This week, a coroner in Manchester has expressed concerns about the first-person shooter game, Call of Duty.
After recording a suicide verdict on William Menzies, 16, who was found asphyxiated in his bedroom in Hale, Greater Manchester, John Pollard stated: "I have to say, and this is after three or four inquests into the deaths of teens, the Call of Duty game seems to be figuring in recent activity before death. It concerns me greatly."
Menzies was described as a "straight A" student who had not, to the coroner's knowledge, expressed suicidal thoughts. In the inquest, Pollard referred to a previous suicide, that of 14-year-old Callum Green, who was found hanged in his bedroom in March 2011, and was known to have been a fan of Call of Duty. Pollard also linked the game to the deaths of two other unnamed teenagers he had investigated.
Pollard is not explicitly imparting blame on the game series, but his concerns are ambiguous. "I suspect but I don't know because I don't have enough evidence, that William may have been experimenting with something or deliberately intending to do something."
The cases are incredibly sad and no doubt extremely worrying to parents of boys who are of a similar age and who perhaps play similar titles on their consoles or PC. But can a link be made between suicide and a video game?
Many risk factors
Certainly, psychologists are unconvinced. "There's absolutely no evidence that any video games have been associated with suicide," says Dr Mark Griffiths of Nottingham Trent University who has spent 25 years studying gambling and gaming addiction. "If you look at the research, there are so many different risk factors - psychiatric disorders, various psychological states, cultural, family and social situations, even genetics. There are so many things that tend to contribute to suicide that blaming one particular game is almost impossible."
It is not clear exactly how Pollard envisions a link – whether it is due to content or duration of play. The Call of Duty series of video games depicts graphic warfare and military violence, but it has not significantly featured suicide, aside from a harrowing scene in the 2010 title, Call of Duty: Black Ops, in which the lead character is forced to play "Russian Roulette" by enemy soldiers. The sequence ends with the player turning the gun on his captors.
As for excessive or addictive gaming, there have been several studies looking into links with depression. In 2011, Jose Valadez and Christopher Ferguson of the University of Texas carried out research into the effects of games on both aggression and depression. They found that effects were, "below levels for practical signiﬁcance." A study published in 2011 by Dr. Erick Messias of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, found that teenagers who played video games for five hours or more every day were more likely to report feelings of sadness, but that those who played for less than two hours were less likely to report similar feelings than those who did not play games at all.
"The effects of video game violence in terms of aggression and depression are hotly debated in academia but there is no clear evidence of a link," says cyberpsychologist, Berni Good. "There is actually a lot of critique around the study methodologies being used. Correlation is not causation - and nothing has been proven in the literature currently available."
'The research is lacking'
As Good argues, although a lot of research has been carried out in this areas, the methodologies have tended to provide inconclusive results. "Psychologists do not yet fully understand the impact of playing video games," she says. "There is zero evidence to suggest that people will engage in video games and then take that behaviour offline – the research is lacking. What would really be valuable in this area is a longitudinal study that factors in other elements - what is happening in the environment of the individual? What genetic predisposition might they have?"
Griffiths agrees that a problem with current research into the influence of video games is that much of it is based on short-term effects. "There have been a number of studies into excessive playing, we find lots of different personality factors and psychological states associated with addiction, there are so many mediating factors," he says. "But none of these studies are longitudinal – they never control for whether there is something in each individual that predisposes them toward seeking out violent games or toward spending a lot of time on the internet."
"Call of Duty has sold over 100m copies - the fact that four teenagers all played the game tells us very little; they may also have all watched the same film recently. At the very best you could suggest that a game may have a minor contributory role, but even that goes beyond the evidence, and there are usually so many other contributory factors."
The agonising problem for parents is that discovering the factors that have contributed to suicide can be very difficult - especially with young men. Pollard stated that "there was no note or indication [Menzies] was feeling down or distressed." However, in its recent report, Men and Suicide: Why It's a Social Issue The Samaritans reiterate the fact that men are much less likely to talk about or seek help with their emotions. "Men can experience a ‘big-build’" the report states. "They don’t recognise or deal with their distress, but let it build up to breaking point." The charity provides a guide for parents on spotting the signs that a young person may be at risk of suicide.
It can be difficult to monitor what a teenager is playing or what they're looking at on a computer, but there are measures to protect them. Bringing the games console into a communal area of the house or setting up the parental controls in order to limit the time being spent on a games machine are good ideas if gaming is becoming a problem. All the main console manufacturers – Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo – publish online guides on how to set up parental controls on their systems. Sitting down with your child to play a favourite game will help you to understand it, and may also provide a safe space to discuss other issues.
It's also worth keeping an eye on the age ratings of the games that children and teenagers are playing. Every game bought in shops or at sites like Amazon have to show a PEGI age rating, which are just like the BBFC ratings on movies – they tell you if the content is unsuitable for specific age groups. If a game is rated PEGI 18+, which most of the Call of Duty titles are, it means the title contains graphic violence, sex or drug use and is not suitable for those under 18.
The deaths of these young boys are tragic, but suicide is a complex issue. It is often not something that can easily be attributed to one single cause. Parents should understand what their children are playing, but it is extremely unlikely that a single game, book, CD or film will, alone, prompt them toward suicidal thoughts.
The Samaritans can be contacted on 08457 909090 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Help is available 24 hours a day and all calls are anonymous.
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