Dangerous Games

What the Moral Panic over Role-Playing Games Says about Play, Religion, and Imagined Worlds

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Joseph P. Laycock
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , February
     368 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Joseph Laycock’s Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic over Role-Playing Games Says about Play, Religion and Imagined Worlds asks us to put down our Bibles and Player’s Handbooks to examine the unnecessary panic over an innocent yet meaningful game. Dungeons and Dragons [D&D], one of the most famous fantasy tabletop role-playing games [RPG], has been played by countless individuals and has amassed over a billion dollars in sales since its creation in 1974. Its popularity, as Laycock addresses, is double-sided. Although many have enjoyed D&D for what it is—a game—there are those, “moral entrepreneurs,” as Laylock puts it, who have used its popularity to monetarily and socially benefit from creating panic over an exaggerated connection between the game and the devil.

The first part of Laycock’s book traces the history of this panic from its creation in the 1970s through the end of the 20th century. The development of D&D, he finds, coincided with the rise of obsession over occultism, satanism, and the fear of a valueless generation. Moral entrepreneurs—those who made their living on invoking fear—started to use D&D as both a source and product of these artificial problems. At a time when American culture was obsessed with brainwashing and harbored anti-religious feelings to anything that was not Christianity, moral entrepreneurs, such as William Dear and Rona Jaffe, profited by sensationalizing a game that they only had a surface-level understanding of. The author notes that fears about Satanists abducting children were actually about “a changing economy in which both parents frequently worked required Americans to rely increasingly on strangers to care for and raise their children” (106). For moral entrepreneurs, placing blame on a game was easier than addressing the systematic problems with the country’s economic system. Instead of viewing D&D as a game, these moral capitalists drew on the game’s faint religiosity—and sometimes pure fabrication—to argue that this RPG is a religion. Politicians in the 1990s also used the game as a scapegoat for what they saw as a valueless generation obsessed with games that harbor dim views of the human condition. Laycock finds that, despite these unsubstantiated claims, D&D is neither good nor bad. Rather, it is a game that, although having religious elements, is not, in fact, a religion.

The second part of Dangerous Games attempts to interpret the panic surrounding D&D. Laycock finds that fears of the imaginary were perpetrated by moral entrepreneurs onto the game; however, games (such as D&D) and religion are not as different as one may think. Laylock argues that games help people make meaning of their life; they help to understand how the world functions, and how they function in it. He notes that role-playing “resembles not only religious ritual but broader models of how human beings produce meaning” (184). Further, they allow people to explore the imaginary, testing the boundaries of heroism, ritual, and community. The fear of role-playing games comes from the inability to separate the real from the imaginary, which Laycock notes that kids can do, but for some reason, adults cannot. Ironically, he argues, the people who object to D&D become the harborers of disillusionment that they fear the game creates. The problem is not with the game itself, according to Laylock, but with how we engage with corrupted play.

Dangerous Games is a necessary interjection into the conversation between fantasy role-playing and the hysteria over violent-themed play. Dungeons and Dragons is not alone in unnecessarily receiving ridicule for causing societal problems; video games are often blamed for problems such as adolescent aggression. Laycock highlights the important idea that D&D is just a game; it is neither something good nor bad. It is a vessel through which some seek to understand and conceive of the world they live in. By addressing the falsity of the claims of moral entrepreneurs, Laycock reorients the pursuit of understanding why unfortunate acts happen. Games such as D&D are easy targets given that they highlight the aspects of the human condition that we are supposed to outgrow. It also offers the chance for people to explore faith through mediums other than religion. While the game challenges these conventional norms, it creates a sense of unease in one’s conventional understanding of how the world operates. Laycock's book, however, argues that this anger and unease is directed the wrong way. Dangerous Games charges players to keep rolling on, and for those who question such games to reflect on what exactly they find so repugnant from an exploration of imagination and play.


About the Reviewer(s): 

Daniel Constantinidi is Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admissions at the University of New Haven.

Date of Review: 
September 9, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Joseph P. Laycock is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Texas State University. His previous books include Vampires Today: The Truth About Modern Vampirism and The Seer of Bayside: Veronica Lueken and the Struggle for Catholicism. He is also a blogger for Religion Dispatches.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.