When Dragons Play Dungeons
  • When Dragons Play Dungeons


    In May 2002, a controversy erupted in Dragon Magazine that is still relevant today. With role-playing games a sort of mental escape, should prisoners be allowed to play the game in prison? Or to put it another way, what are the pros and cons to playing D&D in an actual dungeon?


    Games Prisoners Play

    Prisoners play D&D in prison according to WSmith:

    When I worked at a low (mostly fraud, and drug trafficking) security level prison back in NJ, inmates were only allowed to have dice for the immediate game they were playing. Meaning, the recreation dept. buys games like Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit. When the inmate checks out the game, sort of like checking out library books, they are responsible for it. When they return the game it is checked to see if the dice are present. So here is the problem the gaming inmates ran into. They had to talk the Rec. Dept into buying polyhedron dice for use with D&D, (which they were able to get authorized) but had to follow the same procedures as above. In the meantime, they made this spinner out of cardboard, a staple and a pencil. The spinner had successive circles, labeled for the d4, d6, d8 etc all the way to the last ring, d100. It was a pretty ingenious idea.

    In some prisons, prisoners can even purchase role-playing games. But that's not true for every state prison.

    Dragon Magazine Weighs In

    In Dragon Magazine 295 Group Publisher Johnny Wilson wrote a two page editorial to passionately advocate for the distribution of Dragon and Dungeon magazines in prisons:

    Recently, we've heard from prisoners in Georgia, Washington, and Minnesota that their copies of Dragon and Dungeon magazines were being illegally withheld. I use the term "illegally withheld" because there are both U.S. Supreme Court precedents and U.S. Fifth Court of Appeals precedents against withholding an inmate's mail when such an action is not "reasonably related to legitimate penological interests" or "detrimental to institutional security."

    Wilson goes on to explain how some games, such as the stiff cardboard of board games, can be used to make weapons. D&D has no such restrictions:

    Confronted with their illegal activities, the authorities at one prison have started to allow inmates to possess Dungeons & Dragons publications, but prohibit the playing of D&D and the possession and use of dice, maps, charts, or game notes. In short, they use their power of proscribing game pieces--even these which couldn't be used as a weapon--to stop inmates from playing the game we all love.

    Wilson argued that reading, writing, communication, math, working well with others, and use of the imagination are an important part of rehabilitating prisoners.

    It's not coddling the incarcerated to allow them to use reading skills, writing skills, simple math skills, and their imaginations; not when it might help them to become good citizens when they are released, not when it might keep us from having to pay the average $25,000-$35,000 per year it usually costs to keep a prisoner incarcerated.

    Years later, a study of prisoners in solitary agrees with him.

    The Prison of the Mind

    Susie Neilson's article, "How to Survive Solitary Confinement," is illustrative of how important it is to have an active imagination, particularly in solitary, which can keep prisoners in cells for 22 out of 24 hours a day, with no leisure activities, hobbies, or even speaking to each other:

    Solitary confinement has been linked to a variety of profoundly negative psychological outcomes, including suicidal tendencies and spatial and cognitive distortions. Confinement-induced stress can shrink parts of the brain, including the hippocampus, which is responsible for memory, spatial orientation, and control of emotions. In addition to these measurable effects, prisoners often report bizarre and disturbing subjective experiences after they leave supermax. Some say the world regularly collapses in on itself. Others report they are unable to lead ordinary conversations, or think clearly for any length of time. The psychiatrist Sandra Schank puts it this way: “It’s a standard psychiatric concept, if you put people in isolation, they will go insane.”

    There are exceptions however. A few prisoners have come out of solitary, if not better than they went in, at least rehabilitated. And they did it through the power of their imagination:

    Edith Bone, a professor of medicine and a translator who spoke six languages fluently, constructed an abacus out of stale bread and made an inventory of her sprawling vocabulary while imprisoned in Hungary after World War II. Hussain Al-Shahristani, Saddam Hussein’s former chief scientific adviser, spent a decade in solitary confinement at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. He survived, according to the BBC, by “taking refuge in a world of abstractions, making up mathematical problems, which he then tried to solve.” He is now Iraq’s minister of higher education and scientific research. While imprisoned in a German concentration camp during World War II, the Russian Jewish mathematics professor Jakow Trachtenberg watched as his fellow prisoners “gave up hope and died even before being sent to their death.” To survive, he developed an innovative method of performing rapid mental calculation, known today as the Trachtenberg system.

