who could really keep it interesting. A good RPG is like ice cream, and a bad RPG is like an ice cream headache.

  • Chris

    I clicked the link from Big Pulpit with hesitation, fearing a Catholic comrade-in-blogging might be crusading against the hobby I was just getting back into after a long hiatus. But the union of faith and reason prevails again. For those like me whose families and vocations have lured them many miles from their GM, technology is finally catching up to an acceptable alternative to the physical gaming table: http://www.fantasygrounds.com/

  • Tim

    What are spells like Demon Dirge and Demonhide? Correct me if I am wrong, it has been a while since I have played. Aren’t clerics associated with certain ‘gods’ that they receive the power to heal, and cast various spells? Aren’t there spells for clerics calling upon their deities for divine protection,interdiction, agility and insight? Aren’t some spells somewhat stemming at least in idea from the new age and occult, such as ‘faith healing?’ There are also spells of divination as well, which is, at least in real life as a Christian, clearly forbidden and not of God, and thus, bad for you. There are spells such as fiend form, hellish horde, hunters of hades, and numerous others such as the infernal spells. There are also such things as planar travel spells with some sketchy destinations.
    A brief search through the Monsters Manual revealed that they do indeed still have demons, including succubus, and many other types of devils and demons. and the monster’s manual even has pics of them, which are beyond any shade of doubt immodest and indecent. If there was nothing else that the game should remedy, this would be a deal killer. As Christians, even if involved in, or using fantasy as a means of entertainment and communion with others, we are always called to shun immorality, and to not look upon immodest, and evil things, unless we have no choice. Anyhow, the concept of role-playing games in and of itself is not bad, but D&D is very problematic, and dabbles far too much with things that it should. The argument that it is harmless, and doesn’t affect you seems a rationalization to me. I know it is one that I used quite a bit myself. It is the same one folks use about watching particular tv shows or movies.
    I think there could be a lot of positives to the ‘virtue of play’ and to fostering communion of persons, and even the whole idea of fantasy and imagination and the desire we have built into us to fight against evil and all that.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    After dropping the word “demon” 25 years ago it was restored in later editions as a generic term for a type of infernal beings. (What used to be called just tanar’ri.) So some materials have the word and some don’t.

    But a fictional, fantasy realm with its own myths and religious systems can’t actually have “demons” because it doesn’t have God as we know Him. The fall, the Trinity, Christ, Satan: they aren’t part of this imaginative landscape.

    When I say that people can’t summon demons, I mean that you can’t actually summon real demons, which some believe to be the case. People imagine role-playing gamers doing rituals or performing spells to summon a demon, rather than what they actually do, which is just saying, “I cast demonhide” and getting a damage reduction. It’s about as dangerous as saying, “You little devil” to a mischievous child.

    Look, I do believe in demons, which is why you don’t mess around with the occult. But this isn’t occult: it’s fiction. We have to be able to recognize the difference as intelligent, literate Christians.

  • Al Cruise

    What really brings out evil is hard core fundamentalism, it extinguishes empathy, compassion, and creates a cold stoic soul, then all hell breaks loose. Just watch the news.

  • Theodore Seeber

    Having said that- there are options to exercise your play in keeping with Church teaching, as opposed to exercising your play against Church teaching.

  • Theodore Seeber

    PS- I was very impressed, circa 1995, that the original Warcraft the humans were overtly Catholic. Right up to the most powerful characters being Paladins- Knight-priests.

  • Alex B.

    I had the same reaction to the reference of how bad the “Catcher in the Rye” is. I hated reading that book in high school and still cannot see why it has come to be seen as a “classic” piece of American literature.

    And in terms of fantasy, when I grew up a Fundamentalist Christian, my mother told me to never read “The Hobbit” and “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” because “they support magic and are Satanic” even though Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic (which I take pride in now that I am a Catholic) and Lewis was an Anglican and was one of the best Christian apologists of the last century and is respected by Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians alike. There are really bad fantasy stories and movies (the first D&D movie comes to mind) that feed into the Fundamentalist mindset. But there are also really bad examples of Fundamentalist fantasy books and movies that lead more people astray than fantasy games such as D&D and Final Fantasy ever do. The Left Behind series immediately comes to mind and that is a horribly written series with some really awful movies and they advocate flat out heresy.

    In essence, the Fundamentalist argument against the Fantasy genre as a whole is nothing more than a repeat of the nonsense that Dr. Wertham argued against comic books in the 1950s.

