D&D Banned in Wisconsin Prisons

A lot of folks have posted outraged and concerned commentaries on a recent 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that upholds a ban against Dungeons & Dragons in the Wisconsin prison system. Many folks, in writing those commentaries, have referenced me and my work defending gaming against all manner of kookiness. I’m honored and flattered that folks remember the things I did two decades ago (yeah, it really was that far back) to drive a stake through the heart of the opposition to gaming.

I do have some things to say about the ban, but I’d really like everyone to take a deep breath and get some perspective. At the same time that folks are getting concerned about a 3 judge Federal Court panel ruling on a prison issue, we have the government of Egypt shutting the Internet off. On a scale of one to Egypt, this D&D issue ranks about, I dunno, a .00217? While they both deal with censorship, the situations are grossly different. People are being killed in Egypt because of the events there; and I’m pretty sure no one has died because of D&D in a prison situation.

Gaming in prison systems has been a tricky proposition for years. Even back when I worked for Flying Buffalo, thirty years ago, some prison systems banned gaming. The reasons have generally broken down into two classes. First, many games require dice, which are gambling implements. Prisons regularly ban them for rather obvious reasons. Second, and the point on which the court ruling hinges, is that prisons ban anything they deem capable of giving one prisoner power over another.

I know, I know, you’re thinking, “Back the truck up here, Loretta. Power over someone else?” Gaming as we know it isn’t that sort of power play—but there isn’t a single one of us that won’t admit to seeing a GM play favorites or, perhaps, doing something for the GM to curry some favor. In most cases you bring soda the GM likes to a game, or you side with his choice on pizza topping. Usually you just do stuff that you know will keep him amused, since that can keep characters alive. GMs all learn how to play their players and vice versa. It is a fact of gaming.

Gaming doesn’t equate, as the State of Wisconsin suggests, to gang activity. Even so, we can’t deny that gaming can foster legitimate security concerns. For example, how often have you and a gamer friend been out, see some hot woman, and comment on how high her Charisma must be? Or when you get out of a tight spot, you chirp, “Made my save there.” We’ve all done it, and for some folks, it’s pure reflex and all but constant.

Heck, I recall one time being on a road trip in the old Flying Buffalo van. It was the middle of the night and a pal I played Champions with was driving. I was in the navigator seat and my boss, Rick Loomis, was in the back of the van sleeping. The driver and I started to discuss the current game, and we just slipped into character. So there, in the dark, we were talking in character, making all sorts of insider references to lives that were make-believe. It was great fun, and kept both of us awake until dawn.

About two weeks later, Rick pulled me aside at work. “You guys were just talking a game, right?” He’d woken up in the middle of the night, heard us, wasn’t sure it was us, then went back to sleep.

I assured him we were. Now Rick, being a gamer, was just curious. But if you’re a guard or a warden, you’ve suddenly discovered two wild cards talking crazy, and that kind of thing does not bode well for security. So, secret languages, incomprehensible references, inside jokes; games that might include episodes which are cathartic releases for real life frustrations (like none of us have ever done that, either) all add up to what prison officials can see as a) gang-style activity and b) threats to discipline and security.

Let’s also be very straight about what we’re addressing here. A man’s right to free speech is quite often curtailed in a prison situation. I’m willing to bet that there’s not a single prison library that stocks a copy of The Anarchist’s Cookbook. We accept that type of limitation because, to our untrained eyes, it’s a rather obvious threat to security. Prison officials, who have a boatload more experience at dealing with prisoners than most of us do, might have a legitimate concern with things like D&D. I’d be terribly interested in seeing what else has been banned using that same rationale.

Lastly, let me pass on something I learned back when I was in the thick of things with gaming and its critics. Robert Hicks, a law enforcement analyst for the state of Virginia, noted that many police forces require their personnel to take classes to amass points which can help them stay current and even advance in their careers—much the same way doctors and teachers require continued education to maintain their accreditation. He said that every police force has what he referred to as “fringe cops.” These are the guys who seek out seminars on the weirdest stuff, from motorcycle gangs to Chinese Triads and, back then, Satanism. And, as we found out, some of the speakers at these seminars—like Pat Pulling—have a grasp on reality someone more tenuous than that of the 7th Circuit judges. They go to seminars, they listen to speakers telling them very earnestly of the threat to their community; and then in any subsequent instance of weirdness, they spot the things for which they are the reigning expert.

Like as not, the state of Wisconsin has a couple of fringers who linked gangs to games and started this ball rolling.

So, what can we as a gaming community do about this ruling?

We can do two things.

