Friday, March 29, 2013

[Let's Read] Playing With Fire, Part 7: Chapter 1 It's Merely A Game - Or Is It?

Chapter 1: It's Merely A Game - Or Is It? ranges from pages 15 to 24, and consists of a single section title page, 2 blank pages, and seven content pages.

Three items of Note:
1) direct quotes from the text will be italicized,
2) my analysis of this text is not an attack on individual Christians or to paint Christians as a whole in a broad brush, and
3) the authors' ideas will be critically examined, especially when they present a Christian idea without using the same rigor that they have used on RPGs.

Chapter 1 starts with discussing the history of RPGs, explaining "at first, these games were little more than an obscure diversion enjoyed by relatively few. Today they have become virtually a national pastime" (Pg 17). Seriously? In 1984, D&D and RPGs are a national pastime? I'm really, really surprised because in my high school in 1984, baseball and football were national pastimes and RPGs weren't even close. In fact, according to a 1999 survey, 6% of Americans have played D&D since 1974 (D&D Wikipedia article, reference 8). How can one declare these games, and the game that dominated the nascent RPG industry in 1984, a national pastime?

Claiming that "sales had skyrocketed to an estimated $150 million in 1982" (Pg 17), this book obviously didn't do it's homework, yet again. In fact, according to an Inc article dated February 1982, TSR had "revenues of $12.9 million ... in the year ended June 30, 1981, and projects revenues of $27 million" for 1982. And TSR was the 800 pound gorilla in the industry, so where did the other $120 million come from? Seems like both authors are prone to exaggeration.

Only one paragraph in and this chapter has gotten so much wrong already.

The text then delves into the history and 'controversy' that focused so much attention and probably the start of the RPG "Satanic Panic," the disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III. "There was speculation among his friends and fellow students that his disappearance was associated with some bizarre Dungeons and Dragons plot....Egbert was found unharmed in Texas, and there was no apparent connection between his disappearance and Dungeons and Dragons" (Pg 17-18). Why bother mentioning this speculation and lack of connection unless one wants to poison the well by inferring that there was a connection? After all, Egbert himself told William Dear that he tried to kill himself and couldn't deal with the pressures of college.

As a result of the national fervor, D&D sales skyrocketed. The text then quotes Moira Johnston's article "It's Only A Game - Or Is It?" from New West magazine, August 1980, "They should raise a foundation to this Egbert kid" (Pg 18). It's a blatant attempt by the authors to poison the well.

After Egbert killed himself in 1980, "an investigation of his death and the surrounding circumstances brought forth no conclusive evidence to connect his suicide with Dungeons and Dragons" (Pg 18). I like the use of the phrase "no conclusive evidence" to insinuate wrongdoing by again poisoning the well. It implies that there is evidence just nothing that could actually conclude it.

Wild speculation in full swing, the text continues with "Concern over Egbert was soon forgotten or relegated to the past. But it was only a matter of time before other cases of apparent FRP-related problems ... were to emerge" (Pg 18-19). That's an appeal to probability. They claims that a whole bunch of murders, suicides and demon possessions have occurred between 1980 and 1984, but only presents a few and implies others, starting with Irving "Bink" Pulling's suicide in 1982 and including one of the killers in the "freeway murders" was a D&D player. No demon possessions are noted.

So Bink kills himself with his parents' gun, his family sues the school principle for $1 million because he allowed D&D as a school activity and they sue TSR for $10 million because "following precise instructions found in D&D materials .... (Bink) had calculated that if this was done by a certain time he would have a 97 percent chance of resurrection" (Pg 19).

Let's look at those precise instructions. Referencing the AD&D Players Handbook, the Constitution table (Pg 12) lists 96% and 98% resurrection survival chances for Constitutions of 16 and 17, respectively. No listing of 97%.

Looking at the spell descriptions for  Raise Dead: "When the cleric casts a raise dead spell, he or she can restore life to a dwarf, gnome, half-elf, halfling, or human. The length of time which the person has been dead is of importance, as the cleric can raise dead persons only up to a certain point, the limit being 1 day for each level of experience of the cleric, i.e. a 9th level cleric can raise a person dead for up to 9 days. Note that the body of the person must be whole, or otherwise missing parts will still be missing when the person is brought back to life. Also, the resurrected person must make a special saving throw to survive the ordeal (see CHARACTER ABILITIES, Constitution). Furthermore, the raised person is wak and helpless in any event, and he or she will need one full day of rest in bed for each day he or she was dead. The somatic component of the spell is a pointed finger." (Pg 50), and Resurrection: "The cleric employing this spell is able to restore life and complete strength to the person he/she bestows the resurrection upon. The person can have been dead up to 10 years cumulative per level of the cleric casting the spell, i.e. a 19th level cleric can resurrect the bones of a person dead up to 190 years. See rais dead for limitations on what person can be raised." (Pg 53) provides no precise instructions.

