In the 1980s, U.S. and Canadian media were up in arms over Dungeons & Dragons and the problem of teen suicide. In the wake of various suicides and even murders linked (however tenuously) to the game, D&D started popping up everywhere in popular media, often linked by reporters to Satanism, witchcraft, and the presumed dark side of youth culture. Weirdly, this was all going on while CBS aired a Saturday morning cartoon version of D&D. The controversy came to a head when, again kind of weirdly, CBS aired a 60 Minutes segment about the issue. (I found videos of that old report -- see the end of this article to check it out.)
That D&D media coverage was, in retrospect, a form of moral panic. So I figured it'd be fun to round up some real 80s media mentions of the game, highlighting the weirdest bits. Hop into the Reference Library Time Machine with me and enjoy.
1. Becoming the Master
In the wake of a tragic murder/suicide in November of 1984, police wondered whether D&D was somehow connected to the deaths of two Colorado brothers. A report in the Omaha World-Herald read:
"We aren't sure at this point whether we have a double suicide or a suicide/homicide," [Police Chief Larry] Stallcup said.
The police chief said [Dungeons & Dragons] appeals to very intelligent people, who use their imagination to manipulate characters and work through a series of mazes to achieve treasures and avoid falling into the dungeon.
"My undertstanding [sic] is that once you reach a certain point where you are the master, your only way out is death," Stallcup said.
"That way no one can beat you."
It turns out that D&D had nothing to do with it. The elder brother was facing sentencing for auto theft, and wrote a note explaining that he couldn't live within the criminal justice system. Stallcup's comments about the game indicate that he had clearly never played it; hell, I fell into the dungeon all the time. That was the main fun part.
Source: Fantasy Game Link Considered - Brothers' Deaths May Be Suicides, Omaha World-Herald (NE) - Sunday, November 4, 1984, UPI.
2. Popping 45s vs. Fireballs
On March 19, 1984, Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Writer Daniel R. Biddle covered Templecon, a convention devoted to various role-playing games, including Dungeons & Dragons. He wrote:
What sort of person plays these games? Consider Mark Singer, 22, a political-science junior at Temple, and Dave Appelbaum, 19, his sophomore buddy, both of whom, along with sophomore Robert Patsko, also 19, helped organize Templecon.
They were explaining in an interview yesterday that they used to do duller things - such as driving along the Atlantic City Expressway and reaching out of car windows to pop 45-r.p.m. records off the car antenna one at a time. Now they are into the [role-playing] games.
Appelbaum recalled how he'd used fireballs to help his medieval allies blow up a set of mysterious self-beating drums in a recent bout of "Dungeons and Dragons." "You can create your own world," said Singer, "where the players do what you want them to do ... for purposes of the game. You're not living inside it. Thank God."
I'd go with imaginary fireballs over broken 45s any day. For one thing, the fireballs are free.
Source: Playing Out Their Fantasies at a Convention on Games, Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA) - Monday, March 19, 1984, Daniel R. Biddle.
3. Human Sacrifice, Eating Babies, Drinking Blood
In 1985, Knight-Ridder covered the attempts of the group BADD (Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons) to put warning labels on the game. Cited in the article was Dr. Thomas Radecki, who expressed views about the content of the game:
"Dungeons & Dragons is essentially a worship of violence," said Dr. Thomas Radecki of Champaign, Ill., a psychiatrist and chairman of the National Coalition on Television Violence in Washington, D.C.
"It's a very intense war game. Talk to people that have played it. It's very fascinating. It's a game of fun. But when you have fun with murder, that's dangerous. When you make a game out of war, that's harmful. The game is full of human sacrifice, eating babies, drinking blood, rape, murder of every variety, curses of insanity. It's just a very violent game."
As a former player, I wouldn't say it's full of any of those things. Maybe murder, assuming humanoid monsters are granted human rights.
Source: Parents See a Real Conflict in Fantasy War Games Group Links Dungeons & Dragons to 51 Teen-age Suicides, Miami Herald, The (FL) - October 27, 1985, Billy Bowles, Knight-Ridder News Service.
4. D&D and AC/DC
In 1985, a minor controversy erupted when local religious groups tried to prevent AC/DC from rocking Springfield, Illinois. This happened at roughly the same time as the aforementioned 60 Minutes segment on D&D and BADD. Long story short: AC/DC played the show and the totally kick-ass letter to the editor of The State Journal-Register below reflects the opinions of an AC/DC listener whose son also happened to be a D&D player.
