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.