In many ways Shawn Woolleys
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 didnt 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 sons apartment in Hudson,
Wis., to take him to a relatives 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
"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 Americas 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."
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
"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 neighbors 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.