REVIEW – Dangerous Games by Joseph P. Laycock

My first attempt at reading Dangerous Games – What the Moral Panic over Role-Playing Games Says about Play, Religion, and Imagined Worlds ended in ignominious defeat as I read the introduction and abandoned the book in disgust. Thankfully, this pain (like all pain) turned out to be transitory as the book improves once you get past the introduction.

The book’s analysis comprises three broad moves: The first is to provide a potted history of RPGs and explain how roleplaying games wound up getting sucked into the 1980s Satanic Panic. Having laid out a lot of the facts regarding the conflict and provided a bit of historical context, Laycock attempts to account for this conflict in terms of a territorial dispute between two sets of institutions with broadly similar cultural functions. The book’s remaining moves are all about unpacking and supporting that highly counter-intuitive piece of historical framing as the second move involves establishing that playing RPGs is a form of religious practice while the third move involves arguing that being a right-wing fundamentalist Christian culture warrior is a bit like playing an RPG.

I did not abandon Dangerous Games because it was poorly written. For the most part, Laycock writes in an admirably clear manner and moves quite smoothly from an in-depth coverage of the historical record to spirited engagement with a range of quite complex philosophical issues without ever missing a beat. This book may have been published by an academic press but it is eminently accessible to a lay audience.

My disgust was born neither of the writing nor of the subject matter but rather from the manner in which Laycock chooses to frame his investigation: Laycock wrote a book about the Culture Wars of the 1980s but positions himself as a sort of enlightened Centrist. He is a man who can compare a bunch of dishonest, deranged, and deeply bigoted reactionaries to a group of slightly introverted people playing board-games and conclude that they are both engaging in the same sort of activity. As Dril might have put it:

The wise assistant professor of Religious Studies at Texas State University bowed his head solemnly and spoke: “There’s actually zero difference between good & bad things: You imbecile. You fucking moron.”

Seeing as I don’t like wasting money (particularly on books that seem like they might be interesting), I decided to give this book a second try and I am very glad that I did as the introductory tone of detached centrism, moral equivalence, and black-eyed Christian apologetics is not borne out by the body of the text. I can understand why a man teaching Religious Studies at a Southern university might feel the need to present himself as someone who is above the fray and critical of both the religious right and their victims but if you look beyond the centrist posturing you’ll find a book that not only has a lot of interesting things to say about irony, play, escapism and religious attitudes towards truth but which is also absolutely scathing in its depiction of 1980s religious conservatism as a bunch of self-righteous LARPers.

First Movement: History

Dangerous Games opens with a not particularly exciting potted history of RPGs that starts with wargames and ends with the death of Gary Gygax only to resume the historical canter later in the book with a look at White Wolf and the World of Darkness.

Gamers might be tempted to skim over this section as it isn’t telling us anything we haven’t read in about fifteen other histories of D&D but the fact that Laycock works in Religious Studies means that he views the history of RPGs not so much in terms of products or people but rather in terms of communities that form around shared ideals and break off to form different communities with slightly different sets of values. Indeed, this book contains two quite simple historical perspectives that are almost worth the price of admission: The first is that Gygax saw himself as a war-gamer and repeatedly stated that he had no interest in the ‘roleplaying’ aspect of the hobby. The second is that the early 1990s saw a second generation of RPGs that completely severed the culture’s long-standing ties to war- and board-gaming by stressing the importance of setting, theme and character over the need for comprehensive encumbrance rules and a realistic critical hit table for use of a glaive-guisarme.

I have written before about the idea of RPGs changing because they drifted away from wargames and closer to genre fiction but it’s really interesting to see that cultural schism presented in terms of a generational shift. It certainly shines an interesting light on the idea that RPGs were created by Dave Arneson and that Gygax merely provided some rules for conflict resolution.

We then move on to the second half of the first move of Laycock’s argument; a history of the 1980s Satanic Panic, which is probably the section of the book that I enjoyed the most. As someone who has been engaging with RPGs since the 1990s, I was both aware of the original moral panic and the changes that were made to AD&D as a result of said panic but my knowledge of the period was shaped by two very obvious variables: Firstly, I have been playing RPGs since I was a teenager. Secondly, I absolutely loathe both Conservatism and Christianity. Put those two variables together and you have the recipe for a historical understanding that is mired in anger and feelings of victimhood anchored in my long-term interest in gaming as well as solidarity with the people whose lives are destroyed by right-wing  clout-chasing and panic-mongering. Laycock the Wise Centrist steps back from the moral coalface and provides a bit of cultural context which I could not do, but this is precisely why it’s worth occasionally seeking out books written by liberals.

