A Look At The Disappearance Of A Dungeons & Dragons Prodigy

Dungeons & Dragons,” the popular tabletop role-playing game, has attracted its share of controversy in its five decades of existence. This was particularly true during the early-to-mid-1980s when the game was at the forefront of the so-called “Satanic Panic.” During this era, BBC News reports that crusading moralists were concerned about America’s youth being led down the path of devil worship, drugs, and even suicide and murder, due to the game’s nefarious influence (along with other cultural factors, like heavy-metal music).

More often than not, moral panics are based more on hysteria and confusion rather than fact, and are often reinforced by the media, according to Psychology Today. Unfortunately for “Dungeons & Dragons,” however, the late 1970s disappearance of a man known to play “D&D” propelled the game to national prominence (and not in a good way). That story — the disappearance of “D&D” prodigy James Dallas Egbert III  — forever tainted the legacy of the popular game.

James Egbert disappeared on August 15, 1979

In the late 1970s, a group of students at Michigan State University regularly gathered to play “Dungeons & Dragons,” which had just been invented a few years earlier. One of those players was James Dallas Egbert III, a 16-year-old college student considered a child prodigy for his technology and computer science skills. Though gifted, Egbert was also troubled, and, according to The Saturday Evening Post, left a suicide note before slipping out of his his dorm room the evening of August 15, 1979. In an instant, Egbert became a missing person.

Egbert’s family hired a private investigator, William Dear, to find their son. Dear, who later wrote the book “The Dungeon Master: The Disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III,” didn’t fully understand the game, and he publicly suggested that there was a connection between Egbert’s disappearance and his misunderstood hobby, according to the book “Shared Fantasy: Role Playing Games as Social Worlds.” Dear’s equating of the game with the teen’s disappearance was widely reported in the media at the time.

As it turned out, however, Egbert was very much alive, having merely gone to a friend’s house to hide out for a while. He would turn up again here and there over the next few years, before finally taking his own life on August 16, 1980.

Dungeons & Dragons likely had little to do with Egbert's disappearance and death

At the time, the narrative of a teenager who played “Dungeons & Dragons before disappearing made for exciting headlines. It was especially compelling given that the public’s understanding of the game at the time was based largely on rumor and hearsay, and amplified by the concerns of those keen to see the game disappear.

As it would later turn out, however, James Egbert was suffering from a laundry list of personal problems that could have informed his behavior and suicidal actions, very few of which had anything to do with “D&D.” The pressure of being a child prodigy, for example, may have been too much for the teenager to bear, and, indeed, Egbert attempted suicide before and after his disappearance, before successfully taking his life years later. Further, according to The Saturday Evening Post, Egbert was also a drug abuser and was known to be internally conflicted about his sexual identity.

As for “Dungeons & Dragons,” misconceptions about the game continued well into the 1990s, when the FBI even investigated a number of “Dungeons & Dragons” players as part of an investigation into domestic terrorism, reports Vice. Today, the game is more maligned as a nerdy pastime rather than a tool of the devil. Unfair as that is, at least the lack of sensationalism may prevent a similar moral panic in the future.    

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ at​ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

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