    If it is a book, movie, or game with a good fantasy story, then it is a good story; ’nuff said. If it is bad, then just avoid it because it does not matter what genre it is. I personally argue that the only exception to this is the majority of romance novels, such as “Fifty Shades of Grey”, which are nothing more than “fancy” pornographic literature that is not much of a higher “caliber” than what can be found in a sleazy adult bookstore.

  • Alex B.

    Your point can be perfectly demonstrated by Tolkien’s “The Silmarillion”, especially concerning the creation of Middle Earth. Tolkien hated blatant allegory, which is why he disliked what his close friend Lewis did with the Chronicles of Narnia because the Christian theme was too obvious in his view, especially with Aslan being Jesus. However, as his letters can verify, Tolkien’s Catholic worldview was clearly represented in his mythology of Middle Earth, but it was more subtle. Dr. Peter Kreeft has some great lectures about this on his website.

  • http://stlmotherhood.com/ Denise

    I didn’t even know people still played D&D…I’m surprised any modern kid has the attention span. I watched your Pat clip…I’m pretty us that man believes that little demons live inside the magic box.

    Anyway, you’re so right about the story telling side. To this day, my favorite memory of playing D&D was the time my DM got a new chart for critical damage from Dragon Magazine. Every 20 got something lopped off the party, and it got so ridiculous that we had a legless dwarf riding in the backpack of an armless human, fighting on. That stupid game happen in 1982 and I’m still giggling over it.

  • Beccolina

    Exactly. I am a cradle Catholic, but I’m recognizing now, as I learn the Catholic faith in more depth, how non-Catholic, fundamentalist ideas crept into my parent’s views and attitudes. I couldn’t understand why mythology, fairy tales, Tolkien and Lewis were deemed okay, but everything else in fantasy was off limits. I guarantee that reading many romance novels in college was much more damaging to me spiritually than the time I spent playing RPGs. The strong feeling of guilt, and the sense that I was somehow “damaged” or “twisted” (not words ever used by my parents, but a perception I picked up anyway) for preferring fantasy to other genres was certainly not healthy.
    I taught junior high for about a decade and used to read a lot of the young adult books that were popular with my students. In general, the fantasy books (excepting some of the vampire ones) were most likely to put a strong emphasis on friendship, loyalty, courage, self-sacrifice, etc. Many of the books geared for girls fed into the bullying and nastiness that teenage girls are known for. The Clique series of books was one I found that particularly held up snobbery and backstabbing as normal and no-big-deal. It’s very easy to have the shallow, knee-jerk reaction of “Magic! It’s an evil book, etc.” without evaluating the values and themes the book encourages or discourages.

  • http://arkanabar.blogspot.com Arkanabar

    Overtly Christian RPGs *stink*!! The reason is simple: God has to be a non-player character, controlled by the GM. That is a role no GM should wish or attempt to play. It is for this reason that invented or borrowed pantheons work better for role-playing games.

    There is a secondary risk inherent in RPGs: some of the vile people who play. I remember calling a group that was advertising for a game with unconventional heroes, no paladins need apply. It turns out it was going to be a Warhammer Chaos campaign, champions of Khorne, whose worship can be summed up with “Blood for the Blood God!” No thanks. If you look up “The Binder of Shame,” you’ll find a whole stack of horror stories. Bear in mind that these stand out because they are the exception, not the rule.

    Parents would do well to invite new groups over, or ask to attend a session. If they invite you to play, things are likely on the up and up, but check it out anyway.

  • http://tonylayne.blogspot.com Anthony S. Layne

    Oh wow … my DM got that issue, too!
    Tom, thanks for a great defense of a game that provided me with a circle of friends and hours of pleasure — not just in the gaming but in the cameraderie that came from it.

  • JoshthePagan

    I just wanted to poke my head in and thank someone for saying what most rational people believe about D&D and related games. Also, kudos to you for the Hero Quest image used in the link from the homepage. I haven’t thought about that game in a long time. :)

  • http://davidgriffey.blogspot.com/ Dave G.

