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 -
      Quote Originally Posted by evilbob View Post
      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.
      You didn't post in this thread. I'm not sure why you need to say you're leaving or inform me about your hurt feelings.
    1. RobShanti's Avatar
      RobShanti -
      Quote Originally Posted by Morrus View Post
      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.
      That is the most illogical argument that I have ever read on this forum.
    1. RobShanti's Avatar
      RobShanti -
      Quote Originally Posted by dave2008 View Post
      Robshanti, I'm guessing you haven't read the rest of my posts on this thread ...
      I did read it, Dave, and while I respect your CV, mine is equally as involved in the criminal justice system, so it doesn't gain you any traction from my perspective.

      I do think that people who violate the social contract by committing violent crimes, or raping, or destroying or invading the property of others, or ruining their own lives and the lives of the people who care about them by abusing drugs are horrible people. Sure, there are a few exceptions, like the poor bastard who got injured at work, got prescribed oxycodone for the pain, and then got hooked on it and spiraled into a cesspool of drug abuse, but I'm talking about the rule, not the exception. Prisons are NOT built to house the model citizen.
    1. dave2008's Avatar
      dave2008 -
      Quote Originally Posted by RobShanti View Post
      I did read it, Dave, and while I respect your CV, mine is equally as involved in the criminal justice system, so it doesn't gain you any traction from my perspective.

      I do think that people who violate the social contract by committing violent crimes, or raping, or destroying or invading the property of others, or ruining their own lives and the lives of the people who care about them by abusing drugs are horrible people. Sure, there are a few exceptions, like the poor bastard who got injured at work, got prescribed oxycodone for the pain, and then got hooked on it and spiraled into a cesspool of drug abuse, but I'm talking about the rule, not the exception. Prisons are NOT built to house the model citizen.
      Wow, that post was months old - where have you been?

      Since a very large portion of people incarcerated in federal prisons (USA) are in for non-violent drug offenses and immigration offenses (60% of the population according to the Huffington Post) I disagree with you broad generalization. Now my experience with the prison system was on the state level and was not researching the prison-population; however, my anecdotal conversations with guards and prison administration seemed to support the federal data.

      To clarify, I don't believe I ever stated that prisons are there to harbor model citizens. I don't even know who qualifies as a model citizen!
    1. Morrus's Avatar
      Morrus -
      Quote Originally Posted by RobShanti View Post
      That is the most illogical argument that I have ever read on this forum.
      Well, that seems unlikely!
    1. RobShanti's Avatar
      RobShanti -
      Quote Originally Posted by Morrus View Post
      Well, that seems unlikely!
      Obviously to you it does; you're the one who made the argument I find illogical! But I assure you.

      Quote Originally Posted by dave2008 View Post
      Wow, that post was months old - where have you been?

      Since a very large portion of people incarcerated in federal prisons (USA) are in for non-violent drug offenses and immigration offenses (60% of the population according to the Huffington Post) I disagree with you broad generalization.
      Well, then this simply comes down to us disagreeing on what makes a person "horrible."

      We apparently disagree on whether someone is a horrible person for (1) hurting themselves and their families and loved ones by abusing controlled substances, (2) driving out the tax base from once safe neighborhoods by selling drugs on street corners, (3) feeding the addictions that cause people to commit violent crimes and that burden the fiscal resources of our states and municipalities (the economic cost of drug abuse to the United States is estimated at over $180 billion per year), and (4) draining our immigration enforcement resources (the education of the children of illegal aliens in the public schools of my state alone is costing the state’s taxpayers nearly $230 million dollars annually.)

      I think violating the social contract in those ways does make a person horrible. You don't. Either way, this is now way off topic. We won't convince each other, so we can continue to waste bandwidth arguing this ad nauseam, or we can talk about our shared passion, gaming, and save our sociopolitical disagreements for the voting booths.
    1. dave2008's Avatar
      dave2008 -
      Quote Originally Posted by RobShanti View Post
      Well, then this simply comes down to us disagreeing on what makes a person "horrible."
      Clearly we have different definitions of "horrible."

      Quote Originally Posted by RobShanti View Post
      We won't convince each other, so we can continue to waste bandwidth arguing this ad nauseam, or we can talk about our shared passion, gaming,
      I can agree to that! Of course I've been there for months only to be surprised that this thread keeps popping back up.
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