The "Top Secret" game that was "too real" for the FBI
TSR developed a game so realistic that it tricked the FBI into raiding their office. The game? An espionage role-playing game called "Top Secret" that TSR was play-testing. Local authorities were tipped off in January 1980 by a concerned citizen who had uncovered a plot against an American businessman in Beirut, Lebanon, named William Weatherby. However, Weatherby didn’t exist. The FBI found out from TSR that Weatherby was instead a non-playable character in the game. While embracing for the Bureau, the developers used the FBI’s confusion to market the game as so realistic that it fooled US intelligence.
This snafu, followed another incident five months prior involving TSR and rpg’s. James Dallas Egbert III who was reported missing, and was found to be an avid "Dungeons & Dragons" campaigner. Authorities had assumed that Egbert had confused reality for fantasy, and would be found addled out of his mind, seeking treasure and hunting monsters. Egbert had actually run away to Louisiana for reasons unrelated to gaming— but a link had been made that role-playing games in general were dangerous and a menace. However it was the authority figures, not gamers or developers themselves who managed to conflate reality with illusion.
This was further enforced by a raid in March 1990 on Steve Jackson Games in Austin, Texas who was charged with manufacturing a “manual for computer crime” and the seminal 1983 film War Games that demonstrated how easy it was for a computer and games hobbyist was able to hack into a military computer, and potentially create worldwide destruction. This was further seeded by cyberpunk novels from William Gibson, the most influential being Neuromancer.
Further raids on gaming companies by authorities like the FBI and Secret Service, cast a pall on anyone in the industry or knew computers and hacking led Jackson to comment “now it seems that anybody with any computer knowledge at all is suspect,” and thus the “maybe the cyberpunk future is closer, and darker, than we think.”
Thankfully, there was a pushback against hysteria surronding gamers thanks in part to John Perry Barlow, a counterculture figure from the 60s, who wrote an article entitled "Crime and Puzzlement," the formation of the Electronic Foundation Formation, a takedown piece in the New York Times and a novel by cyperpunk author Bruce Sterling.