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Let’s Play: Dungeons & Dragons Behind Bars

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A documentary about fantasy escapism in American prisons.

About

LET’S PLAY tells the little-known stories of inmates and former inmates who go to great lengths to play table top role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons behind bars. They handcraft twenty-sided dice, build their own campaigns from scratch, even wage legal battles against the United States prison system to assert their right to play.

For decades, role-playing games like D&D and Pathfinder have been banned in many United States prisons. Some wardens claim these games are demonic and foster fantasies of escape.

Yet even when books and dice are banned, incarcerated players have found creative workarounds. They band together to battle monsters and overcome obstacles, in virtual worlds as well as real life.

Inmates say these games are rehabilitative and are helping them prepare for life on the outside. Recent research studies agree: Cooperative gaming builds skills like teamwork, critical thinking, and creativity. Even more importantly, games like D&D bridge racial divides. In California, the gaming table is one of the only places where prisoners of different races and gang affiliations set aside their differences to do something cooperatively.

LET’S PLAY is told primarily from the perspective of inmates who have waged legal battles for the right to engage in gaming rehab. Some lost; others–like Kevin–changed the system forever.

Handmade prison D20
Handmade prison D20

For eight years, Kevin battled the California Department of Corrections. It all started when he returned to his cell to discover that his gaming materials had disappeared, including hundreds of pages of handwritten campaigns and elaborate maps that adorned his cell from floor-to-ceiling.

During Kevin’s jury trial, the legendary creator of Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax himself, flew out to testify on his behalf.

Excerpt from Gary Gygax's letter to Kevin after the trial.
Excerpt from Gary Gygax’s letter to Kevin after the trial.

Thanks to Kevin’s lawsuit, role-playing games are now an official activity at several California prisons. But the battle is not yet over. Though Kevin won the lawsuit and the right to play, his novels, maps, and campaigns were never returned to him. Do they still exist in the basement of some courthouse? We want to find out.

Through the story of the lawsuit and the players, like Kevin, who were impacted by it, LET’S PLAY aims to get to the root of the national controversy around role-playing games in America’s prisons and explore philosophical questions around inmates rights, the rehabilitative potential of role-playing games, and the purpose of the criminal justice system.

Finally, LET’S PLAY is a film about perspective and identity… about using role-playing to see the world through the perspective of different characters and building empathy.

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PERSPECTIVES FROM THE PLAYERS ON WHY ROLE-PLAYING GAMES ARE SO IMPORTANT IN PRISON…

“We were hardcore. We’d play from soon as we got back from breakfast to lockup. Saturday or Sunday—all day long.” – Mark, former inmate, California

“We used to run underground games with no books or anything. It was pretty L33t.” – Melvin, Inmate, Colorado

“Rehabilitation in the Department of Corrections is structured in a way that gives no alternatives. Not everybody is built the same. Dungeons & Dragons is my rehabilitation that I can deal with to escape into my own reality to solve my own problems.” – Aaron, former inmate, Colorado

“Our rules are no evil characters, no leaving the team behind. Selfish players will usually die.” – Carlos, Inmate, California

“Prisons are the most segregated places in the world. The D&D table is one of the few places where you can have blacks and whites playing together without fear of reprisal.” – Jared, Founder, Prisoner Reentry Network

“It became more than just Dungeons & Dragons at that point. It started that way, but it became about the first amendment in prisons.” – Kevin, former inmate, California

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A.K.A… HOW MY CAREER DEVELOPING CRIME SHOWS CAME TO INTERSECT WITH MY LOVE OF D&D

The creator and brainchild of LET’S PLAY, Elisabeth de Kleer, brings to the table(top) over ten years of production experience in the ‘true crime’ genre. While directing shows for CBS, Netflix, National Geographic, the BBC, VICE, and the Discovery Channel, Elisabeth has interviewed hundreds of inmates in prisons across the united states.

An interview at a maximum security prison in Texas.
An interview at a maximum security prison in Texas.

When not investigating cold cases or interviewing inmates, Elisabeth can be found at the gaming table or writing articles about the rehabilitative impact of role-playing. Some of you may have already come across one of her articles in VICE:

Dragons in the Department of Corrections

How Inmates Play Tabletop RPG’s in Prison where Dice are Contraband

Or the following award-winning documentary she produced for VICE in 2017 about a couple cellmates in Colorado who played together both inside and outside of prison.

Elisabeth has also partnered with a San Francisco-based organization called the Prisoner Reentery Network that is using gaming as tool to help recently-released inmates reintegrate into society. This is where she met Kevin and uncovered the story of his lawsuit against the Department of Corrections.

A beautiful piece that was filmed by ABC News on this group.

However, while her articles and short film have brought attention to the topic, Elisabeth believes a longer form documentary is the best way to do justice to this controversial topic.