    This form of focus, of using the mind to role-play through events without physically role-playing them out, can actually be used as a training tool known as the Carpenter effect to help athletes increase their muscle memory:

    As a result, mental imagery is an ideal portable training tool. Just imagine yourself kicking the ball or delivering the punchline, and you’ll have better control over how your foot swings or your voice projects. In one study, running an imaginary course activated muscle patterns in the legs of skiers akin to when they were skiing. The phenomenon, known as the Carpenter effect, has also been seen in studies of tennis and volleyball teams. Athletes with closed eyes swaying through an imaginary course have become a common sight in the starting areas of ski races and bobsled tracks.

    This same technique can be used as a form of escape, much in the same way role-players can escape their own lives to live out their fantasies. The difference is that prisoners in isolation don't have an alternative:

    Isolation naturally encourages the generation of mental imagery because imagination and perception occur along parallel neural pathways and are constantly competing for attention. The more there is to perceive, the less intense our mental imagery will be. Conversely, reduced sensory stimulation can allow for “vivid and stable mental imagery,” says David Pearson, a cognitive psychologist at Anglia Ruskin University. This correlation has been documented before: Isolation has been linked to creativity.

    The challenge is that isolation alone isn't enough to make one imaginative or creative. The hobgoblins of the mind threaten the imagination at every turn:

    Three-quarters of all confined prisoners report signs and symptoms of psychosis, including hallucinations, and 82 percent of prisoners who attempted suicide during solitary confinement reported experiencing visual imagery related to their suicidal acts.

    In this regard role-playing games, and particularly Dungeons & Dragons, can be a positive framework for success in one's imagination. The game is geared to allow characters a path of achievement and provides an outline for players to imagine themselves in the role of someone who experiences the benefits of personal growth. Role-playing games in prison can be a positive force for rehabilitation in even the most difficult circumstances.

    The Court of Appeals sees things differently.

    Judging the Dungeon

    Ilya Somin on the Volokh Conspiracy reported on January 25, 2010 that the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a Wisconsin prison’s rule forbidding inmates to play Dungeons & Dragons or possess D&D publications and materials:

    The prison’s rationale for the ban is that playing D&D might stimulate “gang activity” by inmates. But the government conceded that there is no evidence that Dungeons and Dragons actually had stimulated gang activity in the past, either in this prison or elsewhere. The only evidence for the supposedly harmful effects of Dungeons and Dragons were a few cases from other states where playing the game supposedly led inmates to indulge in “escapism” and become divorced from reality, one case where two non-inmates committed a crime in which they “acted out” a D&D story-line, and one where a longtime D&D player (not an inmate) committed suicide.

    Somin argues that the link between suicides and playing D&D is weak -- and soundly debunked back in the 80s:

    Obviously, almost any hobby or reading material might lead people to become divorced from reality, or in rare cases commit suicide. And disturbed individuals could potentially “act out” a crime based on a scenario in almost any film or literary work. Should prisons ban The Count of Monte Cristo on the grounds that it might encourage escape attempts? Moreover, the “escapism” rationale conflicts with the gang argument. People who become engrossed in escapism and retreat from society are presumably less likely to become active gang members.

    More controversial is that one "gang expert" argued that playing D&D is like participating in a gang:

    The sole evidence the prison officials have submitted on this point [the connection between D&D and gangs] is the affidavit of Captain Muraski, the gang specialist. Muraski testified that Waupun’s prohibition on role-playing and fantasy games was intended to serve two purposes. The first aim Muraski cited was the maintenance of prison security. He explained that the policy was intended to promote prison security because cooperative games can mimic the organization of gangs and lead to the actual development thereof. Muraski elaborated that during D&D games, one player is denoted the “Dungeon Master.” The Dungeon Master is tasked with giving directions to other players, which Muraski testified mimics the organization of a gang.

