Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Steam Tunnels

James Dallas Egbert III
(1962 - 1980)

Thursday the 16th marks the thirty-second anniversary of the passing of James Dallas Egbert III. Dallas (as he evidently preferred to be called) was the kid that purportedly died as a result of playing Dungeons & Dragons. The media played up this story and so entered the public consciousness the thought of D&D as some mysterious, overpowering influence that causes people to engage in dangerous behavior. The truth is that Dallas went into the steam tunnels beneath the campus of Michigan State University, but he didn't do so to play D&D and he didn't die (or even get lost) there. Even now, popular perception is not impeded by the truth.

So, what happened?

Dallas was a prodigy with a purported 180 IQ.  If you can believe it, he was asked to repair U.S. Air Force computers when he was 12.  Dallas was a troubled young man: he was under pressure from his parents to succeed academically, he felt alienated from his fellow students at MSU, he suffered from severe depression, he was gay, and he abused drugs (which, apparently, he was capable of manufacturing).  Dallas went missing in August, 1979, and his family retained the services of “Internationally Acclaimed” and “Renowned” private investigator William Dear.  (Readers may – or may not – recall Dear's association with the infamous “Alien Autopsy” or his astonishing revelations earlier this year about the murders of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman).

Dear promulgated his 'D&D in the steam tunnels' theory (even stating that the game could cause players to lose their minds) and the media sensationalized it. Actually, Dallas went into the steam tunnels to commit suicide by overdosing on methaqualone. When his attempt was not successful, he went off-campus to a friend's house to recover.  Seemingly, Dallas was not aware of the news coverage about his disappearance and he left town.  The following month, Dallas contacted Dear and was reunited with his family.  Unfortunately, Dallas still had problems.  On August 11, 1980, he shot himself and he died five days later.

D&D was not a factor either in the disappearance or the eventual suicide of James Dallas Egbert III.  So why did this misconception gain so much traction?  First, Dallas specifically asked Dear not to publicize the true facts of the case, primarily on account of Dallas' younger brother.  Dear didn't correct the media accounts and the media didn't make much of an effort to follow-up on the resolution of the case.  Dear wrote The Dungeon Master: The Disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III (“one of the greatest statements of humanity every [sic] made”) which was published in 1984, after Dallas had died and his brother was out of school.  Alas, this was too late to set the record straight.

Inspired by the erroneous media accounts of Egbert's disappearance, Rona Jaffe wrote Mazes and Monsters, which was published in 1981.  The TV movie was broadcast the following year, reinforcing the notion of role-playing games as a pernicious influence capable of corrupting wholesome youths into depraved psychotics.  The myth of D&D being responsible for Egbert's disappearance seems indelible.  Even Dear's book is inaccurately described on Google Books.

In the decades since Egbert's demise, society has developed a greater sympathy for the plights and stigmas he faced:  mental illness, sexual orientation, the burden of unrealistic expectations, etc.  A greater sympathy, yes – but perhaps not sympathetic enough.  Prejudices still obstruct our paths as we make our way through the steam tunnels of our collective psyche.

To end on a lighter note:  It's a shame that Dear didn't hire Egbert to work for his detective agency.  Imagine the situation – a flamboyant, self-promoting private investigator teamed-up with a genius teen-ager.  As a TV show, it would have been an excellent addition to the 1980 season.


  1. I first heard about this story through a Knights of the Dinner Table comic book, but the players involved were so laughably stupid that you really couldn't feel any sympathy for them. It was only after talking to other gamers that I learnt the true story of Dallas. It's not a big surprise as it happened when I was one year old, and in a far off land (I'm English). It strange how D&D was lumped in with some of his other activities and he was just as stigmatized by them all, but D&D and RPGs in general, are seen as an almost safe thing to get riled up about.

  2. I think people are always going to like easy answers for things and something concrete to blame. The narrative of the Columbine killings being a result of bullying is another example of the media finding a pate narrative and running with it.