“Prisons can restrict the rights of inmates to nerd out, a federal appeals court has found.”
That’s not the opener for a Cory Doctorow screed on BoingBoing. It’s the first sentence of a New York Times story about Kevin T. Singer, a prisoner and fantasy role-playing aficionado who’s serving out a life sentence in a maximum-security facility in Nowhere, Wisconsin. Kevin has been into Dungeons and Dragons “since childhood,” so when the prison confiscated his books and dice back in 2004, he sued. An appeals court finally decided the case last week, ruling against Kevin and gaming.
The thing is, Kevin isn’t necessarily the ideal spokesmodel for tabletop roleplaying. The reason he’s in prison for life has nothing to do with anti-nerd undercurrents in society, and everything to do with bludgeoning his brother-in-law to death with a sledgehammer. Wisconsin led the charge to abolish the death penalty 150 years ago, and any state employee who’s bitter about that can only hurt a guy like Kevin by taking away everything that keeps him going while he serves out the rest of his days. Unfortunately, in their haste to punish a killer, Wisconsin officials threw a pretty great game under the bus.
Life is a long time for a guy in his early 30s, and it’s even longer when the guards take away your favorite mental escape because they think it might inspire a physical escape attempt. On top of alleging that gaming might cause a prisoner to go all Count of Monte Cristo, the state also brought in a gang specialist, who somehow managed to keep a straight face while connecting Dungeons & Dragons to dangerous gang activity. If by “gang activity,” you mean “cooperative play,” or “Fun-yuns,” then okay. But if you actually mean “gang activity,” give me a break.
It’s been a good 30 years since the peak of anti-D&D hysteria. Back in the ’80s, Dungeons & Dragons was accused of causing everything from Satanism to suicide. The poster child for that period in the game’s history was James Dallas Egbert, III, a teen prodigy whose disappearance and subsequent death were blamed on D&D in the media, even though gaming had nothing to do with his depression. [See the timeline after the jump for a brief history of ass-backwards anti-gaming mania.]
This prison fiasco doesn’t have to mean a return to the bad old days. Even though Kevin doesn’t offer the most sympathetic face you could hope to put on the game, there are still some gleaming role models out there, reminding the world that tabletop role-playing geeks aren’t all violent or clinically depressed. You don’t have to look any further than the guys who just did a hilarious comic strip about the prison D&D ban: Penny Arcade’s Gabe and Tycho.
The Penny Arcade guys are leading by example by starring in the official D&D podcast, along with another prominent webcomics artist, PVP’s Scott Kurtz. Even better, they’ve got actor/author/poster-geek Wil Wheaton on board. It’s one thing to make jokes and hyperbolic accusations about D&D, but it’s another thing entirely to hear it played by a bunch of the nicest, most entertaining guys around. It puts a more fun, less sledgehammer-murdery spin on the whole thing.
So, here’s to our contemporary geek heroes. Thanks for showing everyone how you roll.
[dice photo: ciroduran]
1979: 16-year-old prodigy James Dallas Egbert, III enters the steam tunnels on his university campus to attempt suicide. It has nothing to do with D&D.
1981: A novel called Mazes and Monsters is published. It’s based on newspaper reports about James Egbert, but somehow ends up being about university students who disappear in campus steam tunnels while playing a role-playing game.
1982: Mazes and Monsters, the movie, comes out. Naturally, it features a young Tom Hanks gaming in the steam tunnels.
1982: Patricia Pulling founds BADD: Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons, blaming the game for her son’s suicide. She accuses D&D of promoting “demonology, witchcraft, voodoo, murder, rape, blasphemy, suicide, assassination, insanity, sex perversion, homosexuality, prostitution, satanic type rituals, gambling, barbarism, cannibalism, sadism, desecration, demon summoning, necromantics, divination and other teachings.”
1984: Jack Chick publishes a Christian anti-D&D tract called Dark Dungeons, which I would inadvertently receive from evangelists outside my high school, 15 years later.
1987: A psychology professor in Florida hits some gaming conventions to study D&D players. He finds no link between role-playing games and emotional instability. Nobody notices, though, because the study’s findings do not include Tom Hanks, steam tunnels or suicide.
1988: Chris Pritchard and two of his friends murder Pritchard’s millionaire stepdad for money. The police find Pritchard’s role-playing maps and everyone blames the Dungeon Master of his gaming group.
1990: TSR gets sick of taking crap from frenzied parents, and removes references to devils and demons from the 2nd Edition of D&D.
2000: Demons and devils make a comeback in 3rd Edition D&D.
2004: Vin Diesel tells Conan O’Brien he’s got the name of his D&D character tattooed on his belly. There will later be a Penny Arcade comic where Gabe and Tycho have a gaming session with Vin.
2004: Wisconsin prisons ban Dungeons & Dragons.