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The Great Roleplaying Myths

by Kyla Ward, 1994

The history of roleplaying games is relatively short. But for all that, it demonstrates admirably the old Chinese proverb about interesting times. The first Dungeons and Dragons rules were released in 1974 by Gary Gygax and his university friends, under their new company name, Tactical Studies Rules. Dungeons and Dragons has remained, in the eye of the general public, the signifier for the entire hobby that followed. Think about it; even when you're attempting to explain what Vampire, or Live Roleplaying is to a mundane friend, like as not at some point you'll find yourself saying, 'like Dungeons and Dragons.'

Your friend will then say, But don't people get obsessed by that?' Or possibly, 'Isn't that involved with the occult?' or 'But doesn't it make people violent, and haven't there been murders?' These are the Great Roleplaying Myths, and they have been around almost as long as the games themselves and like the games, are still with us today. D&D was the first and attracted all the notoriety, which is why people remember it.

The crux of the problem is that the general public has never come to grips with what 'roleplaying' actually is. Some may actually have encountered it in their place of work or at school as an educational tool, or even played How to Host a Murder. But roleplaying games, those are to do with withdrawn teenagers identifing with their characters and dressing up and getting together in strange places with candles on skulls and committing suicide. People do still think all these things, and as we shall see, they are the exact same ideas as surfaced in Australia in 1986, the year of the 'Roleplaying Murder', and in America back during the first D&D scare in 1979. The method of this article is to attempt to trace the myths back to their beginnings, and see how they developed and have been sustained with especial emphasis on the Australian context. As any roleplayer knows, most myths have some actual, historical incident behind them. The rest is unfamiliarity, pressure from interested parties and tales that simply grew in the telling. I will also be referring to the actual psychological studies on the subject I have been able to track down. 'University studies' are often referred to by both supporters and opponents of roleplaying, but there seem to be surprisingly few. The studies obligingly tend towards either the 'obsession' or 'violence' myths, and I shall invoke them accordingly.

1) Don't people get obsessed by that? And lose touch with reality, identify with their characters and so forth. When D&D first appeared, the general public had no idea what to compare it to. It was described as a game, but involved no board, no cards or counters. There was no clear end point, at which the players won or lost. Strangest of all, the participants invented personalities which they took on whenever they played.

Looking for comparisons, some people remembered the Tolkien craze of the sixties. Then, there had been dressing up, there had been people taking on the names of characters from the trilogy, there had been conventions, and people attempting to take degrees in the Elvish language. The new game was fairly open about the inspiration it drew from Tolkien.

Some remembered the Society for Creative Anachronism. This world-wide organisation for medieval re-enactment, the most hyped aspect of which is the recreated armour and combat, was founded in America also in the late sixties. This is probably the basis for the idea that D&D players dress up and hit each other; at least one tract on the dangers of roleplaying, 'The Mind-Trap' in Turmoil in the Toybox (Phil Phillips, Starburst, 1986), overtly confuses the two [1].

Reports on the latest teenage craze began to mention these things, and note was also made of how much money the participants spent, and how many hours they played.

Into this climate walked sixteen year old James Dallas Egbert II, or rather, out. His disappearance from Michigan University in 1979 made headlines when some helpful person suggested he had gone down into the university's steam tunnels to attempt a live version of his favourite leisure activity [2]. The detective in charge of the case, William Dear, took the idea seriously, and later wrote a book entitled The Dungeon Master (Boston, 1984). This book fills in the rest of the story: James reappeared in Mexico a week after he vanished, and committed suicide with a hand-gun a year later. The game was mentioned because it was one of the few things his classmates knew about him -- he was bright, unhappy at colledge and he played D&D. Pressure from home and difficulties, in a less-open decade, about his sexuality, were considered by Dear to be James's motivation for both his disappearence and his suicide.

Did any of the above story sound familiar? Someone else wrote a book. In 1981 Rona Jaffe published Mazes and Monsters, (Hodder and Stoughton) No two ways about it, this book is the Egbert case with extra teenagers added for extra teenage problems. In it, the disturbed protagonist is specifically portrayed as identifying with his character to the point of losing his own personality, and is permanently lost within his fantasy world. A movie adaption followed in 1983 (Ray McDermott: McDermott Productions assoc. Proctor and Gamble), starring a young Tom Hanks of all things. The movie features a scene of the game being played in a black draped room lit by candles.

