As far as his parents were concerned, Brandon Crisp was just playing one of his video games, a time-consuming pastime for the 15-year-old.
Little did they know the Barrie, Ont., teen was making his way to the top tier of the gaming world, where all that time in front of the gaming console might start to pay off with big wins and recognition in an alternate online gaming universe.
When Steve and Angelika Crisp confiscated his console during Thanksgiving weekend, the teen threatened to run away from home — and did on Monday Oct. 13, 2008. His body was found three weeks later in a forest, with the cause of death determined to have been a blow to the chest likely caused by falling from a tree.
CBC-TV's Fifth Estate took a closer look at the case in a documentary titled Top Gun which airs Friday at 9 p.m. ET.
Though Crisp's disappearance began as a simple missing child case, it grew into something larger, prompting parents and officials to turn their eye on a world they barely knew — the quickly growing video gaming circuit — and its allure for young and impressionable teens.
The video gaming world, with graphics so sophisticated they make the settings seem real and lucrative prizes that rival some professional sports, is enticing to children, many of them younger than the ages recommended in game ratings.
The Crisps admit they had no idea how important video games had become to their son and said they might never have bought the console as a Christmas gift if they'd known where it could lead.
"He was the kind of kid that would want to be the best at everything or anything that he did," said Steve Crisp.
Brandon had put that passion into hockey years earlier but stopped playing at 12, frustrated about getting benched because of his small size.
He found a new niche in the so-called first-person shooter genre of video games, in which the player experiences the game through the eyes of a fighter on a mission. Brandon became obsessed, playing the Xbox video game Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare on a television in his bedroom every chance he got.
"We'd wake up in the middle of the night sometimes and find him playing games at two or three in the morning," said his father. "I would go into his room and literally rip the cords out of the wall sometimes just because he just wouldn't listen. He wouldn't get off."
Reaching for the top
It was Nick, a friend Brandon met on a school bus in the first week of Grade 9 in 2007, who introduced the teen to playing Call of Duty online, opening up a whole new world.
|A growing industry|
The popularity of video games continues to climb in both the U.S. and Canada.
In Canada, the video gaming market — including software, hardware and accessories — raked in $2.1 billion in 2008, a 33 per cent increase from the previous year.
American retailers, meanwhile, saw $21.33 billion in sales in 2008, a 19-per-cent increase from $18 billion in 2007.
The top-selling video games around the world in 2008 were:
|(Source: NPD Group)|
The friends formed a team, or clan, on Gamebattles.com — one of the fastest-growing online gaming sites — that allowed them to go on video game missions together, work their way up player rankings and win prizes. Owned by Major League Gaming, the site boasts 2.5 million registered users.
Soon, the members of the group were battling insurgents together in a virtual landscape stretching from the Middle East to Russia.
"We all kind of got good," said Nick, but it was Brandon who proved the natural leader.
As Brandon became more and more immersed in the world, his parents were trying to limit his playing time. They even tried to cancel his online gaming subscription, but Xbox refused because the account was prepaid.
Then, three days before Thanksgiving, his parents discovered Brandon had skipped school to play the game. The Crisps took the Xbox away and hid it in their bedroom.
But Brandon found it, plugged the console back in and started playing again.
"Son, this time, it's just not coming back," Steve recalls saying. Brandon reacted by threatening to run away from home.
The two called what they thought was a bluff.
"I said, 'Brandon, you're not going to leave over a game. That's ridiculous'," said Angelika. Then she advised him to take a warm coat if he was going to leave.
He sped off with his coat and a knapsack on a mountain bicycle he hadn't ridden in three years. A week later, that bicycle was found abandoned in a ditch by the side of a road in Shanty Bay, a few kilometres from his home.
Hunters found Brandon's body several weeks later on Nov. 5 in a farmer's field in the area north of Barrie.
Parents feel like hostages: expert
During the three-week-long search, many comments were made about the type of kid Brandon was, but his friend Nick says it could've happened to anyone.
"It wasn't Brandon's fault," said Nick. "I could have been in the same situation as Brandon or any of my friends could have."
Gary Direnfeld, a social worker in Dundas, Ont., known for his advice on the lifestyle television show Newlywed, Nearly Dead?, said his practice has seen a rise in the number of parents seeking help for their children's gaming addictions.
"The parents are at their wit's end," said Direnfeld. "They're pulling out their hair. They don't know what to do. They get held hostage by the backlash from their teenager when the teenager says, 'You can't do that to me.' They're scared."
While video games aren't the same as drugs, Direnfeld says they can produce a similar effect: a sense of euphoria and power plus an adrenaline rush that proves addictive.
