NARRATION: On a summer day in August, 1979, the family of a missing teenager called a Texas investigator named William Dear with some startling information.
WILLIAM C. DEAR (PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR): Dallas Egbert had disappeared from Michigan State University during the summer session.
NARRATION: James Dallas Egbert III was a 16 year-old sophomore, and his family hired Dear to help find him.
WILLIAM C. DEAR: He was a computer nerd and he had a large amount of hair and carries this little briefcase. I wasn’t sure that I was being told exactly what precipitated his disappearance. So I said, well, I guess the best thing we could do is I’ll go to Michigan State University and I’ll find out for myself exactly what was going on. When I went to his room there was a corkboard, with a series of tacks.
NARRATION: In what might look like a random pattern of thumbtacks, the investigator saw what he thought could be a clue. The shape resembled a building that was part of a network of underground campus steam tunnels, which students told him they sometimes explored.
WILLIAM C. DEAR: We set out with maps and we started going into the tunnels one morning with press everywhere. I entered with the idea that I did not know what I was getting into.
NARRATION: But he had a hunch – that it had something to do with a game that was growing in popularity.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 10-5-80):
STEPHEN FRAZIER: This is a quest in a fantasy world of castles and dungeons, monsters and dragons. This world has become real to these people. It’s all part of a game called Dungeons and Dragons.
NARRATION: Dungeons and Dragons, also known as D&D, was created by the late Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in the early 1970s. It was born out of their love for military war games, and they devised scenarios with made-up characters that incorporated their interest in history and fantasy fiction. Gygax said it provided an escape.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 10-5-80):
GARY GYGAX: All of us at times feel a little inadequate dealing with the modern world. It would feel much better if we knew we were a superhero or a mighty wizard.
NARRATION: The game is played in a group, and the guide, or dungeon master…
ARCHIVAL (CBC, 4-15-85):
KID: You enter a very small room.
NARRATION: … talks the players through the fictional, sometimes violent, adventures they will go on.
ARCHIVAL (CBC, 4-15-85):
CAROLE JEROME: A throw of these special dice decide the outcome of battles in an intricate scoring system. Nothing is acted out. The real action is in the mind.
D&D DUNGEON MASTER: Now you guys are entering the castle.
NARRATION: But some, including private investigator William Dear, worried that while the action was imaginary, some kids might take it too far.
WILLIAM C. DEAR: You’re leaving the world of reality into the world of fantasy that advocated murder, decapitation. And I’m going, this isn’t a healthy game. How can it be a healthy game?
NARRATION: That game, and Dear’s hunch that Egbert was playing it in the tunnels, made great fodder for headlines. But it was a dead end and Dear went back to Texas empty-handed.
WILLIAM C. DEAR: It wasn’t within a day or two that the phone call came in and he was still alive.
NARRATION: Egbert was a complicated teenager whose disappearance was never fully explained, and who later committed suicide.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 8-17-80):
JAMES MORTON: There was speculation he was the victim of a campus game called Dungeons and Dragons. But after a month-long nationwide search he was found unharmed.
NARRATION: Dear fed into the growing suspicions about D&D in a book that pointed to the game as a culprit in Egbert’s disappearance. But Tim Kask, who’d helped develop D&D with Gary Gygax, says Dear was just hyping the story for personal gain.
TIM KASK: He was a publicity hound, and he knew he could hang it on D&D and gather a lot of media frenzy. And he did! Dallas Egbert, it’s a tragic story. Brilliant young man, sent off to university at 15. It had nothing to do with D&D and the steam tunnels.
NARRATION: Still, that attention set off an unexpected chain of events.
TIM KASK: Our stock took off – literally. We sold thousands of more copies within 90 days of all that stuff happening. And we were up in print runs. That’s when we took off.
NARRATION: Sales nearly quadrupled the year after Egbert disappeared. As the cult game was going mainstream, Dungeons and Dragons generated interest in two conflicting groups: people who wanted to buy it, and those who wanted to ban it. And televangelists took on a new crusade.
ARCHIVAL (LOST WITHOUT A COMPASS, 1993):
NARRATION: They are kids like yours, like the ones in your neighborhood. Kids who are turning to darkness because society has shut God out.
GARY ALAN FINE (PROFESSOR OF SOCIOLOGY, NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY): A conservative, fundamentalist Christian group would see a game that involved satanic figures, evil figures – that would be a source of concern.
ARCHIVAL (ESCAPING SATAN’S WEB, 1987):
NARRATION: Dungeons & Dragons has been called the most effective introduction to the occult in the history of man. It is a fantasy role playing game that teaches demonology, witchcraft ….
NARRATION: Gygax, a religious man himself, was put on the defensive. The company hired psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers to fend off criticism.
ARCHIVAL AUDIO (EXCHANGE WITH NEIL MCKENTY, CJAD RADIO):
DR. JOYCE BROTHERS: There is good and evil in life and the way Dungeons & Dragons is set up is that good triumphs over evil.
NARRATION: Tim Kask says that in private, he and Gygax couldn’t believe the game was being linked to devil worship.
