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. dave2008's Avatar
      dave2008 -
      Quote Originally Posted by Alzrius View Post
      Sure, but taking role-playing materials away because they promote "fantasies of escape" is pretty ridiculous, as the link shows.
      I agree
    1. dave2008's Avatar
      dave2008 -
      Quote Originally Posted by UselessTriviaMan View Post
      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.
      I don't think that is a big concern to be honest. There a lot easier ways to plan an escape than to pretend to be playing an RPG.
    1. barasawa -
      There's a lot I could argue with in the assumptions by the authorities, but I'll just go with one simple thing.
      The DM or GM isn't leading anyone.
      As we gamers well know, the GM is the hardest job on the table. You can direct the group by giving hints, and controlling the location and it's inhabitants (monsters, npcs, etc), but you don't tell the players what to do other than enforcing the rules of the game. (Yes, even if that means to tell someone to wait their turn, even though that's not explicitly written in the books.)
      You job is to moderate the story, provide the challenges to the players, and act as referee to make any rulings on rules issues.

      Of course I don't expect judges and prison employees to get it. They probably still think we're summoning demons in the basement or something equally moronic.

      Ok, I'm going to add one more thing. Last I heard, getting prisoners socialized was considered a good thing in rehabilitation...
    1. tuxedoraptor's Avatar
      tuxedoraptor -
      Let them play D&D, I may be seventeen years old, but I am rather sure that by having a specialized DM (a person who shows up once a week and is kept separated from the prisoners by protective glass) and some way to roll the dice without the prisoners touching them would be fine, as prison really seems to do nothing but put a bunch of morally challenged people in a cramped building with very little entertainment. I personally think that prisoners of low security are the only ones who should be in prison, the actually dangerous ones should just be killed on the spot
    1. Uder -
      Quote Originally Posted by tuxedoraptor View Post
      I personally think that prisoners of low security are the only ones who should be in prison, the actually dangerous ones should just be killed on the spot
      Found Sheriff Joe.
    1. Ampolitor's Avatar
      Ampolitor -
      ok first of all JAIL is a year or under, PRISON is for long term sentences, these are not the everyday criminals, most people in Prison are there for some very serious crimes, there is a big difference between the two. As for D&D, umm no, sorry it's prison not the country club. As it is some of them have access to better gyms than some us can afford, and before some people ask how do I know, I've been in
      Law Enforcement going on 20 years.
    1. dave2008's Avatar
      dave2008 -
      Quote Originally Posted by Ampolitor View Post
      ok first of all JAIL is a year or under, PRISON is for long term sentences, these are not the everyday criminals, most people in Prison are there for some very serious crimes, there is a big difference between the two. As for D&D, umm no, sorry it's prison not the country club. As it is some of them have access to better gyms than some us can afford, and before some people ask how do I know, I've been in
      Law Enforcement going on 20 years.
      That may be true in NC, but that is not how it works in Ohio. Both of the low/medium security prisons I surveyed last summer had an average stay of just over a year. Since some of the inmates are there for multi-year sentences (up to life) you can see that some, actually many, are there for less than a year.

      Also, none of them had better gym facilities than my local rec-center. The max security prison had essentially no gym equipment (it was removed 20 yrs ago after a riot where the inmates used equipment to break down walls and get to guards that where trapped).

      How do I know: I participated in Ohio's architectural, structural, and engineering survey of all their PRISON facilities last year. I only surveyed 3, but I have been involved in the design and construction of prisons and juvenile detention facilities in Ohio and Pennsylvania on and off for 18 years.
    1. Morrus's Avatar
      Morrus -
      Quote Originally Posted by Ampolitor View Post
      ok first of all JAIL is a year or under, PRISON is for long term sentences, these are not the everyday criminals, most people in Prison are there for some very serious crimes, there is a big difference between the two. As for D&D, umm no, sorry it's prison not the country club. As it is some of them have access to better gyms than some us can afford, and before some people ask how do I know, I've been in
      Law Enforcement going on 20 years.
      Maybe where you are. There's an entire planet out there where things aren't exactly the same as where you are right now.
    1. Curmudjinn's Avatar
      Curmudjinn -
      When I was a teen, my karate sensei was a prison block sergeant and played D&D with the good behavior inmates. He was also the person responsible for me learning of RPGs besides AD&D, as well as teaching me to GM.
      Let them have their get-away, just like we have ours.
    1. TarionzCousin's Avatar
      TarionzCousin -
      I have an acquaintance (friend of a good friend) who is in prison currently. His sentence was somewhere in the eight to twelve years range; I forget.

      Anyway, he and his friends play Pathfinder. My friend mails him the crunch and fluff they need. They made a d20 out of toilet paper which they hide during daily cell searches.

      My friend specifically did not ask where they hide it!
    1. LostandDamned's Avatar
      LostandDamned -
      I remember reading that in Dragon (or was it Dungeon? still got the issue IIRC) years ago, sadly I can understand it from both perspectives, it's a difficult problem that's for sure.
    1. RobShanti's Avatar
      RobShanti -
      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.
      Well said, Jester.

      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.
      It *does* make them horrible people, Dave. YOU'RE the one painting with too broad a brush. There's a huge difference between "incarcarated" in jail and "incarcerated" in prison. Those in jail, as Ampolitor pointed out, are serving relatively minor sentences (one year or under in some jurisdictions, more in others, but relatively lower than prison inmates in all jurisidctions).

