A while ago I mentioned that gamers and gaming had come under severe scrutiny in the 1980s. While gamers have often been marginalized members of society, it wasn't until an incident involving a gifted, but troubled, young man named James Dallas Egbert III that roleplaying games, Dungeons & Dragons in particular, came to be regarded with extreme suspicion and paranoia.
Egbert was a child prodigy. Extremely intelligent, he was studying in Michigan State University by the time he was 16 years old.
One day in 1979, he disappeared from his dorm room. His parents hired a private investigator, William Dear, to find him. After questioning some of Egbert's friends, he came up with a theory that the boy had gotten lost while wandering through the campus steam tunnels as part of a D&D game. Unfortunately, the media took this theory as fact and ran with it.
The story escalated to urban legend status, gaining national attention and creating the image of D&D players as dangerously unstable misfits with little grasp on reality. The story has inspired several fictional interpretations, including early Tom Hanks movie, Mazes and Monsters, which I've spoken about before.
Egbert, as it happened, had been nowhere near the steam tunnels. He had fled the campus and was hiding out with a series of acquaintances. Eventually he turned himself in to Dear, but made the investigator promise not to reveal the truth about his disappearance.
The following year, Egbert committed suicide by gunshot. His involvement with D&D was held up as the reason for his death, and due to his promise, it wasn't until four years later that Dear released a book, The Dungeon Master, which detailed the truth of his 1979 disappearance and addressed the wider issues at work.
You see, what the media overlooked was that Egbert's death was the result of his third suicide attempt.
It is known that Egbert suffered from serious pressure from his parents to perform academically. He was child prodigy, leaving him naturally cut off from his peers, socially. He struggled with drug addiction, and there is reason to believe he may also have suffered from depression, made worse by difficulties coming to terms with his sexuality. He never received the help he needed, and had been trying to end his life or somehow escape his situation for some time.
The death of James Dallas Egbert III was a terrible tragedy, one which was unfortunately glamorized by the media. For years following his death, rather than examine the complex issues behind it, Egbert's death was blamed on an easy scapegoat. Although the truth came out, the damage had been done, not only harming the reputation of the gaming hobby, but more importantly, tucking the issue of suicide away and filing it neatly into a drawer where the real issues, ugly and hard as they are to face, could be ignored.