Through shows like Stranger Things, the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons has been popularized in ways it hasn’t experienced since its debut in the ’70s. Currently viewed as a fun, harmless way to stretch the imagination and socialize, D&D has not always been considered “just a game.” In fact, controversy over this game continues to this day, although far less widely than one period in recent history. D&D became popular during a time when the American public was being swept by a terror of Satanic ritualism and related activities. New music and related cultures such as those of Heavy Metal and Punk rock had the public of the ’70s concerned for the youth of the day, and D&D was swept along.
Dungeons and Dragons was the first role playing game to sweep the nation, and had parents, religious groups, and even politicians concerned for the welfare of their children. Misunderstood as something that influences the players of the game to commit horrific acts such as murder and suicide, and teach treacherous subjects like witchcraft and blood worship, Dungeons and Dragons has seen its far share of scandals. How could a frivolous role-playing game continue to stir up such a controversy? Here are some hidden secrets about D&D that CBR unearthed in our quest for answers!
15. THE GREAT 1980’S MEDIA PANIC
Most folks would agree that Dungeons and Dragons is a fun game that brings players together in a social setting. Besides the positive aspects of the ever more rare social environment provided by the game, it also involves intense storytelling, which helps develop the imagination. To top it off, D&D is (generally) screen free, which makes it an even more positive interaction for our digital media-hungry society.
But when the game first came out in the mid ’70s, it unnerved a public unfamiliar with the concepts behind this new kind of “role-playing” game. The media became obsessed with linking any sort of violent crime, especially among the youth of that time, with Dungeons and Dragons. It even spurred “The Great 1980s Dungeons and Dragons Media Panic” — as pop culture historians refer to this period today — which demonized the game to ridiculous degrees.
14. THE STEAM TUNNEL INCIDENT
One of the first incidents to spur the “Great Media Panic” related to D&D is the tragic tale of James Dallas Egbert III. Known as the “Steam Tunnel Incident,” a teenager disappeared from his room at Michigan State University in 1979. Considered a child prodigy, this missing person case caught the attention of both local and national media. The parents of James Egbert hired a private investigator in the hopes of finding their son.
The PI suspected Egbert’s interest in D&D as the cause of his disappearance, publicly stating so. He was wrong, though, as the actual cause of James Egbert’s disappearance was due to issues with depression, drug addiction, and self-harm. Rather than somehow being abducted by the game, James had chosen to hide in utility tunnels under his college. Sadly, he eventually lost the war with his real-life demons, later taking his own life in 1980.
Losing a child under any circumstance would be horrific, but to suicide would be especially hard. Our hearts go out to Patricia Pulling, who lost her son when he took his own life in 1982. Mrs. Pulling took her grief a bit too far, however, when she incorporated beliefs related to religion and the occult into her son’s death. Patricia Pulling blamed D&D, a game her son loved to play, for his untimely fate, attempting to implicate the game and just about anyone involved with it for her loss.
When she helped form Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons, her primary objective was to show the negative influences role-playing could have on the psyche. They teamed up with various movements and even a few medical professionals to prove their case. Later, BADD’s theories were proved false, having manipulated facts to achieve their stated mission, and were eventually disbanded.
12. MAZES AND MONSTERS
Starring a young Tom Hanks in his 6th major motion picture appearance, 1982’s “drama fantasy” Mazes and Monsters was one of many films created in the wake of the “Great 80’s Media Panic.” Most of these movies wind up with a game of D&D going horribly wrong, and players somehow winding up possessed, homicidal, suicidal, or all of the above.
In this cult classic film, one of the players starts to blur the lines between reality and fantasy — taking the events in the game literally and putting all at risk. Oh no, how will they ever escape? You’ll just have to watch this brilliant masterpiece to find out! Thankfully, it has been shown by millions of players and countless scientifically backed studies that playing Dungeons and Dragons will not make you lose your mind or become a danger to yourself or others.