Over the last couple years, Elisabeth and her team have filmed dozens of interviews with inmates and former inmates who have played role-playing games at prisons across the country. So far this film has been self-funded, which is why we need your support. Here are some of the ways your money will be used to help us finish the film:

  • Fees for accessing and copying legal materials related to D&D cases. This will allow us to take a deep dive into some of the most interesting lawsuits, like Kevin’s, and attempt to track down the gaming materials that were confiscated from him.
  • Cost of putting together a professional camera crew so we can film gaming groups inside prison. (We’ve already done the most difficult part, which is getting soft approval to film in the first place. Now we just need funding to make the most of this special opportunity.)
  • Funds for hiring an animator to breathe life into hand-drawn inmate fantasy art and to create a visual style for the film. The art will be used to illustrate the story in a way that weaves together magical elements with real life. For example, the warden of the prison might be depicted as a dragon or “boss” and the prison itself, a dragon’s lair. These visual intersections of gameplay and real life show how the game becomes a platform to express and explore their inner struggles and demons.
  • Creating a marketing and distribution plan that will promote both the film as well as recreational therapy behind bars.

With $60,000, we believe we can create a short film that takes a deep dive into one of the most interesting prisoner rights cases in history, but it will be tight. Each additional dollar we raise makes it possible to include additional content and improve the production quality of the film so that it can compete against the Hollywood heavy-hitters at film festivals around the world. If necessary, film grants (which are very difficult to obtain during pre-production but much easier when the film is nearing completion) are also an option we’re considering for down the road if expenses surpass the money we raise through crowdfunding.

To bring this project to life, we’ve put together an awesome team of filmmakers, gamers, and experts.

And we’re partnering with the following organizations…

Hawke Robinson is the founder of RPG Therapeutics LLC and a certified Recreational Therapist who uses Dungeons & Dragons as a tool for rehabilitation. He has been researching the effects of RPGs on participants since around 1985, and developing programs using RPGs in all formats (tabletop, LARP, computer-based, and solo) to achieve educational and therapeutic goals for various populations since 2004. When he’s not lecturing and teaching workshops on gaming-as-therapy, you can find Hawke driving around the country in an RPG gaming bus.

Hawke Robinson will serve as an on-camera expert and advisor to the film.

The Prisoner Reentry Network, founded by attorney Jared Rudolph, is an Oakland-based nonprofit that supports successful transitions from incarceration to the community. Jared works as a trial lawyer at the San Francisco Office of the Public Defender, and regularly speaks about mass incarceration and its history. Every other weekend, he runs a Dungeons & Dragons game called “Second Life” to help recently released inmates build community and reintegrate into society.

Jared Rudolph and the Prisoner Reentry Network will be featured on-camera, and Jared Rudolph will serve as a criminal justice advisor to the film.

A PRN-facilitated "Second Life" game in San Francisco.
A PRN-facilitated “Second Life” game in San Francisco.

Kanaka Endeavors is a 2D20 gaming system developed by Danny, an inmate in the California Department of Corrections. Danny has been testing the system with his gaming group behind bars as well as players on the outside and hopes to roll it out when he’s released from prison in 2019.

Danny will be featured on-camera and Kanaka Endeavors will help fulfill some of the crowdfunding rewards.

Danny and the other D&D players pictured in an article entitled "Nerds United" that Danny wrote for the prison newspaper.
Danny and the other D&D players pictured in an article entitled “Nerds United” that Danny wrote for the prison newspaper.

Music for the Kickstarter video was provided by: https://www.bensound.com/royalty-free-music

FINALLY…

If you can’t help us monetarily, please help us by spreading the word through social media. The more people know about this documentary, the better we can get the word out about the rehabilitative potential of role-playing games in prison.

Risks and challenges

By far, our biggest hurdle is getting on-going access to film games behind bars.

Getting IN to prison is harder than one might expect. Both state and federal facilities have extensive rules for media visits. Additional staff must be brought in to accompany the production crew. Some states prohibit cameras entirely.

Fortunately, Elisabeth de Kleer has extensive experience navigating prison media rules. Over the last 10 years, she has filmed at dozens of maximum security prisons around the country (primarily for Discovery Channel shows) and developed relationships with the administrative staff that approve filming requests.

While we’ve received soft permission to film games we’ve been following at a couple different prisons, where we ultimately film will depend on how much access we are given. The ideal scenario would be one where we’d film a game over the course of many months, following the trials and tribulations of the inmates both as characters inside the game and in real life. To do that, we need to show the administrators that we have enough of an audience to warrant the additional time and effort on their end to host us, as well as to pay our professional film crew for their time.

Put simply, the more backers and funding we have, the better our chances of getting prolonged access to some of the subjects of our film.

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Source: IcrowdNewsWire