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Title: The Truth: On Sale Now!
Source: The Skeptic (Newsletter of the North Texas Skeptics), May 1995
NOTICE: The following material is copyrighted as indicated in the body of text. It has been posted to this web page for archival purposes, and in doing so, no claim of authorship is expressed or implied, nor is a profit being made from the use of the material.
The Truth: On sale now!
By Jeff FreemanStories of Dungeons & Dragons satanic-suicides have died off in recent years as we discovered other things to worry about. While the topic was still hot (between 1979 and 1992), the AP and UPI circulated 111 articles mentioning fantasy role-playing games. According to an article by Paul Cardwell Jr., published in The Skeptical Inquirer (Winter, 1994), eighty of those reports were largely anti-game.
Little wonder that many people still have this idea that "D&D" (misused as a generic term for "fantasy role-playing game" even though it is a trademark of TSR Hobbies, Inc.) is an occultist lure. The charges are still that FRPG causes suicide, promotes violence, is Satanic/Occult and causes participants to murder their parents. This isn't the media-hype of the mid-1980s, either. Recent articles, though far less common than in the mid-80s, have alluded to one or more of the above charges. Recently D&D-occultism has been brandished in otherwise sound articles about Magic: The Gathering (a "spell-card" game), such as the July 27, 1994, article in the Washington Post which referred to D&D as "an infamous tool for occultists."
February 16, 1995, the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals must have confused talk-show sensationalism with scientific inquiry when it upheld the lower court decision that an Oklahoma state prison warden was justified in banning role-playing games on the basis that they "encourage aggressive behavior through role-playing and the game characters may be used as tatoo [sic] patterns." I'm not sure what the tattoo-pattern thing is all about, but James L. Carroll and Paul M. Carolin's study published in Psychological Reports (June, 1989) as well as Armando Simón's published in Psychology in the School (October, 1987) well established that gamers are not "more violent" than non-gamers. On the contrary, the findings of Suzanne Abyeta and James Forest as reported in Psychological Reports (Number 69, 1991) indicate that gamers as a group have fewer criminal tendencies.
In the Vancouver Sun, June 10, 1994 Phil Davidson blames the murder of a street-sweeper in Spain on a "fantasy adventure board game." Possibly he relied on an article by Harold Glasgow (which popped up in a NEXIS search the day prior) in lieu of actual research. According to these reports, the perpetrators were playing a game in which the object was to kill a certain number of a certain type of people. An LTE running a week later (and read by far fewer people than the original article) casts doubt on that exposition by pointing out a number of inconsistencies. The perpetrators aren't accused of killing anyone else; they weren't members of the university game club; there's no evidence they ever even played any FRPGs ; and there's no such "fantasy adventure board game" anyway. This is just the sort of "D&D murder" that would have made Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons' Trophy List back when Pat Pulling was actively slamming D&D.
Pat Robertson runs an anti-game commercial during The 700 Club's broadcast nearly every day. Respondents are offered a misinformative flyer that quotes Pat Pulling of BADD as a bona fide "expert." It references a hoax that occurred when The 700 Club invited Paul Sanchez on their show under the pretense that he was a former employee of TSR Hobbies, Inc. The pamphlet suggests the game ditch the references to real-world mythology (which Pat Robertson finds "occultic") and use instead a fictitious "game mythology " (not mentioned is that this was done in 1989). The flyer outlines a couple cases of "D&D suicide" and "D&D murder." An accompanying tract addressing "The New Age," claims that playing D&D leads to demonic possession and "is a sin against God." Not only is it full of falsehoods, the text is nearly ten years old. When I wrote CBN and documented each untruth line by line, I received a thank you, the suggestion to pray for them and three months of junk-mail for other 700 Club projects.
FRPG and suicide
Though all of the above studies were conducted nearly ten years ago, just last week I received a letter from U.S. Representative Dick Armey stating that "studies" had shown D&D was harmful and that parents shouldn't let their kids play. No reply yet to the question, "What studies?"