It is in relation to James Egbert's disappearance that I first find the various `obsession' ideas brought together, and unfortunately this was the first information that most parents and authorities received about what gaming actually was. At about this point, TSR started making its famous statements that D&D was 'no more real than a game of Monopoly'.

Character identification is an extremely common phenomena. It is part of the way in which any normal person reads a book or a comic and watches a film or TV show. As you comprehend the characters in your own mind, you relate their traits and what happens to them to your own experience. It is why current affairs shows and even news broadcasts find 'characters' to illustrate the information they are trying to convey.

In 1981, Professor Gary Alan Fine produced the article 'Fantasy Games and Social Worlds: Simulation as Leisure', in association with the Sociology department of the University of Chicago. It collated information that the game resulted, not in loss of identity and 'escape' from reality, but in improved academic performance, enhanced creativity and social skills. The essay was followed in 1983 with a book, Shared Fantasy: Roleplaying Games as Social Worlds which theorised the roleplaying scene as a subculture.

A perhaps more clinical study, using standard psychological assessment tests and a non-gaming control group occurred in 1990, in the Department of Psychology of Murray State University, Kentucky. It was conducted by Lisa A. DeRenard and Linda Mannik Kline, focusing on 'Alienation and the Game Dungeons and Dragons'. It concluded that feelings of 'cultural estrangement' were greater amongst players, especially amongst those whose spending patterns and total hours played showed greater commitment to the game; but, as it happened, that fewer players expressed feelings of meaninglessness in their lives.

2) Isn't that involved with the occult? In 1984, the second major roleplaying scare occurred. Fundamentalist Christian groups had already been expressing concern as to the inclusion of imaginary deities, or deities from other mythoi, that were available for the characters to worship. Fortunately, they hadn't noticed the formation of the Chaosium company, and the release of The Call of Cthulhu in 1981. D&D had been around for a decade now, and had gained a reputation for being played by 'bright' (read nerdy if you must) children. It was incorporated into after school programmes, and extension activities for the gifted.

Such a student was sixteen year old Irving Pulling of Virginia. He shot himself one night while his parents were out, leaving a note containing what the Sheriffs report described as mystical phrases, and inexplicable things they presumed referred to the game books they found in his room. This is a tenuous candidate for the start of the Devils and Demons claim, but it is directly related to the formation of the most active and focused anti-gaming organisation of the eighties, BADD (Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons). This is still active in the States, although its target has expanded to 'violent toys' in general. It was founded by Irving's mother, Pat Pulling.

Pat Pulling stated that the Dungeon Master of the school campaign had indoctrinated Irving into the occult and cursed him with homicidal mania, and that he had killed himself to keep from killing his family. She filed a one million dollar law suit against the school principal for allowing the game to be played there. All her actions and statements are on record as part of the educational material that BADD produced and distributed, together with the other cases of murder and suicide she linked to the game in the mid-eighties. This is the infamous List of One Hundred, that many subsequent articles and even the Sixty Minutes special shown in America in 1985 and, with the addition of local material, in Australia a year later refer to, (more on this later). I should note that despite the title, the most lengthy list I have been able to collate from the BADD material is of fifteen incidents. Further, in most of these the connection appears to be solely that the individuals played the game, and any surrounding factors are not included. Pat Pulling states her case at length in her book TheDevil's Web: Who Is Stalking Your Children For Satan? (with Kathy Cawthon, Huntingdon House, 1989)

The significance of a legal procedure being attempted, even if, as happened, it was laughed out of court, should be obvious. The sheer fact of the case was enough to frighten any number of schools into halting use of the game, and to stir up investigations and some bannings all across the country. The Games Manufacturers Association was formed in defence, with the impetus of Chaosium director Greg Stafford, and produced pamphlets and offered defences on television and radio. Their 1988 pamphlet 'Games Don't Kill' rebuts the best known BADD cases, such as James Egbert, in detail.

