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.”