The Needles

The Stigma of Normal


Brandon Crisp, the Ontario teenager who ran away from home following an argument with his parents, is still missing. Here’s what we know about the case:

1. Brandon liked to play videogames.

2. Brandon got into an argument with his parents over the amount of time he spent playing those games, specifically Call of Duty 4, which culminated in their decision to take away his Xbox 360.

3. Brandon threatened to run away from home if they didn’t give the system back to him, and his parents, as many parents do, called his bluff and pointed him to the door. Turns out he wasn’t bluffing. There’s obviously more to the story, but as far as his disappearance goes, that’s it, that’s all we know: A teenager got into a beef with his parents, ran away from home and hasn’t been seen since.

Brandon liked videogames. In that, he was, to use the technical psychological term, “normal.” Playing videogames in this day and age is no more remarkable than watching television or listening to music. Did he overindulge? Maybe, although we have only his parents’ word to that effect, and if he did, it would hardly be beyond the pale for teenage behavior anyway. Yet even though the only videogame connection to the case is the fact that he played them, it’s virtually impossible to see or read anything about his disappearance without the gaming angle being thrust in your face like the armored crotch of a victorious deathmatch opponent.

The most recent example of the “games made him do it” coverage appeared in this week’s edition of Maclean’s magazine. Maclean’s, for those not of the Canadian persuasion, is the country’s oldest and most popular newsmagazine, founded in 1905 and highly respected for its incisive and insightful commentary and analysis of national and international affairs. It’s sort of like our version of Time except that it doesn’t suck. And in this week’s issue, four stories were featured on the cover: One about food safety, another about the Prime Minster, a third about the National Ballet and finally – you knew this one coming – a story about the missing boy entitled, “Did An Xbox Addiction Lead To Tragedy?”

What the hell? Seriously, where is this coming from? The boy’s father has proclaimed his belief for some time now that Brandon’s gaming habits had something to do with his disappearance, although actual evidence to that effect – beyond the fact that he ran away from home after a fight over the Xbox – is scant. If I’d run away from home when I was his age, would national headlines ask, “Did Having The Music Too Goddamned Loud Lead To Tragedy?” I’m not seeing it as too likely, so why is this line of questioning about games – simply the latest addition to an ages-old list of things for fathers to yell at their kids about – proving so popular?

And who am I kidding? We all know exactly why.

I don’t know how much Call of Duty actually influenced his decision to run away. Neither does anyone else. Not his parents, despite their belief that his “addiction” is somehow responsible for his disappearance, nor the experts quoted in the article, such as David Walsh of the National Institute on Media and the Family. What I do know is that it’s very unlikely gamer rage could drive anyone, even a wound-up 15-year-old with more balls than brains, to spend more than a night or two outside in the sparsely populated Oro-Medonte area north of Barrie, particularly at this time of year.

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Nonetheless, mainstream news reports continue to slap us in the face with headline-grabbing bullshit like, “Only three percent of U.S. kids don’t play,” or “Almost one in 10 is pathologically addicted,” screaming out at us in 40-point all-caps bold-face text. The fact that experts in related fields have argued that videogame addiction doesn’t necessarily exist at all, and that even the committee that originally recommended it be adopted as a diagnosis by the American Psychiatric Association ultimately changed its stance to say the matter needs more study, goes completely unmentioned.

It’s not entirely out of balance, of course; Maclean’s is a respectable magazine, after all. Entertainment Consumer Association President Hal Halpin gets a line or two, pointing out that the issue of game addiction is really one of “media addiction” that’s been “politicized down to games, to the exclusion of all other media, including movies, music and television.” The existence of studies that suggest games can have positive benefits is also touched on, although not without the proviso that at least one of those studies was commissioned by a gaming site – the obvious inference being that such reports are about as reliable as those commissioned by the tobacco industry that found no links between cigarettes and cancer.

A quick mention of the ESRB rating system is also accompanied by a backhand about the industry’s efforts to ensure those ratings remain “suggestions, not law,” pointing out that the ESA has launched successful legal challenges in nine states against attempts to legislate the sale of “Mature” and “Adult Only” rated games to kids. There’s a very strong hint that the industry group is somehow behaving inappropriately, twisting the First Amendment to its own nefarious ends like some kind of lawful evil Larry Flynt, minus the pornographic charm.

Brandon Crisp’s disappearance highlights one of the biggest problems facing the gaming industry today: Not that videogames are or aren’t the greatest scourge faced by civilization since Elvis, but that they’re consistently presented as such, to one degree or another, by the mainstream media. Most, like this article, are simply sensational and a bit biased, but a few – think Fox News here – aren’t above telling outright lies as part of their pandering.

Brandon’s absence is no doubt inflicting a hellish torture on his parents, and we continue to hope that he’ll be found soon and returned home safely. But I also hope that when the matter reaches its conclusion, regardless of what that conclusion may be, the full truth of the circumstances of his disappearance is detailed to the public with the same enthusiasm the idle speculation has thus far been given. Sadly, I think it’s far more likely that no matter how it works out, the scapegoating will continue.

Andy Chalk has never owned an Xbox 360 and never run away from home. Probably just a coincidence.

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