GAMES THAT KILL!!!!!
There are plenty of games out there that kill people. Those of you who read my my recent blog post on “The Future of Gaming” or who caught my article “Proud to Be a Roleplaying Gamer,” in connection with Speak Out With Your Geek Out last year, know which games those are: games like football, hockey, boxing, and ... good gosh ... even competitive cheerleading. If you aren’t killed, maimed, or paralyzed during the actual playing time of the sport, itself, where an ambulance stands at the ready due to the looming spectre of physical disaster, there are always the risks associated with brain damage from repeated blows to the head, the possibility of suicide out of disappointment in not making the pros or the team, or even some whacked-out mother that will murder you for taking a spot her child deserved. Funny, though, that roleplaying games are the ones that always seem to get the attention of the media—always ready to frighten the citizenry with yet one more danger to terrify the masses and propel the reporters to increased ratings. Heck, there was ... maybe still is ... an organization dedicated to warning the world about the dangers of roleplaying games: BADD (Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons). You may be smiling as you read this, but ask any gaming dinosaur you know about the early days of their gaming and you will hear stories about people proselytizing to them because they are worried gamers are Satanic for playing “that game” or how when they talked about their roleplaying game experiences, people would say: “Isn’t that the game where that kid got killed playing in the steam tunnels?” Yes, people actually asked that all the time, all based on some publicity about James Dallas Egbert III, a Michigan State University student, who was feared to have died in the steam tunnels playing Dungeons & Dragons. An actual story, except for the fact that James Dallas Egbert III wasn’t playing D&D in the steam tunnels, he didn’t die in the steam tunnels, he wasn’t dead at the time of the stories (he died years later), his problems were related to drugs and issues with his parents over being a child prodigy, and he was a seriously messed-up kid who got further messed with by people who had nothing to do with gaming. If you want to get the all the details, I recommend reading The Dungeon Master, by William Dear, the detective brought in to find the kid—I’ve reviewed it on Amazon. There you can read all about why some people mistakenly thought they had played with James Dallas Egbert III at GenCon after he went missing, but actually hadn’t, how he led the detective on a merry chase, and how he later committed suicide in his own living room. A similar reporting debacle almost broke out after the Columbine massacre in Colorado, where very preliminary reports about the shooters identified them as being into gaming. Since I had lived in Colorado for a few years before the shootings (though I was actually back in Chicago when they occurred) and was a prominent gamer, I actually got a phone call, from a reporter at The Washington Post as I recollect, asking me if I could confirm that the shooters were roleplaying gamers. Their names meant nothing to me, but having been involved in BenCon, a charity gaming convention, and knowing people involved with the DGA, which puts on Ghengis Con in Denver, I was able to quickly connect the reporter with someone who had the attendance records for every Denver gaming convention for the previous decade and was able to authoritatively confirm that these murderous jerks had never attended a Denver gaming convention and were not known as gamers in local circles. The alleged gaming connection to the story faded away and I’m happy it did and hope I helped that happen, but even if the killers had been gamers, there would have been nothing inherent in gaming to make them so. No, aside from a sedentary life-style, accompanied by copious amounts of sugar, caffeine, and salty-crunchies, which can result in weight-gain, roleplaying games, card games (aside from poker played for real money), and board games don’t generally lead to violence or injury. I got bit by a seeing-eye dog while playing a board game at a convention once (I suspect someone accidentally stepped on or put a chair leg down on the dog’s foot under the table) and a few angry expletives have been flung into the air during a closely fought match of gaming wits, but nothing really to excite the press. My gaming life has been pretty dull, real-life danger wise ... except for one dark wintry evening in 1981. I got a Dark Tower board game for Christmas in 1981 and quickly became addicted to it, as did my wife, Linda, and my brother, Rich. We played it for hours on end over Christmas at my aunt’s place in Ohio, then back in Naperville, Illinois in the cold, dark weeks following—one of the coldest winters the greater Chicagoland area has ever known (since the Little Ice Age, anyhow). Though primitive by today’s standards, Dark Tower was a cool concept—a simple trek on the board through four kingdoms searching for keys to assault the dark tower and battling brigands (or boogens as we came to call them) and finding treasure and slaying dragons and magically cursing other players, all controlled by a tower which turned to face the player whose turn it was and accepted secret inputs of his actions and displayed via spinning a plastic cylinder of pictures and displaying a two digit LED screen the results of his/her actions, accompanied by musical cues and sound effects. (Check it out on google or ebay—they go for upwards of $300 these days.) Linda, Rich, and I were playing Dark Tower, along with Linda’s sister, Sue, into the wee hours of the morning one weekend in January 1982—game after game after game. The tower trumpeted “Ta-dah, Ta-dah” and the cylinder of pictures spun and spun until finally, at the darkest, most frigid hour, the two D batteries began to falter. The “Ta-dahs” decreased in speed in pitch. The whir of the motor slowed to a tedious growl. We had played the game to total battery discharge, but still we wanted more. We searched the junk drawer, the refrigerator, and various other electrical devices, but no fresh D batteries were to be found. That’s when Rich and Linda decided they would walk to the local White Hen, six or so blocks away—the only store remotely likely to be open at that time of night—to buy some fresh D batteries and save our gaming. I don’t remember why we couldn’t take the car—maybe the snow was too high and the driveway not yet cleared. The only way to get batteries was to walk through the snow in the black early a.m. in temperatures in the negative teens or worse (yes, Fahrenheit) before wind-chill, in a whipping breeze and pray that the store would be open, that the store would have D batteries, and that no one would die of exposure or frostbite on the way there or on the way back. I, of course, did not go. I have a strong sense of survival, a fair amount of common sense, a history of frostbite from a young age, and a phobia about hypothermia. (Sue, a less rabid gamer than the rest of us, also declined.) But Rich and Linda decided to make the trek. And I, I am sorry to admit, was willing to let them go ... to let them risk life and limb (yes, actually “limb” is correct in this frostbitingly frigid context) ... for my gaming satisfaction. According to Rich, it hurt his lungs to suck in breath as they ran down the middle of the deserted streets to White Hen on the quest for batteries. Though this incident was, in some ways the inspiration behind my story “The Quest” in Fellowship Fantastic, later republished as part of my Writer on Demand series volume Tales of Gamers and Gaming, the rest of this non-fiction tale is, to my relief, anti-climactic (and, well, anti-climatic, too). Rich and Linda survived the trek and lived to game another day. This past Christmas, I pulled out the Dark Tower game, which had ceased working some years back, and fixed it up to work again (vinegar is great for cleaning the residue of leaked alkaline batteries, by the way) and we are playing Dark Tower once again. But if that dark, cold night had gone darker and colder, if Rich and Linda had fallen into the drifts of snow, their lungs frozen solid, their outstretched arms clutching at the locked doors of a closed White Hen Pantry Convenience Mart, well, that would be the only incident I can think of that could support the notion that games (as opposed to sports) can kill a gamer out of sheer fanaticism. So the next time you want to feel safe and secure and happy—play a game. Better yet, keep extra batteries in the house when you do so. Ta-dah, Ta-dah. Time to go kill some boogens. Dark Tower, a game that kills.