Looking back on the panic caused by 'Dungeons and Dragons' in the '80s and '90s

The Takeaway
Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks

Dungeons and Dragons has been part of the pop culture canon for decades. But when it gained popularity in the 1980s, several Christian organizations accused the game of leading children to Satanism, says Bonnie Bertram, a producer with the Retro Report documentary team.

“We forget, but the TV and broadcasting landscape in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s was really dominated by people who were taking on a crusade,” Bertram says. “Dungeons and Dragons fell right in line with the sort of values and worries that they had.”

Sci-fi writer and blogger Cory Doctorow experienced this panic first hand. He told Retro Report that some adults told him that the game was an “existentialist threat” to his soul.

“At the time, there really was this concern that kids were being drawn into this fantasy world and they were confusing their imagination with reality,” Bertram says.

She later adds: “I don’t want to diminish the scare aspect, because there was a string of murder-suicides that did have this one thing in common. But it’s a classic example that correlation does not imply causation.”

Though many saw the game as a threat to wholesome values and an avenue towards Satanism, it helped more than a few creative kids, including award-winning author Junot Diaz.

“This was a revolution. Being a bunch of kids of color in a society that tells us we are nothing, being permitted under our own power to be heroic; to have agency; to do the hero stuff; to take and be on adventurers — there was nothing like it for us,” Diaz says. “It was very, very, very impactful.”

Diaz is not alone. Fellow author Ta-Nehisi Coates and TV show host Stephen Colbert were both D&D players.

“It really empowered them and sort of unleashed their imagination in ways that other activities just didn’t do,” Bertram says.

Nowadays, several schools have established afterschool programs and clubs for kids that incorporate Dungeons and Dragons; tweens and teens still gather on their own to play the game.

“Some people play online, but really it’s mostly played with kids sitting around a table, talking through the various aspects of what [adventures] the Dungeon Master is going to take them on,” says Bertram. “It’s really sort of a wonderful thing — live action role playing. It’s great for kids.”

In the oversaturated world of the digital age, the game has done a complete 180-degree turn in the eyes of many parents.

“You’d be thrilled now to come home and see your kids sitting around a table rolling dice and playing games, as opposed to each one with callouses on their thumbs playing their little video games,” says Bertram.

Check out Retro Report’s full examination of the Dungeons and Dragons media panic:

This story first aired as an interview on PRI's The Takeaway, a public radio program that invites you to be part of the American conversation.