The first piece of context is that the bones of the Satanic Panic were laid down during the Korean and Vietnam wars when Americans started to associate the Orient with mind-control. Contemporary psychologists might point out that a lot of what was viewed as the effects of ‘mind-control’ was actually trauma accrued during America’s mid-century imperial wars but people back then were less aware of trauma and men of that generation were less likely to ask for help and so it was probably easier to believe in insidious Foreign mind-control than it was to believe that someone could go off to war, spend several years murdering people in the name of the state, and return home a very different person.

According to Laycock, this belief in foreign mind-control was then ported across to alternative religions in the 1960s as older parents struggled to understand youthful rebellion, institutional decline and the failure to pass along their values. Again, it was easier to believe in sinister foreign influences than it was to believe that people were growing up different in the 1960s than they had in the 1940s. The existence of real-life cults like the Manson Family only served to embed the figure of the sinister, manipulative Svengali in American minds.

Laycock argues that the RPG –strand of the Satanic panic started with the disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III. Though a child prodigy, Egbert was a deeply disturbed individual who was struggling with a range of issues including depression, parental pressure and his own sexuality. At one point, Egbert wrote a suicide note and disappeared from his university dorm room. His first port-of-call is believed to have been the steam tunnels under the university where students would run live-action RPGs. Egbert had played RPGs and had attended one of these LARPs but was sent home on the mistaken assumption that his erratic behaviour was a sign of drug-use. When Egbert disappeared, his wealthy parents went to the media and hired a private investigator named William Dear who convinced himself that Egbert’s disappearance was tied to the game.

From a modern perspective, Dear was both an obvious grifter and an aspiring culture warrior but he presented himself as an anti-cult operative who hired himself out to parents who wanted their children abducted and de-programmed. Given both his professional experience and his desired professional trajectory, Dear viewed RPGs as another form of cult with the Dungeon Master standing in for the Manson-like Svengali figure. Aside from being a low-level private detective, Dear was also a media figure and he soon began appearing on daytime TV describing roleplaying as a cult-like structure where manipulative older men would lure impressionable children into fantasies that would leave them in a similar state to the gifted but vulnerable James Dallas Egbert III.

The interesting thing about Laycock’s discussion of the early stages of the panic is that these ideas about RPGs were already in the public domain before the Christian Right ever got hold of them. American moral panics tend to revolve around a similar recurring cast of archetypal folk devils and Dear’s creation of the Svengali-like Dungeon Master is all about forging a connection between RPGs and a pre-existing folk devil. Anyone who has paid attention to right-wing politics in the last forty years will notice the pattern and how the facts about different groups are always twisted to relate back to archetypal folk devils. This is how right-wing politics operates. This is what they do.

The fear-mongering surrounding RPGs stepped up a notch when a woman named Patricia Pulling lost a similarly troubled son and blamed it all on RPGs. The fact that Pulling’s son Bink had long been showing signs of emotional distress and was barely involved in his school’s RPG club was not allowed to register: Pulling took the work done by William Dear and built on it by connecting RPGs not just to fears of sinister cult-like Svengalis but also to a broader fear about Satanic conspiracies and child abuse that were gaining significant traction with the political right. Suddenly, Pulling was on every daytime TV programme in America and her paranoid fear-mongering was being amplified by right-wing platforms as well as the kind of centrist political figures and media platforms that are happy to amplify the talking points of the radical-right as long as it’s in the form of asking questions and wringing one’s hands and looking a bit sad.

This section of Dangerous Games is beautifully realised and thoroughly well-researched. My aversion to professional centrism having been overcome, it’s actually quite intriguing to read about this period through the lens of religious studies rather than in the context of a broader leftist critique of mainstream US media. Laycock is less interested in the political strategy that informed the use of the Satanic Panic than he is in the tactical question of how this specific moral panic was constructed, fuelled, and maintained. This is not the full picture, or even a percentage of the big picture but it is definitely interesting to read a more granular analysis of how each new culture war is derivative of the works that came before and how each new war draws on pre-existing tropes when selecting their next victim. This being said, the limitations of Laycock’s methods and ideology become apparent when you start wondering about why it was that the right decided to go after RPGs when they did. Laycock does have an answer but rather than an analysis rooted in material reality, his explanation is very abstract and is rooted in the idea that RPGs are a form of religious practice so close to those favoured by the religious right that their unapologetically fictional status made people on the right feel uncomfortable.