TIM KASK: Without sounding disrespectful at all, we laughed our butts off most of the time because it was like, are you kidding me? You really think we’re teaching your children demonology?
NARRATION: But the controversy grew after the news media reported that a string of teen murders and suicides had one thing in common: the killers or victims were D&D players.
ARCHIVAL (CBC, 4-15-85):
CAROLE JEROME: Mary Towey was killed by two friends, Ron Adcox and Darren Molitor. The crucial point is, can a game create psychosis, or is someone like Darren Molitor an accident waiting to happen with or without the game?
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 60 MINUTES, 9-15-85):
ED BRADLEY: If you found 12 kids in murder suicide with one connecting factor in each of them, wouldn’t you question it?
GARY GYGAX: I would certainly do it in a scientific manner, and this is as unscientific as you can get. It’s nothing but a witch hunt!
NARRATION: But many grieving parents believed there was a connection. Pat Pulling’s teenage son committed suicide, and she spoke publicly, claiming that his game playing contributed to his death.
ARCHIVAL (CBS 60 Minutes, 9-15-85):
PAT PULLING: It has been linked in suicide notes, police reports and coroner’s reports.
GARY ALAN FINE: Young people commit suicide for a whole variety of reasons. In my research, I saw nothing that led anyone towards depression or suicide.
NARRATION: Northwestern University professor of sociology, Gary Alan Fine, wrote a book called Shared Fantasy, and studied the D&D sub-culture.
GARY ALAN FINE: They were the kind of kids and young people who didn’t go to dances or date on the weekends, they were part of a nerd culture I guess you would say.
ARCHIVAL (E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL):
KID: I can still throw death spells, huh, Steve?
NARRATION: The D&D culture intrigued filmmakers and fiction writers. Rona Jaffe’s book, Mazes and Monsters, was loosely based on what people thought had happened to Dallas Egbert. It was made into a movie, starring a young Tom Hanks.
ARCHIVAL (MAZES AND MONSTERS, 1982):
VOICE: Let the journey begin.
TOM HANKS: But which way do we go?
CORY DOCTOROW (SCIENCE FICTION AUTHOR): They went down the storm tunnels and got to play D&D in the tunnels! We had to like sit around a table, like, like how awesome would it have been if it turned out that D&D was like what they did?
NARRATION: Cory Doctorow is a writer and activist, who early on, was profiled as an avid D&D player, in this story from 1985.
CORY DOCTOROW: It’s him.
CORY DOCTOROW:The moral panic was mostly laughable. The idea that there were people who were fundamentalist Christians for whom Dungeons and Dragons represented some kind of existential threat to my soul was silly. You could go around and have a really satisfying arguments with like profoundly ignorant grown ups.
NARRATION: Over time, the Dungeons and Dragons “controversy” lost steam… and today, the common thread between D&D players is less likely to include any reported links to violence and more likely to involve Emmy awards and literary prizes. Stephen Colbert and writers Ta-Nehesi Coates and Junot Díaz are among the millions of smart, bookish kids who played D&D and shrugged off any sense of panic .
JUNOT DÍAZ (WRITER): People went bananas! My mom, moral panic?! She was way more worried about us getting shanked, you know, or getting caught up in some nonsense.
GARY ALAN FINE: It was a lot of fun. It also provided them a variety of other skills, leadership skills, negotiation skills.
NARRATION: And for Díaz, as a young immigrant from the Dominican Republic, the game had special meaning.
JUNOT DÍAZ: This was a revolution! Being a bunch of kids of color in a society that tells us we’re nothing, being permitted and under our own power, to be heroic, to have agency, to do the hero stuff, to take and be on adventures. There was nothing like it for us. It was very, very very very impactful.
NARRATION: While some parents used to worry about what kids were playing…. Now, they’re more likely to be worried about how they’re playing.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, NIGHTLY NEWS, 10-21-16):
LESTER HOLT: Screen time. What’s the right amount for modern kids?
ARCHIVAL (CNN, #Being13: Inside the Secret World of Teens):
ANDERSON COOPER: Cell phones and social media have revolutionized the way we live, but how does plugging in change the way your kids are growing up?
EXPERT: This is the biggest parenting issue of our time.
GARY ALAN FINE: Through the 20th century you have this tension between free play and controlled media. I mean, we were concerned about what sitting in darkened movie theaters would do to our children. Just wait 30 years, and they will be worried about what their children are doing, and it will no doubt be something different than sexting and bullying as we know it today. This is not a new phenomenon, it just changes with each new technology.
NARRATION: The American Academy of Pediatrics says that in this media saturated age, it’s important for kids to use their imaginations in free play.
And in a twist – the role playing games that set off a moral panic in the past, may look more like a solution to getting kids off screens and encouraging them to spend time playing face to face.
JUNOT DÍAZ: It’s a great thing to dream yourself in other places and it helps understand who you are. It’s just nice to spend a lot of time thinking, imagining, in a group, collaborating. Imagination is a good thing man, very powerful.