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Dungeons And Dragons Or Mazes And Monsters?

by Hawke Robinson published Mar 21, 2019 03:17 PM, last modified Mar 21, 2019 03:17 PM
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Dungeons And Dragons - Or Mazes And Monsters?

by admin on July 14, 2008

The following post is for On The Shoulders of Giants - if you’re interested, my earlier entry is here!

Traditional board games (such as chess, checkers, Scrabble, Parcheesi) have involved no role-playing on the part of the players, and some have involved a very minimum amount of role-playing within a board setting (such as Monopoly, Clue, Starfleet Battles). There is a new generation of games, many of which principally, if not totally, involve role-playing. Foremost among the latter is Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). In this particular game, which incidentally has become exceedingly popular, players choose an alter ego within a Medieval setting. A profession is chosen as a fighter, thief, magician, priest, assassin, illusionist, or Druid. A particular ethical outlook called an Alignment also is chosen. The group of characters then go forth on “adventures” presented by a referee-player called Dungeon Master, thereby growing in experience, wealth, power, and status (Gygax, 1978; Johnston, 1980; Moramarco, 1980). – Armando, 1987.

“It all started when the late E. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson personalised their Chainmail wargame units down to individual soldiers.” – Sturgess, 2008.

Or is that too technical? I’ll start with a blast from the past that you’ll wish was truly Mythbusted to bits…

Some of you might remember a dreadful 1982 film, ‘Mazes and Monsters‘, starring a very young Tom Hanks. No, not the film I’m holding in the picture, that was a tragedy in film-making history that came much, much later - as one commentator put it: “The 35 million dollars used to make this film must have been used on late night taco runs”.

I’m talking about the film that echoed the panic and propaganda about role-playing games - oh look! Here you go, bad-acting and all:


Much of my current work as a research assistant deals with the theories of Csikszentmihalyi, and so I first came across research on games in relation to how Flow theory is used to explain the popularity of massive multi-player online role-playing games (MMORPG). Having seen the development and maintenance of peer cultures within forum boards develop, including negative aspects like cliques and bullying, which extended into the ‘real-world’, I wondered about the early research on games and whether it was just indeed just a bad experience of a few turned into unwanted hysteria. Certainly not all forum boards can be judged on less than a handful - so was it the same in this case, warranting such a study?

So what would have got a game like “D&D” into a psychology journal? Apart from the obvious:

1. You always repeat studies. That’s the point of science - got to confirm or deny previous results.

2. Massively multiplayer gaming is a definite offshoot of the genre and is now very popular; it would be interesting to compare and contrast the MMORPG phenomena with table top gaming (as with the upcoming conference I’m attending called Dragon*Con - there’s a big crossover, but there are people who play table top that have no interest in things like World of Warcraft [or 'WoW'], and there are LOTS of people that play things like WoW that have no interest in table top gaming).

For this blog entry, I chose an early one - Simon Armando’s ‘Emotional Stability Pertaining to the Game of Dungeons and Dragons’, from 1987. It’s not that difficult to find papers since this time (and a few prior) that investigate the popularity of these games and the influence they have on players.

A number of teenage suicides and runaways have been attributed to D&D under the rationale that players lose touch with reality because of the macabre aspects of the adventures themselves (Adler & Doherty, 1985; Brooke, 1985; Shuster, 1985). A national television program, 60 Minutes, raised the question at length of the game’s potential harm. One psychiatrist has flatly stated that “the game causes young men to kill themselves and others” (Adler & Doherty, 1985). The intent of this research was to investigate the validity of the detractors’ claims. To this end, Cattell’s 16 PF Test (Form C) was used, paying particular attention to Factor C, which measures emotional stability (Karson & O’Dell, 1976). – Armando, 1987.

Cattell’s test (which you can even find online) involves the theory that human personality traits could be summed up as 16 personality factors or traits (PF). These traits are apparently shown within everybody to some degree - the key is where on a continuum a person is registered.

All subjects’ stem scores were ascertained from their respective age and sex tables, so that 26 subjects aged 15-19 years were scored using the High School Tables, whereas 42 older subjects were scored using the General Population Table. The Motivational Distortion Scale, which detects and corrects for attempts at “faking good,” was used…

our findings show a more mundane picture. Increased exposure to D&D is not positively correlated with emotional instability. Indeed, as a whole group, D&D players obtain a healthy psychological profile, as measured by the 16 PF. It appears, then, that in those cases wherein the individuals had previously played D&D, the game may have simply been an incidental, irrelevant aspect, rather than an etiological factor. – Armando, 1987.

