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Dangerous Games

Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic over Role-Playing Games Says about Play, Religion, and Imagined Worlds

Joseph P. Laycock
Copyright Date: 2015
Edition: 1
Pages: 368
  • Book Info
    Dangerous Games
    Book Description:

    The 1980s saw the peak of a moral panic over fantasy role-playing games such asDungeons and Dragons.A coalition of moral entrepreneurs that included representatives from the Christian Right, the field of psychology, and law enforcement claimed that these games were not only psychologically dangerous but an occult religion masquerading as a game.Dangerous Gamesexplores both the history and the sociological significance of this panic.Fantasy role-playing games do share several functions in common with religion. However, religion-as a socially constructed world of shared meaning-can also be compared to a fantasy role-playing game. In fact, the claims of the moral entrepreneurs, in which they presented themselves as heroes battling a dark conspiracy, often resembled the very games of imagination they condemned as evil. By attacking the imagination, they preserved the taken-for-granted status of their own socially constructed reality. Interpreted in this way, the panic over fantasy-role playing games yields new insights about how humans play and together construct and maintain meaningful worlds.Laycock's clear and accessible writing ensures thatDangerous Gameswill be required reading for those with an interest in religion, popular culture, and social behavior, both in the classroom and beyond.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-96056-5
    Subjects: Religion, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface. “You Worship Gods from Books!”
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. INTRODUCTION. Fantasy and Reality
    (pp. 1-28)

    Role-playing games are games in which players pretend to be someone else, typically a fictional character.¹ Imaginative play is an intuitive activity for human beings. For children, especially, imaginative play is a means of formulating models of how the world works, acquiring new skills, and becoming socialized.² In games such as “house” children pretend to be adults performing the domestic duties of their parents. Other simple role-playing games involve imaginary conflicts such as “cops and robbers” or “cowboys and Indians.” These games also lead to the cultivation of new skills. Developmental psychologists have identified a form of play dubbed “mastery...


    • CHAPTER 1 The Birth of Fantasy Role-Playing Games
      (pp. 31-50)

      Dungeons & Dragonsinspired countless other fantasy role-playing games, defining the genre.¹ The origins of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson’s extremely successful game did not lie in theater or storytelling but in wargaming—a hobby in which players simulate historical battles using miniature soldiers. Wargaming developed in the nineteenth century, primarily as a training exercise for Prussian military officers. It was eventually adapted for civilian leisure, but it has remained an obscure hobby. Not only does wargaming demand a serious interest in military history, but the rules frequently require complex mathematical calculations and charts that most people would regard as...

    • CHAPTER 2 Dungeons & Dragons as Religious Phenomenon
      (pp. 51-75)

      In his autobiography,The Elfish Gene,Mark Barrowcliffe describes his attitude toward theDungeons & Dragonsas “almost religious.”D&Dfirst appeared in the 1970s in the midst of a moral panic over cults. In 1978, one reporter opined, “The game inspires the sort of fanatic devotion usually associated with mind-bending religious cults.”¹ This vague sense that there was something “religious” about this new game continued into the 1980s. BADD and similar groups eventually claimed that fantasy role-playing games were not onlysimilarto a religion but actuallywerea dangerous religious movement masquerading as entertainment. As one concerned citizen...

    • CHAPTER 3 Pathways into Madness: 1979–1982
      (pp. 76-100)

      The public response toD&Dwas shaped by growing fears about cults and the vulnerability of young minds. By the mid-1970s,D&Dwas a common pastime across college campuses. However, this was also a decade rife with collective paranoia. Journalist Francis Wheen described the flavor of the 1970s as “a pungentmélangeof apocalyptic dread and conspiratorial fever.”¹ Political institutions, cultural trends, and even our own sense of self were the objects of new-found suspicion. The Cold War had given rise to the concept of “brainwashing,” the idea that it was possible to forcibly reprogram someone’s personality. The term was...

    • CHAPTER 4 Satanic Panic: 1982–1991
      (pp. 101-136)

      In his bookSchemes of Satan,evangelist Mike Warnke claimed that before committing suicide in 1980, Dallas Egbert had written a suicide note that stated in part, “I’ll give Satan my mind and power.” This quotation was followed by a footnote citing Egbert’s obituary, which appeared in theNew York Timeson August 18, 1980. However, the obituary mentions only the original note left in Egbert’s dorm room before his disappearance in 1979. It says nothing about a second note and certainly nothing about Egbert pledging his allegiance to Satan.¹ This is probably not a case of shoddy research, but...

    • CHAPTER 5 A World of Darkness: 1991–2001
      (pp. 137-176)

      Beginning in the late 1980s, a second generation of role-playing games emerged that moved away from the genre’s roots in wargaming. Games such asAmber: Diceless Roleplaying(1991) featured mechanics that were designed to emphasize storytelling and narrative rather than meticulous simulation or complex combat scenarios. There was also a shift toward “urban fantasy”: while the premises of fantasy role-playing games continued to feature magic and supernatural beings, these elements were often moved from a fantastic world like Middle Earth and into an otherwise familiar modern setting.Shadowrun(1989) remains an extremely popular example of the new generation of games....


    • CHAPTER 6 How Role-Playing Games Create Meaning
      (pp. 179-209)

      Fantasy role-playing games have functions in common with religion that moral entrepreneurs have misunderstood and that gamer apologists have historically had to overlook in order to refute the claims of their opponents. While the narratives changed over time, moral entrepreneurs claimed that role-playing games cause young people to dissociate from reality and to reject traditional values. Gamer apologists countered that their hobbies were “just games” and “harmless escapism.” Both of these positions are polemical and fail to account for the subtle ways that these games inform questions of meaning, identity, and morality. On the one hand, it is patently false...

    • CHAPTER 7 How the Imagination Became Dangerous
      (pp. 210-240)

      In May 2013, as I was writing this book, a news story began circulating about a preschool that had allegedly forbidden children to pretend to be superheroes. The story first circulated when a parent posted a letter from the preschool on the website Reddit. The letter began with the headline “Parents We Need Your Help” and contained a picture of the Justice League (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc.) framed in a red circle with a slash through it. Beneath this image was the following message:

      Recently it has been brought to our attention that the imaginations of our preschool children...

    • CHAPTER 8 Rival Fantasies
      (pp. 241-278)

      In an essay for the Christian Research Institute on the dangers of role-playing games, Elliot Miller writes:

      There are certain needs and desires which draw people to FRP in the first place. Many sensitive teenagers and adults continually bombarded with evolutionary theories and naturalistic philosophies, seek through FRP an escape from the cold, mechanistic view of the universe which they’ve been led to believe is “reality.” Who wouldn’t prefer an adventurous existence in a magical, purposeful world over the complex, impersonal “real world” being pushed on young people by our educational institutions and the media?¹ This paragraph is a rare...

  7. CONCLUSION. Walking between Worlds
    (pp. 279-290)

    Like Lord Dunsany’s “hashish man,” we have undertaken mental journeys to fearful worlds, examining moral panic, madness, and murder. By exploring the strange history of religious opposition to fantasy roleplaying games, it is now possible to bring new perspective to some old questions. If reality is socially constructed, then all of our realms of constructed meaning—from paracosms to conspiracy theories to the sacred canopy of religious polities—may be regarded as so many “games” created through imaginative play. These worlds are able to coexist because they each occur within their own frame of meaning. By navigating these frames of...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 291-332)
  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 333-344)
  10. Index
    (pp. 345-349)