How Dungeons & Dragons' Popularity Grew Out of Fear

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Apr 17 2016, 8:49pm

His name was James Dallas Egbert III, but when I was growing up in '80s Houston, I mainly knew him as "that kid from Dallas" who supposedly committed suicide because of his involvement in Dungeons & Dragons. Or so the church folk usually told me whenever I'd say something vaguely involving wizards was cool, thus prompting my young self to find out more. As a new episode in The New York Times' documentary series Retro Report shows, though, the truth behind the Egbert incident was much more complex and only tangentially related.

The paranoid hullabaloo surrounding Egbert's initial disappearance in 1979 was the catalyst for propelling Dungeons & Dragons to bestselling stardom, and on the whole, the 13-minute documentary points out, Gary Gygax's pen-and-paper game of imagination and calculation was actually a good thing for America. Rather than producing a legion of Satanic necromancers (or whatever), Dungeons & Dragons instead established itself as a common thread in the development of many notable creatives like writers Stephen Colbert, Junot Díaz, and Cory Doctorow.

"The idea that there were people who were fundamentalist Christians for whom Dungeons & Dragons represented some kind of existential threat to my soul was silly," Doctorow says in the segment. "You could go around and have really satisfying arguments with like profoundly ignorant grownups."

But this is more than a simple history of how worries over suicides and murders in the early '80s coincided with the rise of an extremely popular and influential game. The segment also places D&D's early struggles in the context of modern parenting, where parents find themselves concerned less with what their kids are playing and more with whether all that time kids spend glued to smartphones and related devices warps their brains.

The documentary suggests that it's a conflict that only renews itself with new media every few years. Considering how quickly virtual reality seems to be taking off, I'd say it's only a matter of time before it gets dragged into the debate as well.