Role-Playing Games and the Christian Right: Community Formation in Response to a Moral Panic

Article excerpt

David Waldron, Lecturer in Social Science and the Humanities

University of Ballarat, Victoria, Australia

Abstract

During the 1980s, the newly established industry and youth subculture associated with role-playing games came under sustained attack from schools, churches, parents and governments, instigated by the Christian Right via organizations such as B.A.D.D. (Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons). While both the organization B.A.D.D and its claims linking Role-playing games to youth suicide, drug use and Satanism eventually were discredited, the impact of these accusations lingers on to the present. This article examines the impact of the role-playing game "moral panic" on the role-playing game community and investigates the responses and coping mechanisms utilised by those directly targeted and harassed by churches, the police, schools and governments during the height of the "moral panic" in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The article also investigates the effect that the shared experience of being targeted by a "moral panic" had on the formation of a role-playing counter culture and community.

What are Role-playing Games?

[1] Role-playing games (RPGs) are a form of interactive novel in which the protagonists create and control the actions of a cast of characters. The characters operate in a virtual world controlled by a referee/narrator figure called the GM or games master, depending on which variant of game is being played. (Variants include Dungeon Master, referee, narrator, storyteller, etc.). The GM creates a virtual world and the players make decisions, based on their character's interaction with that world and moderated by a combination of statistics, probability and characterisation. The worlds themselves vary from the traditional Dungeons and Dragons adaptation of Tolkeinesque fantasy realms to Cyberpunk, Gothic Horror, Espionage, Space Opera and Westerns and include some settings that are so surreal as to defy simple definitions. Most forms of literature have an expression as an RPG, some much more popular and mainstream than others.

[2] While overall numbers of gamers are difficult to estimate, a 1990 survey conducted in the United States, Australia and Canada estimated that at least 7.5 million people engaged in RPGs at least once a month in those three countries. A 2000 survey by the RPG company "Wizards of the Coast" estimated that approximately 5.5 million Americans play RPGs regularly. Additionally, there are numerous RPG conventions and gatherings held throughout Anglophone nations. There are also sizeable RPG communities in France, Germany, Spain and Italy, among others.

Theoretical Interpretations of RPGs in Youth Culture

[3] What was particularly new about RPGs when they emerged in the late 1970s, and that certainly contributed to their popularity, was their potential for escapism. At their most enthralling, RPGs require a multi-layered structure of close social interaction and a mechanism for exploring shared ideals, values, symbols and cultural forms (particularly those derived from literature). They require a unique format that cannot be easily replicated in other games or social activities. RPGs create a flexible mechanism for exploring virtual worlds, identities, social structures, symbols and cultural norms within a social environment that is detached and segregated from daily life. This potential for reflexivity, identity formation, close knit networks of social interaction and escapism was certainly a crucial ingredient in the popularity of RPGs and their later equivalents in computer games, Multi User Dungeons and online gaming.

[4] According to research by Sherry Turkle, RPGs have a greater potential for escapism than many other pastimes because they not only allow the players to interact with their surroundings but give them a venue in which they can create their own socio-cultural identity. In RPGs, the role the player adopts is a tool designed to further separate the context of the game from reality. …