Peer pressure prevents breaks
Daniel Folmer, 24, of Texas was eight years old when he started playing first-person shooter games and became addicted.
"I felt physically compelled to play," he said. "And every time I couldn't play, I was angry; I was upset."
Folmer remembers how he felt chills each time the game loaded up and revelled in killing hundreds of virtual people with his sniper rifle. He later quit cold turkey and now gives lectures about helping people get over their gaming addictions.
Folmer said the problem with online gaming was not only the violence but the intensity and sense of responsibility players feel to the team members with whom they spend hours on the console.
"If I wasn't playing enough, my team would get upset," said Folmer. "Then I would say to my mom, 'I have to play, I have to play'."
Peer pressure is built into the games, said family therapist Gary Direnfeld, with friends relying on each other to advance up the rankings ladder.
"Forget getting killed. If I get called to dinner, if I want to go do my homework, I'm letting down my team," said Direnfeld. "Somebody else may die. And if they die, they're out of the game."
Top of the gaming world
Six months before Brandon ran away, he and his friends had signed up the clan for the Gamebattles Call of Duty ladder and were quickly caught up in the competition. But they, too, experienced the frustration when some failed to pull their weight.
Several months later, Brandon split with his friends and began focusing more time on his game.
According to his friends, he had reached the highest level in the so-called prestige mode in Call of Duty.
"That takes a lot of skill and a lot of dedication and hard work," Folmer said when told of Brandon's achievement by the Fifth Estate. "And I mean, that's like … he's an all-star."
The Fifth Estate learned that the Thanksgiving weekend when Brandon ran away was key to him finally closing in on the top ranks of his Call of Duty competition ladder. He had skipped school for a match and had others scheduled. Then his parents took away the console, causing him to lose his hard-fought ranking in a hobby he hoped to turn into a profession.
In fact, video gaming, referred to by some as an e-sport, can translate into a profitable career. Major League Gaming, which owns Gamebattles.com, has turned what once was an inside pastime into a televised spectator sport, with tournaments featuring $100,000 prizes and professional teams with their own coaches and sponsors.
The four players with Canada's top professional video gaming team, Amp Energy Pro Team, consider themselves athletes and are fully dedicated to the career. They won't disclose their earnings, but some professionals in the field are making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
Only now do his parents fully comprehend what video games had come to mean to Brandon.
"It would be devastating for someone to be disconnected," acknowledged his mother, Angelika.
"It's cult-like, and you can understand why he'd run down for dinner, run back up to his room and get back on the game and play in the middle of the night and be so mad when I'd rip the thing out of the wall unexpectedly when he's in the middle of a game or a tournament," said Steve.
No more violent than cartoons: MLG
But Brandon's father says the gaming industry needs to be subject to more stringent regulations and shouldn't allow children to compete for money.
"It needs to be way more regulated than it is" said Crisp. "Kids are out there competing for money that are 13, 14, 10. It shouldn't be allowed."
Brandon's game of choice, Call of Duty, is rated M for mature, meaning its suitable for ages 17 and older. In Ontario, Manitoba, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, it's illegal to sell M-rated games to those under 17. Saskatchewan and Alberta are in the process of introducing similar regulations.
The Entertainment Software Rating Board, a self-regulated body established by the industry, allots the ratings.
"When the industry itself says that kids under 17 shouldn't be playing this game, then … a parent can be pretty sure that it's not appropriate for a 10-, 11-, 12-, 13-year-old kid to be playing," said David Walsh, a child psychologist who pushed for the ratings system.
Major League Gaming CEO Matthew Bromberg says the average age of Gamebattles players is 18, which means many are younger. "It's no more violent than a cartoon on Saturday morning," he says.
"We don't manufacture the game. We're not raising the kids. What we're doing is creating the sport that millions of kids are really interested in."
Walsh said the gaming industry has sent a "double message" to children by "encouraging young kids to get involved with games that aren't rated for them."
Danielle Labossiere-Parr, executive director of the industry group Entertainment Software Association of Canada, points out it is often parents purchasing the games for their children.
She said ratings are clearly stamped on the front of game packages and parents need to educate themselves on their purchases.
"The way that we are conveying the ratings information is effective," said Labossiere-Parr. But ultimately, you know, we can't control what goes into every home."
As for the Crisps, who only now understand a world their son spent most of his time inhabiting, they wish they'd taken control a lot sooner.
"Like other parents, we've taken the easy way out too many times, and this is what it results in," said Steve. "I'm not saying we're bad parents. I think we do what a lot of other parents do."