THE OLD ADDAGE tells us "lightning doesn't strike twice." Tell that to Dungeons & Dragons.
Created by Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax and published back in 1974, there is something about Dungeons & Dragons, or "D&D," that repeatedly makes it the focus of moral panics. It might have something to do with it being an entirely new kind of art form. There is a portion of the general public that cannot wrap their brains around role-playing games, of which D&D was the first. Things people don't understand, they fear.
In the 1980s it was the Right obsessing over the game. Frequently (and erroneously) blamed for suicides, murders and depression, in 1984 quoting a police chief the Omaha World Herald wrote:
[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."
Obviously the only thing the article got correct was that D&D appealed to intelligent people.
The next year, American media company Knight-Ridder was covering attempts by a group called BADD ("Bothered about Dungeons & Dragons") and published the following little gem:
"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. "...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."
Shortly after this, of course, the same criticisms would refocus on video games, a narrative that continues to this day. Suffice it to say I have my doubts Dr. Radecki ever actually saw the game played. While some of those things do exist in D&D, they are also literary staples. You could find all of that in the Bible. More to the point, because those things might exist in the game it didn't mean D&D was condoning it. My feeling on the subject is best summarized by British occultist Aleister Crowley, who quipped "the world of magic is a mirror, wherein who sees muck is muck." The same is true of any art.
In 1986 the Richmond Times-Dispatch, under the headline "Game Said to Inspire Mind, Raise Satan" quoted Republican candidate for state attorney general Winston Matthews:
D&D teaches Satan-worship, spell-casting, witchcraft, rape, suicide and assassination.
This was at the start of the full swing "Satanic Panic," and literally hundreds of media articles would soon follow associating D&D
with black magic and the Guy Downstairs. It became such a popular drum to beat that even 60 Minutes got on the bandwagon
Now as I said, some of this had to do with people who didn't really understand what the game was. On the other hand, I think we could also say these criticisms came from people who could not fully separate fantasy from reality. D&D was, and is, a game. An entertainment. More to the point, it is a fantasy. Aside from elves and dwarves and orcs and dragons the game often featured a black and white cosmology where gods were real and concepts like Law, Chaos, Good, and Evil were concrete realities. This is not the world we live in.
Well, not the world rational people live in.
But before we cluck our tongues at the silly right-wing religious nuts and their inability to separate make-believe from real life, the exact same thing is happening to D&D again these days...and this time it is coming from the pearl-clutchers on the Left.
Two days ago Gizmodo published an article "Why Race Is Still A Problem In Dungeons & Dragons." This is just the latest of a very long series. Last month the UK Independent asked "Can Dungeons & Dragons banish its racism problem?" Last year ComicYears informed us "Dungeons & Dragons Has A Race Problem They Aren't Doing Enough To Fix." And Wired told us in 2020 "Dungeon & Dragons' Racial Reckoning is Long Overdue."
The crux of this argument, if you can call it such, is summed up in the Gizmodo piece as "Racial bioessentialism is a core design crutch for Dungeons & Dragons." Bioessentialism is basically the idea that biology plays a larger role in identity than culture, socio-economic status, or environment. The article quotes Wizards of the Coast, the current publishers of D&D, who are trying to respond to the criticism:
“throughout the 50-year history of D&D, some of the peoples in the game—orcs and drow being two of the prime examples—have been characterized as monstrous and evil, using descriptions that are painfully reminiscent of how real-world ethnic groups have been and continue to be denigrated.”
The article goes on to say:
With this one statement, WotC confirmed what most people already knew; that the fantasy of race in Dungeons & Dragons is sometimes racist in a way that reflects the racial dynamics that continue to oppress people of color across the world. To depict an entire group of people as “monstrous and evil”–e.g. because orcs are born to orc parents, they are evil–is the very definition of racial bioessentialism. To do so, even in fiction, is reductive and monolithic, and encourages real-world stereotyping at the expense of the racial “other.”
It is hard to know what to say to any of this, and what is truly remarkable is that D&D once again seems to be dealing with people who do not understand the concept of fiction. Yes, D&D had human sacrifice and devils and demons...but that did not mean it was encouraging such things. They were fictions within a story. And yes, D&D has malevolent beings. But so does folklore, and this is a game based in folkloric roots. Goblins and kobolds (both found in the game) date back in the English language to at least the 12th century, where they are described as wicked and evil entities. Dark Elves, the inspiration for the Drow mentioned above, are described in the Norse Eddas as being blacker than pitch and wicked. This was not a racial slur. The Dark Elves were "black" because they were the personifications of the underworld and night.
D&D is a game with unicorns and dragons and gods and devils...things that do not exist. More to the point, many D&D campaigns assume the existence of moral qualities as concrete cosmological forces, just as Tolkien did. Good and Evil are as as real in these settings as heat and light...and that is why we call it fantasy. Orcs are not evil just because they were born to orc parents. They are evil because this is a fantasy game where evil is personified.
And in a case of history repeating itself, D&D is backing down. Back in 1989, the second edition of AD&D removed all references to devils and demons, assassins, thieves, and whatever else the morality police objected to. Today they are doing it again by capitulating once more. When the 3rd edition of D&D appeared in 2000, enough sanity had returned to the world that the devils and demons were put back in. Hopefully twenty years from now sanity will return again
Are there people who will look at Orcs--as they have with Tolkien--and see real-world racism in them? Sure, but these are the people Crowley was talking about. They look in the mirror and see only what is in themselves.
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