Critical Fail: The Censorship of RPGs

by Justin Brown

Let’s say you’ve been reading up on the CBLDF coverage of the top 10 banned books of 2011, which included a graphic novel in the #2 spot, and you want to vent your frustrations by gathering with a group of friends to play a trending role-playing-game. You amble amongst local comic shops, book stores and libraries to obtain the newest player manual only to discover that it has been banned or censored to the point of being unplayable. (I mean, who wants to try to bewilder a bug-bear with a rubber-mallet-of-kindness? Ok, that scenario is a little farfetched, but you get the picture.) According to a recent article on ICv2, censorship has branched out to include RPGs for many of the same reasons that comic books have been challenged and censored.

From the ICv2 article, “The Top Censored RPGs: Artwork and Content Created Problems“:

Role-playing games have attracted plenty of unwarranted criticism in the mainstream media over the years with blanket indictments of Dungeons & Dragons as promoting Satanism or contributing to juvenile delinquency, but some games have actually been pulled after publication by embarrassed publishers, while others have been banned at various venues including high profile gaming conventions. Some games were censored in part at least because of their artwork (and the work of Erol Otus appears to have garnered plenty of attention in this regard), while others like Steve Jackson’s Killer ran afoul of school officials (especially after the rash of school shootings) as well as major shows like Gen Con, while another Steve Jackson Games effort was even seized by the Secret Service in what appears to have been a clear First Amendment violation.”

RPGs have been targeted in many places, from public schools to libraries and even prisons. In January 2010, a federal appeals court in Wisconsin ruled that prisons have the right to ban RPGs from the prisoner population, according to a New York Times article by John Schwartz. The article stated that a prisoner at the Waupun Correctional Institution in Wisconsin was restricted from playing Dungeons & Dragons because of the “recommendation of the prison’s specialist on gangs, who said it could lead to gang behavior and fantasies about escape” (I assume they don’t mean a rogue gang of chaotic-neutral-bard-duelists).

The censorship of RPGs has parallels to the self-censorship imposed by the Comic Code Authority’s seal of approval, an industry-led censorship campaign created due to public and political pressure. (See CBLDF’s history of the Comics Code here.) Since the 1980s — the same time when Tipper Gore and the newly formed Parents’ Music Resource Center (see’s article for more information) were trying to censor and restrict access to music that didn’t coincide with their moral ideologies — government and religious groups have been trying to censor RPGs. These groups justify their actions by claiming that youth could be led to murder, suicide and Satanism.

A spring 2005 article in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture analyzes the “moral panic” created by opponents of the RPG community. Author David Waldron, Lecturer in Social Science and the Humanities, University of Ballarat, Victoria, Australia, writes:

The Federal Trades Commission, the Consumer Products Safety Commission, and numerous members of Congress were lobbied to have RPGs sold with warning labels linking them to suicide and murder or have them banned outright.

During this period there was extensive lobbying by church organizations on schools, the media, government and police, opining that RPGs were a fundamental threat to America’s moral character, encouraged youth violence and were linked to Satanism and the Pagan revival.

A recent article on by Shannon Applecline lists 12 censored or banned RPGs and elaborates on why each game was censored. Applecline discusses industry-led censorship, in particular Wizards of the Coast’s (a subsidiary of Hasbro that owns the d20 trademark) use of “community standards of decency” to censor a game titled Book of Erotic Fantasy. From Applecline’s article:

When word got around that Valar was working on a Book of Erotic Fantasy, Wizards of the Coast went out of their way to introduce “community standards of decency” to the d20 Trademark License, just so that Valar couldn’t use it. Shades of Killer’s experience at GenCon in 1982.

Valar used the OGL instead. So, this book wasn’t technically banned by Wizards, but it certainly received censure and that was surely part of an attempt to keep it out of print.

Arguments by censors claim solely to protect minors from objectionable or mature material, the same arguments that led to the Comics Code, and the justification for recent attacks on the video game industry (see CBLDF’s coverage of Brown v. EMA here and CBLDF’s coverage of HR 4204 here).

Unfortunately, negative sentiments toward RPGs’ visual and written art and toward creators, artists and RPG-enthusiasts’ First Amendment rights, can develop into a general dogma of anti-free expression for all media, including comics. In an editorial response to the ICv2 article, Nick Smith said that people should be careful anytime censorship is taken in to consideration, despite the cause. Smith writes:

It is true that parents can easily react to the unfamiliar by wanting to keep away from it, and to keep their children away from it. That is a natural reaction, although it can sometimes be over-reactive and over-protective. My own experience is that the censor is so certain that his or her own values are the ‘correct’ ones that it never occurs to them to learn about the unfamiliar, or even to learn from it. That is the danger, that the censor is sometimes both uninformed and overly assertive in their own beliefs and standards. In the extreme case, a censor may be someone with views outside the mainstream, and who wants their own version of reality supported more. Worst case, the censor steps on the rights of other people in their quest for a comfortable world view. Extreme cases, such as book burnings, are the visible horror stories. The real danger, and the more common one, is the attempt to deny readers, viewers or game players the opportunity to express their own opinions, their own judgment, and their own principles.

Whether you’re a dungeon master, comic fan or advocate of free expression, you can roll your initiative and make a critical-hit by speaking out against First Amendment violations and by supporting organizations like the CBLDF.

Please help support CBLDF’s important First Amendment work and reporting on issues such as this by making a donation or becoming a member of the CBLDF!

Justin Brown is a 2010 journalism graduate of the Indiana University of Pennsylvania.