But the main argument of Pat Pulling, and the Fundamentalist Christian community of which she was a part, was that the game served as an introduction to the occult which then caused the various murders, etc. It is from this period that the two best known anti-D&D tracts date (and incidentally, the piece already referred to in Turmoil in the Toybox); CHICK publications Dark Dungeons and the Pro-Family Forum's Dungeons and Dragons- Only A Game?

Dark Dungeons is a comic. It shows the progression of a teenage girl from playing D&D to joining the local witches coven under her character's name, casting mind-bondage spells on her father, having a friend commit suicide upon the death of her character, and finally being saved by a handsome male evangelist. The really interesting part I thought was the use of female protagonists, especially the evil female Dungeon Master. The girl, and the readers, are told by the evangelist to 'gather up all your occult paraphernalia like your rock music, occult books, charms, Dungeons and Dragons material. Don't throw them away. Burn them.'

Dungeons and Dragons -- Only a Game? was reprinted in Australia in 1986 by the Australian Federation For Decency, an organisation founded by the Reverend Fred Nile which has since changed its name to the Australian Federation for the Family. It answers its question in the following quote:

'Dungeons and Dragons, instead of a game, is a teaching on demonology, witchcraft, voodoo, murder, rape, blasphemy, suicide, assassination, insanity, sex perversion, homosexuality, prostitution, Satan worship, gambling, Jungian psychology, barbarism, cannibalism, sadism, desecration, demon summoning, necromantics, divination and many more teachings, brought to you in living colour direct from the pit of hell!'
Whatever people may consider the occult actually is, this sort of action has linked D&D to a generally negative idea. In 1989, TSR brought out the Second Edition Advanced rule books, including a Monsters Compendium noticeably thinner in the 'D's. A number of games companies, such as White Wolf, printed disclaimers in the likes of Vampire, first ed. 1992.

Interestingly enough, a study conducted by the University of Melbourne in 1989 clearly considered the occult connection to be of sufficient importance for inclusion. Their sample group of players were found to indeed have greater occult knowledge -- silver repels werewolves, that sort of thing -- but to be no more likely to hold firmer occult beliefs than the non-player control group. We shall return to this study later.

3) But doesn't it make people violent, and haven't there been murders? In Australia, those that say this are drawing on half-confused memories of the 1986 Sixty Minutes segment, 'Games People Play', and the murder of twenty-one year old Hobart University student Leigh Turner by his former friend, twenty-one year old Maurice Huish.

Maurice Huish was in love with another fellow student, who to her mind had conclusively ended their brief involvement and become engaged to Leigh Turner. Whether influenced by his hobby in his choice of revenge, as the Defence Counsel claimed, or not, Maurice disguised himself as a woman he referred to as 'Linda', to gain entrance to Leigh's house and stab him to death. Maurice Huish was involved in the local medieval re-enactment group, and had been gaming for years, including a recent campus bout of Steve Jackson's semi-live game Killer. In the coverage, this was referred to as a live version of Dungeons and Dragons. The court rejected the gaming defence.

The Sixty Minutes segment used footage from the American version the previous year. For Australian content, it covered the 'roleplaying murder' in the same breath as the suicides of two Brisbane high school students, both of whom had played D&D and shot themselves with family guns. The D&D aspect of the whole business had the Queensland Department of Education impose a temporary ban in the State's schools. I must say, the footage of actual game play included in the special, and the montage of images from books and modules accompanied by a low, monastic chanting, provided the most colourful picture of gaming since Mazes and Monsters.

When people consider violence and roleplaying in Britain, they will conceivably come up with the Hungerford Massacre of 1987. Twenty-seven year old Michael Ryan shot dead sixteen people including his mother, then turned the gun on himself; in the reports of some papers, because he had the month before received instructions in his Play-By-Mail game to do it. The theory was not considered worth including in the trial, though investigations and bannings of PBM games were called for and in some cases carried out when 'objectionable material' was unearthed.

