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What is Dangerous Games?

The 1980s saw the peak of a moral panic over fantasy role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons. A coalition of moral entrepreneurs that included representatives from the Christian Right, the field of psychology, and law enforcement claimed that these games were not only psychologically dangerous but an occult religion masquerading as a game. Dangerous Games explores both the history and the sociological significance of this panic.

Fantasy role-playing games do share several functions in common with religion. However, religion―as a socially constructed world of shared meaning―can also be compared to a fantasy role-playing game. In fact, the claims of the moral entrepreneurs, in which they presented themselves as heroes battling a dark conspiracy, often resembled the very games of imagination they condemned as evil. By attacking the imagination, they preserved the taken-for-granted status of their own socially constructed reality. Interpreted in this way, the panic over fantasy-role playing games yields new insights about how humans play and together construct and maintain meaningful worlds.

Laycock’s clear and accessible writing ensures that Dangerous Games will be required reading for those with an interest in religion, popular culture, and social behavior, both in the classroom and beyond.

Review

“Never argue with an idiot. You’ll never convince the idiot that you’re correct, and bystanders won’t be able to tell who’s who.” – Mark Twain

This is a deeply frustrating book for me because I wanted to like it but the problem is that it keeps running into the truism of the aforementioned quote undermines it at very turn. There’s an apocryphal story passed around in my Kentucky game group from my DM to me that came from a convention he attended. Basically, it was the heady days of 2nd Edition and the developers at TSR were determined to remove anything controversial from their material: no demons, no devils, no brothels, no nudity in the books, and everything kept to a gloriously family-friendly PG. Then one of them, the story goes Ed Greenwood, commented, “Do you believe any of these bored housewives and fire and brimstone preachers actually read the books before condemning them?”

This book attempts to tell the story of the Satanic Panic and why so many evangelical Americans were terrified that Dungeons and Dragons endangered young souls. Well, the reason for that is that the people who are going after it are morons. They are looking for a target and make up whatever extreme claims that they need to in order to make it sound plausible. This is a problem for the book because their arguments are nonsense so the book spends an extensive amount of time deconstructing idiocy.

One of the most lucid points in the book that could have been an actual interesting chapter was the discussion of the creation of a Christian RPG named DragonRaid designed to indoctrinate youngsters in evangelism. DragonRaid was eviscerated by evangelists because, well, of course it was. It was an RPG and RPGs are evil. Why? Because RPGs are evil, so sayeth the Lord. Didn’t you read that passage of the Bible? Nonsensium 12:28. If your argument is against someone who doesn’t care about facts or logic, especially in matters of faith, then there’s no point to arguing with them in the first place.

Speaking as someone sincerely religious who grew up in the Bible Belt, the scapegoating and silliness of this never gets less so. We address the infamous James Dallas Egbert III case and it is perfect for what could have been a harsher takedown of the hysteria here. Egbert was a suicidal teen with mental health issues and struggling with his homosexuality as well as his fundamentalist parents. An insane private detective and self-styled cult deprogrammer made up the insanity about him being trapped in the steam tunnels as well as driven mad by the evil game.

The book tries to get into the psychological power of roleplaying, Jungian psychology, the definition of religion, and more but trying to deconstruct arguments against RPGs is an exercise in futility because there’s no argument. It’s kind of an interesting book to read in our “Post Facts” world of 4chan conspiracy theories and Alternative Facts. The constant attempt to disprove what is bold faced lies and ranting stupidity to begin with. When discussing Deities and Demigods, the book comments on how much of the anger was over teaching about historical gods and real life history. As if the very act of education was offensive. The book’s neutral tone becomes angering to anyone with a love of learning, mythology, or actual reasoned debate. Given I am an academic by trade as well as an author, its hard to maintain objectivity.

Yet, I can’t disagree with the author or his research. He clearly went out of his way to attack the Satanic Panic’s conclusions and methodically assembled evidence to show what utter nonsense their activities were. Some of the stories in the book are deeply frightening like how BADD (Bothered about Dungeons and Dragons) would send their lies and cooked statistics to hundreds of police stations in hopes of getting gamers monitored or arrested.

That was a real thing that happened and reflects the kind of panic-driven zealotry that the book is attacking. I just wish it was as angry about it as I was because the people who most need to read this are the ones who won’t care and the people who are most likely to read the book already know a witch hunt won’t find actual witches. Believe me, if Dungeons and Dragons granted supernatural powers, I would know it by now.

Another problem with this book is a more practical one in that this is being marketed as a text book and text books are ridiculously overpriced. The book is listed as a staggering twenty dollars for the eletronic version. This costs more than the paperback version of Game of Thrones. I’m inclined to think in terms of sheer cost analysis, you should pick up the Audible version for a credit instead.

Available here

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