Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic over Role-Playing Games Says about Play, Religion, and Imagined Worlds, by Joseph P. Laycock

Ashley M. L. Brown discovers that imagination is often perceived as the greatest threat of all

May 14, 2015

During my first year at university, I remember coming home from a tabletop session with rulebooks for role-play tucked under my arm. Setting my Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook v. 3.5 on the kitchen table prompted my Catholic grandmother to ask if I was becoming a Satanist. Confused, amused and slightly offended, I responded in the negative and explained that I had taken up a new hobby. This prompted a rather long-winded lecture from her on how fantasy role-playing was not as innocent as it seemed. It was, in fact, a dangerous game deeply tied to the occult.

My story will sound familiar to many readers, and reactions of this kind echo throughout the pages of Dangerous Games as Joseph Laycock details the history of objections to role-playing games on moralistic and religious grounds. He traces not only those relatively rare moments where religion, popular culture and tabletop games intersect in the public eye, but also gives a history of the erotics of fear that have dominated so much of US culture in the past few decades. Going beyond mere surface descriptions of a fearful culture, he delves into the forbidden steam tunnels beneath and looks at the monstrous origin of Americans’ anxieties over fantasy and fantasy games.

Anyone familiar with the nature of moral panics will not be surprised to hear that discomfort with fantasy as a literary, cinematic and game genre does not start or end with tabletop role-playing. Interestingly, Laycock argues that critics’ assumptions about tabletop gaming – particularly Dungeons and Dragons – are markedly at odds with the games’ origins. Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax, creators of Dungeons and Dragons, were devout Christians who developed an alignment system based on Manichaean divisions of good and evil, lawfulness and chaos. It is ironic, Laycock notes, that this division, which the creators intended to lead to narratives supporting the righteous triumph of the morally just over the morally bankrupt, is precisely what its critics find demonic about the game.

Worth reading for the detailed and nuanced history of fantasy role-playing games in and of itself, the book’s supplementary focus on tragic events that were widely linked to role-playing games is engrossing. The disappearance of Michigan State University undergraduate James Dallas Egbert III in 1979 and his apparent self-inflicted death the following year, the suicide in 1982 of high school student Irving Lee “Bink” Pulling, and the killing in 1996 of Naomi Ruth Queen and Richard Wendorf by 16-year-old self-styled “vampire” Rod Ferrell and his accomplice, are but a few of the deaths for which role-playing games have been blamed. Laycock deftly draws on police reports and tabloid accounts with such flair that in places his book reads more like a crime novel than an academic text.

But Laycock’s greatest achievement is shooting a silver bullet straight into the heart of moral, media and satanic panics by positing that society’s discomfort with role-playing games is rooted in a discomfort with imagination. To imagine alternative fantasy worlds is to question the nature of reality. As Laycock pointedly asks: “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?” And really, what more could you want from a book with a horned devil attacking a child on the cover?

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

By Joseph P. Laycock
University of California Press, 368pp, £44.95 and £19.95
ISBN 9780520284913, 0284920 and 0960565 (e-book)
Published 6 March 2015

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