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While in high school, a classmate introduced us to MAGUS, a fantasy RPG popular in Hungary. We played a simplified version with no dice-rolling and stuff; basically it was one person telling a story and the others playing characters in it, with the setting in the MAGUS world of Ynev. This was very entertaining and fun, until the parents' workgroup in the Catholic high school and the teachers banned it. This was 6-10 years ago.

Their explanation was something along the lines of

The worship of fictional deities in the MAGUS world serves to introduce people to occultism/satanism.

Can anyone provide some more background on why on earth were they afraid of us playing MAGUS? Or was the fear only ignorance of the hobby? I'm not interested in the specific RPG and era, but rather how religion reacted to role-playing during its history in general, and what opinions they expressed.

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Remember our rule: Back it up! Cite your sources or your personal experience. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton May 15 at 13:40
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As this question is getting a lot of attention, let me remind people of the appropriate use of comments on this site - this is not a discussion forum. meta.rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/1174/… –  mxyzplk May 15 at 14:52
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I believe this question to be on topic to this site - it spans christianity, history, and roleplaying but is primarily about roleplaying. Though it could also be usefully asked on Christianity.SE (and has been - see my answer) the responses would probably be more in depth on the relevant theology and less useful to the querent. Please add a meta question if there is more discussion needed about question validity. –  mxyzplk May 15 at 14:55

6 Answers 6

up vote 61 down vote accepted

I can't speak to exactly how it made its way to Hungary, but as a gamer and Christian who's been both since the 1980s I can explain the general history of religious backlash against fantasy role-playing games.

Ancient History

The Church was initially quite uncomfortable with acting and theater back in the early ADs, and with fiction writing in general as well. It was hard for them to distinguish fiction from lying (see the movie Galaxy Quest for more). Keep in mind that in the Christian faith, thinking about committing a sin is sinful in and of itself.

Matthew 5:28:

But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Mark 7:7-23:

And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

As a result, "pretending to be a murderer" is sometimes seen as a slippery slope - are you not contemplating murder, thinking about it and how you'd do it and why... Of course magic and worshiping spirits and whatnot are all mentioned in the Bible and considered both quite real and sinful in traditional Christianity, so pretending to do those has the same close equivalence to actual sinning in the mind. And worshipping gods other than God is one of those "Christianity 101" no-nos. Over time, these new activities were further understood and allowed for by more nuanced theology, to where no mainstream church has an issue with acting or fiction writing per se today, although they do believe they can be used to promote sin and sinful thinking.

The 1970s

Role-playing games emerged from wargaming. No one cared.

The 1980s

There was a huge scare about Satanic ritual abuse in the 1980s. Various people, mostly of dubious authenticity, testified to being victims or perpetrators of various "old school" Satanic/witchcraft kinds of activities. Not all of this was false, of course, as there's freaks in every time period, and the publicity caused some amount of copycatting (little different from the spread of TM/Yoga in the 1960s, for example). This received an epic amount of media attention and created a backlash against anything that could be seen as occult-related in nature. D&D was very popular at the time; it had become a large fad (complete with TV cartoon) - the D&D Basic set (Red Box) sold millions of copies and was in every chain bookstore. TSR sold $20 million worth of product in 1982 alone! Since D&D talks about pagan gods and sorcery and whatnot, and it was a high profile target that would add to media attention, it was immediately picked up on as a target by certain parties like Patricia Pulling and William Schnoeleben who crusaded against the game publicly. This led to a series of controversies, culminating in a 60 Minutes feature in which Gary Gygax appeared and, unfortunately, did a spectacularly hapless job of defending the hobby on the show. The Tom Hanks movie Mazes and Monsters, which popularized the suicide of James Egbert III, a disturbed boy who was a gamer, along with other media exposure like the 60 Minutes interview caused some questions about the game in non-religious circles as well, which caused religious efforts to ban the game to get much less resistance than would usually be experienced.

Even those Christians who did not buy into the claims of real Satanism and spells in the game could often be swayed by the "sinning in the heart" argument, as it requires time and effort to understand both gaming and theology enough to effectively discern the truth from the hearsay and it's often easier to just tell your kids "don't play that." This isn't necessarily ill-intentioned, as a parent myself I understand that it's like other common practices of judging appropriate media for your children based on reviews and other parents' comments; you can't watch every single thing yourself first and have to go with "what you've heard" out of efficiency. As D&D is a group activity, it only takes 1 in 10 parents, school officials, priests, etc. against it to ban it in many venues. Even if the official in question doesn't think it is evil, if some parents complain they have some responsibility to act, even in Scripture it admonishes "Abstain from all appearance of evil." (1 Thess 5:22).

