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What happened to Brandon?

The disappearance of the teen has sparked an outcry over video game addictions


 

An abandoned CN railway line cuts through the rural township of Oro-Medonte, just outside Barrie, Ont. Now a gravel hiking trail bordered by tall grass and a thin band of trees, it stretches off into the distance through farm fields almost as far as the eye can see. On a cold and rainy Sunday afternoon, a strong south wind is ripping off the last of the fall leaves. The trail is mostly deserted, but it is still the centre of a great deal of attention these days. Four Barrie police cars and a large van—a police mobile command centre—are parked where the trail intersects with a lonely rural road not far from Lake Simcoe. This is the spot where Brandon Crisp, a slight 15-year-old with dirty blond hair and green eyes, dropped his bike this past Thanksgiving Monday evening, started walking and seemingly vanished into the chilly night air.

Brandon had stormed out of his home in the east end of Barrie that afternoon, after his parents, Steve and Angelika Crisp, told him they were taking away his Xbox video game system for good. Wearing a burgundy hoodie and a light jacket, he angrily grabbed his backpack, stuffed with little more than a small blanket inside, and jumped on his bike, which he hadn’t pulled out of the shed in three years. Brandon would be back, thought his parents. Perhaps cold, hungry and a little embarrassed, but he’d be back. So sure of that, Steve even called his son’s bluff as he left, telling him he’d better take some warm clothes. By midnight, Brandon was still gone and the Crisps phoned the police.

Brandon had never caused his parents real trouble before. He had been a good student, and a good brother to his twin Samantha and older sister Natasha. Any disputes he did have with his parents centred on the video game Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, a violent, shoot-’em-up war simulation in which players act out missions as U.S. Marines or members of the British SAS. Over the past year, the Grade 10 student from St. Joseph’s High School had started spending more and more time with the game and less doing typical teenage things—from basketball in the driveway to bike riding. He was once an AAA goalie, but his social circle had shrunk down to just three close friends who also played Call of Duty over the Xbox Live system, which connects players over the Internet. More than once, Angelika, a light sleeper, woke to the sound of Brandon talking to other players online in the middle of the night. They couldn’t drag him away from the game, say his parents. He came home from school, put on his Xbox Live headset, and wouldn’t stop playing for hours at a time. “We’d always say get off the game, go outside,” says Angelika. Brandon didn’t listen.

Numerous times, Steve and Angelika, concerned that their son was obsessed with the game, confiscated it for a weekend. They even tried to find a solution through compromise, once proposing that Brandon draw up a video game schedule he thought he could follow. It worked for a few days, then he was back to his old ways. When Brandon skipped school—for the first time ever—the Thursday before Thanksgiving to play Call of Duty, his parents took the game away again. When he disobeyed them and pulled the game from its hiding spot, they’d finally had enough. They told Brandon he was permanently cut off. The Xbox was taken out of the house.

What they didn’t know at the time, his parents say, was just how much the game meant to their son and how troublesome that connection had become. Since his disappearance, the true extent of his involvement has become clear. While he had few friends in Barrie, his Xbox had a list of 200 people whom he played Call of Duty with online. Judged too small to keep up in hockey, the shy but competitive teenager found respect and success in the video game world, where he played on “clans,” or online teams. It wasn’t just a game, it was Brandon’s life—something he might even make money playing in professional tournaments one day, he once told a friend. “These are the things I didn’t realize,” says Steve, standing in a police command centre near where Brandon vanished, his hands wrapped around a bottle of water. “When I took his Xbox away, I took away his identity.”

The police are still searching the nearby fields, but the large-scale volunteer search that has been going on in recent weeks is over. Hopes that Brandon might be comfortably hiding out in one of the expensive summer homes on Lake Simcoe are all but dead. The question hangs heavier than ever: what happened to Brandon Crisp? His parents have ideas and they all centre on the video game and the growing fear that Brandon’s addiction might prove fatal.

