In honor of Speak Out With Your Geek Out, I’ve published some excerpts from my non-fiction book from McFarland Press, The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games. In this installment I explain how Dungeons & Dragons ended up with such a bad reputation in the 80s.
No discussion of Dungeons & Dragons would be complete without an examination of the events of April 15, 1979, when a James Dallas Egbert III, a Michigan State University student, disappeared. Dallas, as he was known, was a 16-year-old computer genius, so smart that he was repairing computers for the United States Air Force since he was 12. He was a typical gamer geek and smart enough to attend college early. On August 22, private investigator William C. Dear was hired by Dallas’ family to find him. As a highly successful PI and friend of the Egberts, Dear agreed to take on the case.
During his investigation, Dear theorized that Egbert may have confused his role in the game with his role in real life, an unfortunate statement that would have repercussions on Dungeons & Dragons well beyond the investigation. Reported widely in the press, Rona Jaffe’s fictional book Mazes & Monsters soon followed. Inspired by Egbert’s case, Mazes & Monsters concerned Robbie Wheeling, who snaps while playing a Dungeons & Dragons-like game in the steam tunnels of Grant University. It was later turned into a movie that starred Tom Hanks.
The danger of role-playing immersion posed by Mazes & Monsters stoked Hollywood’s fertile imagination, which performed a bit of role-playing itself by fictionalizing the events. Mazes & Monsters’ plot was conflated with the Dallas case. The damage was done: Dungeons & Dragons earned a reputation for dangerously corrupting children. It wasn’t until 1984 that the facts were laid out in William Dear’s book, The Dungeon Master: The Disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III.
So what really happened? Dallas, a D&D player, was fond of playing a Live Action Role-Playing game (LARP) in the steam tunnels under MSU’s buildings, a distinction the media failed to comprehend. Depressed and driven to perform in school, Dallas became suicidal.
When Dear tracked down Dallas, he postulated several theories as to what happened to him, ranging from suicide to kidnapping to getting lost in the fantasy of Dungeons & Dragons. A shrewd investigator who was no stranger to the press, Dear was concerned that if his kidnapping theory was publicized and if Dallas really was kidnapped, he would be killed. Thus, Dear let the Dungeons & Dragons theory percolate: “You have a Dungeon Master – he designs the characters. Someone is put into the dungeon, and it is up to him to get out,” explained Dear. ” … in some instances when a person plays the game you actually leave your body and go out of your mind.”
Dear was very good at his job. One month later he located Dallas in Morgan City, Louisiana. Under pressure from his mother and struggling with his own sexuality, Dallas attempted to commit suicide in the steam tunnels beneath Michigan State University by taking sleeping pills. When he awoke the following night, Dallas fled to a friend’s house, a gay man in his early twenties.
The relationship between Dallas, a minor, and his adult friend had legal implications. When the story broke, Dallas was shuttled between houses as each host became increasingly concerned about the media scrutiny. Dallas was sent on a train to New Orleans, where he attempted suicide yet again and failed. Dallas found a job and a place to stay, but eventually all involved decided that Dallas should give himself up.
Through this sad tale, it’s obvious that Dungeons & Dragons had nothing to do with Dallas Egbert’s disappearance. Unfortunately, it was also clear that Dallas homosexual relationships were a concern for Dallas and those involved with him. Dear promised not to divulge the details of the case to protect Dallas’ younger brother, Doug, leaving Dungeons & Dragons to blame. The facts didn’t come out until years later in Dear’s book.
All this week, from Monday, September 12th to Friday, September 16th, you can participate in Speak Out With Your Geek Out by posting about what geeky hobby you love. Then, tell us why we should try it, too. Leave your fears (and edition wars) at the door. Forget about your latest rant. Tap into that well of positive energy and share in the excitement of all things geek.