I think it's easy to forget about "healthy" aspects of gaming and fantasy because (as I have written before) the media loves sensational stories about people taking games and other fantasy experiences "too far." Much of this has been exaggerated, and its roots delve back to the 1980s and Pat Pulling's Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons (BADD) campaign to ban D&D (because, in her estimation, D&D was responsible for her son's suicide). In another so-called gaming tragedy, the famous "steam tunnel incident" supposedly led to James Dallas Egbert III's disappearance from Michigan State University in 1979, after getting lost in the campus's tunnels while playing a live-action role-playing game. Rumor was, this led to his death. (In fact, Egbert had simply fled campus, and sadly killed himself a year later.) The death was unconnected to D&D: the kid was depressed, suffered from pressure about school performance from his parents, and had a drug habit. Nonetheless, a movie was made starring Tom Hanks, called Mazes and Monsters (based on these events, itself adapted from a quickie novel of the same name). Forever after, D&D and its ilk was linked to abnormal behavior.
In the past couple of years, more sensationalized stories have appeared about addicted gamers in Korea and China, about cold-turkey boot camps to cure Internet addicts, and about a gamer who died from exhaustion at his keyboard. Stories of flirting and affairs (often in character, in role-playing game worlds) have also bopped around the blogosphere. A recent movement sees the Harry Potter phenomenon as dangerous and satanic; in the words of Chick Publications and its comic book tract "The Nervous Witch," "the Potter books open a doorway that will put untold millions of kids into hell." It's exactly what D&D faced as a pop culture fad when I was a teen in the 1980s. D&D was going to corrupt the minds of teenagers or turn them into Satan worshippers. Remember Jack Chick's "Dark Dungeons"? Hilarious, if it wasn't so sad and misinformed.
All these fears --- D&D as dangerous --- all seem quaint today. No one takes that threat seriously anymore, except perhaps the fundamentalist wingnuts.
Still, stereotypes and prejudices against gaming and fantasy persist. Most people don't realize that for 99% of players and fans, these activities are integrated in healthy ways into the lives or normal people, and they provide an essential community, rites of passage, ethics and values, just like other clubs and hobbies.
But funny thing: gaming does even more. It lets us try out new roles. There's personality development that arises in a role-playing situation. And if you're a geeky shy kid like I was back in the day, role-playing games can be a necessary tool for socialization.
I recently discovered a teen center --- the only one like it in the nation --- that uses table-top (not video) games to teach these exact life skills. Based in the small town of Belfast, Maine, The Game Loft fosters risk-taking, leadership, and camaraderie. Especially for kids who find the football gridiron to be a foreign world, The Game Loft immerses them in a different sort of team sport, where they can find achievement and connectedness.
As I wrote in a recent article for the Christian Science Monitor ("Role-playing games pull reluctant school kids into a supportive crowd"), Game Loft members play characters armed not with football padding and hockey sticks but chain mail, broadswords, light sabers, and magic spells. Working together, they charge onto battlefields and explore underground dungeons, seeking valor in these imaginary realms. Re-enactment games that let kids inhabit other selves from local history give them a stake in their own community. For those at risk of dropping out of high school, The Game Loft can provide empowerment, accountability, and a way back in.
As founders Patricia and Ray Estabrook put it, "At the Loft we know that good things happen to kids through games and The Loft kids can identify these good outcomes with ease. Our games program is designed to encourage these good outcomes."
Too bad the Game Loft hadn't existed back in the days of Mazes and Monsters, and James Dallas Egbert III.
Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms.’’ More info at http://www.ethangilsdorf.com/