Review by Carly Finseth, Boise State University
Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic over Role-Playing Games Says about Play, Religion, and Imagined Worlds
Joseph P. Laycock
Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2015. 349. Non-fiction.
In Dangerous Games, Joseph P. Laycock provides an interesting and well-informed historical background of the links between fantasy-based role-playing games and religion. Rhetorical, religious, and cultural scholars alike will enjoy the overall themes of this book, which include truth and imagination, reality and fantasy, science and chaos, magic and law, agency and morality, historic nostalgia and religious ritual. Of course there is much to love about this book for gamers and pop culture scholars as well, with discussions about the history of D&D and the impact that this game has had on future role-playing games, fantasy fiction, and virtual worlds.
Laycock argues that role-playing games (RPGs) have historically been vilified and misunderstood by religious groups as being sinful, heretical, and amoral—when in fact the histories of such games are often solidly rooted in religious themes, such as good vs. evil, morality, and ritual. Role-playing games have never claimed to be religions, nor do players of such games worship false gods or deities; rather, the games themselves serve as imaginary worlds in which players can construct their own versions of reality. However, as Laycock points out, many religious critics of RPGs have claimed that fantasy RPGs are evil and that using the imagination—an act which seemingly reject God’s worldly creation—is heretical. Such claims have created a moral divide between fantasy RPGs and religion, and provide the backbone of Laycock’s discussion: that these two acts of play, of imagination and ritual, and of culture and morality, aren’t perhaps as different as some may claim.
Part One: The History of the Panic
In Chapter 1, Laycock introduces the infamous tabletop RPG fantasy game that started it all: Dungeons & Dragons. The game began as a response to popular wargames at the time, and served as an artistic outlet for those looking to expand wargames into creative fantasy. In the book's Introduction, Laycock explains that the "creators of D&D were themselves Christian, and many of the supernatural elements of the game are inspired by the Bible and Christian tradition" (p. 23). Yet, religious critics of the game still believed that the essence of the game was in fact Satanic worship. Such insights provide the basis of misunderstanding between religion and RPGs that began in the 1960s and continues even today.
Chapter 2 discusses the first run-ins that D&D and its players had with religious critics. Some claimed that D&D was a cult; others believed that the inherent themes of morality, gods, and the supernatural proved that the game was a religion. And yet, while D&D was not created to be a religion, Laycock points out many ways in which playing the game can be compared to a religious act; for example: "Religion provides models of humanity's place in the cosmos and enables us to think in ways that were previously impossible. The imaginary worlds of role-playing games provide similar models and can, in some cases, provide a similar form of agency" (p. 53). In that regard, RPGs can be seen as a similar outlet as religion, by providing people with an opportunity to explore their own agency, create their own paths, and shape their own realities.
In the third chapter, Laycock discusses the moral panic of the late 1970s and early 1980s surrounding our youth, cults, and brainwashing. It wasn't that people believed that RPGs were evil but rather that the players were "innocent victims whose minds were being manipulated by powerful psychological forces that science was only beginning to understand" (p. 77). Mostly erroneous links were made during this time between D&D players and mental illness, fragility, and brainwashing. Meanwhile, despite the rumors, no scientific "studies found a significant correlation between playing role-playing games and feelings of alienation, depression, suicide, criminal behavior, or involvement in Satanism" (p. 100). Critics then began to suspect that there was a magical or supernatural element to the games that we just couldn't yet understand.
In Chapter 4 we learn what came next: a rise in panic about Satanism and magical forces. During the 1980s and early 1990s, most of the rumors about D&D and other role-playing games revolved around the supernatural. "Claims that fantasy role-playing games were a form of Satanism or 'occultism' seducing America's youth were usually framed as part of a losing battle between traditional family values and a decadent, secular world" (p. 106). This was fueled by Patricia Pulling's creation of the group BADD, or Bothered about Dungeons & Dragons, which distributed materials throughout schools and churches about the supposed Satanic influences of D&D. As Laycock describes, "The rhetoric used by BADD was a classic example of a moral panic in that it presented a massive social problem where, empirically and statistically, no problem existed" (p. 119). In fact, BADD often published false statistics that did not exist but that were later picked up and publicized by the media.
