On a recent vacation I was driving through Utah and passed through Heber City. I had just started reading “Of Dice and Men” and the next day read the chapter about the Satanic Panic and this excerpt:
In May of 1980, parents in the “solidly Mormon” farming town of Heber City, Utah, convinced their local school board to shut down an after-school D&D club and acused its organizers “of working with the Antichrist and of fomenting Communist subversion.” Local Christian minister Norman Springer told The New York Times that the game was “very definitely” antireligious: These books are filled with things that are not fantasy, but are actual in the real demon world and can be very dangerous for anyone involved in the game because it leaves them so open to Satanic spirits.”
This encapsulates my only regret about the vacation: that I did not get a picture of myself by the town sign holding a D&D book. By the time I read the above passage, I was a hundred miles away and wouldn’t be back there.
For more details of what happened in this city in 1980 see this paper.
I do not recalling hearing about any of these things when I started playing D&D just a few years later with a couple of high school friends. But soon after, I happened upon a copy of Jack Chick’s Dark Dungeons. At first, I found it hilariously wrong on so many fronts. But then I became more alarmed, knowing that my home town had many people who would actually believe this, in fact, almost certainly so, given I found the pamphlet in a local grocery store. And one friend had informed me a year earlier that I would be going to Hell for not believing his brand of Christianity. So a good old-fashioned book burning was not out of the realm of possibility. My D&D hobby was not something I talked about at school because I knew it would be just more fuel for ridicule and bullying. But now I had another reason to keep it to myself; bullying is one thing, but bullying in the name of self-righteous superstition and fear is far more dangerous beast (as some of my ancestors found out).
However, I continued to think about why people had such reactions to D&D. It seemed that there were some pretty profound misunderstandings of the game. For example after one game one of our parents asked who won, underscoring how D&D was different from other games.
I started comparing D&D to other games. First, chess. One one hand you have a game where you play a single individual and you have to face the consequences of your actions in the game. But with chess, the entire goal it to wipe out the enemy, pushing your hapless pawns (peasants) and other servants to their deaths, all to defend the relatively impotent king. That’s real wholesome: everyone and everything must be sacrificed to save some spoiled inbred brat whose only qualification for the job was who their daddy was. What about Monopoly? The entire goal it build up a financial empire, largely via luck of the dice, to dominate and destroy your other opponents. Another wholesome message. Poker? Take everyone else’s money. Actually it is hard to think of a game that does not involve defeating other players. Even when there are teams, they are generally trying to defeat other teams.
I think role playing games (like D&D) are unique in that all players work cooperatively towards a goal (which is usually to defeat evil monsters). Everyone collaborates to tell a shared story with an element of chance thrown in at every opportunity (via the dice). There are no winners, or, perhaps, they are all winners. With that in mind, the “communist subversion” accusation mentioned above makes a bit more sense. I mean, the nerve of people, to suggest working cooperatively! Next thing you know, they will be kind to their neighbors and start loving their enemies, a suggestion which got one man nailed to a tree 2000 years ago.
The common refrain back during the satanic panic was about people committing suicide or murder because of D&D. If a person is driven to such acts because of a game, the problem is mental illness, not the game. If a person is that detached from reality, most anything could set them off (e.g. a Beatles song, The Catcher in the Rye, Jodie Foster, etc.) It is an interesting coincidence that the people who asserted that D&D contains actual occult material and that you could actually summon evil spirits with it, also show an obvious detachment from reality. That isn’t to say that book burning is as bad as murder, but both are acts which can only happen when one has detached themselves from reality and their moral compass.
The accusation of “satanic” is, of course, laughable, but it is clear that such beliefs have not gone away, as I was writing this, a pastor at a Catholic school in Nashville banned Harry Potter books claiming:
“These books present magic as both good and evil, which is not true, but in fact a clever deception. The curses and spells used in the books are actual curses and spells; which when read by a human being risk conjuring evil spirits into the presence of the person reading the text,”
While I do not believe that it is possible to summon evil sprits (since I doubt such things even exist), but it is apparently possible to summon medieval superstitions, even in the 21st century. For more details, read this.
I could go on further, but others have explored this at length, The Plot Points Podcast has several relevant episodes: The Satanic Panic and Demons & Devils & Dungeons & Dragons: A Brief History and the book Dangerous Games seems to be an in-depth treatment of this topic; I plan on reading it. You can listen to an interview with the author.