I've been following this story in the news with special interest since his disappearance was announced on October 22nd, 2008, and desperately hoped that there would be nothing to report in the end, aside from a disagreement over access to online time. It would appear from this report that everyone's worst fears have come true.
The briefest of background is in order: Brandon Crisp was a devotee of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. His parents exercised their prerogative to take away his access to the game when they felt his other household obligations weren't being met. Apparently angered by a decision to take away his console, he stormed out of the house on October 13th. His bicycle was found the same day. A body believed to be his was recovered today, November 5th.
CTV News Story
The story spoke to me if for no other reason than I recall being 15 years old and interested in losing myself in military and adventure-themed escapism. I can't and won't speculate on states of mind or discipline, and really, don't think it would be responsible or, frankly, anyone's business to second guess either Brandon or the parents. The events were tragic and any reasonable human being was wishing for a happy outcome. Nonetheless, the superficial similarities and the memories of my own past gave me pause to reflect.
In some ways the gaming landscape has changed a lot, with online access to opponents, but I think at its core, things are fundamentally the same. Whether the opponent is in the imagination or another human, the interface is still a video screen, and the indulgence of the parent or guardian is still key. I wasn't aware of that then, but at 12 or 15 years of age, probably few are. I was lucky enough to be able to skate through schoolwork, and so devote more time to "important" pursuits. My parents were very indulgent, when I look back; we had several small color television sets in the house, one of which was devoted to our Intellivision, and I spent hours in simulated combat over Europe playing B-17 Bomber. It was captivating enough for me that I devoted a page of prose to it and submitted it to the junior high school literary journal. Such "accomplishments" have the power to mildly embarrass me now, but were part of my formative years and in the end it would be dishonest to hide from it. My trusty Squad Leader set made the rounds to several friends in an attempt to drum up interest, but by high school, girls started to attract more attention among my friends than the prospect of killing imaginary Germans, Russians or Americans.
Some may shamefully, crassly and opportunistically use this tragedy as evidence once again of gaming as a harmful influence on impressionable young minds. I think suggesting too much about this case without facts in evidence would be irresponsible so I won't go too far in rebutting such suggestions, never having met any of the people in question. But speaking from my own experience, I did eventually grow my own interest in the fairer sex, did eventually move out of my parents' basement, get a job, earn a living - but was able to balance all that with an interest in conflict simulation and hobbies that are not unhealthy, and in fact have been rewarding in many ways. I've been published in the hobby press, but moreover made friendships and reaped other intangible rewards from an international community I enjoy participating in. Then again, I was never at risk in ways that children - that's what he was - of Brandon's age are today.
We will not know what rewards Brandon would have lived to see; perhaps, like many - most - gamers, he simply played because he liked the game. That's reward enough to justify it. He liked it enough that he was upset when made to stop. It's a testament to a lot of things; the quality of games today, or the relative comfort and ease of life in Canada, bought and paid for by real soldiers, in which the worst hardships a 15 year old boy might face are not enough time for a game. We still don't know what happened or why; it may also speak to a more sinister element of society - there are hints of it in the story, though the latest report today says there is no evidence of foul play - that may make themselves known as the investigation develops, but no evidence has been presented of that yet.
Whatever fate befell him, I can say with reasonable certainty that it was not the game itself that led to his demise - nor his parent's decision. The question of "blame" won't be for onlookers to determine, but for the police via their investigation. Blaming either a game company or a 15 year old boy for wanting to play their offerings would be tilting at windmills. If the relatively repetitive and sterile environment of B-17 Bomber could keep me captivated for hours on end, I can't even imagine what it would be like to be that age, and have access to online opponents and photo-realistic environments in 3-D.
The closest I came at that age was Treasure of Tarmin, a first person fantasy game which was at the time cutting edge technology. I never endured the loss of having it taken away, so I can't say how I would have reacted. I think the whole episode may ultimately be a series of perfectly natural decisions that have been marred by a horrible and tragic ending.
That no foul play was involved can't make this easier for the parents. I never had to deal with the possibility of interacting online with strangers; our highest level of stress was when a friend would invite an unfamiliar classmate over to your house as a third party, and he would ask to use your bathroom, or ask to drink your soda and your unformed adolescent mind would wonder if it would be okay with your parents. We thought we had it tough when that happened. Parents thought they had it tough, too, not knowing who their kids were "hanging out" with. At least they could see them, down there in the basement, at least when the lights came up.
Whatever happened to Brandon or why, I can say that while I never knew him, I'm sorry he is gone, and equally sorry for his family. I get the feeling he was one of us.