In America these days, it is likely to be the case of Chris Pritchard. In 1988, nineteen year old Chris Pritchard and his college friends Neil Henderson and James Upchurch were convicted of the murder of his stepfather Lieth Von Stein, and the attempted murder of his mother Bonnie. They were attacked in their bed one night in their home in Washington; the motive was determined as inheriting the step-father's fortune. Needless to say, Chris's friends were his gaming group. Does this story sound familiar? Cruel Doubt, the four hour mini-series, aired on American and Australian television in 1992 (Dan Franklin : Susan Baerwald Productions in assoc. NBC Productions). It was based on the book of the same title by Joe Mc Ginniss (Simon and Schuster, 1991). The producers must have had some arrangement I can't fathom with TSR, because the actual trademark is used and so are the actual first edition AD&D books WITH different insides displayed! Any gamer worth their green slime would have realised the picture of a demon used wasn't genuine, not to mention the different fonts and layout. What some gamers, and certainly the general public, may not know, is that the game scenario that both book and mini-series present as having been a plan or precurser to the murder is fabrication. No such text was discovered by the police investigation, and certainly not tendered in court.

The question of whether viewing violents acts in films or television and experiencing simulations of violent acts in games encourages actual violence is a complex one. One one side, the argument runs that such exposure desensitises people, especially children, so violence to them becomes 'unreal' in terms of any consequences. The other side claims that such vicarious satisfaction of natural aggressive impulses prevents real violence. Both arguments may hold some truth.

The University of Melbourne's study, fully entitled 'Psychological Study On Fantasy Roleplaying Games' was produced by Steven Phelan and supervised by Doctor Ann Sanson. Its main thrust was, did the game increase feelings of hostility? As said, it involved another set of psyche tests and a non-gamer control group. Their results were that no correlation could be drawn between duration and intensity of involvement in roleplaying, and the development of violent traits. It suggested that the reported link between roleplaying and violent crime was based on some disturbed individuals being attracted to, rather than created by the games.

Violence in games, television and cinema has been a cause celebré of the nineties, and it is perhaps only natural that roleplaying has become involved. This was certainly the thrust of the most recent attempt to have the game banned in Australia. In December 1991 the then member for Londonderry in New South Wales, Paul Gibson, demanded a government enquiry into Dungeons and Dragons, as well as the non-roleplaying games Heroquest and Nightmare- the video board game, statedly at the request of parents from all across the country. He, and various correspondents to the State newspapers claimed that Dungeons and Dragons blurred the distinction between fantasy and reality, forced children act out killing things, and then dying themselves, that it had a detrimental effect on their thinking and, either most concerning or amusing, was an introduction to a network of satanic cults, backed up with a list of recognisable BADD cases. Eventually, the only action taken was the resubmitting the Nightmare video to the Office of Film and Literature Classification, which upheld its PG rating.

I am not intending to be a scaremonger. I am proposing that the same, basic ideas inform the negative reactions of people to gaming; anywhere from the National Board of Censors to vaguely concerned parents, and teachers who aren't sure whether to let the gaming club use the library. As said, violence in films and toys is a concern of the nineties, and if there's any fuss in store for roleplaying in the near future, it will likely spill over from this.

By their half-remembered, heard-somewhere nature, it can be very difficult to counter a myth. Independent university tests have been done, and largely ignored. Many roleplayers these days do try and avoid saying 'like Dungeons and Dragons' in an attempt to avoid the knee-jerk reaction. It is true that 'interactive fiction' or may sound more impressive, but as gamers it isimportant that we never let ourselves descend to inter-system snobbery, eg. 'Yes, but not these days in our games. We're much more sophisticated than (whatever you played when you were twelve).' The roleplaying hobby in fact has many advantages when it encounters opposition. Roleplaying has a quite incredible spread of proponents through all age groups, professions and sexes, who are in general literate and expressive enough to mount a spirited defence from any quarter. But in such situations, hard information is sometimes a help. That is the purpose of this article; and of course, to encourage you to rent out Mazes and Monsters and chuckle long and deeply at the Great Roleplaying Myths.


[1] Of course, these days this is what LRP players actually do, but during the time of my involvement in the Yseda Live Adventure club, I received a comment that this was actually healthier than D&D, because it wasn't 'all in your head'.

[2] The earliest reference I have been able to find to genuine Live Roleplaying is a group of English students being refused access to Chiselhurst Caves for the purpose, in 1980 (Danger, Children at Play. Now, I know this book was by a British author, but I have lost my notes and can't remember his name. If anyone does know, please email me).


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