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Saturday 28 March 2015

What the D&D Satanic-Panic Did to an Entire Generation of Geeks

So, there's a new academic book on RPGs: "Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic over Role-Playing Games Says about Play, Religion, and Imagined Worlds".  

There's an article reviewing the book, sort of, here.  Note, I have not read this book myself; what follows is my own speculations on the subject, not something related to the book.

As to the book, I think the concept is interesting, but as always I am HIGHLY dubious of anything that comes out of academia regarding RPGs, even if it's from my own Religious Studies background. Strike that - ESPECIALLY then, since I know just how indoctrinated that field is by anti-perennial Marxist ideologues who want to see all religion is a meaningless product of local cultural factors.

It does sound like it could be good, though.  And there's also this quote:

"When grown-ups told me that playing Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) was going to drive me insane or cause me to worship the devil, it suddenly dawned on me that adults were fallible: They ran the schools, the churches, and the police, but they didn’t always think rationally or know what they were talking about."

As far as the comment above: my own observation as a religious scholar would be that the RPG hobby, and indeed the whole generation of geeks from the time of the Satanic Panic appears (to my observation) to be disproportionately populated by two groups: atheists, and people involved in what is sometimes termed 'alternative religion' (that is, people not in a standard mainstream Christian or Jewish denomination or in an orthodox mainstream version of the traditional religion of their own cultural background, but have become converts to some fringe movement or the westernized version of a non-western religion).  We're talking here about just how many gamers are Wiccans, Pagans of other sorts, call themselves Buddhists, Taoists, some form of fringe or ultra-personal Christianity, or New-age "Spiritual" (not really following any religion, but practicing Reiki or Yoga or Crystal Healing or all of the above).

I think that the phenomenon quoted above, the early realization that the very accusation of D&D as "satanic" by trusted authority figures when any young kid playing D&D knew it wasn't, had two effects:
a) A lot of those kids felt like they could never just trust anyone's word unquestioned again.  It was a potential moment (like many others can be) where you realize that most people don't actually know fuck all about religion/philosophy/reality and are just quoting dogma, rather than a product of their own thought processes brought about by personal experiential experimentation.

b) Half (not literally half, but whatever) of the kids for whom (a) happened decided (not necessarily that very instant, but this event was something that contributed to that direction) that clearly nothing could be real then except for that which is immediately materially quantifiable, and (again, EVENTUALLY) rejected spirituality altogether; while the other half decided (eventually, as a gradual product of, among other things, etc.) that if most people didn't actually know FUCK ALL about religion, they would want to seek it out themselves and find out that experiential Truth.

Ironically, I think that the first 'half' above were the kids who were internally horrified at the idea of being accused of being satanists for liking D&D.  They became atheists because deep down they were scared of some sort of "divine punishment" for an inherent spiritual wrongness they didn't even know they had until that moment, and (most horrifyingly) didn't seem to be able to even identify, and so would prefer a world where no such danger could possibly exist.  The other kids, who became Wiccans or Pagans or Neo-Buddhists or Tantric Sex Polygamists or hippie Etheogen Experiencers or Ceremonial High Magicians (or, for that matter, literal Satanists), are the ones who deep down weren't afraid of god but outraged by the betrayal of a society that seemed like reality to them and suddenly very clearly wasn't. That moment (among others, blah blah etc.) was a realization of the fundamental illusion of Paradigm, and thus a Paradigm Shift into the weird, in search of the Real.

Of course, that's all just a poetic way of saying that when their parents said "D&D is evil because it teaches you Real Magic!!", some kids said "my parents are retarded; that must mean there's no Jesus and no Real magic!", and other kids said "my parents are retarded; so fuck yeah I'm going to go find me some 'Real Magic'!"


Currently Smoking: Stanwell Compact + Image Latakia


  1. I guess I was lucky because no one I or my parents knew had any problem with RPGs. If anything, they thought anything that got kids to read and think was a good thing, be it novels, comic books, or the Dungeon Masters Guide.

    My grandparents were practicing Roman Catholics and we were all going the Catholic schools but I never heard or saw anyone bat an eye or look askance at D&D or RPGs to the point that I seriously wonder if the "panic" is not overstated by folks in search of something to talk about. Even 30+ years later I have yet to encounter anyone who thought D&D was a bad influence or "led to Satanism."

  2. "When grown-ups told me that playing Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) was going to drive me insane or cause me to worship the devil, it suddenly dawned on me that adults were fallible: They ran the schools, the churches, and the police, but they didn’t always think rationally or know what they were talking about."

    Don't forget that adults often knowingly grossly exaggerate to their children in order to stress a point. What the grown-ups (mostly) really meant was, "if you don't stop this foolishness, our neighbors and friends will think that we're bad parents."

  3. I think the other problem with the so-called Satanic Panic is that it got a bit of play in the media, but died out pretty quickly and only stayed alive in the fringe ultra-right Christian denominations (the same ones that think dancing is a sin).

    As for main stream Christians, I think the Satanic Panic was a tempest in a teapot. I grew up in a Catholic household and attended Catholic schools with actual nuns as teachers. When my friends and I brought in Player's Handbooks to school (for playing at recess and what not), they asked if they could borrow the book for a night.

    The next day they returned it, thanked us for lending it, and told us not to let it distract us during class. Clearly, they had paged through the text to see what the hullabaloo was about and went "meh" and likely assumed that if we could make head and tails out of the mess of rules that was AD&D, clearly we were learning something valuable.

    As to the other points, I'm not sure there's a direct link between the diversity of gamers and the Satanic Panic. I think it's more likely that RPGs attract free-thinkers in general due to their imaginative nature. Recall that many grognards were in the game before the panic, and many of the younger players came in well after the religious panic was over during the 3.x era.

    I am a little curious about the book, but also somewhat skeptical... The author incorrectly identifies the being on the Dungeon Master's Guide as a "fiery devil" instead of an Efreet. Since the book is specifically about the reaction of religious folk to D&D, one would think he would have made the distinction in the interview that it was actually *not* a devil to help make his point and show his credibility.

    1. I don't think it was only in the fringes; I knew quite a few catholic kids who had a very different experience from yours, including being forbidden from being friends with people who played D&D and outright book burnings.

    2. Maybe it was a Canadian thing

    3. @RPGPundit Quite possibly, but it's hard to know what is anecdotal stories versus what were true societal trends. What we can deduce societal reaction only from what one can read in news paper archives from the time (or video tape, if any still exists). Satanism is not mentioned in the majority of these news stories from journalistic sources (as opposed to BADD, et al)... Teen suicide, on the other hand, is mentioned a lot.

      The 60 Minutes piece from the early 80's in particular avoids the religion question altogether but focuses on the kind of "impressionable youth" byline that also haunted heavy metal and video games during the decade.

      But efforts by Patrica Pulling and Jack Chick had more effect in more conservative circles. I'm interested to see how these events were reported by news outlets like Christian Science Monitor back in the 80's. They have been favorable to D&D in recent years and I'm curious if this outlook had changed since the 80s.

      Found this interesting clip with Gygax. 60 Minutes appears to try to walk the "unbiased" line, but at the same time it really gives a bright spotlight to Ms. Pulling and doesn't really question her assertion that her son was untroubled.

    4. @Matt Celis -- Regionalism may play a big role in how it played out. I lived in a relatively urban/suburban metropolitan area... while someone living in the buckle of the Bible Belt in the U.S. may have had a very different experience from mine. I wouldn't be surprised if the center of the country may have had a stronger reaction.

      I can't speak to the experience in other parts of the world.

  4. "...and thus a Paradigm Shift into the weird, in search of the Real."

    Well put.