Apr 11, 2013

James Dallas Egbert III

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.


  1. What's funny (not ha-ha funny, the other kind) is that his gaming could have been one of the only outlets and supports he had. If you're so isolated and unhappy in your own life, a couple of hours of escapism can help you feel okay for a little while and get that feeling of belonging and success you can't really have otherwise. If you're under huge pressure to be exceptional in everything you do, then having challenges that are fun and fantastic can help you blow off steam. And if you're that lonely, then getting to know people you have things in common with can be a lifeline.
    It's sad, because gaming could have been something that helped him stay around as long as he did, and instead of appreciating that we villify it.

    1. Definitely. The entire case ought to be held up as an example of how not to deal with someone who suffers from depression. If gaming was the one thing he had that he really enjoyed, I can only imagine how it felt seeing people blame it for his problems.

  2. The US was having a weird time in the 80's. The 'Satanic Cult Panic' was an insanity fuelled by poor practices in questioning, psychology and conspiracy, with 'experts' who were anything but peddling their odd notions to law enforcement. The D&D = Satanic threat craze tied in to the whole ritualized abusive cult vibe that was running through the nation.

    Even now though, we get oddities appearing such as Pokemon being a force of evil, Harry Potter being a corruptor of youth and instigator of witchcraft, and a My Chemical Romance album title being misconstrued as an afterlife where emos go when they die (Thank you, Daily Mail, for your insight into 'The Black Parade'.)

    - Ellen J Miller

    1. The followers of pretty much any dogma are always more eager to find easy targets to blame rather than work to find real solutions to their problems.

  3. James Dallas Egbert III was a very intelligent and very troubled young man. While his genius intellect allowed him to enroll in college at a young age, his emotional growth was stunted by parental pressure to excel academically.

    Where most adolescents develop socially and sexually through the established yet awkward rituals of a high school environment, Dallas was thrown into the social/sexual potboiler that is college campus life.

    I imagine that he was given little opportunity to hang out at parties with the other students who would likely have treated him as more of a mascot than a real friend. Rather than establish any healthy relationships and given the chance to grow and mature naturally, his few encounters would have been awkward, confusing and toxic since he was still in a state of emotional vulnerability.

    Face it, every kid who had a boyfriend or girlfriend in High School was "in love" with that person. Typically, those romances don't last & while they can be emotionally painful, normally, kids grow, mature and learn from these relationships.

    In college, it's more like a meat grinder.

    Academic pressure is tough for almost everyone but even more so with Dallas who had been chastised by his mother for achieving a 3.5 rather than a 4.0 in a particular course.

    He had attempted suicide on two separate occasions and rather than having him committed or finding some other way to help him, this seems to have been glossed over by his parents, other family members and friends.

    Here we have a kid as brilliant as Dallas who ended up working in the oil fields in Louisiana when he could have been building rockets for NASA. (Not knocking anyone who works labor intensive fields like oil workers but it certainly doesn't seem like something Dallas would have picked for a career.)

    If we accept that he was homosexual or bisexual, his sense of isolation would only have been more intense. Considering it was the early 80's, there were few places where a young gay or bisexual teenage male would have felt comfortable enough to freely express himself.

    He likely had encounters with older men who would have never taken him seriously and would have also been fully aware that any sexual relationship they had with him would probably have been considered a criminal act due to his young age.

    Having played D&D for the last 30 years of my life, I concluded that there was no better form of birth control than playing Dungeons & Dragons. it certainly never got me any chicks.

    I've also spent the last 20 years of my life working as a police officer, the bulk of that time has been spent investigating sex crimes.

    So the real tragedy I see in this case is that a young man spent years crying for help from someone, anyone who would really listen to him and not take advantage of his emotional vulnerability.

    Sadly, he never really found that person.

    Instead, his life & death are remembered because he was that kid who went crazy and killed himself because of Dungeons & Dragons.

    Sadly, it was probably one of the few healthy outlets he had because it certainly didn't contribute in his death.

    However, a story about a confused, young gay or bisexual teen with a drug problem who ran away from home and eventually killed himself certainly wouldn't sell many books.

    1. Thank you for your comments, Brett, and very well said. I can't think of anything to add other than that I agree with you completely. Even one person's kindness could have saved James' life.

      Makes me wonder how many people in our lives are struggling with similar problems, and we might not even realise it.

  4. Paul,

    Thanks for the compliment! I appreciate it! Your blog is fantastic by the way!

    I plan on buying & reading your book, having read and enjoyed Neil Gaiman's "Neverwhere" which I thought was excellent. We don't have enough gritty urban fantasy these days & while I loved Harry Potter, I can't see myself as a "Twilight" fan.

    I've been a gamer for thirty years and with that, I've also written tons of game related material but never dared to have anything published.

    I'm working on an auto-biography of sorts about my 20 year career in law enforcement which has sadly been cut short due to debilitating injuries.

    Hopefully, I'll get it finished soon & we'll see what happens!

    Thanks again!


    1. Wow, keep me posted on your auto-biography. I'll grab a copy when you get it published. My wife suffered from a virus as a child which left her partially paralyzed from the waist-down. She can walk with crutches and uses a wheelchair when out of the house, so I know a little about life with a disability.