The second and third moves of Laycock’s argument are all about providing an explanation for the conflict between RPGs and the religious right. Laycock’s explanation is that the two sets of cultural institutions entered into conflict as a result of the fact that they are fundamentally quite similar. In order to justify this claim, Laycock has to establish that RPGs are a) a form of religious practice and b) a form of cultural activity similar to that engaged in by the religious right. These two steps respectively constitute the second and third moves of Laycock’s argument.

Second Movement: Games are Like Religion

The second move of Laycock’s argument is that playing roleplaying games is a form of religious practice; this is undeniably both the weakest part of his argument and the weakest part of the book. The weakness lies in the fact that the claims made in the second move are the most obviously counter-intuitive claim and so requires a greater level of support. Despite this, Laycock’s arguments are all based upon hand-waved abstraction and some rather dubious analogies.

A friend of mine has a PhD in Philosophy and after he got his PhD, he wanted some time to try and find an academic job. In order to ‘buy’ himself some time, he applies for benefits but in order to get benefits he had to attend job interviews. He didn’t want any of these jobs but he couldn’t turn them down and so he hit on a strategy of pretending to be unable to answer any direct questions. At one point, his interviewer (also a PhD) said that if he couldn’t explain his area of research to an educated layman then maybe the lack of clarity was down to his having written an unclear thesis. Reading the second move of Dangerous Games reminded me of this observation as while Laycock is able to list and summarise dozens of theories about different aspects of the religious experience, there is no point at which the similarity between the two sets of activities become clear. There’s no ‘Oh yeah… I suppose so’ or ‘I hadn’t thought of it that way’ there’s just a load of religious scholarship and some very hand-wavy gesturing towards the abstract idea that there might be some connection between aspects of a game set in a fictional world and worship of a deity that you believe to be non-fictional.

The strongest point of connection is Tolkien’s idea that the closed dramatic arcs present in fairy stories comprise a distant echo of the closed dramatic arc promised by Christianity and its sacred history. In the Christian Mythos, all sorts of injustices and arbitrary judgements are forced upon humanity but everything works out in the end because God has a plan for a happy ending. This is echoed in fairy stories because the protagonists suffer hardship and injustice only for everything to work out in the end. The sense of piercing joy and exhilaration you get when you encounter a satisfying ending is, according to Tolkien, a distant echo of grace.

This line of argument from “On Fairy-Stories” is often used as a defence of Fantasy literature and escapism in general. Tolkien’s line is that surely only a jailer would object to someone wanting to escape. The problem here is that Tolkien is making quite a narrow argument that is rooted in the experience of what he calls “piercing joy”. While that piercing joy may be phenomenologically similar to the joy of revelation, it is not actually revelation. So to say that RPGs are like religion because RPGs are escapist and so is religion is a bit of a stretch to say the least. Especially seeing as Tolkien developed the argument with regards to reading stories… not playing RPGs.

So the argument appears to be that RPGs are a form of religious practice because reading books is a form of religious practice. That might very well be true, but its truth is reliant upon the concept of religious practice being watered down to the point where it is basically culturally ubiquitous and if all fiction is religious then it is neither interesting nor rhetorically useful to claim that RPGs are a form of religious practice. It’s a bit like saying that red is blue if you alter the definition of ‘blue’ to mean that something has colour. Under this altered definition, it may be technically true to say that red is blue but you’re not actually saying very much because you’re using a term in a manner that is both idiosyncractic and so broad that it is starting to lose all meaning.

The other problem with this line of argument is that it works both ways: If reading stories is a form of religious practice then religious practice is like reading a story. Under this reading of the argument, Tolkien is saying too much: He is admitting that being religious is nothing more than being emotionally engaged with a load of made-up bullshit, but we’ll return to that when we look at Laycock’s third move.

