James Dallas Egbert III: The Dungeon Master
(Originally appeared on Dangerous Minds; re-printed here to save it from formatting mayhem.)
When I was about 14, I discovered a copy of The Dungeon Master: The Disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III in the local library used-book bin. Noting that it had something to do with Dungeons and Dragons (don’t act smug!), and also noting that it cost about $1, I bought it.
That book stuck with me for a long time.
Egbert, for those who are not versed in their nerd history, was the kid who disappeared in the Michigan State University steam tunnels in 1979, apparently as the result of a live-action Dungeons and Dragons session, provoking a nation-wide scare about the then-new role-playing game that would be unrivaled in sheer stupidity levels until the Satanic Panic.
When Egbert’s parents hired a private detective—William Dear, the author of this book—he formulated the theory that it was Egbert’s involvement in the game that had led to his disappearance. He went on to investigate the game himself, even going so far as to play a session. (Chapter reprinted here.)
Egbert’s disappearance, of course, was the incident that inspired the infamous, bizarre TV movie Mazes and Monsters starring Tom Hanks, in which a young Hanks freaks out from playing too much D&D and stabs one of his friends in a steam tunnel when he thinks he’s turned into a monster. (The adults, of course, just don’t understand.)
Now, as all nerds know, the most perfidious thing about Dungeons and Dragons is not that it drives you crazy and makes you see monsters, it’s that it keeps you from getting laid. However, it also tends to entrain skills that kids will later use in life to become successful adults—while kids think they are role-playing at being wizards and drows, what they are actually doing is simulating something like a corporate business meeting, complete with paper-shuffling, public speaking skills, obsessing over numerical minutiae, deciding who’s getting the Mountain Dew next, and so on. (You name me one other activity that can get hormone-crazed teenage monkeys to sit around a table, scribble on paper and talk to each other for hours on end.) Little did parents understand that Dungeons and Dragons would both successfully drive a wall between their kids and anything “cool” like sex and drugs, it would also train them to be productive suits in later life. Birth control and corporate training in one game!
Of course, at the time, the view of Dungeons and Dragons was that it was somehow akin to goat sacrifice. And Egbert was the focus of that hysteria during the weeks in which Dear searched for him.
The truth of the matter, however, was much more painful. At the time of his disappearance, Egbert was a 16-year-old child prodigy who had been pushed by his parents since early childhood to over-succeed. They had rushed him to graduate school early, and subsquently enrolled him in Michigan State, where he stuck out like a preschooler on the playground. Combined with this social mis-juxtaposition, and the tremendous pressure put on him by his parents, Egbert was struggling to hide his blossoming homosexuality, both from his parents and from a not-exactly-friendly 1979 Michigan. Unable to make friends at the University, Egbert drifted into the Dungeons and Dragons players, but only briefly, looking for some way, any way to connect. He also drifted into drugs. And what actually happened when he disappeared was not a D&D freak out—Egbert entered the steam tunnels not to play a game with his friends, but to take an overdose of Quaaludes. When that didn’t work, he ran for the home of an older male “admirer,” where he hid out for weeks, leading to the hysteria over his disappearance. His parents, unwilling to publicly air the fact that their son was gay, readily bought the Dungeons and Dragons theory, and resultant scapegoating.
Egbert was eventually located by Dear, who spends a good deal of the book trying to help the boy come to terms with his situation and listen to him, something nobody had done. Unfortunately, he ran again, this time to the gay party scene in New Orleans, where he again tried unsuccessfully to kill himself with cyanide. After taking a job as a laborer at an oil field, he attempted suicide again, this time with a gun—he succeeded.
William Dear wrote the book four years later (even Egbert, deeply pained by his homosexuality, had urged Dear not to reveal the truth), largely to correct the hysterical misrepresentation of the case by the news media.
Needless to say, this book totally harshed my 14-year-old mellow when all I wanted was a book that would properly explain to me what THAC0 was.*
But now, in hindsight, it strikes me what a poster boy Egbert is for the true teenage outsider—not the dumb rock burnout, but the one that can truly say that “nobody understands me,” the one that’s judged to be too smart, too weird, too queer, too in the wrong place at the wrong time. Reading stuff on Egbert on the web now, I notice a recurring theme—people seem to agree that, had he just chosen to hang on a few years longer, everything would have been fine. What Egbert decided to annihilate himself for in 1980 is, today, commonplace, even mainstream life in suburban America.
As dark as Egbert’s tale is, and as damning of its time and place as it is, it is a startling testament to how much things have changed—and also not at all. Columbine and Virginia Tech kind of make steam tunnel escapades look positively Archie and Jughead, and we still live in a world in which Proposition 8 passed. But as flat and boring as our monoculture is, it gives me hope that it is, still, an increasingly accepting one.
Even of Dungeons and Dragons… well, kind of.
* If you get this joke, you are going to hell.