First, about this particular case, just don’t worry about it. While the “facts” of the case are dubious, security is a legitimate concern. Personally, I’d much rather a gamer in prison have to suffer without games for the term of his incarceration, than I’d like to have to deal with someone getting knifed in prison in a dispute over a game. I’ve dealt with the idiocy surrounding games and vacuous claims of causality of violence for too long to want to see gaming blamed for a prison riot. (Hey, if they can try to blame Columbine and the recent Tucson shootings on gaming, they can do it with a riot.)

Second, keep your eyes open. If you hear of any case where this ruling is being used to justify restrictions outside of a prison setting, let me know. That sort of claim is something we can do something about. I can be reached through the Game Manufacturers Association at the GAMA.org website. I’ve spent over two decades dealing with this kind of nonsense, and am more than happy to go to battle one more time for gaming.

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9 Responses to “D&D Banned in Wisconsin Prisons”

  1. Michael,

    Fantastic article. Keeping perspective is very important!

    Thank you for all your hard work through the years, it’s always appreciated.


  2. Hello again from the game defense people over at the Committee for the Advancement of Role-Playing Games (CAR-PGa)! A few points I would personally like to make:

    The ruling was about this time last year. Somehow the person who started off the most recent round of stories ran across it, noted the January 201X date, and misread it; now everyone from you to Fox News has gotten it wrong, although corrections are beginning to filter their way through the system. That doesn’t change the validity of any of your later points, of course.

    This is, indeed, a fairly minor evil compared to Egypt or a million other things. I’m sure that if I were in Egypt or some other situation where I could affect things by spending every spare moment doing something else, I would. But I’m not, and I’ve got a few spare moments, and there are so few people working on this problem that my contribution is important to the effort. I’d like to think that if I can teach someone to not be bigoted or afraid in the small things, they’ll be better people in the large ones as well, and I’d rather not wait to start on that project until after I’ve brought about World Peace and An End to Hunger and An End to Poverty and . . . .

    There may be legitimate concerns about what a violent mind might do with gaming. However, I have yet to hear any such claims or see any studies supporting such concerns; prisons and courts have always gone for the arguments that claim that gaming is dangerous for much sillier reasons, and “RPGs can be presumed to lead to gang activity, &c.” is now a legal fact in three states. Admittedly, it is primarily precedent with regards to prisons, but having to argue that distinction will make any future cases outside of prisons that much more difficult; these are not completely separate legal issues.

    (Sidenote: The most amusing argument I’ve been given by a state prison official as to why RPGs were banned in their prison was that the state prison system banned all forms of spellcasting, even if it was just being done by a character in a game. I don’t know what they thought of fantasy literature, but given that Wisconsin was arguing in part that prisoners have escapist fantasies are a problem, I could easily see them tossing out all escapist literature.)

    You mentioned the Tucson shooting being blamed on gaming. Can you provide a source on that? The most recent shooting I know of being blamed on gaming was the University of Alabama-Huntsville shooting. If there’s been another attack on gaming, CAR-PGa would like the information for its records and to know who to contact with our concerned comments about their problematic journalism (or whatever the case is).

    Also, is GAMA itself willing to respond to attacks again, or are they still in one of their “ignore it and pretend it doesn’t affect us” phases? There’s an old anecdote about the time they tried to claim that all attacks had ended, only to have five retailers in their audience immediately say that they were still getting harassed by the authorities.

    Speaking of police harassing people, I ought to stop arguing with you and get back to work; Don Rimer gave of those “police training seminars” recently in Newport News. (And not for the first time; he’s actually cited in Robert Hicks’ 1989 speech “Satanic Cults: A Skeptical View of the Law Enforcement Approach.”) More than 100 of your “fringe” cops from nearby departments showed up. I’ve gotten the paper that covered his presentation–the same one as cited in Hicks’ notes–to issue a “we did not mean to paint all members of these groups with a broad brush &c.” but still have to talk to the police department to see if we can get them to stop sponsoring him before we end up with another Stephanie Crowe case and another innocent gamer ends up on trial for their life.

  3. I don’t know why you’re under the impression that GAMA does not address these issues any more. We do. I’m the guy who does it. Our response always has been based on people who reach out to us, and we address strategies that enable stores and manufacturers to continue in business, servicing the hobby.

    Vis a vis the Tucson shooting, a news story in the Wall Street Journal indicated that the shooter had played an online rpg and had contributed to the discussion forums. That article was widely quoted across media.

    Somewhere along the line CAR-PGa, from my perspective, seems to have developed the idea that GAMA is hostile toward their efforts. Far from it. I recall very well working with Paul Cardwell, exchanging information, especially during the turbulent time at the start of the 1990s.