Both lawsuits fail, unsurprisingly, because they were crap. I've looked in my copies of D&D published circa 1982 and found no "precise instructions" for resurrection. Where's the link to D&D, then?

The text claimed one of the "freeway murders" killers was involved in D&D "as part of what now appears to have been an adventure" (Pg 20). These killings comprise two separate offenders and one group. Two single offenders, Patrick Kearney (apprehended 1977) and Randy Steven Kraft (apprehended 1983), are obviously not the ones J. Weldon and J. Bjornstad are talking about. Yet a review of William Bonin and his accomplices (apprehended 1980), none actually seem to have played D&D. The text says "Allegedly, one of the young men responsible .... At the age of 21 he was so preoccupied with this game that it had become his whole life" (Pg 20). Why wasn't the man specifically identified? Bonin and four accomplices killed approximately 36 victims. Which was the young man?

Bonin was 21 in 1968, so it wasn't him (besides D&D not being published until 6 years later). Of the other four, Vernon Butts was 22 in 1979, Gregory Miley and James Monro were both 19 and William Pugh was 17 in 1980. The 21 year old could only have been Vernon Butts, yet, according to, "Vernon Butts was a lowlife drifter with a long criminal record of petty offences .... (who) had been in and out of penal institutions." Hardly an endorsement for someone interested in the usually cerebral world of RPGs.

Further expounding on this young man yet never formally identifying which one of the four, the text continues, accusing this "freeway killer" of playing D&D for days on end, dressing up as his character, and "With the hope of gaining real power, he joined a satanic coven and was initiated into Satanism." None of the four are ever noted as being satanists nor dressing up in fantasy garb.

Then it continues that "he could no longer distinguish fantasy from reality .... the freeway became his game world" (Pg 20). The murders done by Bonin and his coterie included torture and strangulation with the victim's t-shirts. Doesn't sound very fantasy to me.

This whole "freeway killer" connection to D&D seems so much an urban legend. Unnamed person, no specifics except a vague series of murders, nothing to actually identify either the murderer or victims killed. No news sources listed, no definitive data, and a compelling narrative that serves as a warning. All very vague and very telling. And recognizable as pablum.

These examples, Bink's suicide and the freeway killings, "have not been numerous thus far, (yet) new cases are surfacing." The text complains that "more people are coming forward .... dungeon masters and players are realizing that others have had the same experiences." What experiences are these? Suicide, murder? Yet no other examples of suicide and murder are provided for the rest of the chapter.

Instead, the text goes on to explain that people are concerned and that the age of players has expanded to include kids younger than college age, "impressionable adolescents who are still in the formative stages of their identity" (Pg 21) and that "religious and secular observers ... have criticized FRP games for their occultic overtones, violence, and potential for negatively affecting the lives of those who play the game" (Pg 21).

OK, the implication of suicide and murder is presented, yet the book doesn't even build on that, instead softening it to the players' life will be ruined because the game will break up families, friends and churches but presumably the players won't end up dead or in jail.

Then they bring up Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons (B.A.D.D.) on Pg 21, except they don't mention that it was started by Patricia Pulling, Bink's mom, and Pro Family Forum (of Fort Worth), both of which are against D&D and have a religious context (fear of satanists). No secular person or group is identified. I wonder why that is?

The last page and a half presents a list of possible "broad spectrum of comments and diversity of opinions" (Pg 22) that divide the world into two sets "those who think they are harmless (or helpful) and those who do not" (Pg 22). But then the text says "specific cases involving FRP-related problems .... they have usually sought to explain away any FRP involvement as circumstantial. Some might admit to Dungeons and Dragons as a 'contributing' factor ... but it appears to be out of the question that a game could be the 'cause.'" (Pg 22-23).

What a load of crap Chapter 1 has turned out to be: one disappearance and suicide that had nothing to do with the game (admitted by the victim Egbert himself), a suicide that couldn't be linked to the game (and a mother on a crusade), and an urban legend of an unnamed killer. Then several pages of meandering narrative that twists those three cases together with the old stand-by of a loaded question - "Senator, when did you stop beating your wife?" - and D&D is presumed guilty by association with these deaths. Except no formal evidence is ever provided, only innuendo and insinuation that some bad things have happened.

What excellent journalism! What profound analysis! J. Weldon and J. Bjornstad performed quite a good bit of research on this section, getting nearly everything so wrong in seven short pages. I'm not quite yet bleeding out of my eyes from this book but the stupidity of the content surely will abate and they'll actually provide some evidence to back up their wild assertions, right? One can hope but I don't count on it.

1 comment:

  1. With these claims then we can say the Illinois Enema Bandit can be blamed on D&D. Look it up, it's a real thing.


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