Another response by the general public to Dungeons and Dragons and role-playing games in general, was the creation of DragonRaid. It is a “Christian fantasy game,” initially drafted by Dick Wulf in 1984. It was dreamed up as a way to bridge the gap for Christians interested in playing RPG’s, but unsure of the alignment between their religion’s beliefs and themes within D&D.
With Bible centered themes instead of those based around more fantastical ones, this seems like a potentially good alternative for Christians who want to play a role-playing game of their own. It is, for those few that have decided to play it. DragonRaid never quite picked up the same fan base as Dungeons and Dragons, however. During the “Great Media Panic,” even this Christianity themed game wasn’t safe from the attacks of groups like BADD — who claimed that RPG’s of any kind were potentially dangerous and heretical.
10. RITUAL SATANISM
Being a teenager can be challenging enough, but when one is battling depression, other mental illness, or recovering from childhood traumas, it can make things almost unbearable. Being targeted for having these very issues is the last thing a struggling youth needs. That very thing happened in the late ’80s into the ’90s when parents, schools, and others were warned that youth with a history of abuse, trauma, and low self-esteem, were more likely to succumb to the “evil” influences of D&D.
Dubbed “The Shame of Mental Health,” this movement was especially concerned over the potential for young people becoming involved with Satanic rituals, and started to focus heavily on crimes concerned citizens believed could be pointed towards Satanism. “The Satanic Ritual Abuse Panic” eventually subsided, but the effects the stigma it had on the victims involved were far longer lasting.
9. A HACKER’S GUIDE
The paranoia surrounding Dungeons and Dragons continued to escalate during the “Media Panic.” Wild accusations flew, some so extreme it is hard to believe they were taken seriously. When the public are in a media frenzied panic, however, it can be about as impossible to stop as Blue Fire during a Spellplague. Looking back on that period in pop culture history today, it can be hard to tell the truth of what actually happened from the urban legends.
One such rumor is based upon a supposed accusation made by BADD and other concerned organizations of the time. They claimed that some D&D game materials contained secret instructions on computer hacking! This was not based on any actual fact, but still led to the US Secret Service supposedly conducting a raid on at least one game manufacturer.
8. SOVIET MIND CONTROL
Adding fuel to the public paranoia fire over Dungeons and Dragons permeating pop culture, was a general fear of covert Russian operations. The country was at the peak of the Cold War, and secret messages and spies for the Soviets could be seen everywhere with the right sets of terrified eyes. These eyes soon turned their accusing gaze on D&D, with many claiming the game as potentially dangerous.
It was not only claims of supposed Satanists and other dark influences on players, but because some believed Dungeons and Dragons books were being printed with ink containing “secret Soviet mind-control chemicals!” No proof of this was ever found, of course. If there were covert mind-control agents in the ink of D&D books at the time, they certainly didn’t work very well.
7. IMPLANTED MEMORIES
During the wild scramble to explain away supposed mental disturbances related to D&D, medical practitioners started circulating a controversial theory called “recovered memory.” Although memories repressed by trauma do occur, this movement was maniacal in its extremity. Things got so bad that people were told the more they believed they had no memories of assault or trauma, the more likely they were to have a repressed history of such events.
One of the most infamous cases of this occurred when children in a California preschool were bullied into recalling events of sexual assault from their teachers that never actually took place. The science behind these extreme theories was refined in the ’90s, demonstrating that repressed memories are real, but that memories are also subject to influence — especially from authority figures, such as teachers or school counselors.
6. THE ONLY WAY OUT IS DEATH
In November of 1984, a horrific suicide/homicide took place between two brothers in the sleepy city of Omaha, Nebraska. The youth involved were said to have played Dungeons and Dragons a lot in their free time, and the nature of the game was suspected as a potential trigger for the tragedy. The Police Chief handling the case at the time, Larry Stallcup, left a shocking quote in the Omaha World- Herald.