The primary push was against D&D, but was generally broadened to "role-playing games" since D&D was the largest by far (most people had never heard of others) and since many of those others were similar and didn't necessarily change the argument - MAGUS, for example, would be open to the exact same criticisms as D&D.

Reactions from within the gaming community included the renaming of demons and devils to baatezu and tanar'ri in the Second Edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. They tried to keep such language less religiously charged until the late 1990s. Counterattacks were mounted by gaming groups - Michael Stackpole wrote pieces like this one rebutting and discrediting Pat Pulling. The Committee for the Advancement of Roleplaying Games was founded in 1987 to combat people trying to discredit RPGs.

Today

As the satanic panic died down, the reaction against D&D did as well, though like any urban myth it still lingers. I was publications director of the Christian Gamers Guild for a time, they have a FAQ written about gaming directed at addressing questions from Christians about things they've heard are "evil" about gaming. It is still an issue sometimes in particularly conservative, rural communities. Waves like this tend to take time to spread, so the panic and then recovery felt in other parts of the world were delayed (much like the advent and departure of disco :-). You still see flareups of anti-RPG propaganda today, though much like burning Harry Potter books, it's limited to an extremely small fringe of people largely agitating about anything popular to get on the news to spread their faith.

However, the damage still lingers. Here's a 2004 poll on a Catholic forum in which 11% (of an admittedly small sample) felt that online RPGs were not OK for Catholics. That hits that one-in-ten level that's likely to create some complaint that leaders often humor by disallowing things. There has never been an official statement on RPGs from Catholic leadership, though in 2000 they did issue a statement rebutting concerns about Pokemon cards, which were the next popular inheritor of the "is it sin?!?" bellwether. Today, the discussion has moved on to video games, and whether our violent video games promote sinful behavior.

See also the same question on Christianity.SE: Source of Christian attitudes towards fantasy and role playing games

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This is a great answer overall, but this part concerns me: "Not all of this was false, of course" — err, got a source link? Reading Wikipedia's SRA article, I can't find a reference to any actual acts before the moral panic itself (afterward, you have a group murder inspired by The Believers, and a handful of "pseudo-satanist" abusers using the collective conspiracy theory to intimidate their victims). –  Alex P May 16 at 15:04
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@AlexP it's off topic to go into it too much, but Satanism became popular in the '60's with LaVey and you had everything from your disgruntled rockers sacrificing cats to sexual abuse "in the name of" - I personally know someone who suffered the latter. Or maybe you've heard of the Manson Family, Charles Manson had some links (wikipedia:"Bugliosi noted in his book Helter Skelter that Manson appeared to have borrowed philosophically from the Process Church, whose members worshiped Satan.") Googling "satanic crimes 1970s" will show plenty of real ones, e.g. nydn.us/1gNm2fI, not just SRA. –  mxyzplk May 16 at 15:35
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I signed up to this site, in which I have (today) not too much more than passing interest, to say that this answer is as good as they come on any question, period: balanced, knowledgeable and informative. My guess is that even someone who knows his stuff (like mxyzplk) can't put together an answer like this in much less than an hour. It would take me much more. Many thanks. –  ScoBe May 19 at 4:18

Usually, this seems to come down to considering it Occult activity, which is frowned upon by the Bible.. There are numerous examples of people and groups in the time period in question (back in the 80s) who felt D&D was an Occult trainer.

Dark Dungeons is by far the most famous. (And hilarious if you read it today.)

Wikipedia has a page on the subject with two other examples. Those are Patricia Pulling's efforts, and Tracy Hickman.

You might note that you didn't see the Pope talking about this, even back then. To say that all Christians believed this would be incorrect. There were also non-Christian groups raising issues, as the above mentioned Wikipedia article covers. Some psychologists were concerned about the effects of the game on people.

When James Dallas Egbert III committed suicide, it was widely reported in the media that D&D was involved. It wasn't, he had clinical depression. The mainstream media reported on the issue, and as the mainstream media tends to do with anything they don't understand, didn't do a great job.

Most of this has faded over time simply because the game has been more normalized in society, and because on the factual side of things, +studies have shown that it's not actually dangerous.

Remember, at one time people also said that Rock & Roll was Satanic. But to say that "Christians" in general felt that way or felt the same about D&D would be like looking at the Westboro Baptist Church and saying that they represent how all Christians feel about homosexuality.

This was really a small group of people who thought it was an occult activity, combined with a tragic event and poor mainstream media reporting. As a whole, Christians don't take a very strong moral stand on D&D in my experience.

Reactions

That said, the game still did react to it. TSR removed "devil" and demon" in AD&D 2e, replacing them with baatezu and tanar'ri. Those were later changed back in 3e, but both names are used now.