In research papers, one big reason would be the sort of media attention that is mentioned in the paper, cases like the thinly-veiled account of a real death, portrayed in the book and eventual film, Mazes and Monsters. Yet even that case wrongfully depicts the real situation behind the suicide, later written about in the 1984 book The Dungeon Master, by William Dear.

Significantly, there were the efforts of Patricia Pulling, who was an anti-occult campaigner in the USA. She started Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons (BADD), with the sole goal of banning Dungeons and Dragons and other such games in the 1980s. Her son had committed suicide and she filed a wrongful death lawsuit against her son’s high school principal, and what was then TSR, Inc., claiming that there was a Dungeons & Dragons curse placed upon her son before he died. Thanks to my husband, I even found the Chick tract comic that reflected the ’satanic panic’ that was being promoted - oooh, Dark Dungeons!

Paul Cardwell Jr. wrote in the Skeptical Inquirer in 1994 of ‘The Attacks on Role-Playing Games‘:

The collection of anti-game anecdotes has sometimes been called a “modern urban legend”, a term coined by the folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand. Actually, it is a collective delusion. The modern urban legend is a traveling tale, in which the same story is set in various parts of the country and has “actually happened” to a friend of a friend, with only the names of the people and places changing. A collective delusion, on the other hand, is seen to be a situation that is “everywhere” but “they” are keeping it a secret. Thus the attacks on role-playing games are part of a phenomenon that Brunvand calls “satanic panic”.

The attacks have gone through several stages. In the early 1980s, much was made of gamers’, particularly younger ones, “casting hexes” on teachers and parents. Aside from assuming the magic in the games was not only real but translatable into real life, there was another assumption: that the game was teaching this real magic.”

In 1990, The Pulling Report was released, which essentially broke down the poor methods of reporting and data collection done by BADD - the man who wrote it, Michael Stackpole, will be at Dragon*Con this year.


In fact, there’s since been quite a body of research into technological advances since the 1970s, stemming from the model of this role-playing game. Such as Second Life and World Of Warcraft, including whether internet addiction can result from playing them. I even found a PhD, published this year - ‘An exploratory study on the players of “Dungeons and Dragons”‘, by Wilson, in Dissertations Abstracts International, to add to the growing list.


Of course, now with D&D into its fourth edition, I shouldn’t imagine that the millions of fans that attend eagerly to presentations like this one, and the even more money made from an industry that includes dozens of different publishers and thousands of variations on the ‘traditional’ game (even parodies like one of my favorite card games, ‘Munchkins‘) will ever cease continuing to encourage a new generation - and even more creativity and social interaction.

Yet the ’strange and the weird’ within the D&D game (dragons, monsters, demons, shape-shifters, people holding big pointy things, and astonishing number of odd superstitions involving dice rolling despite the very rational behaviour of the players in other cases… another reason why this sort of research intrigues me so!) would naturally encourage further research into the influence it has on its players.

As a final point - I must make a strong emphasis that people check out the use of D&D in therapy settings - one such example is the experience of Derek Colanduno, the host of Skepticality, as documented by Mur Lafferty in The Escapist:

His therapist, Karen Patterson, asked him what he did for fun, since a lot of everyday activities count as therapy for stroke victims, and if they can have fun during therapy, all the better. When he mentioned his D&D playing, Karen asked for more information.

“Once she read more about D&D and other games of the type, she realized that it is a good use of my time at home to get myself back to talking normally and with friends and coworkers,” Derek said. “She also found out that in the early days of the creation of D&D, it was used at hospitals and schools for kids and others that had issues with talking and other problems with relating to others, or with the world in general. So, she became a big fan of me getting back to doing the gaming with friend on a normal schedule. Who was I to argue?

Bring your wizard hat if you do, makes it so much more fun…

Select Bibliography:

Armando, Simon. (1987). Emotional Stability Pertaining to the Game of Dungeons and Dragons. Psychology in the Schools, 24.

Cardwell, Jr., Paul. (1994). ‘The Attacks on Role Playing Games’. Skeptical Inquirer, (18) 2, 157-165.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Beyond boredom and anxiety: The experience of play in work and games. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA.

Griffiths, M. D. (2004). Online computer gaming; a comparison of adolescent and adult gamers. Journal of Adolescence, 27, pp. 87-96.

Kent, Steven. (2003)., GameSpy, “Alternate Reality: The history of massively multiplayer online games“,


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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Johnny McFreakout 07.14.08 at 5:59 pm

That reminds me. I’ve been working on a new larp character. What do you think?

Johnny McFreakout
Overact - level 14
Stab Weakly - level 18
Scream Hysterically - level 19

Amanda 07.15.08 at 1:02 am

I wish my name were Csikszentmihalyi.

