Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

All gang members start off playing Dungeons & Dragons

It took 20 pages for the U.S Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit to decide that convicted murderer Kevin Singer was not allowed to play Dungeons & Dragons in prison because it could lead to gang activity.

(Sidenote:  I saw this story first on a website I visit daily — — which I always type in as All of you nerds know why. It even had a link to a great Above the Law article on the subject.)

I had some friends in junior high school who played D&D.  They were all nerds (I say this lovingly — I was and still am a nerd). Every last one of them embodied at least 75 percent of the stereotypical nerd description — unpopular, academic, lacking in sports knowledge, lacking the ability/desire to play sports, routinely bullied and with a severely compromised ability to interact with the opposite sex.

None of them grew up to be gang members. Or criminals. In fact, most of them are professionally successful, married, and know the basic rules of baseball. All that jazz in the 80s about D&D leading to satanic worship, murder and suicide is highly exaggerated.  I’m not saying that it doesn’t happen, but I bet more people have been killed from fights with fans of opposing sports teams.

In the 7th Circuit case, a Wisconsin prison regulated that “inmates are not allowed to engage in or possess written material that details rules, codes, dogma of games/activities such as ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ because it promotes fantasy role playing, competitive hostility, violence, addictive escape behaviors, and possible gambling.”

That’s a little vague. Did the prison ban chess, checkers and cards? I doubt it. Inmates can’t watch football on television? I doubt it. All of those can lead to gambling. All of those have rules and codes.  All of them involve competition and some degree of fantasy. Many of them involve violence (chess is game of war, after all. You can’t argue that football is a pacifistic sport — it’s not badminton).

Part of the decision was about the problems D&D could cause by inhibiting rehabilitation — in effect, creating an alternate hierarchy with the Dungeon Master (DM) as head that could clash with the prison’s hierarchy of warden as top dog, thereby limiting the effectiveness of the warden’s rehabilitation programs. But, the main thrust of the decision was that D&D mimics the organization of a gang — the DM doles out assignments, just like a gang leader does.

In this case, prison officials conceded that D&D had not lead to gang activity in the past. Despite that concession, it seems that paranoia about D&D may have carried the day (but, the plaintiff’s experts were admittedly weak). Regardless, I find it hard to believe that the court’s conclusions, that the removal of all D&D materials and activities, bears a rational relationship to the prison’s penological interests.

I tried D&D a couple of times as a kid. I never could get into it — it just felt too unstructured for my adolescent brain.  I sometimes regret that I never joined that particular cult — the dice, Wil Wheaton, and, most inexplicably, ThinkGeek shirts.  I should be thankful that I avoided it — otherwise I could be a hardened gang member.


  1. This is the sort of commentary one expects to see on ATL, the best blog written by and for adolescent boys, but it’s a little strange to see it here. Is it an audition piece? If so, it’s probably too late since ATL just filled all of its open blogger spots.

  2. That’s funny because I’ve always thought you looked like Wil Wheaton. Now excuse me my while I dig out my copy of Battle of Evermore.