A lot of the scholarship cited by Laycock as proof that RPGs are a bit like religious practice assume the same general pattern of argument: They break aspects of the religious experience down into their constituent parts and start comparing them to completely different sets of activities. If there is a faint hint of similarity then that similarity is taken to mean that said unrelated human activity shares characteristics with religious practice. This is all well and good, but it’s a bit like saying that The Lord of the Rings is like the dictionary because it happens to contain many of the same words. That may be technically true but under this conception of ‘resemblance’ it is not particularly interesting to say that one thing resembles another. So sure… playing RPGs is like practicing a religious if by practicing a religion you mean ‘looking at books’, ‘engaging in group activities’ and ‘enjoying yourself’. The only problem is that, under this definition, sharing your porn magazines with friends and jerking off in the same room is also a form of religious practice.

The other side of Laycock’s second move is to consider a series of cases where RPG lore has found its way into real-world quasi-religious activity. In some cases this is due to someone having mental health problems and in others it is due to members of a quasi-religious community happening upon an RPG book and believing that it describes real-world events and entities. The most famous examples of this are the otherkin who believe that they have the souls of fictional characters and the people who believe themselves to be literal vampires and pad out the lore of their delusion by lifting names and concepts from the pages of Vampire: The Masquerade.

While all of this is fascinating (Laycock has apparently written a book about these Vampires and I may one day get round to reading it) I do not think that it is reasonable to say that RPGs are a form of religion because some disturbed people read an RPG manual and thought it was real. Again, while it may be technically true that these people comprise a connection between RPGs and religious practice, they are a tiny statistical outlier whose experience of RPGs is completely different to that of most gamers who understand and operate on the assumption that RPGs are fictitious and I would argue that this is why Laycock’s second move struggles to gain much traction or even to articulate itself in a clear and unambiguous fashion.

You can talk about the formal characteristics of RPGs all you want and you can alter the definition of words to prove what you want. You can even point to people who have used aspects of RPG lore in their religious practice but the reason why RPGs and religious practice differ is that people who engage with RPGs do so on the understanding that it isn’t real whereas the people who engage with religious practice do so on the understanding that it is real. That is a fundamental difference and trying to account for that difference is the substance of Laycock’s third move.

As a side note, it is interesting to note that while there are definitely groups of people who believe that the contents of RPGs are real in the way that Christians believe the contents of the Bible to be real, none of these people belong to groups that most people would consider a religion. I mean… otherkin are weird and their beliefs are grounded in some sense of spirituality but is it a religion? Clearly the discipline of Religious Studies seems to think so and I wonder if that isn’t a product of the massive expansion in the number of people going to graduate school. So just as the humanities have been forced to start including TV shows and webcomics as texts worthy of academic study, evidently religious studies has started to broaden the definition of religion so that you don’t have thousands of graduate students all trying to carve out a niche in the study of a small number of organised religions. In truth, I suspect the reason the Second move feels insubstantial to me is that all of Religious Studies operates under the assumption that something is a religion if it involves believing in things that don’t exist. I mean… it’s still a stretch and Laycock’s arguments are still unconvincing but that would explain how this book got published by an academic press.

Third Movement: Religion is like playing a Game.

While I definitely most enjoyed reading Laycock’s first move, it was actually his third move that made me want to write about this book as it delves into the concepts of truth and fiction with regards to play and religious practice.

Laycock cites the (splendid) religious scholar Karen Armstrong who argues that the truth of Christianity comprises two distinct flavours: Logos, and Mythos. Logos is rational and materialistic; it applies to claims that are empirically verifiable. Mythos, on the other hand, is poetic and inspirational; it applies to moral and aesthetic judgements as well as more poetic means of describing the world.  Christian thought is governed by fashion and broader cultural context meaning that there is always internal disagreement and debate over which aspects of the bible are intended to be taken literally and which are meant to be taken as parables, analogies, and stories that speak to us on a more mythological level.

This is not just an issue for Christianity by the way. The tension is present in all religions and there is even some degree of disagreement over the question of whether the ancient Greeks literally believed in the existence of their gods or whether ‘gods’ were just a convenient way of talking about natural forces that were still quite poorly understood.

This idea that religion contains at least two different kinds of truth has been around for a long time and you can see the outlines of it in more contemporary writers including the naturalist Stephen Jay Gould who spent the 1980s trying to broker a peace treaty between Christianity and Biology by coining the idea of NOMA or ‘nonoverlapping magisteria’ whereby science would speak to stuff that’s empirically testable while religion would speak to questions of ethics and meaning. That way you can believe Christianity is true even when Christianity makes claims which, if taken literally as a form of Logos-based truth, not only conflicts with the teachings of biologists but pretty much everything we’ve learned about the world in the last 500-years.