The idea that a simple video game could so completely upend a teenager’s life is the kind of thing that most parents, at least until recently, would not have taken seriously. After all, shoot-’em-up computer simulations don’t raise the same sort of red flags for parents as drugs, alcohol, or delinquent friends. But there is growing concern, even in medical and scientific quarters, that there may be a link between video games like Call of Duty and obsessive, even addictive, behaviour. For some teens, this might lead to minor problems like slipping grades and a loss of interest in other hobbies. But there are an increasing number of reports of far more tragic outcomes. Earlier this year, for instance, a British boy committed suicide after his father took away a Wii game. In a youth culture where so much social interaction has moved online, the deep ties young people can form to games and other computer pastimes could, some experts say, be a recipe for disaster.

How do you tell when that line has been crossed? Today, it’s the kids who don’t play video games that stand out. According to a survey released by the Pew Internet & American Life Project last month, 97 per cent of U.S. teens aged 12 to 17 say they regularly “game,” whether on a console system, computer, or handheld device. In Brandon’s school alone 25 other students regularly play Call of Duty on the same online system he used. And the business continues to grow exponentially. In 2007, software sales reached US$9.5 billion, with nine games sold every second, according to the Entertainment Software Association.

But measures of how many people—not just teens, but adults and children—might be considered “addicted” to their games are much harder to come by. A widely cited 2007 survey by Harris Interactive claimed that 8.5 per cent of gamers aged 8 to 18 were “pathologically addicted” to their onscreen pastime. A larger U.K. study in 2006, of gamers of all ages, concluded that 12 per cent of the 7,000 respondents were unable to live without their games, experiencing “craving, withdrawal symptoms, loss of control and other negative consequences,” usually associated with addicts.

Dr. Jerald J. Block, a Portland, Ore., psychiatrist who specializes in computer compulsions, says Internet addiction—whether to porn, games or social networking sites—is a real and growing phenomenon. “For some people, the Internet and games are an escape. It’s a place where they can take anger, frustration and sexual tension and channel it. It can swallow up 30 or 40 hours a week, or more, and stop them from feeling bored and restless.” Block says addiction problems manifest themselves more frequently among adult gamers and Internet users, if only because few grown-ups can avoid the work and family consequences that stem from spending most of their waking time at the computer.

But what sets the broad category of Net addiction apart from other compulsive behaviours, says Block, is how difficult it is to diagnose and treat. Many patients have difficulty even confronting the issue because of their shame (more so for games, because of their “childish” association, than even porn, notes the doctor). And the addiction is frequently complicated by other underlying problems like depression, attention deficit disorder, or anxiety. By the time patients seek treatment, the computer has often become the primary relationship in their life, and the process of untangling the person from the machine can be fraught. Block advises families to avoid abruptly “unplugging” patients from their games or Internet use because of the danger of backlash. “It’s an explosive situation. You should expect a very, very angry outburst that may last several days to weeks,” he says. In an article in the American Journal of Forensic Psychiatry last year, Block argued that a significant contributing factor in the 1999 Columbine High School massacre was a decision by the parents of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold to cut them off from their beloved Doom computer game. The rupture, he says, motivated the pair to move from a world of homicidal fantasy to real-life murder.

Thankfully, such extreme examples are few and far between. A more typical scenario sees addicted gamers directing their anger inwards at themselves. Brad Dorrance, a 40-year-old “ex-gamer” from London, Ont., knows that extreme type of despair all too well. His entire adult life has been defined by his computer use. On the eve of his 1999 marriage, he stayed up until 4:30 a.m., racking up a new high score on Quake 2. In 2001, on stress-leave from his job, he discovered online games, and the problem became even worse. Within months, he was playing up to 12 hours a day, and efforts to retrain and find a new job fell by the wayside. He became obsessed with the newest games and latest technology, running up $23,000 in credit card debts, undermining his wife’s efforts to keep the family finances afloat. Finally after years of denial, the guilt overwhelmed him. Last December, Dorrance tried to commit suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills and ended up in a local psychiatric facility.

