I’ve always been an opinionated asshole, but for those who didn’t know in high school, it might come as a surprise that I was even more of an opinionated asshole back then. I was also a huge nerd, with a slightly nerdier older brother who I idolized. We grew up playing our own rudimentary versions of generic RPGs, but it wasn’t until I was well into my teenage years that I began an earnest interest in Dungeons and Dragons.
For those unaware, D&D has not always been regarded as the harmless bastion of voluntary virginity that it is today (or as the aloof cultural capital booster it becomes when you cross over into the post-college years, but that’s a different essay). As early as the first edition, D&D was harangued by a variety of panicky fools, most notably from the Christian right. Concerns ran the gamut from the predictable and mundane (artwork containing naked women, the use of the word “demon” in reference materials) to the outrageous (claims that the game was evil in and of itself, and that players could fall under the control of Satan and his followers from playing too often). I was blissfully unaware of all this as a precocious 9-year-old, when I first started dabbling in RPGs, but when I dipped my toe back in the geek pond in high school, my inevitable google searches of “Dungeons and Dragons” led me to a piece of writing—and the man behind it—that would forever alter how I viewed the world I lived in, and the people who lived in it with me.
“Should A Christian Play Dungeons & Dragons” is an essay that is still available for view on Jack Chick’s website, www.chick.com. If you’re lucky enough to have never heard of Jack Chick, he’s the guy who publishes those hilarious/disturbing/hilarious again tiny flip comic books that teach you great lessons about Christianity; like homosexuals being evil, Halloween being evil, Muslims being evil…the dude is really into evil. It’s no surprise, in retrospect, that he teamed up with Bill Schnoebelen, the author of “Straight Talk” and an even more unhinged fruitcake than Chick is. I can’t say with 100% confidence that I read the entire article before I emailed Schnoebelen, but it seems likely. At the time I was just beginning to write consistently, and I loved arguing and honing my analytical skills any way possible. I wish I still had the original email, but it’s lost to the sands of time. To sum up, I wrote Schnoebelen a long and thoughtful email, devoid of any blind accusations or immature name-calling, and politely informed him that I thought his views on D&D being evil were misguided (this was well before I realized that there’s no arguing with a fool).
Much to my surprise, Schnoebelen wrote me back less than 24 hours later. Before I go any further, I’m going to reiterate that I do not have the original emails for reference, or I would quote them here. If Schnoebelen happens to become aware of this essay and he still has those emails, he’s welcome to forward them to me, but for now, we’ll rely on my memory. To his eternal credit, Bill was a pretty nice and well-spoken dude, and replied promptly and courteously, but we seemed to go around in circles, as do most arguments between the rational and the deluded. At this point in time, I was unaware of Bill’s FIRST article for Chick Publications, a much more whacked-out piece of literature titled “Straight Talk on Dungeons & Dragons”. The original pice of writing I encountered was pretty far-fetched, but, it seemed to me, mostly full of inaccurate information and panicky conclusions drawn by a reactionary Christian with too much time on his hands, but not enough research.
How wrong I was. As our conversation went on, Schnoebelen’s worldview came into sharper focus, and to a sixteen-year-old boy, it was scary. The gist of the essay I read, “Should A Christian Play D&D?”, was that the game could lead a player away from God and a Christian life, and have dire consequences. The language was muddy, but my general takeaway was that Schnoebelen as arguing against D&D because it was potentially dangerous, and could make people go insane or lose themselves in a violent fantasy world. It’s far-fetched, but certainly not outside the bounds of reality. My initial arguments focused on the relatively small percentage of people who do horrible things after playing D&D, and most importantly, the fact that it was indeed a fantasy. Schnoebelen countered one of my dismissals by drawing comparisons between violent media leading kids like Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris to act out their violent fantasies, saying that in D&D players might try to make their fantasies a reality in a similar fashion.
Confused, I replied with something along the lines of “but the difference is this: magic and trolls and goblins aren’t real. There aren’t any real world consquences, only the consequences of a disturbed mind.”
To which he replied with something akin to this: “Gnomes and trolls certainly are real. A band of gnomes recently castrated a young boy here and hung him from a lamp post for performing a gnomish ritual wrong.”
I kid you not, a grown man actually said this to me. Imagine how terrifying it would be, as a teenager, to be engaged with a conversation over email with a total stranger and suddenly realize they were 100%, verifiably out of their minds? I sent him one last message, something akin to realizing that he was out of touch with reality, and big him well. I think he emailed back but I deleted the whole thread, feeling dirty, shameful, and frightened.
It taught me a lot of lessons, but the one I’ll take to the grave is this: some people just can’t be reasoned with. Their worldview is so warped and damaged that even the most well articulated, well-reasoned argument in history will not move them from whatever twisted belief they’ve decided to cling to for dear life. It’s the reason I’ve had to explain to many friends, time and again, that if I fight or bicker with them, if I argue with them very heatedly and use strong language and fiery rhetoric, it’s because I consider them intelligent, open to argument, and worthy of conversation. Namely, I consider them a friend. Somebody who I feel is an idiot, is incapable of being swayed, or who just downright doesn’t deserve my time…they won’t get it. They’ll get pleasantries and coldness, because I don’t need to waste my breath on somebody who is never going to even try to see where I’m coming from.
In case you were wondering, I did a little more research into Bill Schnoebelen after I had recovered form the initial creep-out period. The dude is, like I said, a certifiable whackjob, or perhaps just a grift artist. He’s claimed to have been a Wiccan High Priest, a Satanist, and a Catholic. The last one doesn’t sound so incriminating, if he didn’t use that as a segue into his claim that he was invited to become a vampire by his fellow Catholics(!).
Looking back, the whole thing was kind of a watershed moment for me and my maturation. It was the end of my belief that people were basically calm, rational, and intelligent adults who mostly want to be left alone and leave others alone. I don’t believe that anymore: most people are blessedly stupid and content to be that way, but a large number are also intent on destroying the liveliehood and happiness of anybody who isn’t as afraid of life as they are. To that end, whenever I see people trying to dump on somebody who is daring to do things a little differently (and it happens far more subtly than you’d imagine), I make a mental note that this person is a weak and fearful person, and they are the only ones obligated to deal with themselves.