Other games have also changed as a result of this type of concern. Back when I played NERO (which is a LARP based in New England), we had things like ritual magic. They later changed that to "formal magic" because "ritual" was a loaded word that was drawing attention they didn't want to the game.

As I recall, that came about not long after a weekend where we were doing a big event near a beach, guarding someone doing an important ritual from enemies trying to stop it. At the end of it, someone yelled at the top of their lungs "The Ritual is complete!"

For the boaters who were going by the beach on the water to see this mass of people doing something in weird outfits and then suddenly yelling that, I'm sure it was an odd experience.

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"To say that all Christians believed this would be incorrect." +1 - With regard to the original question, this is not a general attitude in Hungary either. I studied in a Benedictine high school and role-playing as a leisure activity wasn't banned or sanctioned. –  Márton Molnár May 17 at 9:11

A historical analysis of this controversy is actually in the literature:

  • Waldron, D. 2005. Role-Playing Games and the Christian Right: Community Formation in Response to a Moral Panic

    During the 1980s, the newly established industry and youth subculture associated with role-playing games came under sustained attack from schools, churches, parents and governments, instigated by the Christian Right via organizations such as B.A.D.D. (Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons). While both the organization B.A.D.D and its claims linking Role-playing games to youth suicide, drug use and Satanism eventually were discredited, the impact of these accusations lingers on to the present. This article examines the impact of the role-playing game “moral panic” on the role-playing game community and investigates the responses and coping mechanisms utilised by those directly targeted and harassed by churches, the police, schools and governments during the height of the “moral panic” in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The article also investigates the effect that the shared experience of being targeted by a “moral panic” had on the formation of a role-playing counter culture and community.

  • Nexus, J. (eds). 2014. Dungeons and Dragons Controversies

    At various times in its history, Dungeons & Dragons has received negative publicity, in particular from some Christian groups, for alleged promotion of such practices as devil worship, witchcraft, suicide, and murder, and for naked breasts in drawings of female humanoids in the original AD&D manuals (mainly monsters such as Harpies, Succubi, etc.). These controversies led TSR to remove many potentially controversial references and artwork when releasing the 2nd Edition of AD&D. Many of these references, including the use of the names "devils" and "demons", were reintroduced in the 3rd edition. The moral panic over the game also led to problems for fans of D&D who faced social ostracism, unfair treatment, and false association with the occult and Satanism, regardless of an individual fan's actual religious affiliation and beliefs.

At the end of the day, it's very hard to communicate the idea of what a role-playing game is. Much of our experience stems from our joint traditions and folklore, rather than an extant and well communicated main-stream body of knowledge. Couple that with some of the dreadful illustrations of the early editions, up to the covers of the books

Presents some obvious and correct pattern matching behavour. Much of what was released had significant nods (at the very least) to the heavy metal movements and the moral panics from the various forms of new media and subsequent "police models of satanic crime" (Hicks 1991) show that this response formed part and parcel of a cultural counter-revolution pushing back at the media messages of those "evil" years.

This imagery, combined with poor communication practices and media depictions of schizophrenic episodes where people involved really did believe this stuff (Mazes and Monsters, 1982) neatly fulfilled all of the "parental concern" content filters.

Once a noramtive base was established, publications like the Chick Tracts "Dark Dungeons" (1984) came into being. The close publication dates of dark dungeons and Mazes and Monsters provide an interesting look into the social concerns of the 1980's.

To address the specific concern of the querent, that: "serves to introduce people to occultism/satanism," seems quite plausible from the perspective of the source of the statement. Many of the terms used in, especially fantasy, RPGs, are derived from mythology or research into various "outre" sources (up to and including Sir Frazer's Golden Bough.) These sources can certainly be classified as "pagan" and therefore the criticism of the occult, especially when the activity itself is not well understood by the criticizers, is completely understandable.

To solve your problem, look at the answers in this question: Best answer for people concerned about RPG activities being occult or dangerous? as there are quite a few ways of involving concerned adults to explain how these works of interactive fiction actually play.

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There have already been excellent answers to the question. Just to give you an idea how it went in other countries:

Here in Germany the role-playing game "Das Schwarze Auge" (literally: "The Black Eye") became extremely popular at about the same time D&D conquered the US and several other markets. The game however never made it far beyond the border as it is a very "German" game with lots of rules and regulations and a too complicated dice system, except for some (really great) computer games.

People here in Germany tend to be very conservative when it comes to new things, and especially behaving "differently" or acting out of the ordinary is considered suspicious. And then this game decided for these covers:

Box cover saying "Gods, Magicians and Sacred Worshipers"

Box cover saying "Gods, Magicians and Sacred Worshipers"

Book of spells (left) and book of magic rituals and guides on demon summoning (right)

Book of spells (left) and book of magic rituals and guides on demon summoning (right)

As you can imagine, people who had not heard about this new thing, but saw the box thought the worst things about those who bought it. Although Germany is very liberate when it comes to religion, young children walking around with guides on demon summoning was too much. In those days we had a lot of trouble and difficulties to explain what we were doing and why and were either considered to be freaks or crazy or both.