“For me it began as a way of self-medicating my feelings. I was dealing with a mood disorder and a very stressful job,” he says. “Even when I felt my life was completely falling apart, I could be whoever I wanted to be in the game—lead an army, take over a country.” The nadir, says Dorrance, came when his tried and true means of escape no longer satisfied. “There was no pleasure left in the game. It was like a job I hated, but just had to go to. I had convinced myself that this was all there was to life, and suddenly it seemed like my life was done.”

As he confronted his addiction, Dorrance sought help from one of the few organizations for people with video game related problems—Online Gamers Anonymous. On Nov. 5, he plans to launch the group’s first Canadian chapter with a meeting in a local Baptist church (details available at www.olganon.org).

Liz Woolley, of Nashville, Tenn., founded Olg-Anon, following the Thanksgiving Day 2001 suicide of her son Shawn. The 21-year-old had been a lifelong video game fan, but his personality changed almost overnight after he became involved in the online game Everquest. “Within three months he’d quit his job, got evicted from his apartment and become depressed and anti-social,” recalls Woolley. “He actually replaced his family and friends with the game.”

Woolley, a software consultant, tried to get help for her son, but had difficulty convincing health professionals that the game was the root of his problems. “One doctor told me I should be glad he wasn’t addicted to drugs or alcohol,” she says. After Shawn’s suicide, she became determined to help others find the assistance they need. Olg-Anon, a strictly volunteer operation, now fields 500 Internet and phone inquiries each day. Woolley draws a sharp distinction between console games and their newer online counterparts. “With the off-line games there’s a beginning and an end. But these virtual worlds have been set up to replace the person’s real world,” she says. And Woolley, like other opponents of such games, makes the common but unproven charge that developers are well aware of the addictive properties of their products, even employing psychologists and brain researchers to help make them more compelling. “I believe they’re like drug pushers, getting people addicted to line their pockets,” she says. “Restrictions have to be made on these games—it has to be more than just a label.”

Brandon’s parents say it’s now clear their son was addicted to Call of Duty. “We knew he liked the game and we understood that, but he needed to have a life apart from the game,” says Angelika. Not long ago, Brandon had a few friends over for a sleepover. His parents gave them money to go to the movies. Instead, the teenagers took it to a Mac’s convenience store, bought junk food and came home to keep playing the game. In another instance Brandon’s friends took a break from the game to play basketball. He refused to stop.

But what confounds everyone involved in this case, from the police to his parents, is that beyond his devotion to Call of Duty, he showed no outward signs of trouble. “He was a teenager who had a problem, but he wasn’t a problem teenager,” says Sgt. Dave Goodbrand of the Barrie police. Matt McCann is Brandon’s high-school principal. “This is a kid who’s a very good student, very good report cards, excellent attendance, no discipline issues whatsoever. Actually, quite a nice little guy,” he says. The same goes for his few close friends. These are not bad kids,” notes McCann.

“I hear parents saying you should have watched him all the time on the game,” says Angelika. “First of all, my son’s been a great kid since out of the womb. He’s a loving child, sensitive, a little bit shy.” They kept a close eye on him from the time until he was 7, 8 even 12 years old, she adds. “At some point you have to give him a little freedom and trust him, right?”

The idea that games might be addictive is one that the industry is understandably not keen to discuss. Microsoft, the manufacturer of the Xbox system, recently matched the existing reward for information on Brandon’s whereabouts, bringing the total to $50,000. Senior Microsoft executives have been in direct contact with the Crisp family, and have also waived privacy rules in order to furnish police with details about who Brandon was playing with online. The company released a statement saying their “thoughts are with Brandon, his family and his community and we hope for his swift return,” but it has refused further comment. A spokesman did not respond to questions about the Crisps’ contention that Brandon was “addicted” to his Xbox and his favoured game. And a representative of the Entertainment Software Association of Canada, a game-maker lobby group, also refused all comment.

