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Title: Fantasy Game Turns Into Deadly Reality

Source: Chicago Tribune, January 27th, 1985

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Fantasy Game Turns Into Deadly Reality
January 27, 1985
By Howard Witt, Chicago Tribune.

Last September, the body of a bright 17-year-old California boy washed up on a San Francisco beach, presumably a suicide victim.

In early November, a 12-year-old Colorado boy fatally shot his 16-year-old brother and then himself. Two days later in a suburb north of Chicago, a boy and a girl, both 17, killed themselves by running the family car in a closed garage.

Two weeks ago in Arlington, Tex., a 17-year-old drama student walked onto a classroom stage, put a sawed-off shotgun to his head and fired.

And last week in Goddard, Kan., James Alan Kearbey, a 14-year-old Eagle Scout candidate, allegedly walked into his junior high school and opened fire with a rifle, killing the principal and wounding three others.

What these seemingly disparate tragedies have in common is a complex fantasy role-playing game called Dungeons & Dragons. In each case, the youths involved had been avid players of a game that requires no boards, no moving pieces--just an active imagination and a sharp mind.

IN MANY CASES, the youths had left behind gruesome drawings and peculiar notes seemingly inspired by Dungeons & Dragons.

The game's critics are united in a loose nationwide network that includes conservative Christians, groups working against violence on television and parents of teenage suicide victims. They see these examples as the latest in a growing series of similar tragedies, and they charge that Dungeons & Dragons is a dangerous game that can lure impressionable young people into violence, the occult, insanity and death.

"You do not casually play this game, just like you do not casually take heroin," said Pat Pulling of Montpelier, Va., whose 16-year-old son shot himself through the heart three years ago after a "death curse" had been placed on him during the game.

"This game captures youths totally. It stimulates their imaginations, all right, but it's imagination of killing and horror."

TO THE GAME'S manufacturer, TSR Hobbies Inc. of Lake Geneva, Wis., such charges are groundless.

"This is a game. It's make-believe. It's played around a table, not in real life," said company spokesman Dieter Sturm. "If kids are doing something else, moving outside the context of Dungeons & Dragons, that is something totally made up by them."

The game, Sturm said, "is being made a scapegoat for the rampant teenage suicide problem in the U.S." Nearly 4 million players, most aged 10 to 24, currently enjoy the game, Sturm said.

Probability would indicate that a few of those youths who play the game might also commit suicide, Sturm said, "but they might also play football. . . . We always find these suicides have other emotional problems."

The game's potential effects can be felt most acutely by young people who have other problems, critics acknowledge, and they have asked the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission to order that warnings to that effect be placed on all game materials.

DESCRIBING THIS game, whose instructions at the highest levels of play fill several weighty volumes, is difficult. Essentially, players take on the identities of medieval warriors who collect treasure and build strength and power as they battle their way through monster-filled mazes. A "dungeon master," usually the most experienced player, directs the game, which can last hours or days or even weeks, and he determines which monsters the characters will encounter.

The monsters, according to the Dungeon Masters Guide, can inflict punishments ranging from infecting flesh to poisoning to whipping and immolation. Characters can cast "insanity curses" on one another that include sadomasochism, homicidal mania and suicidal mania.

TSR officials say these aspects of the fantasy game are no more violent than what teenagers encounter in books, on television and in movies.

Critics of the game strongly disagree, arguing that Dungeons & Dragons is far more involved and lasts much longer than any book or movie.

ONE LEADING critic is Dr. Thomas Radecki, a University of Illinois Medical School psychiatrist and chairman of the National Coalition on Television Violence.

"It's quite clear to me that this game is causing a lot of young people to turn to violence against others and themselves," said Radecki, whose group announced last week that it had found at least nine suicides across the country in which youths appeared to be acting out fantasies spawned by Dungeons & Dragons.

The game "causes a desensitization to violence," Radecki said. "In a lot of cases, the kids start to live in this fantasy world. Unfortunately a lot of these kids are not finding their way out of these dungeons."

William Dear, a flamboyant private investigator in Dallas, said he has investigated a half-dozen suicides linked to the game. Dear is best known for tracking down a Dungeons & Dragons enthusiast at Michigan State University in 1979 who was playing a version of the game in the school's steam tunnels.

IN EVERY SUICIDE, Dear said, the youths involved had collected Dungeons & Dragons literature, drawn gruesome fantasy cartoons, dabbled in occult rituals and withdrawn from their friends and families before killing themselves.

"Dungeons & Dragons played by youths who are having some sort of emotional problems is dangerous," Dear said. "There is no doubt about this."

Yet there is doubt. There have been no scientific studies linking Dungeons & Dragons, which has been sold since 1973, to increased violence or suicides. The evidence against the game remains largely anecdotal.

To parents such as Ted Dempsey, however, those anecdotes are more than sufficient. Dempsey's 15-year-old son, Michael, shot himself in the head on May 19, 1981, in the family's Washington state home only hours after his parents discovered him in his room as he invoked demons from the game.

"I just keep asking myself, 'Why didn't I take an interest in that (Dungeons & Dragons) book?' " Dempsey said. "He was playing for six or seven months. We thought maybe he was just going through his normal teenage years."

A 21-YEAR-OLD University of Arkansas student who quit playing Dungeons & Dragons after five years "because it had drawn me into occult things I didn't like" offers an additional anecdote.

"The game rewards you if you steal and if you kill," said the student, who asked not to be named. "Because this fantasy can be much more appealing than reality, you tend to get pretty dissatisfied with reality and wrapped up in the fantasy. That's where the suicide can come in.

"The player-character attachment is so close and personal, you get to show off a part of yourself with your character, that if the character dies, there's an extreme emotional trauma."

TSR officials dismiss such accusations. But a 1983 edition of the instruction book for beginning players contains half a page of warnings titled "Players are not characters!"

"It is important to remember that the player and the character are two different persons," the manual reads. "The more the two are kept apart, the better your games will be."
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