This ontological framework is further complicated by developments in the field of literature as the literary distinction between fiction and non-fiction is not as straightforward as you might believe. For example, back in the early days of popular literature, it was not uncommon for writers to make up stories whilst claiming that they had been found in a chest or dictated by a man on his deathbed. Nowadays we take the suggestion of truthfulness as a bit of seasoning, a shiver of doubt designed to make a story feel more exciting and vibrant. When authors first started using this technique, people would get very confused and upset as in the case of people demanding that Robert Louis Stevenson introduce the narrator of Treasure Island to London society lest the book be deemed a tissue of lies. Similarly, people believed that Sherlock Holmes was real and that Arthur Conan Doyle was a form of literary executor hence the fact that people spent literally decades writing letters to 221B Baker Street hoping that Sherlock Holmes would come and solve the mysteries in their lives. While it’s tempting to view these people are the literary equivalent of the rubes who ran screaming from the theatre when they first saw a moving image of a train pulling into a station but in truth, a lot of these people were engaged in a form of play that assumed the truth of the Sherlock Holmes stories simply because it was more fun and allowed greater leeway for fannish speculation. Early literary theorists referred to this detached attitude towards truth as ‘Suspension of Disbelief’ though Tolkien referred to it as ‘Secondary Belief’.

While all fiction demands some suspension of disbelief, some forms of disbelief are harder to suspend than others. For example, a literary novel might require you to suspend your disbelief that certain people existed or that human psychology works the way that the author has assumed. This suspension is easier to pull-off than suspending one’s disbelief in a story set in an entirely fictional world full of monsters and magic. Clearly, the concept of ‘truth’ that guides you through the Lord of the Rings is not the same concept of ‘truth’ that might guide you through reading a scientific paper or a newspaper story. There’s a deliberate loosening and tightening of truth’s purse-strings in order to keep the stories afloat and that process of loosening-and-tightening is a technique that is deployed by both readers and writers. Shouting ‘this story is stupid, there is no such thing as elves!’ suggests a technical failure on the reader’s part but saying ‘this story is stupid, that’s not how space elevators work!’ is a legitimate response to a Hard Science-Fiction story where connection to scientific knowledge is an important part of the literary affect.

The invention of RPGs marked a technological advancement on the novel as suddenly, fictional worlds ceased being things you consumed and became things that you created as part of the process of engagement. Gamers allowing their worlds to grow and change in response to in-game events are using skills that simply do not exist elsewhere in culture. Even Improv is less technically demanding as the contents of the invention are always bounded by space and time. People who do Improv do not keep returning to the same fictional world week after week and they do not systematically engage with pre-existing IPs and genres. When RPGs were first created in the 1970s, they provided people with an entirely new set of creative tools which demanded a more subtly nuanced attitude towards the concept of truth. In the strictest sense, RPGs are not real but games require them to be real enough to support shared imaginings while the subject and limit of said shared imaginings is negotiated in real-time by a combination of game mechanics and social dynamics.

Laycock’s third move states that RPGs make fundamentalist Christians uncomfortable because fundamentalist Christianity is already struggling to grasp the idea that the contents of the Bible might not be 100% Logos. Their instinctive struggle with the idea of fiction goes some way towards explaining why they spend their time trying to get things banned but RPGs posed an even greater theory as RPGs have an even more complicated relationship with capital-T Truth than even fantasy novels.

Aside from an instinctive philosophical revulsion at the idea of ‘different kinds of truth’, fundamental Christians are also made uncomfortable by the fact that RPGs habitually feature elements of religious lore like monsters, demons, legends, magical powers, gods, miraculous healing and resurrection of the body. Either RPGs are the literal truth in which case they are means of learning how to cast spells and traffic with demons, or they are literal falsehoods and it is here that things start to get really interesting.

The leftist podcast Chapo Trap House periodically comments upon the activities of Q-Anon and the weirder online aspects of the current Culture Wars. On these podcasts, Matt Christman will often refer to the paranoid fantasies that bubble up out of the Conservative internet as ‘LARPs’ for live-action roleplaying games. According to Christman, the American right has long surrendered the possibility of improving the lot of its followers. What it offers instead is the promise of sadism and spite when dealing with the people who annoy the American right: Women with colourful hair, Black people, rude young people, trans people, queer people, foreigners, the ‘woke’ and anyone who reminds them of well-educated liberals in general. The problem is that while having your political proxies dish out punishment beatings may offer some degree of satisfaction, it is not particularly exciting and nor does it feel good. You don’t get to wander about the place feeling like you’re one of the good guys if your biggest political victories were putting kids in cages and forcing women to have children they do not want. There is no honour to be found in these politics… and no fun to be had.

