On August 15, 1979, a 16-year-old college student and computer nerd named James Dallas Egbert III disappeared from Michigan State University. His parents hired private detective William Dear to find their missing boy.
Dallas Egbert played D&D, a game that seemed strange enough to becomes Dear’s key lead. The detective focused his hunt on the notion that Egbert had played Dungeons & Dragons in the eight miles of steam tunnels under the university and remained lost, hidden, or trapped. Dear wondered if D&D had broken the “fragile barrier between fantasy and reality.” Perhaps D&D left Egbert so deluded that he believed he was a wizard exploring the dungeon. Perhaps his attempt to make the game real had left him hurt or even dead in the tunnels. “Dallas might actually have begun to live the game, not just to play it.”
Egbert’s disappearance introduced Dungeons & Dragons to America. The reports painted the game as “bizarre” and its players as a “cult.” A story in The New York Times speculated that Egbert became lost “while playing an elaborate version of a bizarre intellectual game called Dungeons & Dragons.”
“Students at Michigan State University and elsewhere reportedly have greatly elaborated on the game, donning medieval costumes and using outdoor settings to stage the content.”
On September 9, The San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner published an article titled, “Fantasy cult angle probed in search for computer whiz.”
“Police hunting for a missing 16-year-old computer whiz, yesterday completed a futile search of tunnels beneath the Michigan State University campus where fantasy lovers acted out roles in a bizarre game.”
Reporters consistently painted D&D as a “bizarre” game enjoyed by “secretive” and “cultish” players. Under the story lies the notion that D&D pulls players so deeply into fantasy that they lose touch with reality—that the game lures players to play out the fantasy in real life.
On September 13, less than a month after the disappearance, Egbert called and revealed his location. The teen’s attempt to flee depression had led him on a trek that took him to the home of an older male “admirer,” to Chicago, and then to Morgan City, Louisiana. During his trek, he survived two suicide attempts.
Egbert had turned to D&D for respite from his other troubles. He faced intense academic pressure from parents who had pushed him to skip two grades. He was gay at a time when few people accepted or tolerated the trait. (Later, he would beg Dear to keep this secret hidden.) In the book Perfect Victims, journalist Bill James writes, “Egbert was living among older kids who had nothing in common with him and who didn’t particularly like him. He was regarded as an irritating little twerp. He was 16, but looked 12. He got involved in numerous campus activities and groups, each of which devised a new kind of rejection for him.”
In a press conference, Dear said the teenager’s disappearance was not related to Dungeons & Dragons. But the detective still saw D&D as a bad influence. “You’re leaving the world of reality into the world of fantasy,” Dear said. “This isn’t a healthy game.”
The story of James Dallas Egbert ends sadly. In 1980, he died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Perhaps if he had lived just a little longer, his tale could have led to a happier ending. The intelligence that isolated him could have become an asset. The secret that tormented him became more accepted. Perhaps, in more time, D&D could have helped him find his people.
For the full story, see The Media Furor that Introduced the “Bizarre Intellectual Game” of Dungeons & Dragons to America.
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