In an interview last summer, Hal Halpin, the president of the ECA’s U.S. branch, argued the gaming community has been unfairly singled out. “What we’re really talking about here is media addiction, but unfortunately we’re not even talking about that,” he told the Washington Times. “The issue has been politicized down to games, to the exclusion of all other media, including movies, music and television. It seems disingenuous on its face.” Halpin argues that the same diagnosis of obsession could easily be applied to Trekkies, Star Wars’ fans, or even devotees of Sex in the City. Game proponents also point to research that suggests the programs have positive benefits for kids. For example, this week, a U.S. study (commissioned by a video game site) concluded gamers are more successful and have better family and social lives than non-players.

The industry has put a ratings system in place for games—Call of Duty 4 is rated M (Mature) for its “intense violence, strong language, blood and gore”—but has also worked to ensure that restrictions on games remain suggestions, not law. The ESA has launched nine legal challenges against state laws that sought to regulate minors’ access to M or AO rated games. The lobby group argues that such laws are infringements of their First Amendment rights to freedom of expression. And so far, U.S. courts have agreed.

David Walsh, president and founder of the National Institute on Media and the Family, a Minneapolis-based watchdog group, says he is discouraged by video gaming companies’ seeming lack of concern. “I don’t think they want to touch addiction with a 10-foot pole,” says Walsh. “It raises all sorts of liability issues for them. And my interpretation is that their strategy is to ignore it and hope it will go away.” Cases like Brandon Crisp’s, however, are forcing concerns onto the public agenda. While there is still a dearth of funding for research into possible links between games and addictive behaviour, the demand for information is soaring. “If you talk to front-line counsellors in places like universities they’ll tell you that this is a huge issue,” says Walsh. In response, his organization has put together an academic study group to look at the problem, and is planning for a major international conference next year. “The way people are viewing this is changing quickly.”

Precisely what makes a game like Call of Duty 4 so attractive to kids, and even adults, is hard to pin down. The games are fast-paced and interactive, and some studies indicate that in men, at least, they activate rewarding feelings in the brain. Increasingly, the lure of financial rewards has also crept into the picture. Call of Duty, the bestselling “First Person Shooter” game of all time, is so successful that there are now professional leagues, like Major League Gaming, in which the world’s best players can make tens of thousands of dollars playing at tournaments and even land corporate sponsorships. Teenagers like Brandon play the game obsessively, fuelled on Red Bull and junk food, to try to break into this lucky circle. This scares Steve Crisp, who wonders if Brandon’s problem was made worse by the lure of making “$100,000 off a stupid game.” It’s unlikely Brandon was in any position to do this when he left home. He’s a skilled gamer, but wasn’t known in the upper ranks of the “sport.” His idea of playing professionally is not unlike a teenager’s dream to play in the NHL. “They may well see themselves as getting to be a professional but very few people will ever achieve that dream,” says Dennis McCauley, who edits GamePolitics.com, a gaming industry website, which has been following Brandon’s disappearance.

As the days turn into weeks, Steve Crisp wonders if his son is with people he met playing Call of Duty. The online “clans” Brandon played with were more like cults than teams, he says. But there’s been no sign of Brandon anywhere online since he left home. What really worries the father is the possibility that his son may have somehow unwittingly come in contact with bad people— perhaps a sexual predator—on the Xbox Live system. Steve hopes that by spreading the word, someone will find Brandon. But if his worst nightmare comes true, he has another message: “I want to educate every parent out there about the problems with these online games.”


 

What happened to Brandon?

  1. A young boy goes missing and all anyone can do is blame a large company and the newest scapegoat. Brandon at 15 is to young to be playing the rated M game in the first place. When did the parents stop to think that their child shouldn’t be playing a game not rated for him? When did parents stop being parents? How many times do mothers have to cry that their children were good, without even really knowing them?