    ENWorld member Eye Tyrant elaborates on why prison officials might be concerned:

    The prisoners are not to ever be put into a position in which one prisoner has any more control over a situation then another prisoner (or something to that effect). Basically the command doesn't care for the idea of one prisoner "leading" a bunch of other prisoners through anything. Whether it be a D&D adventure or morning PT, prisoners are not to hold leadership positions over other prisoners. It has to do with retribution, favoritism, and reprisal I suppose... But that is the gist of it at the facility where I work...

    Or to put it another way, the leadership position of a dungeon master fostered by role-playing games can be considered a disruptive factor in prison and therefore characterized as a gang.

    Rehabilitation or Punishment?

    The issue of allowing prisoners to role-playing in prison pivots on whether the behaviors RPG encourages like imagination and cooperation are something to be nurtured as part of their rehabilitation or withheld as part of their punishment. The imaginative play we may take for granted is not a right American gamers can assume they will have in prison.

    Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, and communicator. You can follow him at Patreon.
    Comments 47 Comments
    1. Kramodlog's Avatar
      Kramodlog -
      I'm not sure how this won't devolve into a political discussion.
    1. RobShanti's Avatar
      RobShanti -
      It's an interesting article.

      It raises a few questions.

      Why did the Corrections Departments in Georgia, Washington and Minnesota withhold the Dragons and Dungeons magazines of inmates? The article doesn't really say, but we are led to believe that they did so for the reasons the Wisconsin prison did, which may not be the case. Since we don't have enough data on the Georgia, Washington and Minnesota bans, we can't really have a meaningful discussion about them.

      Were the Georgia, Washington and Minnesota withholdings of the magazines "reasonably related to legitimate penological interests [or] institutional security" and therefore permissible under U.S. Supreme Court and 5th Circuit precedent? Again, without enough data, it's hard to say, but the standard seems very low, so it seems the inmates could be hard pressed to overcome the ban.

      Was Dragon Magazine Group Publisher Johnny Wilson's argument that RPGs are good for inmates relevant to the legal issue of whether withholding inmates Dragon and Dungeon magazines is "reasonably related to legitimate penological interests [or] institutional security"?
      It doesn't look that way. Yes, RPGs can have great benefits, but do those benefits overcome the undisclosed (by the article) reasons the prisons had for banning the magazines? The court, who had all the legal arguments before it, decided they do not. Without more information, we would be hard pressed to argue error.

      Is Wilson correct that some prisons have prohibited inmates from even playing the game, or is he assuming too much? If he is correct, is that a dumb policy? What prisons have prohibited inmates from playing the game and why? Without this information, we can't discuss the legitimacy of the policy. Assuming any prisons banned the game, each may have had its own different reason for doing so, and, thus, each reason would have to be examined separately and independently depending on the differing concerns and issues of that prison.

      Did the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals err in upholding a Wisconsin prison’s rule forbidding inmates to play Dungeons & Dragons or possess D&D publications and materials based on the rationale that playing D&D might stimulate “gang activity” by inmates where that rationale was supported by multiple cases from other states in which inmates playing the game indulged in “escapism” and became divorced from reality; where two non-inmates committed a crime in which they “acted out” a D&D story-line; and where one longtime D&D player (not an inmate) committed suicide? Well, it depends on what the evidence that "inmates playing the game indulged in 'escapism' and became divorced from reality" really showed. This sounds like the writer of the article that used this phrase had already decided his opinion, and was framing the issue in a way that supported it. That may not necessarily be an adequate, or even fair, characterization of what the evidence showed. The court, which had the evidence before it first-hand, decided that this evidence was strong enough to support the prison's policy. We can't assume that the court simply fell into the same hysteria of the 80s over D&D. That may have had nothing to do with it, yet the author of the article brings that up as if to offer it as the court's rationale, when, in fact, it may well not have been.

