Role playing games in society

Role playing games (RPG’s) for many years have faced negative press and scrutiny from religious (Christian) groups, health experts, psychologists, politicians, journalists, and activists who believe that role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, Final Fantasy, EverQuest, ElfQuest, RuneQuest, and World of War Craft are detrimental and subversive to teenagers and young kids who play them.  Christian groups have heavily criticized role playing games because most RPG’s have elements of the supernatural (magic, witchcraft, monsters, wizards, and etc…), which runs counter to their beliefs and teachings about the world and life.  Health experts and psychologists also criticize role playing games because they can cause players to become addicted or obese.  Politicians, journalists, and activists have also taken swipes at role playing games because of the belief that they cause addiction, obesity, withdrawal from society, and violence to others.

In 1979, role playing games suffered their first big public setback, when a sixteen year-old prodigy college student named Dallas Egbert III vanished from his dorm room at Michigan State University before the start of exams.  Law enforcement officials were called in to search for Egbert, but the police concluded that there was no foul play and Egbert had apparently left on his own free will.  Because of the lack of evidence of foul play, police officials had little to go on.  With the investigation stalled, Egbert’s family hired a private investigator named William Dear to locate him.   Dear began his investigation and came to the conclusion that Egbert got lost in the steam tunnels under the university while playing Dungeons and Dragons.2   While this conclusion made media headlines, Dallas Egbert III, in fact, did not get lost in the tunnels, but had run away from the immense pressure his parents and the university put on him; Egbert was also addicted to drugs and may have been gay or bisexual as well.  Egbert ended up living and getting a job in Morgan City, Louisiana for a few days.  Egbert, later, got in touch with Dear and told him the truth of his disappearance.   After meeting with Egbert, Dear agreed to with hold the truth from the media and allowed the reports about him and Dungeons and Dragons to continue without challenge in order to protect Egbert; Dear would reveal the truth four years later after Egbert’s tragic death.  In 1980, Egbert committed suicide; it was his third and final attempt since 1979.  In the end, Dear’s initial theory was wrong, but because Dear wanted to protect Egbert from the media, role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons received negative publicity from this incident.

As stated earlier, various health and behavioral experts believe that role playing games can cause players to succumb to violent tendencies.  In fact, in another case, that was just as weird and tragic as the incident with Egbert, happened in 1983, involving yet another sixteen year old prodigy and Dungeons and Dragons; the name of the sixteen year old prodigy was Irving “Blink” Pulling II.  According to Washington Post reporter, Michael Isikoff, Pulling II    was “socially isolated, once failing to get even a proforma “campaign manager” to sign on for him when he wanted to run for school office…” Pulling’s mother, Patricia, in her book, Devil’s Web, “described him as ‘a happy, well-adjusted kid’ and blamed D&D when he committed suicide with her pistol.” John Picton, of the Toronto Star, noted in  article about Irving “Blink” Pulling II’s suicide that Patricia Pulling claimed to have acquired “ESP knowledge of the event upon reaching the gates of their house…The suicide mechanism, she claims, was a curse placed on Bink’s game character during a school game. She claims that this curse compelled him to kill and that he heroically sacrificed himself rather than carry out the curse.” After the suicide of her son, Patricia Pulling traveled around the United States, criticizing Dungeons and Dragons and even formed an organization called, Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons, to advocate her position that role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons were violent and could cause suicides.  In the end, like the incident with Dallas Egbert III, the suicide of Irving “Blink” Pulling II and his mother’s crusade against Dungeons and Dragons once again brought negative publicity to makers of role playing games.

Despite heavy criticism from religious (Christian) groups, health experts, psychologists, politicians, journalists, and activists (Patricia Puling) who think that role playing games cause violent tendencies and suicidal behavior, some academic experts like John Hughes (anthropology) have written about the healthy benefits of playing role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, Final Fantasy, EverQuest, ElfQuest, RuneQuest, and World of War Craft.  In his paper entitled, “Therapy is Fantasy: Roleplaying, Healing and the Construction of Symbolic Order,” John Hughes talks with a person name Jamie who enjoys playing role playing games.  Jamie states, “I roleplay as a therapeutic thing. I behave irrationally and outrageously in gaming to relax and enjoy myself… In life I cross-check what I’m doing and thinking. Its nice playing a character who wouldn’t do these things… my characters are an antithesis of myself.” Another player named Malori who Hughes says suffers from depression uses her male created role playing character of “Jack” as a form of therapy.

Hughes states that, “Malori has suffered the effects of her depression for at least twelve months, and has been unable to work more than a few hours a day. Her attempts to overcome the disease have taken her to psychiatrists, physical specialists, mental health counsellors, physiotherapists, dieticians and, more recently, to a naturopath. Her improvement has been marked over the last three months, but she is still restricted to a shortened working day. Despite her own initial scepticism, Malori has found her roleplaying the most effective instrument in fighting the disease.”  Hughes, goes on further, with this argument by including Malori’s thoughts on how “Jack” helps with her depression.  Malori states that   “There is a certain amount of idealisation in the character. He provides things that I haven’t got but would like to have. I’ve tried to bring out the more masculine parts of my character, to encourage them, but I’ve also tried to encourage some of the more feminine aspects as well – the ones I consider positive at this place and this time. So in many ways he’s a composite of myself, but that’s not all that he is… There are a lot of things that I could never do, that I could never be.”In the end, as one can see, some people Jamie and Malori find healthy benefits playing role playing games like relieving tensions or gaining more confidence, despite some people finding it objectionable.

Overall, role playing games have taken big hits from religious (Christian) groups, health experts, psychologists, politicians, journalists, and activists (Patricia Puling) who think that role playing games cause violent tendencies, health problems, and suicidal behavior.  Incidents like the strange runaway case of Dallas Egbert III and the suicide death of Irving “Blink” Pulling II, both believed to have had played Dungeons and Dragons, caused a media frenzy and portrayed role playing games in a negative light.  Despite these negative perceptions, some players like Jamie and Malori found psychological benefits by playing role playing games like relieving tensions or gaining more confidence, despite what some people think.  In the end, depending on someone’s point of view, role playing games have both negative and positive aspects about them.

ETA: This a paper I wrote for a course on game culture and history a few years ago.  I thought it would be interesting to post it here.

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2 comments on “Role playing games in society

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