You may have heard the urban legend about that student who died playing a live version of Dungeons and Dragons in the steam tunnels at Michigan State University. How about the one where the RPG player killed himself because his gaming character died? These stories have been adapted into a pretty funny Chick Tract, a thriller novel, and a made for TV movie.
James Dallas Egbert III is the inspiration for both urban legends. Of course, neither actually happened, but his real-life story makes for a compelling blend of dark comedy and tragedy.
In fact, the oddly-named Egbert, a teenage prodigy who faced unusual home pressures to be perfect, abused drugs, and felt confused about his sexual orientation, only occasionally played D&D with older acquaintances at MSU; they were among the few people who really accepted him during his short, sad life. We will never entirely know why he finally opted to attempt suicide in 1979, but it's clear from the statements of those who knew him he had been experiencing depression for some time.
On August 14, 1979, J. Dallas left a map of pins that indicated a location in the university's steam tunnels and left his room at Case Hall. He took a blanket, some food, and many sleeping pills and entered the steam tunnels, evidently intending to die of a drug overdose.
He awoke the next evening, disoriented but very much alive.
As his personal belongings were later found in the tunnels, and because most people at the time were unfamiliar with role-playing games, the police and the media seized on a bizarre explanation for his disappearance: Egbert had disappeared or died during a role-playing game! Many news agencies picked it up as the man bites dog story of the day. To complicate matters, the local Society for Creative Anachronism had reportedly taken group photographs in the tunnels, and had painted medieval designs on the walls. Many took these as further evidence that games had been played in this dungeon-like setting. One must remember the general unfamiliarity at the time with games such as Dungeons and Dragons. Many people did not believe J. Dallas had been playing an odd, live variant on the game; they thought that the game actually involved running around in tunnels chasing imaginary monsters.
When J. Dallas turned up a month later with a very different explanation for his disappearance, few bothered to report the facts. The family (it was later revealed) also refused to speak to the media to clarify facts, because they did not want the 16 year old boy's homosexual inclinations discussed.
In fact, he had left the tunnels and taken sanctuary with an older, gay male friend. After a week, with J. Dallas now officially a missing person, the man asked the minor to leave, and provided him with some funds. A private investigator, William Dear, later found the youth near New Orleans. Sadly, in August of 1980, Dallas successfully committed suicide, using a gun. At roughly that point, a new legend began: that he had killed himself because a character he played had died in a game.
The original, inaccurate story inspired a fictional novel Mazes and Monsters by Rona Jaffe that was made into a 1982 TV movie starring the young Tom Hanks. Many people, vaguely aware of J. Dallas Egert's story, have assumed this work of fiction represents a true account. Evangelist Jack Chick incorporated details of the story into one of his infamous Jack T. Chick tracts, Dark Dungeons; its absurd depiction of RPGs has made it a collectible among the Gaming Community. BADD (Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons), a group of concerned parents, at least early in its history, cited J. Dallas Egbert's woeful tale as a reason why parents should not let their children play such games. William Dear finally published a factual account of the story in 1990, entitled The Dungeon Master: The Disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III.
More places exist now where one can freely be other than heterosexual, and fantasy role-playing games have a greater following than they did in 1979. Given J. Dallas's extraordinary gifts in areas related to computer programming, he would likely be living a happy life now, had he only resisted his inclination towards suicide.
Kim Dyer. "Dungeons and Dragons." AFU and Urban Legends Archives. http://www.urbanlegends.com/death/dungeons_and_dragons.html
Paul Cardwell, Jr. "The Attacks on Role-Playing Games." Skeptical Inquirer Vol. 18, No. 2, Winter 1994, 157-165. Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the
Jack Chick. Dark Dungeons. Chick Publications, 1984.
William Dear. The Dungeonmaster: The Disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III. London: Bloomsbury, 1991.
Jeff Freeman. "Concerns Christians Should Have About Dungeons and Dragons." 1995.
Shaun Hately. "The Disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III."