The suicides listed among BADD's "Trophy List" are most often referred to when anti-game groups are challenged for evidence of D&D-suicide. What we find from that list is that sometimes teens commit suicide, whether they play D&D or not. Overall, however, we find a suicide rate for gamers some ten-times below the national average.
Part of that is due to "teen suicide statistic" abuse. Most of the "teen suicide" is committed by "teens" in the 20 to 24 year age range. Indeed, much of the suicide among that group is in the military. Yet in the mid-80s when BADD compiled its list of anecdotal evidence, FRPG was almost exclusively the domain of white suburban teens and college students. Moreover, the oft-repeated claim that "teen suicide has increased 300% since 1955" is in itself misleading. In 1955 when a teen committed suicide the parents were blamed by family, friends and all of society. Sympathetic family doctors might record a suicide as "accidental death." Relatively few groups were actively compiling statistics on teen suicide. As the blame for teen suicide shifted from Freudian "bad-parenting." to chemical imbalances or even society in general and greater effort was made to collect accurate suicide statistics, the teen suicide rate increased. That this was an increase in the actual frequency of teen suicide by 300% seems unlikely. Consider that D&D was released in 1972, but did not gain really wide popularity until Random House began distributing it in 1979. According to a report released by the CDC in 1986, the teen suicide rate peaked in the late-1970s and then declined for nearly 10 years. If there is a link, it's a rigorously positive one.
Part of it may well be that. Role-playing games mandate social interaction. Unlike reading, watching TV, playing video-games, etc., RPG demands that a group of three or more people sit around a table and actually talk to one another. Social interaction, however, is not the hallmark of potential suicide.
FRPG and murder
The most famous case of "D&D Murder" aired in the made-for-TV movie Cruel Doubt. Two teens supposedly juiced-up on LSD allegedly killed their purportedly abusive parents for a $2-million inheritance. A nonexistent "game scenario" was blamed. Though this game scenario was never introduced in court, the jury didn't buy the "D&D defense" and no such game-scenario has ever been published anyway (according to TSR Hobbies, Inc. and scores of gaming enthusiasts on the internet). The "true-crime" novel concluded that this was a D&D-murder. This leap is almost as grand as Mr. Davidson's aforementioned Washington Post article, but at least the novelist can retreat behind the shield of entertainment.
The made-for-TV movie based on that "true crime" novel likewise blamed the game. In the movie, "quotes" were read from the rule book that the book doesn't contain, the scenario really did exist and "satanic pictures" that aren't actually in the rule book were shown as though the book actually contained those illustrations. It's the sort of pick-up truck tampering and wrong-size gas-spewing-cap trickery we expect from reputable TV news-magazines, not from "based on a true story" TV-movie producers.
Other reports of "D&D Murder" are every bit as dubious. Many are based on no more than an over-zealous cult-cop concluding that "D&D did it," quoted by a home-grown reporter and thus entered into the journalists' scriptural NEXIS archives. Most don't even have that. A LEXIS search reveals that no jury at the appellate level has ever found any validity in the "D&D-defense."
Then there is the fact that the game-world has different "gods" than the real world to begin with. Perchance these are folks who want to evangelize every corner of the real world and every corner of every fantasy world as well. They want to convince all the imaginary characters worshipping imaginary gods that Christ is the one true way to salvation, oblivious of the fact that imaginary characters aren't going to gain any immortality (or even mortality) by such devotion anyway. Then they toss out the accusation that gamers might confuse fantasy with reality.
The D&D defamation emerges from the same grim camp of extremists who denounce Care Bears and Smurfs for their "magic powers" and who postulate, perhaps, that Papa Smurf is a Satanic cult leader.
Of course the mainstream doesn't and will not ever buy such a delightful load of gibberish. For the mainstream, the charge is secularized to "D&D causes suicide and murder," backed up with anecdotal accounts that delude journalists and cops into creating still more "evidence" of FRPG's evil. Why does it cause suicide and murder? Because it is a Satanic lure! Why is it a Satanic lure? Because it causes suicide and murder!
Get the picture?
