Beginner's Guide to Dungeons & Dragons

D&D in Pop Culture

Sheldon revisits some Christmas memories during a game of Dungeons & Dragons on The Big Bang Theory.
Sheldon revisits some Christmas memories during a game of Dungeons & Dragons on The Big Bang Theory.
Photo by Monty Brinton/CBS via Getty Images

Dungeons & Dragons is one of the most wildly successful games of all time. It has been published in at least 13 languages, has been played by an estimated 20 million people and has generated about $1 billion in revenue for its owners [source: WOC, McMillan]. And along the way, the game – and its creators – have made some enemies.

Chief among its critics are religious and parents' groups who, during the peak of the outcry in the 1980s, considered D&D at least a waste of their children's time and at worst a recruiting tool for Satanists [source: Chick]. While the imagery associated with the game was enough to raise the fears of some critics, the outcry turned into a type of hysteria beginning in the late 1970s because of some high profile cases concerning people who played the game.

In 1979, Dallas Egbert, a 16-year-old computer prodigy studying at Michigan State University, attempted suicide by overdosing on barbiturates in the steam tunnels beneath campus. He was unsuccessful, and when he regained consciousness the next day, Egbert hid out at a friend's house, prompting a massive hunt for him. The lead investigator used Egbert's playing of Dungeons & Dragons to draw a parallel between a series of steam tunnels and a dungeon maze and suggested that perhaps Egbert had been driven insane by the game [source: Hately].

The media feasted on this and ultimately presented it as fact. Despite Egbert's later admission that it was academic pressure from his parents that made him suicidal, his disappearance gave the critics of D&D a victim of the game.

Egbert eventually committed suicide in 1980. His case was memorialized in a 1982 TV movie called Mazes and Monsters. It starred Tom Hanks, who played a gamer who became so lost in his character that he broke from reality [source: IMDB].

The suicide of another young boy who played Dungeons & Dragons led to the creation of B.A.D.D. (Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons) by the boy's mother, who led a crusade against the game as satanic and offered conferences that introduced law enforcement agencies to the game [source:]. Blaming Dungeons & Dragons for violent crime still continues; when a woman went on a shooting rampage at her workplace at the University of Alabama, at least one news outlet suggested her love for D&D motivated the killings [source: Newitz].

Despite all of this negative publicity, or perhaps because of it, Dungeons & Dragons continued to increase in popularity in the early 1980s. In 1983, a Dungeons & Dragons cartoon show debuted and ran for three seasons on CBS [source: IMDB]. A 2000 Dungeons & Dragons movie was decidedly less successful, however.

While what could have been considered a popular craze has died down over the years, the game is still widely enjoyed, with a thriving community of players and resources available online. What's more, it has become a part of pop culture iconography. The band Weezer referenced Dungeon Masters on its debut album, and episodes of the cartoon show Futurama have centered on D&D (including one which featured Gary Gygax as guest). Basketball player and D&D player Tim Duncan famously asked his teammates to call him Merlin [source: ESPN]. And most recently, the NBC show Community featured an entire episode that revolved around a game of D&D as an homage to it [source: Woerner].

If all of this has you excited about playing Dungeons & Dragons, check out the additional information on the next page.