      I'm an attorney practicing criminal law in a large American city, and I can attest that it's HARD to get even JAIL time (as opposed to "prison" time) for offenders. You have to be pretty bad to go to jail. You have to be horrible to go to prison. Maybe not so much in Bumfuk, Arkansee, but true enough in most jurisdictions.

      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.
      Rehabilitation is ONE reason why we punish. There are many more, including deterrence, incapacitation and just desserts. Prison is considered to achieve all of these, though criminological research varies on how much prison -- or indeed *any* form of punishment -- actually promotes any given one of these. Incapacitation is not to be given short shrift. If we can't achieve rehabilitation, deterrence, or anything else through imprisonment, at least we can incapacitate the criminal to a large extent.

      Quote Originally Posted by JeffB View Post
      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.
      There you go! There's Robert Nozick's Entitlement Theory of "Distributive Justice" that I talked about in my first post of this thread (Post #3). Testify, JeffB!

      Quote Originally Posted by Alzrius View Post
      Sure, but taking role-playing materials away because they promote "fantasies of escape" is pretty ridiculous, as the link shows.
      Well, as I said in my first post (post #3), 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.
    1. zedturtle's Avatar
      zedturtle -
      Quote Originally Posted by tuxedoraptor View Post
      I personally think that prisoners of low security are the only ones who should be in prison, the actually dangerous ones should just be killed on the spot
      Are you really sure about that? That's something you can't take back, especially if you find out later on that his 'buddy' set him up for the crime, or the police fumbled up the evidence, or any other reason why somebody might be convicted of a crime they didn't commit.
    1. dave2008's Avatar
      dave2008 -
      Quote Originally Posted by RobShanti View Post
      It *does* make them horrible people, Dave. YOU'RE the one painting with too broad a brush. There's a huge difference between "incarcarated" in jail and "incarcerated" in prison. Those in jail, as Ampolitor pointed out, are serving relatively minor sentences (one year or under in some jurisdictions, more in others, but relatively lower than prison inmates in all jurisidctions).

      I'm an attorney practicing criminal law in a large American city, and I can attest that it's HARD to get even JAIL time (as opposed to "prison" time) for offenders. You have to be pretty bad to go to jail. You have to be horrible to go to prison. Maybe not so much in Bumfuk, Arkansee, but true enough in most jurisdictions.
      Robshanti, I'm guessing you haven't read the rest of my posts on this thread so I will summarize where I'm coming from:

      1) I have been involved in the design and construction of prisons and juvenile detention facilities in Ohio and Pennsylvanian for the past 18 yrs,

      2) Last year I participated in a survey of 3 Ohio prisons (2 medium/low and one max security). In which we inspected the facilities and interviewed the administration, guards, & maintenance staff of each prison,

      3) The average stay at the low/medium security prisons we surveyed was just over one year, with ranges from about 6 months to life.

      Now I had very little direct contact with the prisoners, but I can attest that the guards at the medium/low security prison did not,in general, think the inmates where horrible people. Maybe it hinges on what you mean by "horrible," but a person that is incarcerated for only 6-18 months hasn't even committed a "horrible" crime. Hell, you can get a multi-year sentence for possessing to much drugs in Ohio and I image it is similar in other states.

      Maybe the public defenders in Ohio are just bad, but the prisons in Ohio are generally overcrowded with no-violent drug related criminals. I don't assume users/addicts are "horrible" people, but maybe you do.
    1. Green1's Avatar
      Green1 -
      Well, it IS jail. They can limit or ban anything they want as long as it is not religiously protected or food and toilet.

      That, and it uses dice. Most normies equate dice with gambling, not math, reading, and imagination.

      It also has someone "running" it. When cops think "running", they think "running a gang", "running an operation", etc. Not busting ass over maps, NPCs, and tweaked monsters and stuff so game goes smoothly.

      That said, kind of sad. Yeah, maybe some one did axe murder or rape someone. But, it would seem humane to let someone live another life that had goals and meaning if they were caged for 10 to 20 years. If it were me, it would make my time much more bearable. Player or DM.
    1. Morrus's Avatar
      Morrus -
      Quote Originally Posted by RobShanti View Post
      It *does* make them horrible people, Dave.
      If all people in prison are horrible people, that means that Americans are the most horrible people in the world. With 698 incarcerated people per 100K (ten times the rate of Sweden), only the Seychelles with 799 has more; the UK has 148. Sweden has 60. I think it's safe to say that unless one were to accept the ludicrous conclusion that Americans are the most horrible people in the world, incarceration can't possibly be directly linked to horribleness.
    1. delericho's Avatar
      delericho -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jester Canuck View Post
      There are several reasons for prisons.

      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.
      Alternately, we could have different prisons serving different purposes, with different categories of inmates, and with different rules as appropriate.

      Our roads aren't all the same, so why should our prisons be?
    1. dave2008's Avatar
      dave2008 -
      Quote Originally Posted by delericho View Post
      Alternately, we could have different prisons serving different purposes, with different categories of inmates, and with different rules as appropriate.

      Our roads aren't all the same, so why should our prisons be?
      That is generally how it is done in Ohio (USA).
    1. mrm1138's Avatar
      mrm1138 -
      Quote Originally Posted by goldomark View Post
      I'm not sure how this won't devolve into a political discussion.
      Yes, it's sad that treating other human beings with dignity and respect—no matter their history—has become deeply politicized.
    1. evilbob's Avatar
      evilbob -
      Quote Originally Posted by goldomark View Post
      I'm not sure how this won't devolve into a political discussion.
      Yup. I'm pretty sickened by one side of this conversation (I guess I won't say which so it doesn't get worse) so I'm done with this thread.
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