The Devil in Ms. Pac-Man

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I was 10 years old when the town of Arlington, Texas outlawed Dungeons & Dragons. This was in the mid-80s. The furor over the game’s demonic content and “dangerous” subtexts was at its height. Pamphlet’s like Jack Chick’s Dark Dungeons were circulating at PTA meetings and Sunday school classes, and news pundits and newspaper editorialists were denouncing the game as contributing to all manner of ills, from juvenile delinquency to gruesome murders and disappearances.

Looking back now, more than twenty years later, the story reads like the set-up of a D&D campaign: “A horrible evil is upon us, turning brother against brother, husband against wife and the people against their rightful leaders. The innocent are being wrongfully accused. Darkness is sweeping the land. It’s up to you to find the cause and reverse this great injustice!”

Also like D&D, you can choose your side in this struggle. Is the True Evil the game or the people who denounce it? Will you join the crusade against this dastardly pastime, or fight alongside those who’ve set out to defend their hobby against wrongful accusations? Choose wisely! Laughing about it is easy with a little distance and maturity; if hindsight is 20/20, it’s also slightly rose-tinted. At the time, however, the situation seemed pretty grim.

Dungeons & Dragons was a pen and paper pastime no one outside of a college campus had heard of until the disappearance of James Egbert in 1979. Egbert, like a lot of college students at that time, had been sneaking into the steam tunnels underneath his school at night to play D&D with a group of friends. One imagines the dark, almost claustrophobic setting lent the ensuing play sessions more verisimilitude and excitement. Dungeon masters I’ve played with have attempted to achieve a similar effect by turning out all the lights and playing by candle light, or recording a custom-made soundtrack. Opponents of D&D cite these candle-lighting and spelunking activities as evidence of the game’s close ties to the occult. Because, as everyone knows, witches like candles.

James Egbert’s disappearance had become legendary by the early 80s, and in 1984 a fictionalized version of his story was released as a movie. Mazes and Monsters, starring Oscar-winner Tom Hanks as the deranged college student who takes the game too far, presented D&D as a mesmerizing pastime capable of warping a young man’s mind so significantly that he’d see creatures that weren’t there and try to kill his friends and/or himself. Hanks’ character in the film eventually became so enraptured by the fictional world he created that he literally lost his mind. The movie ends on a sour note, with the deranged Hanks calling his friends by their characters’ names, having completely lost touch with reality. The moral of the story was clear: D&D is bad for you, roll credits.

We didn’t play D&D in a steam tunnel or light candles, but my brother and I were heavily into the game. It didn’t make sense to us that someone could be so enraptured by the experience of talking about walking through a dungeon and rolling dice to simulate killing things that they’d commit murder or kidnap someone. The distance between playing the game and actually believing it seemed as wide as the gulf separating wearing spandex and trying to do the splits while shouting “Jump!” and actually believing you were David Lee Roth. We were aware that some people could get that carried away and lose all touch with reality, but they were aberrations, and their insanity was merely influenced by the game, not caused by it.

The religious furor over the game was also a bit nonsensical to those of us playing it. Contrary to popular belief, there was no devil worship in D&D. The game addressed religious worship and morality, but these rules were most often jettisoned in favor of spending more time collecting loot and finding secret doors. The fact is religion is boring when you’re a teenager, regardless of who you’re worshipping. You either go to church or you don’t, but the last thing you want to do when you’re playing a game is think about God. Besides, in order to believe that someone could summon demons by playing D&D you’d have to believe in demons in the first place, then take that extra step of believing that a teenaged kid with a store-bought book could be capable of opening a gateway to hell using only the power of his mind and a few plastic dice. Needless to say, in spite of the hysteria, we weren’t all that worried about our souls.

Some far-sighted dungeon master in Arlington had gone to the trouble of reserving the local community center every Saturday night so that we could gather en masse to play until the wee hours and be able to say to parents and religious leaders that we were doing so in full view, in as safe and monitored an environment as possible. It was a stroke of genius and went a long way toward legitimizing the game in our town. By the time I started attending the turnout was enormous; multiple games were being run simultaneously, with a number of DMs donating their time to run low-level “pick-up” games, which you could walk into or out of any week. It was a perfect way to bring new players into the experience, and provided gamers like me a chance to play with more experienced players and level up.

The whole affair had a sort of carnival atmosphere, like a gaming convention, but without the seedy, commercial undertones. The hall was brightly lit, the people friendly and supportive and the games, spirited. At these games the idea that we were playing a harmful, controversial game was as far from our minds as the idea we were supporting communism. We were just having fun, not hurting anyone and exercising our minds. It was, for a geek like me, the perfect experience. Naturally it didn’t last.

The true story of James Egbert had a far less sensational ending than the film version. Egbert, a deeply troubled soul, had attempted suicide in the campus steam tunnels (not while playing D&D) and after failing to end his life (having not been trained well enough in weapon use by playing D&D), sought refuge at a friend’s house, where he hid from his family and authorities for several weeks. He eventually succeeded in killing himself, but no connection to his death or his madness was ever convincingly made with D&D, save that he played it. He could just as easily have become unstable through excessive use of White Out, listening to heavy metal music or reading Playboy Magazine. The reality is that James Egbert was an unstable individual, and his choice of hobbies was as irrelevant to his death as the brand of shoes he wore.

Nevertheless, when the sensationalized details of his story reached the mainstream consciousness by way of the 1984 film, D&D was judged an unsuitable pastime for Texan youth. The Town of Arlington officially banned the game, and our weekly reservation at the community center was cancelled. Parents and religious leaders picked up the flag and ran with it, banning the game from their homes and communities as well. Books were thrown in the trash, character sheets burned, dice hidden in shoeboxes like gold teeth secreted away where Nazis couldn’t find them. Almost overnight, D&D became harder to find than drugs. It took me almost two decades to find another gaming group, and even then it was by accident, like spotting an ichthyius fish on the way to work. For those of my generation, D&D had become akin to herpes, you only admitted to playing it if you had to.

Videogames are getting the same treatment now, and as far as I can tell nothing has changed. The same kind of people are doing the same kind of grandstanding, and every possible link between games and murder is being held up as clear evidence that the hobby corrupts our youth. Listen to this kind of rhetoric long enough and you might start to believe it, especially if you don’t play games or know anyone who does.

I’ve played videogames for as long as there have been videogames, and in that time I’ve known all kinds of people who play them, including some who’ve seemed capable of completely losing their minds and going on a killing rampage. But I’ve also met plenty of maladjusted individuals who don’t play games, and nobody can say that mass murder wasn’t around before Pac-Man.

I suppose the real question is whether you believe that someone could become a murderer by playing a game. Is the impulse to harm another person so easily instilled, the mental barriers against killing other human beings so fragile, that a mere game can awaken a blood lust? I’m not a particularly spectacular person, but games have never made me want to do anything other than play more games, or perhaps throw my controller through the television screen. I’ve played a number of military shooters, but I don’t believe they’ve increased my proficiency with real-world firearms to any great degree. Having both played Counter-Strike and handled firearms, I can’t help but laugh at the assumption that one has anything to do with the other.

But still, we do live in a world in which people believe they can make their car jump over a river because they saw Burt Reynolds do it in Smokey and the Bandit, so I suppose anything is possible. Maybe the Virginia Tech shooter was inspired to kill 32 of his fellow human beings by a video game. I don’t think it’s likely, but it is possible, and it would certainly be easier to accept that the possibility that he wasn’t influenced by anything at all. That he wasn’t “made” a monster, just born that way, and that there may be more of him out there, just waiting to do the same thing.

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