      One thought that came to mind for me was Robert Nozick's Entitlement theory of "Distributive Justice" -- where do we allocate resources, and do prisoners deserve them over law-abiding citizens. This theory actually seems to advocate in favor of prisoners playing D&D...assuming you buy a core rulebook and a set of dice, and not stock the prison library with every supplement Wizards of the Coast puts out for D&D, or bother updating editions, it's really a virtually zero-cost way of occupying prisoners for a very long period of time. They could game all day and for days on end, rather than filing shivs out of soap or digging tunnels or plotting riots.

      That said, the article gives several examples of remarkable resourcefulness by prison inmates: fashioning spinners out of cardboard, staples and pencils to replace forbidden dice; fashioning weapons out of the heavy cardboard of game boards; etc. This kind of resourcefulness can be double-edged: it can be used to raise other concerns that aren't readily apparent to us and that pose a risk to prison security. Without hearing from the prison policymakers about the realities and consequences of giving prisoners access to these games, it's kind of hard for me to say that prohibiting them is a bad idea.
    1. Converse02's Avatar
      Converse02 -
      Not having access to D&D is surely a form of cruel and unusual punishment.

      Saying that D&D is like participating in gang...that's crazy. Crazy.
    1. dave2008's Avatar
      dave2008 -
      I recently performed a survey of three prisons in the State of Ohio for my job and I have designed prisons and juvenile detention facilities in the past. Two of the prisons I recently survey where medium security and one was a max security (the only facility that administers the death penalty in Ohio) prison. Though I was investigating the structural, architectural, and mechanical conditions of the prisons I spent a lot of time with the guards and maintenance staff who escorted us at all times who provide a wealth of knowledge about prison life. We were also in close proximity to the inmates for the majority of the time (they are only really "behind bars" in the max security prison). I only mention this to point out that I have a little more than a casual understanding of the situation.

      One of the biggest issues with prisons and prisoners is boredom. Boredom leads to restlessness which can lead to aggravation, which can lead violence. Prisons try to keep their overpopulated inmates busy with activities or television (on for each prisoner), but there is always more violence when in the winter when the yard is less available and boredom and cramped quarters butt heads. I would think a game like D&D, which can fill hours of time, would be welcomed by most prison staff if they really understood what was involved in the game. I think the reaction presented in the article a mostly the result of FUD and not thorough research into the subject.
    1. RobShanti's Avatar
      RobShanti -
      Again, with respect to the court's decision, we're still speculating on the rationale of the holding based on holes in the information, but maybe a solution would be for prison counselors to introduce the game as part of "therapy" sessions. This way, the game and its contents belong to the counselor, not the prisoners, and there's no potential "gang" hierarchy because the counselor is the DM, or is at least observing. It might also sweeten the deal if the game is not necessarily D&D, but any RPG.

      Personally, I think that in a vacuum, as the article presents the matter, RPGing would be a great way to occupy prisoners at almost zero cost...way better than t.v., which is now rife with inappropriate content. Whatever the reasons were for the court's decision, there must be ways to address them to make safe playing the game safe, receiving the magazines in the mail, etc.
    1. aco175's Avatar
      aco175 -
      Interesting article, I remember reading several of the older Dragon Magazines with letters from inmates. I do not know if there are certain levels of prison where inmates could play.
    1. ronaldsf's Avatar
      ronaldsf -
      @dave2008 I agree that the guards might find it to be a positive thing, to have D&D occupy and entertain prisoners. The prison system as it is set up, however, is very much focused on pitting prisoners and guards against each other, and groups of prisoners against each other, to maintain "order." Even if it makes people crazy. Such is the institutional need unfortunately, which implicates the societal problems behind why we have a mass incarceration system in the first place.
    1. dave2008's Avatar
      dave2008 -
      Quote Originally Posted by ronaldsf View Post
      @dave2008 I agree that the guards might find it to be a positive thing, to have D&D occupy and entertain prisoners. The prison system as it is set up, however, is very much focused on pitting prisoners and guards against each other, and groups of prisoners against each other, to maintain "order." Even if it makes people crazy. Such is the institutional need unfortunately, which implicates the societal problems behind why we have a mass incarceration system in the first place.
      That is not exactly the experience I've had, at least at the medium/low security prisons I was in. They guards/staff generally seem to get along with the inmates. Of course the average stay in one of the facilities was just over 1 year. So they really aren't there very long. But they had lots of educational and vocational opportunities at the these prisons if they wanted them.

