In the summer of 1980, FBI agents arrived in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin to investigate an assassination plot.
The trail of evidence—letterhead on a mysterious note describing the plans for the murder— led agents to the headquarters of TSR Hobbies, the company that owned the massively popular Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game. A search of the office quickly revealed that the assassination plot was, in fact, part of playtest materials for an espionage game called Top Secret.
On Thursday Reason published an amusing excerpt from an FBI report describing beloved D&D creator Gary Gygax I obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. I was looking for FBI records on the Top Secret investigation, mostly because it sounded hilarious.
But it was also one of many times over the next few decades that the feds would mistake innocuous nerd culture for insidious activity. In 1990, the Secret Service raided and tore apart the offices of Steve Jackson Games on flimsy hacking allegations.
Along with several computers, the Secret Service seized a manuscript of the company's upcoming cyberpunk roleplaying game, which they considered a "handbook for computer crime." (You can read Reason's coverage of the Steve Jackson case going back to 1991.)
That case was part of a string of other overzealous hacking prosecutions that would lead to the creation of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. I was interested in seeing more about how the FBI viewed roleplaying games, given the Satanic Panic of the '80s and the government's sour opinion of cyberpunks.
Over a year after I filed my request, the FBI sent back reports and interview summaries regarding a suspected cocaine trafficking operation in Lake Geneva, the bitter rivalries within the tabletop gaming industry, and reports related to the FBI's 1995 Unabomber investigation. However, there was nothing on the 1980 search of TSR's office.
At the bottom of the FBI letter accompanying the documents sent to me, the Bureau noted that its computer search turned up more possible records, but they had gone missing.
Strangely, several other FOIA requesters in the past have asked for Gygax's FBI file, but the FBI informed them that no such files could be found. A cross-referenced search of the FBI's central records database should have turned up many of the same files I received. It's unclear if this is intentional obfuscation or just shoddy work, but it's a frustrating and common problem for journalists and researchers trying to access FBI records.
In fact, one prolific FOIA requester is suing the FBI over what he claims is its intentional use of outdated technology to produce incomplete search results. Wired reported last year:
The federal suit filed by MIT national security researcher Ryan Shapiro on the fiftieth anniversary of the passage of FOIA this month claims that the FBI is using software developed in 1995 to respond to FOIA requests. The software is so old, according to Shapiro, that it doesn't even have a graphical user interface, meaning no mouse or icons.
"You're dealing with the old IBM green screens," former FBI chief technology officer Jack Israel once described the computer system in a Q&A with website FierceGovernmentIT four years ago, which was referenced in Shapiro's complaint. "You're not dealing with a web-based environment, which every one is used to from the Internet." But the interface isn't the heart of the problem. The issue, Shapiro says, is that the software performs needlessly rudimentary searches—something akin to searching a card catalog at a library—when better technology is readily available.
Getting public records shouldn't be like navigating a monster-filled dungeon. I regret to say that for now the full details of the FBI's investigations into the world's most popular roleplaying game and its creator remain a secret.