Role playing/computer games leading to all sorts of teh evil is a staple of lazy journalism. My sister and her hubby were featured in the Herald (page 3!) a few years back for being a “geek gaming couple” which did present it in a reasonably positive way — ZOMG, these people have lives too! But since then I notice the coverage more and its pretty much unreflective gaming=social dysfunction.

This article re3cycles the picture of my sister and bro-in-law (they are now reduced to stock footage of random geeks). They got asked to be on Today Tonight but turned it down.

I play WOW but not table top games — you may study me. ;-)

Sean the Blogonaut 07.15.08 at 5:16 am

Ah Roleplaying…

Tabletop roleplaying never really lived up to my expectations as either a player or a DM/GM. It was always entirely too much effort for so little gain.

I wanted to be immersed in game and all too frequently it became too much game and not enough roleplay. That and I had to figure out “how to play” in isolation from other gamers.

So I became a collector of RPG’s - MERP, GURPS, SHadowrun, Earthdawn, D&D, AD&D, HARP, Rolemaster, Heavy Gear, Burning Wheel. All as cool ideas but too hard to get into, to play regularly.

Then came online gaming and I think I am in a good place, it strikes a good balance bewteen immersion and game, I can pick it up or put it down, and no beer stains on the carpet or being a taxi for poor gaming friends.

Calithras, Guardian of Ered Luin
LOTRO - Elendilmir Server

Podblack 07.15.08 at 11:34 am

McFreakout - forgot ’singing minstrels who follow you going on about how you “bravely turned your tail and fled”‘!

“Csikszentmihalyi” - pronounced ‘Chick-sent-me-hi-yi’! I remember the first day of work, where he was mentioned in passing and I tried to write the name down… big mistake. Spent about an hour Googling ‘chicken-guy’…
I like the article! Although I think we kind of out-geek them as we have our own areas within the house that are designated for each other, since I left-hand mouse.

I started with online gaming and switched to occasional RPGs. Now I think I divide my time equally between both (but not much - too busy most of the time!).

As for gaming etiquette, I’ve started considering making a ‘Gaming Cookbook’ for healthier meals as I find quite a few of the meals and drinks aren’t the best for several hours of sitting around, nor good as a regular diet each Gaming night! Began when I handed out popcorn instead of chips and then started mixing some interesting fruit drinks rather than cola.

megan 07.16.08 at 6:04 pm

Ha, glad you put this in the Carnival. My brother and his friends had their D&D group as a 4-H club for a year or two, and they actually set up a table at the county 4-H fair where they played, so people could see what D&D was really like. Of course that made it into the local paper - why take another photo of a goat?

I had no idea so much actual research had gone into D&D, or that BADD existed - we lived in a happy pro-D&D bubble I guess. Someone should put together an anthology of these articles and sell it as a book at the cons - I’m sure folks would find it entertaining enough to add to the collection of D&D ephemera on their shelves.

Did anyone ever evaluate the impact of D&D the cartoon? Think of all the susceptible 6 year olds being victimized on Saturday morning before their parents were even awake!

Podblack 07.16.08 at 10:57 pm

“Did anyone ever evaluate the impact of D&D the cartoon?”

Ohhhh, yes…. well, kind of.

gg 07.22.08 at 7:17 pm

Nicely described. I often use myself as a case-study to refute the negative influence of D&D, as well as all sorts of other ‘Satanic’ influences. In my life, I’ve played D&D, I’ve listened to the worst of heavy metal music, I’ve played the most violent video games (including Grand Theft Auto), and I’ve even used Procter & Gamble products! Yet somehow, with all of these nefarious influences, I managed not only to not kill anybody, but to end up a physics professor. (Though I suppose there’s plenty of people who might consider that a negative outcome!)

Rev. Dr. Incitatus 07.23.08 at 4:59 pm

Re mmorpgs and social psychology, I found this to be a fascinating factoid. It could kick of a masters thesis on moral boundaries for sure.

The little movie the offenders made was fantastic… in a dark and sadistic fashion.

btw, have you investigated ARGs?

Moira 07.31.08 at 2:21 am

Hi, could you please tell me where online you found the 2008 article? I’ve been looking for it… Thanks! - Moira.

podblack 07.31.08 at 5:12 am

Which 2008 article?

Encefalus 08.07.08 at 9:16 pm

A very good article. As a D&D player myself I really enjoyed what you had to say. I found particularly interesting the last paragraph of your post concerning therapy. I wrote a few things about that myself at

podblack 08.09.08 at 10:38 am

Thanks, always great to meet more people interested in the psychology behind it all! :)

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