      Now, the max security prison had a very different vibe, of course there had been a pretty bad prison riot there about 20 years ago as well, and some of the same guards where still there! There the relationship felt much more adversarial. When the prisoners were allowed outside they were escorted in chains from their cells to an individual chain link fence enclosed pen for each inmate.

      I think the "system" varies quite a bit from state to state and even, from my experience, from facility to facility.
    1. Jester David's Avatar
      Jester David -
      On one hand, you need to keep prisoners happy, and D&D isn't dangerous as hobby's go. It's relatively cheap but keeps multiple prisoners entertained.
      On the other hand, people are sent to prison because they're horrible people and to be punished.

      I imagine it'd be okay in a minimum security prison. But anything more serious and it's hard to justify.
    1. Hussar's Avatar
      Hussar -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jester Canuck View Post
      On one hand, you need to keep prisoners happy, and D&D isn't dangerous as hobby's go. It's relatively cheap but keeps multiple prisoners entertained.
      On the other hand, people are sent to prison because they're horrible people and to be punished.

      I imagine it'd be okay in a minimum security prison. But anything more serious and it's hard to justify.
      We don't put people in prison to punish them. That's pointless. We put people in prison to rehabilitate them and hopefully return them back to society at a later date.

      I remember @Eric Mona talking about this in the pages of Dungeon and iirc the forum letters in Dungeon were Prison Mail exactly because so many of the letters they got were from inmates.
    1. Dannyalcatraz's Avatar
      Dannyalcatraz -
      I can't agree that imprisonment for punishment is pointless. Society's laws have to have teeth. Breaking laws have to have repercussions.

      However, I WILL say that rehabilitation and punishment are dual goals in most modern prison systems. Most have the punishment part down tight. Rehabilitation is a lot trickier. And yes, some aspects of prisons DO work counter to the goal of rehabilitation. So do some aspects of the laws that govern post-incarceration life.*

      Structured recreation helps keep tensions lowered, and may help with rehabilitation. However, prisoners are not guaranteed access to most non-religious non-educational reading materials. In many prisons, anything that can be used for games of chance- dice, chits, etc.- can be considered contraband.











      * if you have too few jobs available for ex-cons because their prison records prevent them from being hired, you're practically forcing them to become recidivists.
    1. dave2008's Avatar
      dave2008 -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jester Canuck View Post
      On one hand, you need to keep prisoners happy, and D&D isn't dangerous as hobby's go. It's relatively cheap but keeps multiple prisoners entertained.
      On the other hand, people are sent to prison because they're horrible people and to be punished.

      I imagine it'd be okay in a minimum security prison. But anything more serious and it's hard to justify.
      Just because one does something illegal doesn't make them a horrible person. In the US, 50% of prisoners are incarcerated on drug related offenses, which can be very minor. I'm guessing many of them are not "horrible people." Heck, when I went to traffic court to contest a speeding ticket there where several people who chose to be incarcerated because they could not pay there fines for traffic violations! Let's try no to paint with to broad of a brush.
    1. Jester David's Avatar
      Jester David -
      Quote Originally Posted by Hussar View Post
      We don't put people in prison to punish them. That's pointless. We put people in prison to rehabilitate them and hopefully return them back to society at a later date.

      I remember @Eric Mona talking about this in the pages of Dungeon and iirc the forum letters in Dungeon were Prison Mail exactly because so many of the letters they got were from inmates.
      There are several reasons for prisons. Rehabilitation is one, but it's certainly not the go-to example, since they really seem to be failing at that purpose. Prisons also serve as a deterrent, to protect people from criminals by separating them, and to punish them. And in North America, the punitive aspect of prisons is the key, otherwise they'd look more like rehabilitation centers or people would just be put in house arrest.

