Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Disappearance and Death of 15-year old Call of Duty Player

It is with great sadness that I draw the attention of readers of gamesquad to the fact that one of our own has departed our ranks. A fellow Canadian, a gamer, a tactical wargamer, and more importantly, a fifteen year old boy.

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.


  1. This was originally posted at The comments there read:

    jayedub7423 - 05 Nov 08 18:23
    My condolences to the family, no parent should ever have to deal with the loss of a child.

    Scott Tortorice - 05 Nov 08 19:28
    Well said.

    scrub - 05 Nov 08 19:38
    Condolences as well.

    I hope the family's difficult time does not devolve into a witch-hunt with games as scapegoat. Great post Mr. Dorosh.

    KingNothing12 - 05 Nov 08 19:47
    Very sad, what a horrible thing. Are there any leads?

    Michael Dorosh - 05 Nov 08 22:33
    I'll report on any news; there's no evidence of foul play but it has not been ruled out. I shudder to think what it could have been. All I can think of is - poor kid. Rereading the articles - I would never have been brave enough to run away from home, but some of it does strike home; a small circle of friends, strong scholastically, sounded like a homebody yet a broad interest base. Ugh. I just hate this.

    I went to Facebook to post a condolence message and was absolutely gripped by the irony there. A bunch of teenage boys thought it was funny to start posting messages on the memorial page about what a loser he was, how he deserved to die, and just thoroughly horrid stuff - most of them, I am sure, never even met him or perhaps even came within 500 miles of Barrie, where he lived.

    And it occurred to me that adolescent males have this need for vicarious adventure, usually with a destructive theme.

    These vicious little *******s were basically doing what Brandon was doing by playing Call of Duty - exercising the adolescent male fantasy of applying vicarious destructive power to something. I did it with Squad Leader, maneuvering Russian infantry companies to their doom, Brandon did it in Call of Duty, and these thoughtless little boys on Facebook who eventually got the discussion board shut down are really just exercising another form of recreational destruction, only with actual real world consequences and a capacity to hurt living people by their actions.

    Games aren't the problem - teenage boys are! I remember as a 16 year old we all piled into the back of a friend's pickup truck to ride home from school, rather than taking the school bus. I still remember thinking how funny it was when Colin threw a half-empty soft-drink cup out the window and it landed at the feet of an elderly lady and splashed her dress. I can't fathom what I was thinking or why, but being in the back of a moving vehicle, young, and stupid was empowering. We didn't feel the least bit of responsibility. I would not go back to those days if you paid me. I couldn't even if you did.

    Escapism and destructiveness is part of the adolescent male's make up, I think. It's as natural as the need of parents to rein it in and discipline them when it gets out of hand. I'm glad my Dad never found out about that soft drink cup.

    M Faulkner - 06 Nov 08 09:01
    Mike, I think you hit on a lot of good points in you assessment of the situation. Blaming the game (what ever the game) is not the answer. Please keep us informed of things as the investigation progresses.

    scrub - 07 Nov 08 18:51
    I think the latest is no foul play suspected. The "experts" believe hypothermia was primary cod.

  2. gamesquad comments continued:

    Michael Dorosh - 07 Nov 08 19:03
    Makes me wonder how many times my Dad harped at me to take a jacket with me too.

    Eventually, he would have come to realize that's what parents do. It's sad, but what else can you say.

    There was a vignette in the late 1980's in Gwynne Dyer's series called War; an interview with a Marine Corps veteran who had returned from combat in Vietnam and was back in his home town again and trying to readjust to civilian life. He decided he was going to go hunting with a boyhood friend and picked up his rifle from his parents' home, and as he left his mother said "You boys be careful with those guns, now."

    The veteran's point of the story was words to the effect "it occurred to me in that split second that she had no idea what I had been through during my thirteen month tour of duty." Of course, he had been carrying a gun in the northern part of South Vietnam near the demilitarized zone and had weapons safety drilled into him, so the comment was more than a little ironic.

    But in the context of this tragedy, it speaks to me now of parental obligation. Maybe she really did have an inkling of what he went through in Vietnam - it was on the television every night, after all. Those duties don't stop at any certain age - 8, or 12, or when you graduate from Boot Camp, or indeed, even when you come home from thirteen months in combat in Vietnam.

    Be careful with those guns, now.

    Take a jacket with you.

    As adults, we're prepared to accept that parents won't ever stop "hassling" us with those kinds of demands on us. That Marine Corps veteran may have unfortunately resented it as emblematic of a nation that looked down on his service. For most, parental obligation becomes part of the fabric of our lives, and a welcome part. We eventually come to laugh about it. I still get the gears from my mother when she sees me about wearing a heavy enough jacket.

    I guess I consider myself lucky now.

    Michael Dorosh - 13 Nov 08 16:21

    The latest news report says he died of chest injuries consistent with a fall from a tree.

  3. gamesquad comments continued:

    Michael Dorosh - 14 Nov 08 16:52
    And even more news; the parents have set up a trust foundation in his name. That's really great, but the intent is to get kids out of video games and into sports. That's great too, but the story says that Brandon was initially in hockey but judged "too small" to play goalie.

    I can totally relate; I was smaller than my classmates also, not much of an athlete, humiliated by being picked last for schoolyard teams. I did my best at floor hockey and soccer but when video games came along, I far preferred Intellivision over going out to get picked last. Not everyone is going to excel at sports nor should everyone be forced into it. I think I managed to do okay without having been in organized sports, if 21 years in the Canadian Forces, two university degrees, and a handful of successful publications are any indication. The fact I'm alive and un-incarcerated and happy should be enough, though, really...

    The trust is a good idea, but it sounds like - in my opinion - for the wrong reasons. But if it helps the parents make sense of this tragedy, I wish them every success with it. Donations can be made at any branch of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC).

    Rindis - 14 Nov 08 17:40
    I can totally relate; I was smaller than my classmates also, not much of an athlete, humiliated by being picked last for schoolyard teams.

    I wasn't humiliated, I just considered it inevitable. While I cared to give it a try (being stuck with it anyway), I didn't really care about people's opinion of me in that way.

    In much the same situation as you, I didn't go for video games much. Then again, there wasn't much opportunity. We didn't have a computer until I was Junior High (an Adam), and one dex-based game was incapable of holding that much of my attention. In late High School we got an Apple-compatible, and I started getting introduced to SSG (which made many classic games). But it was too late, as I had been sunk in books, wargames, and role-playing games for years at that point.

    On the other hand, I never had more than one or two friends at a time until High School. The biggest effect on my life may very well have been the Role Playing Gamers club, that introduced me to a wider circle of friends, and the only people I had any care to associate with after graduation (in fact, one is currently a roommate...). I did also have the advantage of parents who fully understood my interests—something I took for granted until I got a look at other club member's families.

    It is not the sports, it is not the video games. What makes the difference is people. Offer the kids that don't care for the 'popular' pursuits a way to engage their interests with each other, and you will give them something far healthier than sunshine and fresh air.