“My understanding is that once you reach a certain point where you are ‘The Master,’ your only way out is death. That way, no one can beat you.” After careful analysis of the evidence, D&D was found not to be at blame. The unfortunate truth was much darker. The elder of the brothers was facing incarceration for grand theft, and claimed in a note he left behind that he couldn’t bear the thought of life in prison.
5. SACRIFICE, CANNIBALISM AND BLOOD, OH MY!
In 1985, a respected psychiatrist and chairman of the National Coalition on Television Violence in Washington, D.C. attacked Dungeons and Dragons. “Dungeons & Dragons is essentially a worship of violence,” Dr. Thomas Radecki was quoted by The Miami Herald. “It’s a very intense war game. Talk to people that have played it. It’s very fascinating. It’s a game of fun. But when you have fun with murder, that’s dangerous.
When you make a game out of war, that’s harmful. The game is full of human sacrifice, eating babies, drinking blood, rape, murder of every variety, curses of insanity. It’s just a very violent game.” Dr. Radecki’s views were never proven, and his ideas about the game couldn’t be further from the truth. He was later found guilty of charges related to prescription opiates and is now serving time in prison.
4. AC/DC THUNDERSTRUCK BY CONTROVERSY
The year 1985 was a busy one for Dungeons and Dragons controversie. As the Powers That Be in the television industry were attacking it, so were those on the airwaves and at events. Similar to when musicians like Marilyn Manson and Eminem were being blamed for igniting the fuses behind school shootings such as “The Columbine High School Massacre,” D&D was inadvertently sucking bands into the wake of its own related P.R. woes.
Things escalated when a group of religious extremists tried to prevent the band AC/DC from playing a concert in Springfield, Illinois. This event was even further fueled by the coincidentally timed airing of a 60 Minutes segment by BADD on the many alleged evils of D&D. Thankfully, the show went on, with the support of the local community and far flung fans alike.
3. THE WAR ON D&D
The public of the ’80s was so riled up by the supposed controversies surrounding Dungeons and Dragons that it even influenced politics. In 1986, a candidate for the Republican seat for state attorney general based his campaign on his stance on the game. Basically calling for a “war on Dungeons and Dragons,” Winston E. Mathews of Charles City County sought to eradicate the game from public places, especially schools.
He claimed D&D taught heretical things like witchcraft, rape, suicide, murder, and Satan worship. Dragging in Satan again — we wonder what Lucifer Morningstar would think of all this! The campaign of Winston Mathews was short lived and unsuccessful. This showed that despite an overwhelming sense of dread expressed by fundamentalists, the general public was not so fearful of a benign role-playing game.
2. KING “WRONG”
Intended to introduce D&D players only familiar with “dungeon, crawl style” story-lines to those based around “wilderness style” exploration, The Isle of Dread was first published in 1981 by David Cook and Tom Moldvay. The adventures take place on a mysterious tropical island, full of treasures, monsters, prehistoric creatures like dinosaurs, and pirates.
At the center of the isle is a hidden temple holding secret horrors best left alone. If you’re thinking that all we’re missing is a giant ape and blonde damsel in distress, you wouldn’t be too far off. Dungeons and Dragons struggled to separate itself from its primary influences such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s works. It shouldn’t come as too big a surprise, therefore, that The Isle of Dread was admittedly based on the legendary King Kong.
1. STEVEN SPIELBERG IS THE ULTIMATE FANBOY
In the second scene of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, Elliot, his brother, and a few other primary characters are shown playing Dungeons and Dragons. Chattering about “resurrection spells” and “being shot in the chest,” we are given foreshadowing about some of the traits of the curious alien that would soon be crashing into their lives.
That’s right folks, Mr. Spielberg is a confirmed D&D fan, so much so that the original ending of E.T. revolved around a final Dungeons and Dragons game with the same characters from the first part of the film. Stephen Spielberg is even said to have made playing D&D an integral part of the casting process for the movie! The creative process drove the final scene into a different direction — the epic shot we know today, despite it lacking the D&D aspect initially envisioned.
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