For those of us who came up as geeks in the early 1980s, Dungeons & Dragons was a phenomenon. I played it for years as a young adolescent, and then picked it up again as an adult. I remain an avid player.
But in the '80s, one theme that continually came up when D&D was under discussion was the idea that it was in some way a dangerous game, one that put us as children at risk of Satanic influence, or at a bare minimum, insanity and suicide. This was nowhere more explicitly stated than in the infamous Jack Chick tract "Dark Dungeons," which illustrated the Satanic power of Dungeons & Dragons in a way that was intended to be frightening, but was actually just hilarious to anyone with any actual familiarity with the game.
And then there was the early Tom Hank vehicle Mazes and Monsters which was losely based on a bunch of D&D-based urban legends (including the Dallas Eggbert "steam tunnel" story).
Michael Stackpole has written an excellent summary of everything that was wrong with this kind of D&D fear-mongering, but when I was a teenager, it was rampant. A lot of my friends weren't allowed to play D&D, and I was fortunate to have cool parents who were happy to let us play in the living room, on the theory that it was better that then we were off running the streets doing God-knows-what (Ironically, my mother eventually banned the boardgame Dune from our house, but not because of any satanic influence, just because we fought over it constantly).
Annalee Newitz reflects on all of this over at the science fiction blog io9, noting that "We Won the Dungeons & Dragons Wars."
When anti-gamer advocates claimed these tragic suicides as casualties of D&D, many other kids were punished for dreaming about triumphing over adversity, and for daring to imagine that they could be something more magical and powerful than what they were. It was a national craze, and it's not as if this forgotten war on the imagination was unique. Similar battles are being fought today over videogames and social media.
At the end of the day though, the geeks did inherit the earth, or at least popular culture:
And yet the half-elf thieves and evil clerics and dorky kids with dice won at least one melee in this particular culture war. That's abundantly obvious when you consider that the media is dominated by D&D-influenced stories. Meanwhile, the anti-D&D campaigns today have been reduced to items like this shabby little pamphlet, digitized by a gamer who wanted to memorialize a hard time in geek history. It's a clear example of history being written by the winners.
When D&D types win a war like this, however, they don't try to erase the perspective of the enemies who once threatened them. They have too much respect for the source material. In the 1980s, angry mobs of parents burned their kids' D&D books. Those kids, now grown up, digitize and annotate the pamphlets that once condemned them.
It's a weird kind of progress, but progress nonetheless.