    When he stopped being typical, when he was no longer the person they expected him to be, he retreated into a world where he didn’t have to worry about being a disappointment. He made friends with people that didn’t care if he was to small to play hockey. Made friends with people that thought he was skilled and didn’t think it was just a stupid game.

    For as long as there have been gamers there have been people that thought that gamers were wasting their lives. Anything that isn’t ‘typical’ is open for ridicule. Do you tell a child that he will never be smart enough to be a lawyer? That she’ll never be strong enough to be a football player? That a boy can’t be a nurse, and a girl a doctor? How many children are told that their hobby is stupid, that their dreams will never happen? Brandon had a problem that ran deeper than a game. The game made him feel like he wasn’t a loser, any number of things could have taken that place, some admittedly healthier than others. His parents should have given him real help, instead of taking away his outlet.

    He’s a teenager not an adult or a child, as much as teenagers may pretend they’re adults, may act like they’re adults, they’re not adults. As much as you may want to treat them like children, punish them like children, they are not children. You can’t treat them like children and expect them to act like adults.

  2. Now that we know Brandon had injuries consistant with a fall from a tree – one may wonder – how long was Brandon alive prior to his death? Was it instant or was he alive for a few hours – maybe even a few days. If an organized search had begun earlier would he have been found alive? Scary questions which merit some thought… by the experts.

  3. Also, why is it that the police dogs did not pick up Brandon’s scent – prior to his death or after?

  4. Ashley,

    I have to say everything you wrote I’ve been thinking the exact same thoughts.

    I’m a mother and also an Early Childhood Educator. I work with children for a living and it’s a beautiful career. I get to know some children more than their parents get to know their own children. As for accusing the system and game is to me an excuse. We’re the ones who model everything in our child’s life. We know or SHOULD know what’s best for them. No parent is perfect but execpt your faults. We’ll all make mistakes with our children but they learn from them and so do we. It stated that she was a light sleeper and heard him playing until all hours of the night? When I was 17-18yrs old I had my own phone line in my room and at 11pm on school nights it was disconnected from the garage. Because just like Brandon I was addicted to talking until all hours of the night this was the only way they could control me.

    My husband and his brothers are very big gamers. They all have either the XBOX 360, Playstation2 & 3 or WII and they use this to relax and play together since they don’t get to do as much as they’d like to do with one another. This was a way they could bond. Now you need to control how much time you spend on these systems or else you will loose track of time but it should never be allowed to control someone’s life!

    Brandon didn’t die because of a game or a system. This was an accident not intented to happen. So many of us are very sad with the outcome, we all wished he would come home safe & sound. I can’t imagine loosing a son or brother.

    LIVE LOVE & LEARN

  5. It’s unlikley the video game had anything to do with it. Teens have fought with parents and threatened to leave home since…ever. This time it just happened to go terribly wrong, and the media decided the Xbox angle was the way to give the story more sensationalistic appeal.

  6. So true Mike, so true.

  7. Exactly. It’s sheer sensationalism. I know many people who ran away from home as teenagers, stayed out for two days at the most and then returned with a bit of egg on their faces. I ran away when I was fifteen- and stayed away. Parents and children have fought, and the children have done stupid things, since the beginning of time. Blaming it on a video game system… doesn’t make any sense. I can list 10 or twenty things that you could blame it on, and Xbox wouldn’t even make the list.

  8. I’m more than happy to blame this on video gaming. I’ve no obligation to defend a pastime that socialises young people among peers who are themselves poorly-socialised. I was playing a nephew’s dull shoot-em up zombie vs. marines thing a couple of day ago and the aggressively-inane chatter was mind numbing. I lost 10 IQ points right then and there.

    This can’t be good for adolescents whose minds are still developing and who are not being exposed to a variety of other experiences or even exercising. Note the bike that hadn’t been used in three years. That’s pretty standard for the suburbs, although probably inescapable. There really isn’t anywhere interesting to bike to.

