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Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic over Role-Playing Games Says about Play, Religion, and Imagined Worlds Paperback – February 12, 2015
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But the weirdest thing of all was how many people believed that playing a game of pretend could cause you to worship the devil.
I was lucky, because while my parents surely thought D&D was weird, they never believed it was evil, and they never told me I wasn’t allowed to play. But there were lots of people who bought into that ridiculous story. But why did people believe it? Why did people push it? What were they getting out of pushing something so utterly deranged?
That’s what this book is about — why was there a huge moral panic about D&D (and roleplaying games in general), why were people so eager to believe that bookish teenagers were devil worshipers, who were the people helping to fan the flames, and what benefits did they gain from inventing conspiracy theories that made no rational sense?
Laycock’s book is exhaustively detailed, detailing the history of the game and the panic from the beginning, setting down the names of a vast number of conspiracy theorists, and analyzing not just the motives of the theorists, but the many ways they were actually very similar to the teenagers they were targeting.
Let’s start out with this, though — this isn’t an easy, two-nights-to-finish pop-psych skimmer. This is a pretty serious academic work. There are hefty chunks of the book devoted to professorial discussions of play, religion, and the imagination. Those may sound easy and fun, but when you’re analyzing the research into these academic areas, they can be a bit of a slog to get through. There are pages of this book you may have to force yourself to get through, particularly if you’re not well-versed in these academic areas.
This may sound like a bad thing, but it ain’t really. You learn stuff going through these sections, and learning this stuff helps you appreciate Laycock’s analysis later in the book. This is the nature of academic works, and it don’t make it bad just ’cause it ain’t easy.
What are some of the things we learn in Laycock’s analysis? One of the key discussions is about play and imagination — particularly when it’s healthy and when it’s unhealthy, and what happens when people can’t tell the difference between their imaginations and reality. I don’t think it’ll come as a great surprise to anyone who’s followed this phenomenon before, but there are some serious similarities between D&D players and the conspiracy theorists who persecuted them. D&D players played at being brave heroes battling against monstrous horrors to save the innocent. And the conspiracy theorists like Patricia Pulling, William Dear, and Jack Chick also played at being brave heroes battling against monstrous horrors to save the innocent. Now which ones do you think knew they were playing a game, and which ones do you think had mistaken their game for reality?
Even then, there are some items in here that still surprised me. I never really imagined there were people who were actually opposed to anyone using their imagination — but there are, because imagining things means thinking of things that God didn’t create. And this distrust of the imagination actually extends back centuries — some Greek philosophers didn’t trust fiction or the arts at all, and even Thomas Jefferson hated novels because he thought books should only convey things that were true, not falsities and fictions.
There’s a lot of excellent stuff to learn in this book. If you’re an old-school gamer with a taste for the hobby’s history, if you’ve got an interest in moral panics, if you love learning new things about how humans use and abuse play and religion, you’ll probably really enjoy this book.
Addressing the historical context, Laycock writes, “The panic over cults in the 1970s combined religious fears of the heretical other with medicalized notions of brainwashing and mental illness. This constellation of anxieties formed the context through which critics understood ‘D&D’” (pg. 77). later, “In the 1980s, moral entrepreneurs continued to frame their attack on role-playing games in both religious terms as a ‘cult’ and in medicalized terms as a form of brainwashing. But a new claim came to dominate discourse about fantasy role-playing games: that these games were actually designed to promote criminal behavior and suicide because they had been crated by an invisible network of criminal Satanists” (pg. 102). These linked role-playing games with the ongoing Satanic Panic. Groups like Bothered About “Dungeons & Dragons” (BADD) furthered the connection of ‘D&D’ with murder and suicide (pg. 119).
Examining the Satanic Panic, Laycock writes, “[David] Bromley attempts to make sense of the panic by suggesting that claims about Satanists abducting and abusing children were an attempt to articulate social concerns and frustrations that could not be expressed otherwise. The real threat, he argues, was that a changing economy in which both parents frequently worked required Americans to rely increasingly on strangers to care for and raise their children. The covenantal sphere of family life was being compromised by the contractual sphere of the market, and parents felt helpless to halt this process” (pgs. 106-107). Laycock argues that darker, edgier content from the late 1980s and 1990s sought to provide outlets targeted to Generation X just as <i>D&D</i> had for Baby Boomers. He writes, “For Generation X, dark, atmosphere-heavy role-playing games were not just an escape into a fantasy world: they were a medium through which players and storytellers could explore their doubts and frustrations by creating stories that articulated the world’s flaws by casting them into relief” (pg. 140). This darker context added further fuel to moral entrepreneurs’ fire. Amid fears of superpredators and newspaper articles about privileged, white killers, moral entrepreneurs seized on the tropes of role-playing games to “frame white murders as ‘goths’ or otherwise part of some strange subculture that made them fundamentally different from their white, suburban peers” (pg. 163).
Laycock links the focus on the imaginary with its perceived threat to cultural hegemony. He writes, “In this sense, fantasy role-playing games, along with novels, film, and other imaginary worlds, provide mental agency. Moral entrepreneurs interpreted this agency as subversion and a deliberate attempt to undermine traditional values” (pg. 215). He continues, “To regard the demonic as fantasy casts doubt on all religious truth claims, at least where the supernatural is concerned… This fear, [he argues], is the primary reason why some Christians found fantasy role-playing games so intolerable. If players can construct a shared fantasy complete with gods and demons, what assurance is there that Christianity is not itself a kind of game?” (pg. 233)
Laycock concludes, “Censorship allows authorities to restrict what we say, but controlling the frames of metacommunication allows authorities to restrict the kind of meanings we convey. The panic over fantasy role-playing games and the imagination reflects an attempt to secure hegemony by reordering these frames of meaning” (pgs. 279-280).
But it actually has a lot of interesting insights, a unique methodology, and compelling argument that can be read profitability by scholars who are not gamers, and by gamers who think they already know the full story.
Surprisingly, most gamers I know who have read the better known popular history books on gaming (like playing at the world) haven’t heard of this book.
The book is well written and the author keeps the subject matter interesting. For RPG fans, the history of TSR and White Wolf is worth the price of admission alone.
Top international reviews
What I wasn't expecting was the detailed and thoroughly academic look at the intersections of religion, fantasy, play, and human meaning. While the author's focus remains mostly fixed on tabletop fantasy role-playing games, his unpacking of the fraught relationship between religious and cultural hegemony on the one hand and fantasy and imagination on the other is rooted in an articulation of the nature and purpose of fantasy itself as a genre. Some of the lessons and insights here could be expanded to understand other cultural flashpoints, and through clear discussion and reinforcement Laycock provides readers with a fascinating sociological perspective on these issues that's understandable and approachable.