Wouldn't fear for mortal soul
This has been an interesting week. Sunday night I tuned into the tail end of "60 Minutes" and was confronted with some lady in a big flap about the game Dungeons and Dragons. I never did get her point -- whether she wanted the game taken off the market or just wanted to publicly air her sorrow over the suicide of her son which she blames on D&D. I commiserate. Losing a teen or preteen child to suicide must be the most agonizing thing a parent can face. The rest I took with a grain of salt.
My younger son has played D&D since the third grade and it has never occurred to me to check him for suicidal tendencies. In the eight years he has been playing, I've spent close to $600 on books, modules, dice, lead figures and other accouterments of the game. I guarantee you, when I spend that kind of money I pay attention to what it's all about. I've listened to many an hour of it. I don't exactly see what they get out of it -- it seems rather boring to me -- but I've had games continue on the kitchen table for days and I fail to see the harm in it.
Two days later I hear on the radio that AC/DC cannot appear at the Prairie Capital Convention Center because the local clergy and a few concerned parents think their music promotes Satanism. Amazing! Now I suppose I'll have to keep watch on my cats and the neighbors' dog in case my sons decide to indulge in some of the more gory rites of Satanic sacrifices. After all, we have and play every AC/DC album that's been cut.
I secretly wanted to go to the concert myself but really couldn't because, first, I'd embarrass my kids to death, and, second, my eardrums can't take the decibel level they could when I was 16. But if I did decide to go I surely wouldn't do so in fear of my mortal soul -- or my sons'. If people don't want their kids to go, keep them home. Or if they don't want them playing D&D, don't buy the game. What has that to do with the rest of us? I think all this brouhaha is ridiculous.
Glenna Burns Beckner, Pleasant Plains [Illinois]
Rock on, Glenna.
Source: Letters from Readers, State Journal-Register, The (Springfield, IL) - September 26, 1985.
5. Kids Star in Library "Video Play" About D&D
On November 10, 1985, The Morning Call of Allentown, Pennsylvania ran a brief item about a D&D-themed "video play" in the local library's children's department. Sounds like kids being creative and imaginative -- kinda like D&D itself. Also sounds like they were looking for a fancy way to describe "some stuff we shot on our new camcorder." Here's an excerpt:
Area young people will star in "Unknown Fates," a story of a "Dungeons and Dragons" game gone awry, at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Mary Meuser Memorial Library annex, Wilson.
Based on a short story by Michael Jay Wesley of Wilson, the original video play was written by Scott Rhymer of Wilson. Dan Redington and Kendra Buttner of Wilson wrote the final adaptation.
...In the play, four "Dungeons and Dragons" players are transported to the realm of an evil wizard, where their fantasy game becomes dangerously real.
"Unknown Fates" is the third video play produced by the library's children's department, with the assistance of Thomas Alercia as cameraman. Board member Marjorie Alercia helped coordinate each project.
How come these plots always have the games going awry?
Source: Wilson Play is Based on 'Dungeons' Game, Morning Call, The (Allentown, PA) - November 10, 1985.
6. Republicans vs. Satan
A 1986 article from the Richmond Times-Dispatch entitled "Game Said to Inspire Mind, Raise Satan" is a goldmine. Here's a bit from the beginning:
Recently, a number of parents and religious fundamentalists have been on the warpath against the game, which they describe as "satanical." A candidate for the Republican nomination for state attorney general last year even based his campaign on the game.
In calling for removal of Dungeons & Dragons from public schools in Virginia, Winston E. Mathews of Charles City County said in his unsuccessful campaign that the game "teaches Satan-worship, spell-casting, witchcraft, rape, suicide and assassination."
Meanwhile, more than 3 million Americans have become "D & D die-hards," according to the manufacturer of Dungeons & Dragons, a game that requires a great deal of imagination, intelligence and time.
Source: Game Said to Inspire Mind, Raise Satan, Richmond Times-Dispatch - January 18, 1986, Anna Barron Billingsley.
7. More Satan!
And here's some more from the same article...