Culture Wars are partly about the construction of fantasies that exist solely to provide a sense of meaning and morality for the crackdowns and punishment beatings that are pretty much the only thing that today’s politicians are capable of doing. Brutalising women who happen to have been assigned a male gender at birth is neither fun nor heroic, but brutalising paedophile gangs who are recruiting kids into homosexuality sounds honourable. It makes certain types of people want to cheer. It makes them want to vote. It makes them want to give money to Conservative institutions.

While a lot of the fear-mongering and creation of right-wing folk devils passes muster as typical right-wing political activism, the mask began to slip when American conservative spaces began feeling the influence of an individual known as Q. Q started life as an anonymous source inside either the US Department of Defense or the US Intelligence services. Loyal to Trump rather than his institutional hierarchy, Q provided anonymous ‘drops’ letting believers know about all of the measures that Trump was taking to unravel vested interests and break up the paedophile rings that are supposedly the cultural focus point for a lot of liberal elites. Q’s utterances were always cryptic and this allowed the emergence of an entire class of Q-whisperers who could garner both clout and money from interpreting and unpacking Q’s otherwise gnomic utterances.

While a lot of this Q-work was initially devoted to explaining away why Trump was doing absolutely none of the things that he had promised to do prior to getting elected, the popularity of Q created a set of incentives that encouraged people to create utterly deranged fantasies including the suggestion that New York’s Covid lockdowns were cover for a series of raids conducted by Trump-loyal military units attempted to free 35,000 under-aged sex slaves from catacombs beneath the city.

As the linked Reuters fact-checking piece suggests, the original claim might have started as the invention of one person, but it grew upon contact with the internet. People combed through news footage and took ambiguous screen-captures while others surveyed the presence of military vessels in New York harbour and used the presence of particular vessels to speculate about the internal politics of particular military services.

This is not just nonsense, it’s nonsense that uses forms of interactive group-based creativity that recalls the way that RPG groups deal with in-game conflict resolution and how the outcome of those conflicts alter the contents of the shared world, hence Christman’s description of these kinds of paranoid fantasies as ‘LARPs’.

While Laycock does not refer to Q-anon (this book was published in 2015 and presumably written before Q-anon began to gain serious traction in conservative spaces), it is not hard to see the similarities between the fantasies cooked-up by people participating in a Q-anon LARP and people participating in the culture wars of the 1980s. As Laycock says, the people who participate in these activities are no more interested in objective truth than the people who tell stories about killing orcs in dungeons. The value of a fantasy lies not in its truthfulness but in its aesthetics and its ability to pander to the people engaging with it. Defeating the ancient Demi-Lich at the end of Gygax’s Tomb of Horrors is exciting and so is participating in attempts to decipher Q’s last drop and googling things that might fit the general topography of the emerging fantasy. It’s all about telling stories, the ‘truth’ conditions of these stories are different to those governing science, reportage, or even regular commentary.

While Culture Wars have real-world political consequences and rely upon real-world alliances between groups with different interests and agendas, the actual fantasies that fuel the Culture Wars are created in a manner reminiscent of the fantasies that are generated by a role-playing session. According to Laycock, the similarity between RPGs and the LARPs created during right-wing Culture Wars is so pronounced that the existence of RPGs pose a threat to the long-term viability of these Culture Wars. The problem is that RPGs are a threat to evangelical kayfabe in that they allow people to sit around making up stories about cultists and monsters whilst cheerfully acknowledging that none of these things are in anyway real. If RPGs allow you to think about demons without accepting that demons are real, then they pose a challenge to evangelicals because evangelicals want you to make up shit about demons and believe that it’s true. RPGs allow you to make up stuff without Faith, without accepting the kinds of authority structures that are built into right-wing social groups, and also without then concluding that people need to donate money to churches and political projects in order to defeat the demons and cultists.

