Rival fantasies: Dungeons & Dragons players and their religious critics actually have a lot in common

Joseph P Laycock, Texas State University

Religion-fueled conspiracy theories continue to pervade our culture.

Today, some claim energy drinks are Satanic plots. Others argue that shape-shifting reptiles secretly rule the world. And musicians from Kanye West to Katy Perry have been accused of conducting occult Illuminati rituals disguised as harmless stage performances.

But one of the strangest – and most persistent – conspiracy theories in American culture is the claim that the popular role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is actually a recruiting tool for Satanism.

Last year, D&D celebrated its 40th anniversary, and the game’s publisher, Wizards of the Coast, has just announced a new transmedia storyline for the game called “Rage of Demons.”
Since many of these raging demons, such as Orcus, Baphomet and Demogorgon, are drawn from “actual” myths and legends, it’s a fitting time to explore the real fear that D&D is a crash course in evil occultism.

As a religion professor, I study the history and sociology of religious movements. While the opposition to D&D wasn’t always framed in religious terms, a particular strain of evangelical Christianity was the driving force behind the panic.

Why were these Christians so bothered by a game? And why did they claim the game was ungodly instead of merely unwholesome? Exploring these questions led me to conclude that fantasy role-playing games (RPGs) do, in fact, share traits in common with religious worldviews. Conversely, religious worldviews can resemble RPGs.

An ‘occult crime’

In 1974 Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax created Dungeons & Dragons, the first commercially viable fantasy role-playing game. Fantasy RPGs usually involve players assuming the role of characters in an imaginary world. Complicated rules (often involving multi-sided dice) are used to determine the outcome of a character’s actions. D&D quickly spread through college campuses and filtered down to secondary schools, where it was incorporated into programs for gifted children.

Dungeons & Dragons was invented just as the nation was being swept with paranoia over an occult revival.
Time.com

Beginning in the 1980s, rumors abounded that the game caused players to dissociate from reality and commit suicide. The decade also saw the apogee of “Satanic Panic”: when a coalition of evangelicals, talk show hosts and dubious “occult crime” experts claimed that Satanic cabals had infiltrated all aspects of society. According to psychiatrists like Lawrence Pazder, these groups conducted horrifying rituals in secret in order to corrupt innocent children and create brainwashed cultists.

Soon, church leaders, concerned parents, politicians and others began to claim that the Satanists had created D&D to indoctrinate children into the occult. They formed coalitions, petitioned federal agencies and worked to shut down school-based D&D clubs. Many of the self-proclaimed experts were invited to special police seminars on “occult crime,” where they claimed D&D led directly to involvement in criminal cults. They even drafted documents to help police interrogate adolescent players.

However, in many ways, RPGs and religious cultures aren’t so different: both involve a collective effort to construct and inhabit an alternative reality that is uniquely meaningful. Whereas gamers explore alternate realities using dice, character sheets and narrative, religious communities use sermons, hymns and rituals to create a sense of connection to another world.

The key difference is the frame through which this reality is understood. For role players, it’s purely fantasy. Religious cultures, on the other hand, generally regard otherworldly realities as real.

Satanic Panic: Christian broadcast network JCTV profiled a man who claimed to have been corrupted by Dungeons & Dragons.

Who led the charge?

One area in which this line of thinking can serve as an interpretive lens is the phenomenon of conspiracy theories.

In a 2000 interview D&D creator Gary Gygax suggested that it is the claims-makers –- rather than the gamers –- whose grasp of reality is poor:

That a group playing a fantasy RPG will lose touch with reality or become “mind-controlled” is completely fatuous. This is obvious to any observer of or participant in RPG activity. Those who claim such an effect is possible are the ones who have lost touch with reality.

Indeed, when I traced the claims about the dangers of D&D back to their sources, I arrived at a handful of people who appear to have been either hopelessly uncritical, liars or mentally disturbed.

Figures who claimed D&D was a Satanic conspiracy included Patricia Pulling, founder of Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons (and author of The Devil’s Web: Who Is Stalking Your Children for Satan?), evangelist Mike Warnke, conspiracy theorist John Todd and author William Schnoebelen.

Warnke, Todd and Schnoebelen all claimed to have been powerful leaders of Satanic cults before converting to Christianity – claims that were eventually debunked in various Christian publications.

Cut from the same cloth

Interestingly, the Satanic conspiracies of the 1980s were constructed from many of the same elements as D&D – especially 1960s horror media. Some of D&D creator Dave Arneson’s early ideas for the game came from Creature Features – local TV programming featuring schlocky monster movies – and the vampire soap opera Dark Shadows.

But anti-D&D crusader Mike Warnke also confessed to loving Creature Features and other horror films as a child. Meanwhile, John Todd claimed to have been brought up in a family of witches named Collins who settled in the New England colonies – a plot line lifted from Dark Shadows.