Sharon Sipos, a Chesterfield County housewife and mother of two who has spoken out against the game on about 30 radio and television programs throughout the nation, believes D&D is not merely a game, but an "alternate lifestyle." Mrs. Sipos said she is engaged in "a spiritual battle," led by the Lord.
She is opposed not only to Dungeons & Dragons, but to all fantasy role-playing games, including a "Christian" version of D&D called Dragon Raid. She said Scripture is used as magic in that game, which she believes is associated with the occult.
Mrs. Sipos said players devote all their time and attention to the fantasy games -- even when they're not playing.
"They're always planning what they will do the next time. Kids have lost jobs, flunked out of school. They totally confuse reality and fantasy," said Mrs. Sipos. "It (the game) becomes their god."
Source: Game Said to Inspire Mind, Raise Satan, Richmond Times-Dispatch - January 18, 1986, Anna Barron Billingsley.
8. Yup, Even More Satan
Although this one is from 1990, I thought it was worth including. In a Capital Times article called "Officials Offer Warning of Trend Toward Satanism," reporter Pamela Cotant goes deep on the topic of possibly Satanic and/or gang-involved and/or goth Wisconsin youth. For example:
[Madison police officer Maureen] Wall said she sees "nocturnal" youths ranging from about age 15 to 20 roaming State Street as she works her night shift. The youths may be flashing symbols of Satan on their jackets or wearing pins through their noses or stuck in their cheeks. The outrageousness of their appearance is part of the power they seek, she said.
...The youths that Wall was tallking [sic] about are probably "dabblers," which is sort of a youth subculture, according to [Catholic priest, Reverend Stephen] Smith. Youths who dabble in Satanism tend to be experimentalists, especially with things that are unusual or exotic.
...The youths may act out their Satan worship through suicide, rituals, physical or sexual abuse, burglary of ritualistic paraphernalia, animal mutliation [sic], criminal damage to property and drug use, he said.
Their activities may involve secrecy, heavy metal music, books describing rituals, ritualistic paraphernalia and graffiti to churches. Cemeteries may be vandalized in an attempt to obtain bones for their rituals, Smith said.
Much of the paraphernalia is available through catalogs, he said.
Kathy Sorenson, director of Project HUGS, said that about three to four years ago she began to suspect that a small percentage of the students she's involved with were involved with Satan and the occult. ...
This is actually a fascinating article. Read the rest for more info on Project HUGS, LSD, a flaming pentagram, and how kids often confuse gang symbols for Satanic iconography (oops). The article also briefly ties in D&D.
Source: Officials Offer Warning of Trend Toward Satanism, Capital Times, The (Madison, WI) - February 26, 1990, Pamela Cotant.
9. Witchcraft, Chess, and Checkers
In April of 1985, one Oregon minister worried that D&D in schools represented a possible expansion in the number of local witches:
ALBANY, Ore. (AP) Talk of witchcraft usually comes with the harmless sorcery of the Halloween season, but a Willamette Valley minister is taking witchcraft very seriously because he claims it has invaded a middle school.
Rev. Jon Quigley of the Lakeview Full Gospel Fellowship says he's concerned about the game "Dungeons & Dragons," which has been part of an intramural "discovery program" at Calapooia Middle School.
Players of the game, known to devotees as "D&D," assume the roles of fantasy characters and pass through adventures to achieve some goal. There is a strong emphasis on magic.
Quigley and his wife, Alberta, say the game is an occult tool that opens up young people to influence or possession by demons.
The minister charges there are more than 600 "full-fledged, practicing witches" in the mid-Willamette Valley, and "we don't need any more."
Calapooia has offered the game periodically as one of a revolving array of hobby and leisure pursuits, including first aid, volleyball, models and rockets, art, woodcraft, chess and checkers.
...[Principal Paul] Nys said the discovery program offers "an opportunity for these kids to relax. And we think there's some value to the offerings."
Duane Hedy, assistant superintendent of the Albany Public Schools, said students have been playing D&D for years.
...The Quigleys insist the game teaches witchcraft. They claim that amounts to teaching a religion and violates the separation of church and state.
They say the game also endangers the mental and spiritual well-being of the participants.
"They eventually become oppressed, tormented, possessed through the spirits that are operating through this game," Quigley said.
