Scapegoating a Role-Playing Game
(“Shopping Spree,” Forensic Files)
Last week’s post discussed how a young man who loved role-playing games, most notably Dungeons & Dragons, committed homicide.
Caleb Fairley’s killing of Lisa Manderach and her baby daughter allegedly arose from his obsession with finding a real-life counterpart to the type of woman whose looks were idealized in his fantasy game (or games) of choice.
For this week, I looked into whether any other superfans of Dungeons & Dragons have left murder victims in their wakes.
Disturbed adolescents. To get right to the point, the answer is yes, a few, although they go back quite a ways. In 1984, Steve and Dan Erwin, 12 and 15, died in a Colorado murder-suicide and left a note saying it was their only way to escape the game.
Three years later, Daniel Kasten murderd his parents in their Long Island home reportedly because a Dungeons & Dragons character named Mind Flayer coerced him into it.
But even before those murders happened, Dungeons & Dragons had turned into the subject of public scrutiny because of suicides by a number of boys known to play the game.
Organized revolt. After two separate such cases, one in 1979, the other in 1982, the mother of the second young man, Irving Lee Pulling, started the group Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons, or BADD.
By 1985 — a decade before Fairley generated headlines — BADD had made Dungeons & Dragons the object of a moderate case of public hysteria.
A game that involved such supernatural elements as magic spells and curses must, the BADD folks reasoned, degenerate into real-life everyday devil worship, human self-sacrifices, etc.
Evidence existed that Pulling and the other youth who took his own life, a 16-year-old boy genius named James Dallas Egbert III, had underlying psychological problems, but that didn’t slow down BADD’s momentum.
Unhealthy relationship? BADD grew prominent enough to spur a 60 Minutes segment about the Dungeons & Dragons phenomenon in 1985. Host Ed Bradley described D&D:
An enormously complicated game in which each player chooses an imaginary character he’ll assume. There are dwarves, knights, and thieves, gods, and devils, magic and spells. It’s a journey into fantasy through complicated mazes where you use your wits to kill your enemies before they kill you, all in a quest for wealth and power. The dungeon master orchestrates and referees the game, creating scenarios both complicated and terrifying.
Dieter H. Sturm, public relations director for TSR Inc., the company that sells D&D, made a case that correlation doesn’t mean causation: With 3 million to 4 million users of the game in the U.S., it was a coincidence that a fraction of the 5,000 teens who committed suicide in the most recent 12-month period played D&D, he said.
An adolescent boy wearing eyeglasses with Reagan-era giant aviator frames (talk about scary) explained that the good game-characters try to stop the bad hombres from raping and plundering — and the role-playing stops once the six-sided dice go back in the box.
Good clean fun. “This is make believe,” Dungeons and Dragons creator Gary Gygax told 60 Minutes. “Who is bankrupted by losing a game of Monopoly?
You can find a hazy bootlegged video of some of the 60 Minutes story on YouTube. An online commenter calling himself Michael Miller wrote the following retroactive rebuttal to BADD’s campaign:
My mom gave me the red Basic D&D for Christmas while this stupidity was going on. She played with me and the rest of the family several times, and we all had a great time defeating monsters, getting out of traps, and amassing sizeable fortunes. She knew how to be an involved, responsible parent.
The BADD publicity died down after a few years. Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control said they found no causal link between D&D and violence.
In fact, one could make a case for a connection between the game and healthy creativity.
Winners, not losers. A number of accomplished authors, including George R.R. Martin, the father of Game of Thrones, have given credit to Dungeons & Dragons for sparking their imaginations as writers.
A 2014 New York Times article quoted Pulitzer prize-winner Junot Díaz as saying that, via Dungeons & Dragons, “we welfare kids could travel, have adventures, succeed, be powerful, triumph, fail, and be in ways that would have been impossible in the larger real world.”
Still, it’s not hard to imagine anti-D&D activism reappearing today, with religious fundamentalism on the rise. (As a Wiccan told me many years ago, every so often, when there’s nothing better to worry about, some concerned citizen sounds an alarm about devil-worship.)
It can be enough to make even a sane person worry about his own affinity for fantasy and superhero-related culture.
Introspection. Fairley’s crime recently prompted self-reflection from one writer somewhere along the nerd continuum. A passage from the 2015 post by blogger Benjamin Welton on Literary Trebuchet:
Whereas Fairley spent his days alone in his parent’s home with his porn, his vampires, and Dungeons & Dragons, I killed many hours alone in my father’s apartment with my comic books, my horror novels, and my favorite television shows. Fairley loved heavy metal; I still do. As much as it pains me to say it, Caleb Fairley, who was convicted of murdering and sexually assaulting Lisa Manderach and her 19-month-old daughter Devon in 1995, is the darkest version of people like me and my friends.
But surely he knows that paranoia and substance abuse, not football, fueled Aaron Fernandez’s homicidal rage, and greed, not tennis, compelled the Menendez brothers to make themselves orphans.
One can point to an id lurking in practitioners of just about every avocation and vocation.
Good guys. Fortunately, very few lead to horrifying crimes. And perpetrators are far outnumbered by the authorities who protect us from them.
Who knows, some of those hard-working law enforcement types just might shake off stress with a little witch and wizard role-playing in their off hours.
That’s all for this post. Until next week, cheers. — RR