A still from the TV series Dark Shadows.
Wikimedia Commons

As play worlds crafted from similar elements, Satanic conspiracy theories and D&D weirdly mirrored each other: both were replete with themes of fighting against demonic evil.

The difference, of course, is that while D&D is just a game, the conspiracy theorists refused to admit their play worlds were imaginary.

Play as inspiration and escape

Each of these figures described a parallel world in which they were opposed by Satanic forces. To them, their choices carried tremendous importance. But it doesn’t enhance our understanding to medicalize their behavior or dismiss these figures as “insane.”

Generally, paranoid schizophrenics do not publish books, organize speaking tours at local churches or collaborate with like-minded people. Rather, the strange views of these conspiracy theorists seem to be the product of play not unlike an RPG. Their theories present an enchanted world in which they can assume heroic roles.

Play is a serious thing. It creates a situation in which real-world elements may be removed from their established order, reassessed and repurposed. A child at play can take a banana and imagine it is a phone, a pistol or a yellow rocket ship. In play, we have the power to reimagine the world.

Theorists such as Johan Huizinga – and, more recently, Robert Bellah – have argued that all human culture, including religion, was derived from play.

Bellah even called play “the first alternative reality” from which the frames of science, philosophy and religion are ultimately derived.

When play becomes distorted

In a sense, conspiracy theories are a form of “corrupted play,” in which the frame of play is lost and the game passes for reality.

One factor contributing to this corruption of play may be the emphasis on Biblical inerrancy – the idea that Bible stories are “true” in the same sense that historical and scientific claims are “true.” This frame of religious thinking accompanied the rise of Fundamentalism in the early 20th century.

And with this move comes a suspicion of discrete frames of meaning. Several of the anti-D&D crusaders claimed that when players “imagine” a demon, they are actually having a metaphysical encounter with a real demon. Others claimed that the imagination itself is an unbiblical and heretical faculty.

Because imagination and reality were confounded together, people from these religious cultures had no alternative reality onto which to project their natural, heroic fantasies. They could battle evil only if that evil was given a literal existence in the form of demonic paranoia and conspiracy theories.

In this sense, the impulse to spin conspiracy theories is a kind of spiritual malaise that arises from a sense of disenchantment, combined with a fear of the imagination.

The irony is that the conspiracy theorists who claimed D&D was Satanic were the ones who could have benefited the most from playing it.

The Conversation

Joseph P Laycock is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Texas State University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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COD Black Ops Servers Exclusive Gaming Deal

Call of Duty Black Ops Servers

Anyone on top of the gaming news knows that Call of Duty (COD) Black Ops will be released this November 9th 2010. It is predicted to be one of the biggest gaming releases in history. Those clans and individuals who are serious about getting their own gaming server might be a tad let down.

As announced by Activision and Treyarch studios, GameServers will be the official server provider upon release of Black Ops. This has changed the game a little bit for those who were looking to host their own dedicated hardware. As instead of gaming clans being able to host their own private server hardware they’ll have to rent a server from GameServers.

“We are thrilled at the opportunity to provide high performance dedicated Call of Duty : Black Ops servers to the world”, says Anthony Quon, COO of GameServers. “Over the course of the past several months, we have been working rigorously with our partners to ensure that our global network infrastructure can withstand the mounting popularity of Black Ops.”

Despite being the leader in game hosting solutions many clans may get turned off in general by the exclusive server deal.

According to their site Clans will have the option of Ranked Servers which run $14.95 for 18 players or $0.99/player for unranked servers. They offer package discounts on monthly prepays. They are currently accepting preorders for servers which will guarantee your choice server location and speed.

“Nobody will have to rent a dedicated server through GameServers in order to play the game,” says Josh Olin, community manager for Trearch. “But for anybody who wants to run their own server, it will be run from GameServers.”

“If players want to run a dedicated Ranked or Unranked server on the PC, they will have to rent one through GameServers,” Olin told IGN. “Treyarch will be providing a fleet of ‘Day-1 Servers’ (through GameServers) which will be up and operational on November 9th.

Olin added that this partnership adds the advantage of much more effective anti-cheating and hacking moderation.

“If you rent a server, you will still have the ability to Kick, Ban, and Configure it the way you see fit,” Olin added. “Of course Ranked servers will have some set configurations that can’t be messed with; but you will still have the power to administrate your servers as a customer of GameServers.”

Though this may leave a bad taste in the mouths of many salivating gamers and clans in general looking to run their own Black Ops servers, nontheless Black Ops is still gaining massive momentum and slated to be one of the biggest releases in most if not all of gaming history.

It’s still too early to say how clans and gamers in general will react in tandem with the exclusive server deal, but if the current trend of growing popularity for the game continues at it’s current rate the news about GameServers being the exclusive server provider may only put a dent in the popularity of the game.

Call of Duty Black Ops will be released on Nov 9th 2010 for PC, Playstation 3, Xbox 360. It’s highly anticipated release and the exclusive server deal will surely be the talk of the gaming community for some time.