    It’s odd that people still think that. I am not a big fantasy fan, so never really tried the game out. It always struck me as something more fun to think about playing than to play. Can people take it too far? Sure. Sports anyone? That doesn’t mean anything unique. Though I think ‘fundamentalists’ get a bad rap with this. Back in the day, in the 80s when all this was boiling over, it wasn’t just the religious types who were against it. Even by then, that could have helped sales (and some say it did). But it was a cultural dog pile. Everyone seemed to be against it: parents groups, the media, behavior and mental health experts, you name it. Let’s face it, what other things in the world have united Pat Robertson and Tipper Gore? It was that everything that was anything decided, by the mid-80s, that this was no good. Just why, of course, was based on different opinions. But it was hardly just a religious backlash that seemed to kick it from a mainstream fad back into a rather isolated sub-culture that it still appears to be today. Just an observation and a few memories.

  • connie

    I was a public school educator through those days of D&D, guns&roses, teenagers who looked like they climbed out of coffins, smoked dope, tried witchcraft, caught STD’s, had abortions, committed suicide etc etc. While having a religious writer on his pulpit of trying to act hip, slick, and cool is nothing new nor is their blindness to the destruction taking place with the young generations drowning in the putrid media and culture around them. While Mr. McDonald is concerned about “hysteria” (there really wasn’t that much) about D&D I am more concerned as to why people like him are so oblivious to what is really going on with the young (eg no clue as to what’s right and wrong). Do you really think getting on a bandwagon for D&D or reading Harry Potter is going to give their life an answer to their life or their course down the path of destruction?

  • bfwebster

    Ok, that made me wake up my wife with my wheezing laughter.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    Your forgot to mention Elvis, comic books, and close dancing in your litany of horrors. How someone gets from nerds playing a game with dice and pieces of paper to STDs, abortion, and suicide is one of the great mysteries of blogging.

    Here are a couple of clues that you know nothing about the subject: RPGs are as far from “hip, slick, and cool” as it’s possible to get while remaining on planet Earth, and the likelihood of the kind of teen who played D&D even getting close enough to a girl to contract an STD was remote. (If any of us playing in the 1980s would have had girlfriends, we wouldn’t have been playing D&D.) You’re reaching at some half-remembered, never-understood scraps of pop culture detritus in your memory and stringing them together with your experience of teens without any real grasp of whether all these issues relate to each other or not.

    Also, PS: D&D was in steep decline around the time of Guns & Roses. Further indication that you’re mashing together memories from different periods without any sense of cause & effect, form, logic, or reason.

  • connie

    I love a smart a…. that’s into movie version stereotypes. Elvis was a little before my time. I was in college in the early and mid 60′s, I have close danced and rock & rolled, raised my children and taught in the late 60′s, 70′s, 80′s, 90′s… and when in graduate school worked as a social worker and was a certified drug and alcohol evaluator for the state of Oregon, and in the 20…been involved with my grandchildren, youth groups and life since that time which probably gives me a bigger and more complete picture of what’s happening now. While you were sitting around playing games there was a whole world out there… lots of it going to hell.
    A couple of days ago I talked with a lady whose daughter (senior in college) got involved in selling drugs at happenings. The drug dealer and a couple of friends murdered the girl because they thought she ratted them out to the police. I had a girl that worked part time for me who had been in rehap twice for meth (made by her parents) who was riding in a car when the guy sitting next to her in the back seat had the back of his head blown off and all over her from a rival gang. I could go on for pages of 1st hand snapshots of young people that are so awlful you probably wouldn’t believe me

  • Robert Schwinn

    I agree with everything you say. Except, I personally love Catcher In The Rye!

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    And not one thing you just wrote had anything to do with our topic. Everyone has life experiences. I could share a few myself. That doesn’t magically make you right or well informed on the subject under discussion. Tragic as a tale of meth and murder is, it has no place in this exchange. You’re kind of just proving my point: you’re merging life experience with something you don’t understand and coming up with cause and effect.

  • http://davidgriffey.blogspot.com/ Dave G.

    I doubt hard core fundamentalism owns a monopoly on that. As I said below, it wasn’t just the fundamentalists who went after the game back in the day.

  • http://davidgriffey.blogspot.com/ Dave G.

    I can’t speak for Catholic fundamentalists, but back in the heyday of the Moral Majority and the fundamentalist backlash (largely against the cultural upheaval of the 60s), Tolkien and Lewis and just about anything with a wizard or magic fell under suspicion. About the only thing that didn’t get blasted even if it had something like that was the movie Wizard of Oz. But I remember fundamentalist leaning Protestants being every bit as condemning of Tolkien. Even as late as when the movies came out, I knew some who wouldn’t go to them if they had to. Most had softened by the 90s, it should be mentioned. And by then, even in the more fundamentalist leaning bookstores, one could find Lord of the Rings or Narnia.