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Dangerous Games

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

Joseph P. Laycock (Author)


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The 1980s saw the peak of a moral panic over fantasy role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons. A coalition of moral entrepreneurs that included representatives from the Christian Right, the field of psychology, and law enforcement claimed that these games were not only psychologically dangerous but an occult religion masquerading as a game. Dangerous Games explores both the history and the sociological significance of this panic.

Fantasy role-playing games do share several functions in common with religion. However, religion—as a socially constructed world of shared meaning—can also be compared to a fantasy role-playing game. In fact, the claims of the moral entrepreneurs, in which they presented themselves as heroes battling a dark conspiracy, often resembled the very games of imagination they condemned as evil. By attacking the imagination, they preserved the taken-for-granted status of their own socially constructed reality. Interpreted in this way, the panic over fantasy-role playing games yields new insights about how humans play and together construct and maintain meaningful worlds.

Laycock’s clear and accessible writing ensures that Dangerous Games will be required reading for those with an interest in religion, popular culture, and social behavior, both in the classroom and beyond.
Preface. “You Worship Gods from Books!”

Introduction. Fantasy and Reality

1. The Birth of Fantasy Role-Playing Games
2. Dungeons & Dragons as Religious Phenomenon
3. Pathways into Madness: 1979–1982
4. Satanic Panic: 1982–1991
5. A World of Darkness: 1991–2001

6. How Role-Playing Games Create Meaning
7. How the Imagination Became Dangerous
8. Rival Fantasies
Conclusion. Walking between Worlds

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.
"Dangerous Games presents a detailed and multi-layered history of the social realities surrounding Role Playing Games (RPGs), analyzing a complex legacy of cultural and religious epistemologies, in order to argue that the corresponding moral panic over such games is itself a form of dangerous corrupted play. ... Overall, Dangerous Games is an important read for students and scholars of contemporary history, religion, popular culture, and mythology."—Nova Religio
"Joseph P. Laycock's book delves into the minds of both avid gamers and evangelical Christians and returns with surprising and unsettling conclusions. Gaming, Laycock shows, teaches social and psychological strategies to resist cultural authority and to view reality from radically new perspectives. This book affirms the transformational power that motivates this increasingly popular activity, and thus it is essential reading for scholars of both contemporary popular culture and American religions."—Bill Ellis, Professor Emeritus, English and American Studies, Pennsylvania State University

“Laycock’s book brings a robust, theoretically informed eye to a topic that has been understudied by sociologists. His case is presented in such a way that other scholars could apply his method and understanding of moral panic to other aspects of popular culture. This is a crucial aspect of scholarship. Laycock writes engagingly, tells a deft story, and advances our understanding.”—Doug Cowan, Professor of Religious Studies and Social Development Studies, Renison University College

“Laycock provides an in-depth, theoretically informed analysis of fantasy role-playing games that will both help scholars interpretively and further allow instructors to provide students with a more sophisticated view of their culture. This book more broadly examines the social construction of reality, particularly religion. Laycock's approach makes a much-needed contribution to the understanding of the human need and capacity for creating and inhabiting multiple realities. A truly novel interpretation.”—David G. Bromley, Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the World Religions and Spirituality Project, Virginia Commonwealth University

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