Tabletop to Tablet: Using Dungeons & Dragons to Combat Screen Addiction | Retro Report on PBS

Tabletop to Tablet: Using Dungeons & Dragons to Combat Screen Addiction | Retro Report on PBS

[ Suspenseful music plays ] On a summer day in August 1979, the family of a missing teenager called a Texas investigator
named William Dear with some startling information. -Dallas Egbert had disappeared
from Michigan State University during the summer session. -James Dallas Egbert III
was a 16-year-old sophomore and his family hired Dear
to help find him. -He was a computer nerd and he
had a large amount of hair and carries this
little briefcase. I wasn’t sure that
I was being told exactly what precipitated
his disappearance, so I said, “Well, I guess
the best thing we can do is I’ll go to Michigan
State University and I’ll find out for myself
exactly what was going on.” ♪♪ When I went to his room, there was a corkboard
with a series of tacks. -In what might look like
a random pattern of thumbtacks, the investigator saw what
he thought could be a clue. The shape resembled a building
that was part of a network of underground
campus steam tunnels, which students told him
they sometimes explored. -We set out with maps
and we started going into the tunnels one morning,
with press everywhere. I entered with the idea that I did not know
what I was getting into. -But he had a hunch
that it had something to do with a game that was growing
in popularity. ♪♪ -This is a quest in a fantasy world
of castles and dungeons, monsters and dragons. This world has become real
to these people. It’s all part of a game
called Dungeons & Dragons. -Dungeons & Dragons,
also known as D&D, was created
by the late Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson
in the early 1970s. It was born out of their love
for military war games, and they devised scenarios
with made-up characters that incorporated their interest
in history and fantasy fiction. Gygax said it provided
an escape. -All of us, at times,
feel a little inadequate, in dealing
with the modern world. It would feel much better
if we knew that we were a superhero
or a mighty wizard. -The game is played in a group and the guide,
or dungeon master… -You enter a very small room. -…talks the players
through the fictional, sometimes violent,
adventures they will go on. -A throw of these special dice
decide the outcome of battles in an intricate scoring system. Nothing is acted out. The real action is in the mind.
-Okay. Now, you guys
are entering the castle. -But some, including private
investigator William Dear, worried that, while the
action was imaginary, some kids
might take it too far. -You’re leaving the world
of reality into the world of fantasy. It advocated murder,
decapitation. And I’m going,
“This isn’t a healthy game. How can it be a healthy game?” -That game, and Dear’s hunch that Egbert was playing it
in the tunnels, made great fodder for headlines. But it was a dead end, and Dear
went back to Texas empty-handed. -It wasn’t within a day or two
that the phone call came in and he was still alive. -Egbert was
a complicated teenager whose disappearance
was never fully explained and who later committed suicide. -There was speculation he was
the victim of a campus game called Dungeons & Dragons, but, after a month-long,
nationwide search, he was found unharmed! -Dear fed into the growing
suspicions about D&D in a book that pointed to the game
as a culprit in Egbert’s disappearance. But Tim Kask, who’d helped
develop D&D with Gary Gygax, says Dear was just hyping
the story for personal gain. -He was a publicity hound and he knew that he
could hang it on D&D and gather a lotta
media frenzy, and he did! Dallas Egbert,
it’s a tragic story. Brilliant young man, sent off
to university at 15. It had nothing to do with D&D
and the steam tunnels. -Still, that attention set off
an unexpected chain of events. -Our stock took off, literally. We sold thousands of more
copies within 90 days of all that stuff happenin’
and we were uppin’ print runs. That’s when we took off. -Sales nearly quadrupled the year after Egbert
disappeared. As the cult game
was going mainstream, Dungeons & Dragons
generated interest in two conflicting groups: people who wanted to buy it
and those who wanted to ban it, and televangelists
took on a new crusade. -They are kids like yours, like the ones
in your neighborhood, kids who are turning to darkness because society
has shut God out. -A conservative fundamentalist
Christian group would see a game that involved
satanic figures, evil figures. That would be a source
of concern. -Dungeons & Dragons
has been called the most effective
introduction to the occult in the history of man. It is a fantasy
role-playing game that teaches demonology,
witchcraft — -Gygax, a religious man himself,
was put on the defensive. The company hired psychologist
Dr. Joyce Brothers to fend off criticism. -There is good and evil in life and the way
Dungeons & Dragons is set up is that good triumphs over evil. -Tim Kask says that, in private,
he and Gygax couldn’t believe the game was being linked
to devil worship. -Without sounding
disrespectful at all, we laughed our butts off
most of the time. Because it was like,