      Quote Originally Posted by dave2008 View Post
      Just because one does something illegal doesn't make them a horrible person. In the US, 50% of prisoners are incarcerated on drug related offenses, which can be very minor. I'm guessing many of them are not "horrible people." Heck, when I went to traffic court to contest a speeding ticket there where several people who chose to be incarcerated because they could not pay there fines for traffic violations! Let's try no to paint with to broad of a brush.
      You can't make rules for prisons assuming the inmates are decent people who are there because of systemic flaws. You have to use the worst as the baseline. And the worst will use the D&D books for paper mache weaponry.
    1. JeffB's Avatar
      JeffB -
      I said it when the original article came out, and I will say it again. (And I sugarcoat it cos..yknow..Eric's Grammy)

      I work my ass off to support myself and my family. I spend more waking hours working then with my family. I pay out the wazoo in taxes, which among other things helps pay for prisoners jail stay, and THEY get to play D&D with their buddies? There is something seriiously FUBAR with this scenario.

      I dont care what they are in for. They shouldnt have more leisure time fun than honest law-abiding citizens.
    1. jaycrockett -
      Sadly I know about this first hand, as one of my players became incarcerated (the circumstances of which destroying our gaming group in the process). He could have D&D books, but the prison didn't provide anything. One of the other players gave him the books. Dice were prohibited, I think due to gambling concerns.
    1. dave2008's Avatar
      dave2008 -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jester Canuck View Post
      You can't make rules for prisons assuming the inmates are decent people who are there because of systemic flaws. You have to use the worst as the baseline. And the worst will use the D&D books for paper mache weaponry.
      They have libraries in the prisons, so the books shouldn't be an issue. Even the max security prison had a library. Of course an inmate was stabbed in the neck in there about an hour after we surveyed the space!
    1. dave2008's Avatar
      dave2008 -
      Quote Originally Posted by JeffB View Post
      I said it when the original article came out, and I will say it again. (And I sugarcoat it cos..yknow..Eric's Grammy)

      I work my ass off to support myself and my family. I spend more waking hours working then with my family. I pay out the wazoo in taxes, which among other things helps pay for prisoners jail stay, and THEY get to play D&D with their buddies? There is something seriiously FUBAR with this scenario.

      I dont care what they are in for. They shouldnt have more leisure time fun than honest law-abiding citizens.
      I think you are not taking into account what it means to have your freedom removed and be caged. Even the low/medium security prisons I surveyed are not places I would want to stay a night, much less a month, or year, or years. They are seriously depressing and demoralizing. If you want to rehabilitate people (and I feel that should be the goal) you need to fight that unavoidable aspect of being incarcerated.

      Also, the inmates do have jobs while they are in the prisons (at least the ones i visited), and they are even paid. It is not like the are free to do whatever they want whenever the want; or even free at all.
    1. dave2008's Avatar
      dave2008 -
      Quote Originally Posted by jaycrockett View Post
      Dice were prohibited, I think due to gambling concerns.
      Thar's probably right, the guards I spoke to mentioned that gambling can quickly become a problem.
    1. Alzrius's Avatar
      Alzrius -
      Quote Originally Posted by dave2008 View Post
      Thar's probably right, the guards I spoke to mentioned that gambling can quickly become a problem.
      Sure, but taking role-playing materials away because they promote "fantasies of escape" is pretty ridiculous, as the link shows.
    1. UselessTriviaMan's Avatar
      UselessTriviaMan -
      If you look at it from a security-minded point of view, it makes sense to ban role playing games from prisons.

      "No sir, we're not planning a real jailbreak. We're planning a pretend jailbreak in a made-up world."

      The guards have no way to tell the difference between a group of RPG-enthusiast inmates and a group of less honorably intentioned inmates. For the sake of security, it's better (and simpler) to err on the side of caution. There are plenty of other ways to encourage creativity.
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