  4. [Sorry for the late reply; after a few days I got distracted by other issues and completely forgot about manually checking for your reply until I was filing old correspondence, and there’s no option for subscribing to replies by e-mail. –Alan]

    I apologize for being snarky in my last comment. By way of explanation, let me say that I was feeling rather frustrated by having to deal with Don Rimer and the Daily Press replaying their ’80s act as if all of our game defense work had never been done and then following that up with re-fighting the issues surrounding the Wisconsin case all over again. Obviously you know what work you’ve been up to better than I do. As for why I personally held a negative impression of GAMA:

    Firstly, I am given to understand by those who have been doing this longer than I have that GAMA and the industry have not always been entirely supportive of game defense efforts. For example, the anecdote I mentioned has been told multiple times by Paul Cardwell and dates to 1992. (Details and link available upon request, but I don’t see the point in repeating it now.) To be fair, I shouldn’t have relied on data from the early ’90s in forming my opinion of your work in the early ’10s.

    Secondly, in the more than a decade that I have been doing work for CAR-PGa, almost that entire time as a Regional Director, I cannot recall ever being given information about an attack by GAMA so that we could help in the defense, nor can I recall anyone reporting having seen evidence of GAMA engaging in defense work regarding an attack that we were also aware of. Again, to be fair, we haven’t been passing on information to you, either, and our work doesn’t always leave traces; nor do I have a perfect memory.

    Thirdly, and perhaps most to the point, GAMA does not have a single reference to game defense on the HTML portion of its website; all references to game defense work are in PDFs of years-old meeting minutes and annual reports, often with nothing to report. There has been no reference at all to the Industry Watch committee since 2007. The word “defense” does not appear anywhere on the entire site except once in an unrelated section of the bylaws, and the word “attack” is equally not in evidence. The website does not state that anyone can be contacted on the issue; you are only mentioned as a Emeritus member of the Board, with no reference to any work you might be actively undertaking, and in the aforementioned years-old minutes and reports. Even the Games in Education work is nowhere to be found. Under those circumstances, you will have to forgive me for thinking that GAMA no longer does anything on the issue and no-one would know how to report a problem if they were.

    While we’re talking about the issue, let’s do something to improve it. I think that we should discuss ways of improving our cooperation in the future. We should share information more–thank you for the Tucson data, by the way–and joint defense efforts by both a representative of public businesses and a representative of private citizens are likely to be much more effective than efforts by either one alone. You can contact me directly or any of our officers through our website or our Google Groups e-mail list, or I can write you via your GAMA address if you prefer.

  5. I was a volunteer Chaplains helper with my state for over thirteen years, I know every state is different but all Prisons have the responsibility to maintain security. I have seen gangs formed over the most innocent of things like gardening projects. Please understand the staff is not doing this to be mean or cruel they are trying to do a difficult and often thankless task. I have seen even chapel services go nuts and had to be broke up by force. As to gaming in prison I believe there are ways to do it without putting the prison at risk but i also know that it will take a lot of politicking and volunteers to make it happen.

  6. This goes back to the entire struggle now going on in WI in my opinion. Governor Walker (while in this case no doubt taking advantage of a preexisting case) is leading WI as rapidly as he can into a new reality that more closely resembles old McCarthyism than any other political form. My hobby is suffering because of that – at least for prisoners; but so too are my politics, my belief in the right of Americans to be middle class, and my faith in humanity.


  7. @Forest Ray: I agree that pretty much any social gathering in a prison can be a source of agitation and violence. However, we obviously don’t hold all prisoners in solitary confinement just because anything else /could/ lead to violence. Additionally, the court was given testimony by a variety of long-term prisoners who said that, in their collective experience, RPGs had never done so. In my opinion, if the prison system wanted to allow multiplayer games only on the condition that a prison employee supervised or moderated, that would be acceptable and has been done elsewhere in the U.S. However, to ban RPGs outright on the grounds that one administrator has decided that they might someday be a threat, despite all evidence and experience thus far being to the contrary, seems both (a) unfair, and (b) a violation of the legal precept that the prisoners’ constitutional right to free speech can only be restricted to the least extent necessary to satisfy the state’s interests in security.

    @Reynolds Jones: The court ruling came down in January 2010, long before the election, and the ban goes back to November 2004. It is part of a trend dating back well into the ’90s in state prisons and into the ’80s in law enforcement. Against a quarter-century of relevant historical backdrop, and with the case ending long before his election, I fail to see what Governor Walker has to do with any of this.


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