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Dungeons & Dragons: Geeky Fun or Gateway to Hell? (Part 2)

Posted October 07, 2009 12:01 AM by Vi Pham

In addition to extreme "geekiness", Dungeons & Dragons has been linked to psychological instability, suicide, and cultism. The rumors surrounding D&D, a game still popular with many engineering students, caused something of a moral panic in the 1980s. The origin of this hysteria began with the original "steam tunnel incident".

Incidents & Impacts

The "steam tunnel incident" doesn't refer to a single event. Rather, the term refers to a set of urban legends in which students involved in live action role-playing games die or disappear in the steam tunnels below their university's campus.

The Original

In 1979 James Dallas Egbert III, a 16-year-old child prodigy suffering from depression, academic pressures, and drug addiction, disappeared into the steam tunnels of Michigan State University (MSU) to commit suicide. After the failed attempt, Egbert fled into hiding.

William Dear, the private investigator hired to find Egbert, did not know anything about D&D except that Egbert played it. Questioning Egbert's MSU friends resulted in very few facts about the game because Egbert had never played on campus, and they knew very little about it. Yet Dear theorized that Egbert may have gotten lost in the steam tunnels during a live-action version of the game. The press reported William Dear's theory as truth, thus spurring the negative attention on D&D.

Several weeks later, Dear received a call from Egbert, who revealed that he was hiding elsewhere in the country (some reports say Louisiana, others say Texas). After promising to conceal the truth of the boy's story, Dear released Egbert to the custody of his uncle.

In 1984, four years after Egbert's third and successful suicide attempt, Dear wrote The Dungeon Master. The book reveals the truth about Egbert's disappearance, explaining that there was no link between D&D and the steam tunnel incident.

Unfortunately, the damage to D&D's reputation had already been done. In 1981, Rona Jaffe wrote a novel, Mazes and Monsters, based on the press exaggerations of the Egbert case. The novel was adapted into a made-for-TV movie the next year.

Hobgoblin, also published in 1981, was written by horror and suspense writer John Coyne. Using the current unease about D&D to his advantage, Hobgoblin is about Scott Gardiner, a traumatized young man who plays a role-playing game called Hobgoblin. Scott identifies with his Hobgoblin character more and more throughout the novel and begins to have difficulty distinguishing between reality and fantasy.

For the Money

In 1988 Chris Pritchard, with the help of some friends, allegedly planned the murder of his stepfather, Lieth von Stein, for his $2 million fortune. During police interviews, Pritchard and his friends stated that they occasionally went (sometimes under the influence of drugs and alcohol) into the steam tunnels of North Carolina State University to map them out in order to incorporate the tunnels into their D&D campaign. Authorities discovered a "game map" of the von Stein house, further linking D&D to the case.

Joe McGinniss and Jerry Bledsoe, two crime authors who wrote books based on the murder, emphasized the D&D aspect. Both books were adapted for television in 1992.

These incidents and the books and movies about them created a significant amount of bad press for D&D, but they weren't the only cause of the moral panic that ensued. The next entry in this serious will be about some other-wordly objections to D&D.

Click here to read Part 1!
Here to read Part 3!
And here to read Part 4!

Sources:

Wikipedia – Dungeons & Dragons

Wikipedia – Dungeons & Dragons controversies

Wikipedia – Steam tunnel incident

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Re: Dungeons & Dragons: Geeky Fun or Gateway to Hell? (Part 2)

10/07/2009 8:19 PM

I played D&D and I enjoyed, and then I chose a career in Theater... Clearly D&D has led me to join the most insidious cult in America and ruined my life forever...

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