The opprobrious anti-game tracts that a number of fundamentalist Christian organizations produced in the late 1980s are basically the same sort of "Satan's Coming!" hate-trash that attacks Mormons, Masons, Jews, Catholics and every other Not-A-Real-True-Christian group there ever was. Quotes are pulled from the rule books and misrepresented so that the substantially ignorant will think the players are trying to cast spells, the players themselves are worshipping pagan gods, swearing oaths to Beelzebub, under some sort of mind-control by a David Koresh-like figure known as the "Dungeon Master," etc. The accusation is rather like maintaining that watching Forest Gump not only teaches one how to be a shrimp-boat captain, but also that it will compel one to shrimp. Movie actors playing the role of bad guys are actually sinning. Authors of novels with bad-guys (let alone the demons that show up in pop-Christian novels like This Present Darkness) are in danger of demonic possession themselves. Such authors are, after all, describing the actions and reactions of evil characters doing evil things . . . just like D&D!
Most fundamentalist Christians wouldn't even agree with such extremism. Certainly not if they knew that the game rule books don't contain recipes for poisons, directions for casting spells, demon-summoning mumbo-jumbo, etc. as the anti-game tracts are so fond of claiming. Casting a spell in D&D often amounts to saying, "Bob, my character casts a light-spell now." Just as piloting a starship in the Traveller role-playing game doesn't require substantive knowledge of hyperspace (or for that matter, that hyperspace even exist), the player says that his character is trying it and the game referee tells him what happens. Bob might say "The room is filled with a glow," or perhaps, "The starship leaps into hyperspace and in two weeks you'll arrive at Sol."
I've nearly completed a survey of twenty-three organizations promoting various causes. Actually most of them are one-Ph.D. "organizations" publishing The Truth in pamphlets at 20 for $5. (One cannot fault the formula. The one-man organization is the very foundation of such mega-corporations as CBN/The 700 Club, et al.) Many also offer a newsletter and "maybe I'd be interested in a reference book for just $29.95?" The cause they are promoting is uniformly Christian Fundamentalism cloaked in the mantle of, say, family-advocacy or crime-fighter or suicide prevention. Write them with almost any question and you'll receive an offer for an "informative" handbook, flyers, posters and for $1,000 they might conduct a seminar at your local church. The bottom line is that if you want to save your teen from suicide, yourself from being murdered, your marriage from falling apart, your soul from eternal hellfire, etc. then you must become a Real True (fundamentalist) Christian. Voting a straight Republican ticket is just an added bonus.
I wrote them all and asked for information on "a role-playing fantasy game called Dungeons & Dragons."
Eleven have responded so far. Only one simply replied with "Sorry, no info." and suggested I try the local Christian bookstore. All of the other respondents have either replied with anti-game flyers or referred me to one of the other anti-game groups. I have material, therefore, from thirteen of the original twenty-three groups. One is neutral, twelve of them are anti-game. If they didn't tell me it was dangerous and sinful, they referred me to someone who would. They all seem to know one another, yet not a single one of them seems even vaguely aware of any legitimate product-safety or mental health organizations.
Not one righteous Christian referred me to the Consumer Product Safety Commission or Centers for Disease Control, Intentional Injuries Section. None referred me to the American Association of Suicidology. I didn't even receive a referral to the local library (though there were several suggestions to visit the local Christian bookstore). The Truth About D&D ("and other fantasy games," they say) is that it causes suicide. It causes Murder. It is Satanic and leads to horrific occult crimes.
This is a truth that suicide professionals don't know. Numerous studies have failed to reveal it. Criminologists and law enforcement officers, though they deal with crime day in and day out have no idea that FRPG is related. Coroners in every major city in the U.S., reviewing case after case of suicide, somehow failed to notice FRPG was a factor. The entire Psychiatric industry is without a clue.
But these fundamentalist organizations not only know The Truth, they have it on video for just $19.95!
Jeff Freeman is the Texas state coordinator for CAR-PGa (a role-playing game research and information network), and a confessed news junkie. He lives in Carrollton with his wife and two young boys.