“Are you kidding me? You really think we’re teaching
your children demonology?” -But the controversy grew
after the news media reported that a string
of teen murders and suicides had one thing in common: the killers or victims
were D&D players. -Mary Towey was killed
by two friends: Ron Adcox and Darren Molitor. The crucial point is:
Can a game create psychosis, or is someone
like Darren Molitor an accident waiting to happen,
with or without the game? -And that’s all people
are doing. -But many grieving parents
believed there was a connection. Pat Pulling’s teenage son
committed suicide and she spoke publicly, claiming that his game-playing
contributed to his death. -It has been linked
in suicide notes, police reports,
and coroner’s reports. -Young people commit suicide
for a whole variety of reasons. In my research, I saw nothing that led anyone towards
depression or suicide. -Northwestern University professor of sociology
Gary Alan Fine wrote a book called
“Shared Fantasy” and studied the D&D subculture. -They were the kind of kids
and young people who didn’t [laughs] go to dances
or date on the weekends. It was part of a nerd culture,
I guess you would say. -I can still throw
death spells, huh, Steve? -The D&D culture intrigued
filmmakers and fiction writers. Rona Jaffe’s book
“Mazes and Monsters” was loosely based
on what people thought had happened to Dallas Egbert. It was made into a movie starring a young Tom Hanks. -Let the journey begin. [ Eerie music plays ] -[scoff]
But which way do we go?! -They went down
the storm tunnels and got to play D&D
in the tunnels! We had to like sit
around a table like, like, “How awesome
would it have been, if it turned out that D&D
was like what they did?” -Cory Doctorow is a writer
and activist who, early on, was profiled as an avid D&D
player, in this story from 1985. -[Speaks indistinctly] The moral panic
was mostly laughable. 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. You could go around and have
really satisfying arguments with, like, profoundly
ignorant grown-ups. -Over time, the Dungeons &
Dragons controversy lost steam, and today, the common thread
between D&D players is less likely to include
any reported links to violence and more likely to involve
Emmy awards and literary prizes. Stephen Colbert and writers Ta-Nehesi Coates
and Junot Díaz are among the millions
of smart, bookish kids who played D&D and shrugged off
any sense of panic. -People went bananas! My mom, moral panic? She was way more worried
about us gettin’ shanked, you know, or getting
caught up in some nonsense. -It was a lot of fun. It also provided them
a variety of other skills: leadership skills,
negotiation skills. -And, for Díaz, as a young immigrant
from the Dominican Republic, the game had special meaning. -This was a revolution. Being a bunch of kids of color in a society that tells us
we’re nothing, being permitted,
under our own power, to be heroic, to have agency, to do the hero stuff, to take and be on adventures. There was nothing
like it for us. It was very, very,
very, very impactful. -While some parents
used to worry about what kids were playing, now, they’re more likely
to be worried about how they’re playing. -Screen time: What’s the
right amount for modern kids? -Cellphones and social media
have revolutionized the way we live,
but how has plugging in changed the way your kids
are growing up? -This is the biggest
parenting issue of our time. -Through the 20th century,
you have this tension between free play
and controlled media. I mean, we were concerned
about what sitting in darkened movie theaters
would do to our children. Just wait 30 years, and they will be worried about
what their children are doing and it will no doubt be
something different than sexting and bullying,
as we know it today. This is not a new phenomenon. It just changes
with each new technology. -The American Academy
of Pediatrics says that, in this
media-saturated age, it’s important for kids to use
their imaginations in free play. -14!
-And, in a twist, the role-playing games that set
off a moral panic in the past may look more like a solution
to getting kids off screens and encouraging them to spend
time playing face to face. -I just catch four fireballs. -It’s a great thing, to dream
yourself in other places, and it helps understand
who you are. It’s just nice to spend a lotta
time thinking, imagining, in a group, collaborating. -Yeah, Bobby is awesome! -Imagination is a good thing,
man, very powerful. [ Gong crashes ]
-Whoa! [ Applause ]


  1. I lived through all of this controversy. It was insane. A game that encourages social interaction and imagination was painted as a profoundly dangerous activity. They didn’t worry about us playing cops and robbers or reading choose your own adventure books, but telling stories about hunting monsters to each other and rolling dice was going to send us over the edge.

    That Tom hanks made for TV movie was the thing that finally meant the end of my D&D group. My friends weren’t allowed to play because they would somehow develop schizophrenia.

  2. Did time with Chris Pritchard and Upchurch, yes they did it for the money and used d&d to get the death penalty off of them

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