“Dissertation Notes” is the oh-so-clever name of my regular segment briefly highlighting the interesting, unusual, or thought-provoking materials I have come across while working on my dissertation. Aimed at a broad audience that includes media scholars, general interest readers, and gamers looking to know more about their hobby/obsession, I intend to demonstrate through a variety of sources the complex history of video games in America and their complicated, at times hotly-contested, relationship with larger debates over leisure, technology, and mass culture.
In the weeks following the tragic school shooting in Newtown, CT, there have been renewed debates over the relationship between media violence, particularly as it is depicted in video games, and real-world acts of violence. However, the moral panic over allegedly violent media has a long history, fervor over which seems to periodically billowing up and recede like the tides. During the 1980s, there was a pervasive fear among a small but vocal collection of moral activists that there was a war going on for the minds and souls of children and teenagers more fierce than the Cold War. Media groups such as the National Coalition on Television Violence and the Parents’ Music Resource Council led campaigns against the perceived negative influence of media, tying the consumption of popular media such as television and rock music with delinquency and violent crime. In many respects, the campaign against violent video games in the early 1990s that led to the creation of the ESRB had its ideological origins in these earlier crusades.
One such media activist was Patricia Pulling. On, June 9, 1982, Pulling and her husband returned to their Montpelier, VA, home to find their son Irving, Jr., (Bink) dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. In the aftermath, the grief-stricken Pulling searched for an explanation, settling on Bink’s frequent play of the fantasy roleplaying game Dungeons and Dragons as the cause for his suicide. She connected D&D gameplay with an interest in the occult, arguing Bink committed suicide after a fellow player placed a “death curse” on him during a session. Thus began Pulling’s campaign to thwart the powers of darkness and spare other parents the tragedy she endured.
After an unsuccessful lawsuit against Bink’s high school, Pulling founded “Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons.” BADD distributed pamphlets and engaged in letter-writing campaigns to warn parents, teachers, and law enforcement officials of the insidious influence of the occult on teenagers. BADD also partnered with NCTV to petition the Federal Trade Commission to require D&D producer TSR to print warning labels on all their RPG materials, warning parents of their possible corrupting influences. Along the way she became a licensed private investigator and a self-styled “expert” on the occult and appeared on talk shows and at several criminal trials as an expert witness on “cult crimes.”
In 1989, Pulling teamed up with freelance writer Kathy Cawthon to compose her manifesto against D&D and the occult. The provocatively-titled “The Devil’s Web: Who is Stalking Your Children for Satan?” enumerated upon a vast Satanic conspiracy hell-bent on destroying traditional family values and luring impressionable teens into a world of sex, delinquency, violence, and death. Pulling held this conspiracy responsible for a litany of murders, both solved and unsolved, as well as such acts as graffiti and cattle mutilation (if you are having trouble visualizing the thought process, check out Jack Chick’s 1984 comic “Dark Dungeons“). Dungeons & Dragons and other “occult” media such as heavy metal music, according to Pulling, were just the first step on a dark road that led to violent crime:
“The child who is obsessed with occult entertainment may stop there, but he often moves on to satanic graffiti and cemetery vandalism. From that point, he easily moves on to grave robbing for items needed for occult rituals, and he is just a step away from blood-letting. Blood-letting begins with animal killings and mutilations and progresses to murder if intervention does not take place” (Pulling 41-2)
Despite her apocalyptic rhetoric, Pulling’s observations were largely based on conjecture, the testimonies of confessed murderers, and an extremely literal reading of D&D materials (for example, she interpreted the role of the Dungeon Master as a driving force of a campaign and arbiter of the game’s rules to mean something akin to a cult leader who forced players to sacrifice their free will). The Devil’s Web prompted science fiction author Michael Stackpole to publish “The Pulling Report” in 1990, in which he refuted many of Pulling’s claims and called her alleged credentials into question.
There is so much to extrapolate from The Devil’s Web, more than I can do justice for in a brief blog post. Her work reveals some of those anxieties over the role of mass media on teenagers and how some groups during the 1980s responded to what they perceived as a threat to the family unit and “traditional” moral values. In their crusade against Satan, Pulling and her followers were at the extreme end, but there were others who took on similar campaigns as well. I will be sure to elaborate on several more of them in the future.