The 80s Dungeons and Dragons Moral Panic gave my teenage AD&D group a headache… fortunately, only literally.
I confess that we drank too much beer while watching the movie Mazes and Monsters. We giggled at the odd (willful?) misrepresentation of our world, but perhaps that was a kind of false bravado because we also talked too late into the night: “Did they just…?” and “Erk?” and “WTF?”
And so, as is the way of things, we woke up without answers to those questions, but with headaches — or at least I did.
I now know that we were lucky growing up in cosmopolitan, largely secularist, middle class Edinburgh.
Scratch the Internet (e.g.) and you’ll uncover heartbreaking stories of teenagers — even outside the USA — thrown into needless conflict with their parents, and parents duped into betrayals that can’t be fixed: imagine coming home to find your lovingly created campaign world, months of work, had been burned?*
*You’ll also get a reminder that the entire United States wasn’t consumed by this latter-day witch hunt. If you guys gave us the panic, you also gave us D&D in the first place. Plus Rock and Roll and jeans. Thanks!
And when you read these heartrending accounts, you come back to the questions, “Did they just…?” and “Erk?” and “WTF?”, more or less my 12-year-old-son’s response when he heard about all this on a podcast.
Which brings us to the subject of that podcast: Joseph P Laycock’s book, Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic over Role-Playing Games Says about Play, Religion, and Imagined Worlds.
Laycock is like a Call of Cthulhu character: a card-carrying theology professor who has set out to investigate the forces of darkness so we don’t have to.
In other words, Laycock has studied the awful anti-gaming propaganda, digested it, and made some kind of sense of the whole mess by ransacking theology, sociology, anthropology and philosophy for answers.
The end result is a little mindblowing, not least because he has gone beyond “Why did these odd people beat on roleplayers?” through “Why roleplaying… no really, why?” to “Why and what is play?”
And it’s all nailed down with references and citations.
Because, yes, this is an academic book. He throws around technical terms you’re supposed to know — sui generis anybody? — cites the likes of Huizinga, and doesn’t pad or illuminate with anecdotes and reportage. However, nor does he feel the need to make ritual abeyance to fashionable theories.
He’s also a very clear academic writer of the kind Stephen Pinker would approve. This is a specialist book, but written by an adult who doesn’t need to use obscurity to impress us. Instead, we are impressed by the breadth and depth of his ideas: he’s no Malcolm Gladwell, but I wager he could be if he wanted to.
There’s a lot to this book, including a definitive history of wargaming and roleplaying, a consideration of how roleplaying games, especially from White Wolf, helped alternative and neo-pagan communities frame their beliefs and identities, and a long and fascinating discussion about the nature of “play” (which I’ll touch on below). However, the real payload is his history and analysis of the “Moral” Panic.
The “moral entrepreneurs” (his term: miaow!) driving the panic turn out to be a motley collection of dubious self-promoters and fantasists with little understanding of what Dungeons and Dragons actually was (one claimed wrongly that Jesus features in the Deities and Demigods book), a sometimes limited understanding of the Bible itself (e.g. failing to recognize Biblical material where it appeared in the gaming books), and not actually very representative of Christians as a whole… not surprising since many of the original inventors of D&D were devout Christians, as are many modern players, including one of our DMs back in the day (he and I used to argue about religion).
Among their illustrious number we find self-proclaimed reformed Satanist high priests turned preachers; a self-proclaimed “great detective” who recounts taking part in helicopter raids to rescue cult victims (aye, right as we say in Scotland); and a death-row radio-phone-in star looking for somebody else to blame.
We also get more tragic figures: parents trying to make sense of teenage suicide, finding it easier to blame the Players Handbook than more obvious and upsetting factors. (And actually, in the suicide statistics these people cite, D&D playing teenagers are underrepresented. Just think about that for a moment if you think the panic was pretty harmless.) Almost all of them can be shown to have lied about their past in substantive ways (no, really?).
Laycock shows how these “moral entrepreneurs” insisted on treating the game literally and taking elements out of context, and how they willfully served up a dreary double-bind: where the game reflected the Christian worldview of its creators (yes, really) this was blasphemy or “authentic” demonism, but where it ignored the Judaeo-Christian tradition, it was excluding God. It turns out they didn’t like imagination very much, let alone Fantasy (unless it was written by Tolkien or CS Lewis who were certified Christians). He suggests that the truth is that their particular brand of literalistic religion felt threatened by any exercise that encouraged people to imagine other cosmologies.
Throughout, the Witchfinder General’s moral hazard comes across very clearly indeed.
Teenage gamers in pre-Internet years were a pretty vulnerable lot. It was easy to beat on them because they couldn’t mount any sort of practical or rhetorical defense, and beating on them was a great way to acquire status and wealth since parents, thanks to long hours and yawning generation gaps, felt increasingly marginalised from their children’s lives.
Speaking as a dad, I find it sad that time and again well-meaning parents trusted these… odd people more than they trusted their own children. I mean, in what universe is, “Hello, I am a former Vampire and Satanic Cult Leader who has experienced real magic but I found Christ and I am here to tell you that Dungeons and Dragons will teach your children to summon demons please buy my book and also pass along the donation box once you have put in your dollars” a convincing proposition?
Obviously — scarily! — in the same universe in which these “moral entrepreneurs” inserted themselves into daytime TV, serious documentaries, and — more worryingly — law enforcement and youth work through seminars, pamphlets and books that — via a process of Chinese Whispers — established supposition and fantasy as fact. Once something is a “fact,” it becomes an easy explanation. Since D&D was so successful, it was easy to link almost any troubled teenager to the game and since everybody “knew” D&D made kids go off the rails, here was yet more proof…
All that answers the “Did they just..?” but leaves us pondering the “Erk?” and “WTF?”
Fortunately, Laycock has answers for us. He gleefully — well I imagine him being gleeful as he types — points out the big elephant in the room:
Ex satanist vampires, occult investigators, blessing-wielding clerics… don’t the moral entrepreneurs look awfully like a bunch of LARPers who’ve lost touch with reality? They even share imagery and tropes with the game designers, for example drawing freely on 70s horror films.
Imaginative play — says the evidence — helps people get a better, not worse, grip on reality and morality. It’s also where new approaches and new ideas come from — one of the reasons why The Powers That Be generally try to suppress or limit it; they don’t want people to think outside the box. We’re hard-wired for this, and modern Anthropologists often treat religious thought as a form of play, albeit a very serious one indeed.
The problem occurs when people refuse to play… when they insist everything should be literal and measurably real. The fantasies don’t go away. Instead of safely playing out on paper to the sound of rattling dice, they portray their heroic fantasies in real life with unconsenting teenagers dragooned into the roles of NPCs. And condemning D&D is their only way to justify their interest in the tropes and genres it represents.
The “Moral” Panic still casts a shadow, but by the end of the 20th century people had much bigger, more real things to worry about. It will be back, though.
The SF&F community has showed itself ready to vigorously defend a yearly convention that offers joy to a few thousand adults. Will our community be just as energetic when the self-aggrandising forces of repression again set out to blight the childhoods of tens of thousands of teenagers?
M Harold Page is the sword-wielding author of works such as Swords vs Tanks (Charles Stross: “Holy ****!”). For his take on writing, read Storyteller Tools: Outline from vision to finished novel without losing the magic. (Ken MacLeod: “…very useful in getting from ideas etc to plot and story.” Hannu Rajaniemi: “…find myself to coming back to [this] book in the early stages.”)