January 26th, 2010


You find that you are well & truly trapped.

So, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections denied a prisoner the right to play Dungeons & Dragons. Which is fine with me; if you want to punish a prisoner (well, putting aside notions of whether prison should be rehabilitive or vindicative) you have his priviliges to take away & returns as reward. I was with them that far, until I went on to read that they went on to put up a comprehensive ban on the game. Now that, that isn't kosher with me. If I was guessing, I'd say that witch hunt moral panic mentality is behind it. A link to the full verdict is here. So, I wanted to weigh in my two cents, & thus when toughlad was in the shower this morning, I wrote the WI DOC a letter, & I encourage any one to do so. My letter may have a lot of pre-coffee ramble in it, but there you have it. I sent it to docweb@wi.gov & it is as follows:

To whom it may concern:

I read here (http://www.insidebayarea.com/weird-news/ci_14265049) of the case of Kevin Singer & his hobby of roleplaying games; or more specifically, of your institution banning it. At first, it seemed like you did the right thing, & I agreed with the court's comments to the effect that "... punishment is a fundamental aspect of imprisonment, and prisons may choose to punish inmates by preventing them from participating in some of their favorite recreations[.]" I certainly thing that punishment is within your purview, & that restricting prisoner's access to hobbies, recreation & freedoms is a vital, non-violent tool in your arsenal.

I have to say, I was saddened to read on that the Wisconsin Department of Corrections went on to develop "a more comprehensive policy against all types of fantasy games[.]" As an avid player of fantasy games myself, I am invested in how those games are perceived across America. Much as a fan of baseball might be put out to discover that the Great American Pastime was being banned in a prison; both are just that, past times, recreations. & as I said, I think you are correct to control prisoners by limiting their access to the hobbies they enjoy, but outright bans don't serve that purpose. As such, I wanted to take a moment to explain some misapprehensions you might have about these kinds of games & hobbies. I'll address the specific concerns noted in the article & given to Singer by the prison staff.

  • "fantasy role playing" is a difficult charge, since it is one of definition. It is like banning baseball for being a ball-based sport. Meaningless.

  • "competitive hostility" is one of those misconceptions that colour the hobby. In Dungeons & Dragons, & other games, you are not in competition with your fellow players; you are a team. You are Han Solo & Luke Skywalker, you are Frodo & Aragorn; it is competitive in that there are objectives, but it isn't a game you can "win." No one can be "beating" anyone else.

  • By "violence" I assume you mean imaginary violence, since the activity of roleplaying is fundamentally imaginary, & not physical. It is true that some games can focus on sword battles with ogres & duels of wizardry with vampires. Of course, its very setting-- fantasy-- clearly relegates that to the world of the mind. I'm not sure what your movie & television policies might be; would you ban Lord of the Rings for excessive violence?

  • "addictive escape behaviors" is an odd turn of phrase. Do you mean that they encourage escapist fantasy, like daydreaming, or do you mean that by having their imaginary characters enter a dungeon, it models their current incarcerated situation? If the former, well; I don't think you can prevent prisoners from thinking of the outside by removing a game. If the latter, I would like to be clear. "Dungeons" are not jail cells. They are underground structures that the players enter, usually to find some kind of treasure or save the town from some kind of dragon. They aren't modeling prison breaks.

  • "possible gambling" is another point I'm confused by. Within the structure of the game, there are randomized rolls in order to lend an element of doubt & surprise. For instance, if the character wants to see if he's able to unravel the Sphinx's riddle, he might roll his character's intelligence. These aren't gambling rolls any more than rolling the dice in a game of Clue is gambling.

In closing I just want to say that role playing games are a hobby, like any other. Granting or depriving a prisoner of the privilege of playing should be handled the same as any other hobby.

Thank you for taking the time to read this.

Update: The Reply

Mordicai: Thank you for submitting this e-mail. Your comments will be taken under advisement going forward.


John Dipko
Public Information Director
Wisconsin Department of Corrections