Chapter 5, spanning 1991-2001, explains what occurred with the next wave of role-playing games, which still included D&D but also added games such as Vampire and Shadowrun. By now, BADD and claims about Satanism and games were dissolving, but a new villain arose in its place: "the myth of the juvenile 'superpredator," or, "'radically impulsive, brutally remorseless youngsters… who murder, assault, rape, rob, burglarize, deal deadly drugs, join gun-toting gangs, and create serious communal disorder'" (Bennett et al, qtd. In Laycock, p. 140). That is, role-playing gamers went from being victims of mind control to vicious attackers. By this point, Laycock's overall message is clear: that if it's not one thing, it will be another, and that moral purists will always find something that is worthy of starting a panic.
Part Two: Interpreting the Panic
In Part Two, Laycock reminds readers that, essentially, both sides of the religion vs. role-playing game argument are right. As he explains:
"While the narratives changed over time, moral entrepreneurs claimed that role-playing games cause young people to disassociate from reality and to reject traditional values. Gamer apologists countered that their hobbies were 'just games' and 'harmless escapism.' Both of these positions are polemical and fail to account for the subtle ways that these games inform questions of meaning, identity, and morality. On the one hand, it is patently false that games like D&D are actually a religion or are engaged in some sort of proselytizing. On the other hand, there is ample evidence that role-playing games do shape how players see the world and themselves" (p. 179).
That is, both sides need to understand that while games shouldn't be deemed as "evil" or "Satanistic," they also shouldn't be seen as merely trivial pasttimes. In Chapter 6, Laycock outlines the ways in which role-playing games help their players make new collective realities and meanings that transfer into the "real world." RPGs can serve as reflections of the real world and as creative outlets for players to construct new ways of viewing the world.
Chapter 7 explores the dangers of imagination and fantasy, including its threat to tradition and its construction of "multiple forms of truth" (p. 215). However, Laycock argues that "imaginary worlds are not, in fact, imaginary but another part of reality," which presents yet another interesting way to look at this discussion (p. 221). This is just one part of the book that will delight philosophical and rhetorical scholars, as Laycock ponders what is "real" vs. what is not—both through the lenses of role-playing games, as well as through the inherent storytelling and allegory that is present in religious texts.
Finally, in Chapter 8, Laycock brings us back to his central argument: that fantasy RPGs and religion aren't that different after all. He compares the driving narratives behind each faction in three distinct ways. First, RPGs "and Satanic conspiracy theories draw elements from the same milieu of monsters and evil rituals found in popular culture" (p. 242). Second, in both cases, the narratives that are constructed around these "imaginary" worlds are socially constructed in collective groups, and both can be seen as a form of imaginative play. "Finally, most anti-D&D crusaders were associated with the New Christian Right," including Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson—and these faces of morality became characters for their stories in the same way that D&D gamers constructed classes of players in their games (p. 242). In both cases, personas were constructed as a means of furthering their stories.
Concluding Thoughts about Dangerous Games
Although many of the arguments inherent in Dangerous Games will sound familiar to scholars of technology and culture, the angle of role-playing games and religion makes this a fascinating and useful read. I found Dangerous Worlds to be a compelling book about society, religion, and culture, with a thorough and insightful look at morality through the lens of role-playing games. This is a valuable read for anyone with an interest in sociocultural texts, particularly those pursuing new media studies. It's a somewhat cautionary tale as well, with consistent reminders that we can't always blame technology or gameplay for what may at heart be a cultural issue.
Carly Finseth, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of technical communication in the Department of English at Boise State University. Although her teaching and research interests are varied, they broadly include the intersections of teaching writing, gaming studies, instructional design, digital rhetoric, usability, and technology and culture.
© 2016 Carly Finseth, used by permission