To push Laycock’s analysis a bit further, evangelical Christian and right-wing political groups are like Hasbro: They present themselves as owners of a vast legendarium that is fun to play with. However, in order to play with the contents of the legendarium you have to jump through a number of hoops including paying your dues and accepting external authority. These hoops amount to what might be called a walled-garden. RPGs pose a threat to this walled-garden because they allow you to play with the exact same legendarium without having to either support right-wing institutions or join sinister churches. You also get the fun of dreaming up weird fantasies about cults and monsters without the cognitive strain of being committed to these things being literally real.

Drawing on the work of thinkers like Huizinga and Caillois, Laycock argues that people who engage in Culture Wars are engaging in a form of play referred to as ‘Corrupted Play’:

Corrupted Play is no longer clearly a game, but it is also not yet accepted as reality. It is a necessary state through which the ideas generated in play must pass in order to become socially constructed reality. This makes corrupted play a site of strategic importance for anyone seeking to define what reality is.

Corrupted play is what happens when ideas and fantasies start to have consequences in the real world. Laycock refers to a case-study of a Japanese teenager who spent his time playing at being a criminal by dressing like a 1950s outlaw biker (a style known as Bosozoku). However, the more immersed the man became in his role, the more he started engaging in illegal activities until eventually he literally was an outlaw biker.

Right-wing LARPs are a fantastic example of corrupted play as you can see how deciding to meet up with your friends in order to cos-play as a Nazi might be difficult to distinguish from attending an actual Nazi rally. Similarly, the weird ideas and dress-codes evident during America’s post-election coup attempt speak more to the fannish desire to cosplay than of an actual political mobilisation though the distinction between a flash-mob fuelled by right-wing fantasies and a right-wing meeting is really hard to make in practice.

In truth, this form of corrupted play is also evident on the political left where people weave lurid fantasies of persecution and moral righteousness over the simple act of reading books aimed at children. It’s all fun and games until the fantasies you weave have real-world consequences and cooking up a fantasy in which a Nazi wrote a story with a title recalling an anti-trans meme resulted in a mob harassing a trans-identifying author first into the psych-ward and then into complete de-transition. The same is also true of influencers such as Ana Mardoll who played the role of a young, impoverished and psychologically vulnerable non-binary activist defending his community from right-wing fiction when in reality they are a wealthy, middle-aged person who has spent over a decade working for a defence contractor while spending their spare time garnering both money and clout from repeated small-scale Culture Wars waged against queer creators deemed insufficiently moral.

As with the book’s second move, Laycock’s third move unravels the further he gets from the historical record. While the stuff about corrupted play is fascinating and the suggestion that Culture War politics is just a form of LARPing with real-world consequences is both damning and interesting, I’m not 100% clear on how these ideas explain the anti-RPG Satanic Panic. I can just about buy the idea that corrupted play might feel threatened by a non-corrupted form of play that uses many of the exact same tropes but I find philosophical discomfort are far less compelling source of motivation than simple opportunism: Back in the 1980s, RPGs were an art-form on the rise and they were starting to appear at kitchen tables across the country. However, despite being successful enough to be visible, they were not a particularly well-run or well-connected industry meaning that right-wing institutions were able to give them a kicking with very little risk of blow-back. RPGs also drew upon ‘sinister’ tropes and their social structures could be distorted to resemble the subjects of previous Culture Wars. There was little to be gained from sending right-wing institutions after RPGs but there was also little to lose and those types of right-wing institutions need a constant stream of targets to maintain their income streams and keep their supporters facing in the right direction. So why not give them a kicking?

I am very glad that I read Laycock’s Dangerous Games as both the historical work on the Satanic Panic and the conceptual work around right-wing activism as a form of game-playing are really compelling. This being said, the other aspects of the book (including its core argument) feel both insubstantial and unconvincing. When Laycock writes about the history of RPGs and the idea of politics as play, he is lucid and insightful. When he writes about games as a form of religion and the idea that RPGs posed some sort of threat to right-wing evangelicals, he is vague and prone to retreating behind the work of others. This doesn’t make Dangerous Games a bad book as I have really enjoyed engaging with it (and have done so at great length) but it does mean that it’s worth taking the book’s central claims with a pinch of salt. Had this been a book about the irony inherent in a bunch of right-wing fantasists attacking a right-wing fantasy game then I imagine Dangerous Games would have been a conceptual slam-dunk but I suspect that the world of academic Religious Studies might not be ready for the suggestion that religious people are a bunch of simple-minded and easily-led buffoons who are incapable of distinguishing between fantasy and reality.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s