Calapooia Middle School actually isn't far from me. According to their website, their electives currently include: Choir/Band, Industrial Tech, Family Studies, Art, Drama, Adv. Computers, Digital Photography, Video Game Design, and Leadership Electives. They also have a slightly witchy-looking "FLEX" period. For the record, a sarcastic letter to the editor later appeared in the Eugene Register-Guard four days after the account above, responding to Quigley's crusade. It read, in part:
I'm so thankful for the fundamentalists' campaign to expose rock musicians for what they are: agents of Satan. Just look at the examples these fiends are setting for our kids.
The latest blasphemy involved a whole bunch of them. They made a record for the people of Ethiopia, and donated all of the proceeds to famine relief. Even worse, one of the most vile demon agents in the bunch, Michael Jackson, co-wrote the song. But the frightful tale gets worse. The most evil one of all, Prince, donated the entire proceeds from one of his concerts to famine relief. Can you imagine that? These blackest of sins sicken a God-fearing person.
10. Setting a World Record
In 1986, a group of Pennsylvania State University students sought a world record for the longest game of AD&D (Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, for the uninitiated). Behold:
Jess Johnson, executive council president of the Historical Simulations Club at Penn State, said yesterday that the students played for 63 hours and 21 minutes, which beats the Guinness record of 61:39.
...The primary purpose of the marathon, which drew $800 to $1,000 in pledges, was to benefit Third World Starvation Relief and Four Diamonds Cancer Research, he said.
...He said one participant "dropped out Tuesday morning due to hallucinations; then we lost another Tuesday afternoon due to physical exhaustion, which claimed two more participants that same evening."
Two of the game rules required the players to remain seated around the table throughout the marathon. They were granted a five minute break every 60 minutes.
D&D for charity, folks.
Source: PSU Players Claim Record at 'Dungeons', Morning Call, The (Allentown, PA) - March 7, 1986.
11. The Killer Board Game in Your Closet
In a 1986 opinion piece, University of Illinois student D. B. Killings went on a brilliant satirical rampage, suggesting that the furor over D&D would be better aimed at the evil capitalist game of Monopoly:
...Groups such as the Moral Majority and Bothered About D&D are concerned by what they consider to be the "brainwashing of the young." They argue that the game has a "satanic and detrimental" effect on children. They point to the many documented cases of violent acts and suicides among teenagers, and the fact that in many of these cases the people had been fanatical devotees of the game.
There must be a link, they say, between the violent nature of the game and the steadily increasing violent behavior of some of its players. To combat this, these well-meaning individuals want the game restricted or even outright banned.
What these groups fail to realize is the danger in their own homes. For there exists yet another popular game that may also provide negative influences on the young.
Indeed, this game has existed long enough that it may very well be already affecting not only our children but the very world in which we live. I am speaking, of course, of Monopoly.
... First of all, it contradicts many teachings of the Bible. ...
Seriously, read the whole thing.
Source: Game opponents should target Monopoly, Chicago Sun-Times - January 7, 1986, D. B. Killings.
12. The Devil's Toys
In 1984, the Miami Herald profiled Praise Unlimited Inc., a Florida-based maker of Christian toys explicitly designed to replace D&D and even Star Wars toys.
Cute, cuddly dolls with names like Joy and Faith and an action toy called Judah the Christian Soldier could some day replace "the devil's toys," say two North Carolina women.
"We feel that this is a ministry," Dana McNeal said, displaying toys she believes answer the biblical call in Proverbs 22:6 to "Train up a child in the way he should go."
McNeal and Linda Campbell market dolls, games and other items in North Carolina for Praise Unlimited Inc., a Sarasota, Fla., company specializing in "Christian toys." Campbell and McNeal describe themselves not as distributors, but as "toy missionaries."
...McNeal dismissed with a wave of her hand dolls such as Darth Vader from the film Star Wars and the shadowy men and monsters from Dungeons and Dragons.
"We call them the devil's toys," she said.
McNeal said she hopes parents will give their children alternatives -- perhaps a 116-piece Noah's Ark or an action toy named Judah the Christian Soldier.
Source: Women Put Christian Message in Toys, Miami Herald, The (FL) - December 25, 1984, United Press International.
That 60 Minutes Story
These videos may not stay up for long -- my last story about this piece became a lot less interesting when the YouTube videos were pulled.
Top image courtesy of Andrew Logan Montgomery. This post originally appeared in 2012.