Question: What Do D&D Enthusiasts and the Aryan Brotherhood have in Common?
Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is one of the go-to stereotypes of uber-nerddom, along with mouth breathing, a lack of social skills and glasses thick enough to repel lasers. The image of geeky groups of pimply, reclusive geniuses sitting at home on a Saturday with manuals detailing the adventures of trolls and knights pervades pop culture. Referenced in everything from Weird Al Yankovic’s “White and Nerdy” to episodes of “The Simpsons” and “That ’70s Show,” D&D is an instantly recognizable symbol of geekdom and the underdog.
If you’ve never played Dungeons and Dragons (or are too embarrassed to admit that you have), here’s a brief overview. The role-playing game, first published in 1974, allows players to control a character in a chimerical world. These avatars, often wizards or warriors, are created by players—each player picks his or her character’s skills, species and ethical persuasion. The course one’s character takes depends on skill and the roll of the dice during adventures (basic storylines for the games). These can be either pre-published or made up by the players themselves.
The appeal of the game lies in its atmosphere of creativity and escapism. It is this quality that, according to an article in The New York Times, has led a panel of judges from the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals to deny the claims of a Wisconsin prisoner and D&D enthusiast, Kevin Singer. Singer claims that Waupan Correctional Institution violated his First Amendment and 14th Amendment rights to free speech and due process when prison officials banned the game and confiscated his gaming materials. While it may be difficult to imagine the stereotypical D&D enthusiast engaging in intimidating gang activities, the prison claims that playing D&D could encourage escape fantasies, hostility and gang-like behavior among prisoners. Presumably, D&D enthusiasts could form gangs like the Aryan Brotherhood or the Crips.
For me, this decision is troubling for a number of reasons. First of all, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence to support the claim that the game encourages subversive behavior—even the presiding judges acknowledge a lack of evidentiary support. The game itself doesn’t encourage shanking, organized crime or subversion any more than, say, Monopoly. It is a board game with a theme similar to that of “The Lord of the Rings,” and while it may be a vehicle of escapism, I highly doubt that it would encourage otherwise cooperative prisoners to cause problems. The ruling might be valid if there had there been evidentiary support of violent, D&D-related gangs or other negative effects from playing the game. But this does not seem to be the case.
Second, this raises concerns about censorship and freedoms of speech and media consumption. While we expect prison to be an environment of limited freedom, banning a board game is an unnecessary abuse of power. The idea of banning D&D to inhibit or reduce escape fantasies is disturbing, as it threatens to infringe on individuals’ rights to control their own thoughts. And based on this decision, how far can prison authorities go in banning books and other media? To use an example from a New York Times article, “The Count of Monte Cristo” will presumably be banned because the main character escapes from prison. Restricting prisoners’ access to certain media, which is not shown to incite violent or unruly behavior, is simply scary because it presumes to infringe so much on freedom of speech without evidential backing or reason. Until violent gangs wielding imaginary swords and 12-sided dice become prevalent in prisons, I remain unconvinced by this court’s decision.
Natalie is a freshman in Arts & Sciences. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.