We had a weekly meeting in a catholic youth center that had been offered by the local church for teenagers as a meeting place, but they never really accepted what we did there and considered role-playing games to be evil. The threw us out at least two times and only lots of diplomacy made them change their minds for some time, till they eventually shut down the whole thing for good.

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Involving both religion and religius people, this answer needs to start with some insight on Christian beliefs. According to Christianity, God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and angels including fallen angels such as Lucifer and other devils who followed him are not just a myth. They are real entities, often with personal agendas. The devil, particularly, is depicted as the one who tries to induct people into temptation.

In such a world, where saints perform miracles and people return from their graves, is possessed by demons or freed from their influence, it's not hard to understand why some people believe a thing called black magic exists, which is an inherently bad thing people perform to gain some power because they were tempted into using it.

Since black magic exists, some people believe it to be very dangerous when anything in society (be it a roleplaying game or a fantasy book) puts magic into display, often depicting it as desirable (whether it's desirable because it has no consequences on your soul, which they believe can't be true for real life magic, or because it gives you power, being as dark as real life magic even in the game).

One of such people I'm familiar with is William Schnoebelen.

I'm going to quote some of his most easily understandable sentences - nothing about the "authors asked me about magic rituals since I once dabbled in black magic and they wanted to be realistic. What if these people do the realistic ritual and actually summon a demon?", I promise.

  • It is a game that engages the whole person at deep levels, and it can last months if well-played. How can a person, Christian or not, immerse themselves in a reality view so deeply and not have it impact the rest of their lives?
  • This is not just chess, football or bridge. This is a game that envelops the player in an entirely different fantasy world in which the power of magic and violence is pervasive. It is a game with a distinct and seductive spiritual worldview that is diametrically opposed to the Bible.
  • However, you need to realize that quite often, players will pick an alignment that is more evil or chaotic because it is more "intriguing." This is much the same as why many talented actors would rather play villains.
  • So, does it matter to God what happens in our minds? Jesus said that "whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart." the Old Testament prophets frequently charged Israel with "evil imaginations."

You can read the posts these are from here, here and here

Jack T. Chick depicts RPG sessions as places where satanists play completely regular games, with no magic involved at all, just to decide if the players are psychologically ready to do the same things (betraying, sacrificing others, ussing magic) for real.

Whether black magic exists for real is something we can't really know unless we try it and believe me, if it was real I wouldn't want to be the one who tried it out of curiosity or for worse reasons. These authors I linked say it is and they see anything that makes the idea of using magic more appealing to be dangerous. They also claim that they do know that D&D is just a game (therefore they're not afraid of it because they don't know it), but it's dangerous even being just a game, because of how immersion changes our mind.

Always keep in mind that while I talked a lot about black magic, these tracts also speak of violence and the danger of concocting situations where the winner is the one who can impose a decision with violence or some other type of prevarication, like it often happens in D&D and similar games.

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It is simple and has nothing to do with religion.

People is afraid about what they do not understand, and people with some degree of power (parents and teachers fit this definition) are afraid about what they do not control.

If you sum up those two effects, plus the inherent mindset of highly religious people, you obtain the result you presented.

Please note that the most important points are the non-religious ones. It happened the same on lots of places I know about (to people I know personally), in varying degrees from prohibition to worry and concern.

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-1 This not only doesn't answer the question, it's borderline insulting. It says that people had no reason for something that a lot of people did, and provides no factual basis to back that claim up. –  Tridus May 15 at 13:38
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Citation needed. Please try to find direct evidence for this particular phenominon or studies of ideological censorship due to ignorance. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton May 15 at 13:42
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Any answer that doesn't address the history of Christianity and RPGs - Jack Chick's Dark Dungeons, the demon/devil->tanaari/baatezu shift and other milestones in the history of the hobby is, I feel, extremely incomplete. Christian organizations have given explicit reasons for their disapproval, and they should be mentioned in a good answer. –  lisardggY May 15 at 13:47
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Please do not argue in comments. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton May 15 at 13:51
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Because it is terribly incomplete. It's a shade better than just saying "because some people are stupid and do bad things," and could be used to explain anything. It conveys no specific helpful information on why roleplaying specifically is targeted, where that idea comes from, etc. It's like answering "How did Gary Gygax develop D&D" with "he was a wargamer and wanted the little men to act up more, PEACE OUT!" –  mxyzplk May 15 at 14:58

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