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The 'games' children play

By Kirk Noonan

In many ways Shawn Woolley’s life had ended a week before Thanksgiving last year. He had quit his job, let garbage pile up in his living room, sequestered himself from his family and friends, and had stopped taking anti-depression and schizoid medication. Yet the one thing he didn’t stop doing was playing an online video game called EverQuest, a role-playing, fantasy game that nearly half a million people play worldwide. For Woolley, EverQuest was an obsession — even an addiction.

According to his mother, Elizabeth, sometimes Woolley would play the game — which takes players into an alternative 3-D world — for 12 hours at a time. At one point Elizabeth was so concerned about the amount of time he played and the negative impact it was having on his outlook on life that she took him to a psychologist. Soon after, Woolley, 21, checked into a group home where he was separated from his favorite game and forced to socialize. He seemed to be making progress, but checked out, got a job, an apartment and a second-hand computer. Within days of leaving the group home he was back into the game.

Early on Thanksgiving morning 2001, Elizabeth went to her son’s apartment in Hudson, Wis., to take him to a relative’s house for a family meal. When she entered his apartment she found him dead in a rocking chair in front of his computer. Dirty clothes, pizza cartons and food wrappers cluttered the floor around him. Nearby was a .22-caliber rifle.

"There he was, sitting in front of the game with the gun," says Elizabeth Woolley, emotion gripping her voice. "He had shot himself."

The Woolleys’ tragedy is a cautionary tale of the power, influence and impact video games can have on players, their families and society. It also raises the question: If, indeed, a 21-year-old man can be so affected by a video game, what effect can video games, especially ones that incorporate violence and adult themes, have on a child?

Get in the game
In the 1970s the makers of Pong started a quasi-revolution in the entertainment industry when people started spending hours tracking a slow-moving white square across their television screens before bumping it back, with a white wand, to the other side. But it has only been in the past 15 years that video games have become a major staple in America’s entertainment diet. According to the Interactive Digital Software Association, a video game industry promoter, 145 million people — or 60 percent of Americans — play video games. In 2000, more than 200 million video games were sold, and it is projected that the worldwide retail sale of video game hardware and software will generate at least $30 billion this year.

What is the driving force behind these numbers? Sophisticated gamers who have come to expect state-of-the-art graphics, top-notch game play, convincing story lines and realism. Many of these players, including minors, also have an insatiable desire for extreme virtual violence and other harmful themes. Such yearnings have made game makers wealthy. But doctors, government officials, video game industry watchdog groups, parents and other leaders have protested.

"We are hooking children on violence," says Dave Grossman, co-author of Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill: A Call to Action Against TV, Movie & Video Game Violence. "The result is that we will raise the most violent generation society has probably ever seen."

Grossman’s dire prediction might not be too far from the truth. According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, when entertainment media such as video games showcase violence — particularly in a context which glamorizes or trivializes it — the lessons learned can be destructive. Children are inclined to assume acts of violence are acceptable, believe the world is a violent and scary place, and become desensitized toward real life violence. For some, the virtual violence can lead to real-life violence.

Some say video game violence has a greater influence on young minds than television violence because a child moves from a passive viewer to an active participant. This is especially troublesome, says Grossman, 46, when children and teenagers are rewarded for harming or killing others in video games.

"Instead of being punished, children are rewarded for behavior that in any other environment would be pathological," says Grossman, a retired Army lieutenant colonel. "We immerse kids in virtual reality, teach them pathological play and train them to associate pleasure with human death and suffering. The consequences of this can be severe."

Grossman believes children develop a killing reflex and can become excellent shooters from playing violent video games. The military has been training soldiers with video games for several years. Recently, the Army released its own online action-based video game, which Newsweek deemed a phenomenon, to bolster recruitment. Grossman is convinced video games can serve as a training ground for killing. As evidence, in his book, he points to the 1997 school shooting in Paducah, Ky. Students ran for their lives while being attacked by a fellow student and video game enthusiast. Michael Carneal, a 14-year-old boy who stole a gun from a neighbor’s house, was convicted of bringing it to school and firing eight shots at a student prayer group as they were breaking up. Prior to stealing this weapon, he had never shot an actual handgun before.

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