  9. I think to blame this on Microsoft would be ridiculous. I play online video games and have never had a problem however, I have had friends who did develop problems with gaming. Gaming addiction is real but to say that the gaming industry is trying to make people lose a sense of reality is absurd. What happened to Brandon is a tragedy but this is a case which I think is an exception to the rule.

  10. I am in touch with what the parents of Brandon went through. I’m a mother of a grown son, 31 years old addicted to war games. I became very worried and frustrated when I saw how much this addiction had taken over his life. Some days he would stay up all night and fall asleep in front of the computer. I came to the conclusion that this pasttime controlled him and made him withdraw into a world of fantasy. I saw how these war games interferred with his work when he was too tired to go into work on time. This war game pasttime was truly an addiction and didn’t bring any fruit into his life – it could destroy him.
    I am of the belief that what you put into your mind is what comes out. I can honestly say there’s a lot of aggression built up in my son and talk of fantasy – none of this is healthy thinking.
    I wish these war games were never invented; I strongly dislike them and wish they were banned.
    My heart goes out to Brandon’s parents – I can only imagine what they were feeling and concerned about as Brandon played with his Xbox. Now that he’s gone I hope they deal with their grief and overcome any feelings of guilt. Like any caring parents they could see a monster overtaking their son’s life more and more and had to take action. They did what was in the best interests of their son and family by trying a stop their child’s addiction.

  11. I completely agree with you Ashley.

    Scapegoat

    One that is made to bear the blame of others.
    2. Bible A live goat over whose head Aaron confessed all the sins of the children of Israel on the Day of Atonement. The goat, symbolically bearing their sins, was then sent into the wilderness.

    He was sent in to the wilderness. I have yet to be convienced he ran away but rather that he was kicked out of his home.
    He might have been an engineer one day…
    Not all chidren are interested in playing sports. That a fund has been set up for children to do so is a slap in the face. Brandon didn’t play sports.

  12. Karl, I think that there is many questions that have been left unanswered as you have proposed. I’m not completely convinced foul play wasn’t present. Not even Man Tracker could find him and that just doesn’t add up. I’m ever so slightly intuitive and I get there is more to the story than has unfolded.
    Premature reporting of no foulplay and the Xbox scapegoat along with it being entirely the childs fault doesn’t help matters any. What about the dad? He’s the one who kicked him out.

  13. I’m doing a project on video game addiction and I think that video gaming is just a waste of time. i mean, who doesn’t want to sit down and play games for a bit but if that is all you do than that is getting a little on the extreme side. But you still can’t just blame the company that made the product. it is not their fault that some kid would just sit around and play video games all day long.

  14. Karl, of course it had to do with video gaming. Look it up.

  15. Thanks Kay and Debbie.

    Obsession and addictions are in every hobby, in the hobbies thought as normal it gets ignored. People don’t seem to mind when their kids watch a fight break out in hockey or care when a riot starts because their team either won or lost. Why is it so different the moment it’s a video game, movie or other media outlet?

    Why is it when some idiot gets trigger happy and he plays or has played a violent video game (or watched a movie or listened to music) the blame goes straight to the game(movie/music), but when Joe Average decides to knife a guy at a sporting event over a call, no one cares?

    Sports have riots, boxing is two guys beating the crap out of each other, any sport that isn’t labeled girlie or for sissies, regularly has someone get hurt very publicly. And they say that it’s the quiet nerds that play those oh so violent video games that you should worry about. If you take the ten worst years, there were about 9.3 student killings per year. And that’s out of every school in the US. I’d like to know how many people get hurt or killed because of sports, but no one seams to have done any sort of research on the matter.

    Brandon lost something that he was known for, so he turned another activity he was good at. I feel sorry for his parents and their lose, but this problem will never be fixed if people keep blaming the scapegoat.

    I’d like to know how many people are obsessed because they lack something in the rest of their lives that the find in the hobby. And how many people are obsessed because of the hobby.

  16. how do you cite this? im doing a summary and respoise on this article

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