D&D banned in Wisconsin prison

Photo from a prison in New Mexico by Flickr user Dana Gonzales.

It’s not like prisoners have a lot to do when they’re behind bars. You’d think playing a game or two to pass the time and stimulate the imagination would be pretty innocent, but the United States Court of Appeals doesn’t think so. The court ruled that prisoners in Wisconsin’s Waupun Correctional Facility can’t play the game.

Why? Because it promotes “gang-like” activity. Tuan Mai at Tom’s Style explains:

[The game] helps prisoners organize themselves into gangs that inhibit prison security. As ridiculous as this may sound, the Courts argued that the structure of the game mimics the organization of a gang and therefore promotes gang activity.

Bruce Muraski, disruptive group coordinator for the Waupun Correctional Institute in Wisconsin stated, “During D&D games, one player is denoted the ‘Dungeon Master.’ The Dungeon Master is tasked with giving directions to other players, which Muraski testified mimics the organization of a gang.”

The prisoner involved in the case, Kevin Singer, argued that the confiscation of D&D was a violation of his first amendment rights and that the game in no way promotes or encourages gang activity. Singer argues that it does the opposite and deters prisoners from joining gangs.

One way of looking at this is: D&D helps gamers form strong, cohesive social groups. Prisons don’t mind if prisoners get along, but they don’t want that camaraderie getting in the way of enforcing rules. On the outside, though, you’d want your D&D-playing kid to have a strong, loyal group of friends, right?

The gamers I have interviewed said that role-playing games were a social lifesaver. Many were loners who had no close friends until gaming helped them find like-minded people to play with. Connecting within the game led to connecting in real life, providing friendships that have lasted decades.

Of course, parents may worry that the close-knit social groups formed within RPGs might lead their kids into friendships with unsavory types who wind up being “bad influences.” Given that approximately 110% of gamers are hardcore nerds with (at best) half-developed social skills, the likelihood of kids falling in with a “bad crowd” in these games is pretty minimal.

I can’t speak to the kinds of prisoners who play RPGs — or whether those kinds of close friendships in prison ultimately cause trouble to lead to recidivism. But it does sound a bit silly for the courts to block the game on the grounds that it helps foster friendships.

Questions for those of you who play (or played) RPGs: did these games help you make friends? If so, do you think they were the “wrong crowd?” And were the games to blame?

And for parents: Do (or did) your kids play role-playing games? What, if anything, worried you about this hobby?


5 responses to “D&D banned in Wisconsin prison

  1. D&D helps you work together towards a goal, recognize “problem people” and spurs your problem solving abilities. The thing is, D&D is a board game involving math, chance and risk-assessment where the worst that could happen is someone might accidentally bounce a die into your eye. It does help build social skills because you get to try out new personas.

    Playing D&D is no more dangerous for prison guards than than playing basketball, and I’m sure prisoners are far more likely to bond over sports than over dark elf rogues. It sounds to me like they are just scared of smart prisoners with good social skills.

  2. Playing role-playing games (both online ones and RL ones) undoubtedly helped me make friends. When I got sick, those local friends visited me, ran errands, and generally helped me out as much as they could. When I needed to move house unexpectedly they turned up (with my blessing) and got 90% of it done while I was in hospital so I didn’t have to worry about it. Ten years later, most of these people are still friends with me and with each other – the group includes lawyers, systems engineers, parents, journalists, and academics. Some of us have PhDs, and most are earning above-average wages, caring about the environment, and generally behaving in a socially responsible fashion.

    If that’s “the wrong crowd”, I’ll eat my graduation cap 🙂

    And BTW my brother is getting married this year. His fiancee is a wonderful woman he met while playing World of Warcraft. I am thrilled for both of them.

  3. I played a lot of role-playing games in college, including Dungeons & Dragons, Vampire: the Masquerade and its sister games, Call of Cthulhu, Earthdawn, Shadowrun, Over the Edge, and many others. I no longer game today, but have fond memories of it. Through gaming, I met my husband, who is now a professor at a top-tier university, as well as many friends, including several professors, attorneys, doctors and other professional types. I am now in my 30s, also a professional, and many of these people remain my friends. Though there were some people whose company I did not enjoy, I do not consider any of the people I have met gaming to be the “wrong crowd,” and if I did have children, I would encourage them to enjoy D&D and its fellow games. Though I think it is prudent to consider what stories you choose to tell, I consider role-playing games to be a general boon to creativity, problem-solving, and learning to negotiate and work with others.

  4. Some of the scariest people I’ve ever met have been through an RPG (both online and tabletop). That said, some of the best people I’ve ever met (including my husband) have been through an RPG.

    I think RPGs tend to attract smart, creative, unconventional folks. I have found that folks who are very smart and creative also tend to end up marginalized from the mainstream (often starting in school and continuing—though less painfully—into adulthood). I believe (though I have no statistics to quote on it) that if you were looking at a ven diagram, marginalized groups would tend to have not-insignificant overlap with the “wrong crowd”. But correlation, as always, does not equal causation. It makes sense to me that people who feel marginalized, overlooked, and misunderstood, are also more likely to have other factors in their life that can contribute to anger, acting out, escaping into drugs, and other activities that can lead to trouble and being branded the “wrong crowd”. I don’t think we can blame RPGs any more than we can blame football for spousal abuse. I’ve met some already-troubled people who gamed, at least in part, because it let them explore certain behaviors and fantasies that might get them in trouble in real life. But I’ve also met tons of really amazing, kind, and personable folks who game because it’s fun and creative. And most importantly, I’ve never met a sweet, peaceful person who became violent or criminal-minded because they gamed. Not one.

  5. I’ve played RPG’s off and on since D&D was three staple-bound booklets. I have never committed a crime. I have never been arrested. I’ve never been drunk, and the one time in my life I got high it was a bad reaction to OTC cold medicine. I work hard, contribute to my community, vote in every election possible, contact my representatives about issues that are important to me, and eat organic vegetables. IOW, I’m about as goody-two-shoes as it’s possible to be in this world.

    Of the literally hundred or more people I’ve gamed with, one was a reckless driver in his teens and early twenties, one had some questionable attitudes toward women, and a few of them liked an occasional toke of weed in the privacy of their own homes. Many of them have college degrees – including some advanced degrees, most of them are in settled long-term relationships with partners they would never consider cheating on, nearly all are gainfully employed, the vast majority take an active part in their communities either in political activism or volunteer work, a couple own small businesses, and all of them are more than average imaginative with good problem-solving skills that gaming helped them develop.

    I know the plural of anecdote isn’t data, but I do think that an awful lot of people who wind up in prison get there in part because they don’t see options to make better choices. They get there because they were desperate or because they got sucked into lousy situations they couldn’t see their ways out of or because they acted impulsively without considering the potential consequences. So really, something that helps them develop the skills to think beyond the next move, to look for possibilities beyond the expected, and to develop their imaginations doesn’t strike me as at all inherently dangerous or negative. In fact, I would be tempted to say it might slightly help reduce recidivism.

    It’s got to be a better option than some of the ways people spend their time in prison now.

  6. This is Wisconsin. They used the gang argument, but what they dont like is the “satanic” or “non christian” parts.

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