Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A "Baffling" tragedy?

Once again law enforcement officials are baffled about why a young man would randomly kill with “no apparent motive.”

This time the toll was two teenage girls killed and seven other people wounded. Three remain in the hospital. One was in critical condition Monday.

The shooter, 24-year-old Erik Ayala, died today from his self-inflicted gun wound.


Everything points to a depressed, out-of-work young man who, for hours on end, escaped to the fantasy world of shooter video games.

Here’s how Ayala’s roommate, Mike Delisle, described Ayala: “He wasn’t big on talking about what was bothering him.” He was “down lately,” and “stuck to playing video games,” said Delisle.

The Oregonian reported today that among the “numerous” video games was “Grand Theft Auto,” the infamous hyper-violent, shooter game.

CAUTION: I’m about to enter into speculation that invites your comment.

The one thing I am not is “baffled.”

Armed with a fully loaded Italian-made pistol and an unstable mind, Ayala took his practiced gamer fantasy out into the very real streets of Portland with very real tragic results.

The gun and its bullets were suddenly real. The dead and wounded weren’t some animator’s depictions.

One mortally wounded victim was Martha Paz De Noboa, cut down at age 17. “Tika,” as her friends called her, was a Peruvian exchange student. According to The Oregonian, she “loved to dance and had never frolicked in snow until last month’s big storm,”

The other murder victim was Ashley Wilks, murdered in her 16th year. She was described as “the consummate best friend.”


I teach at a community college and so I know a lot of good kids and upstanding, bright young adults who play violent video games. Many play for hours on end, yes addictively. I know this because I have them keep media logs of how they spend their time. They very often are surprised by how much time they spend with "screens."

They would never kill a soul.

But they too are often isolated. They too lose touch with others. For many who are still social, their contacts frequently are circumscribed by a shared virtual world. Human interaction is dependent on a shared game.

They lose touch with reality. They lose touch even with themselves, with the value of their lives to themselves and to us.

Of course, the current economic economic vortex also devalues them in the work place.

It’s a textbook situation for depression.

Then add a 9 mm pistol, so easy to score in our gun-obsessed society, and you have the makings of what happened in Portland on Saturday night.


For an insightful psychological analysis the pathology of the “ScreenWorld,” I recommend this article in the current issue of the “Psychotherapy Networker.”

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

This has to be the most retarded thing I have ever read.

You are not going to publish this comment, so this is simply directed towards you.

Old cranky curmudgeons always want to blame the latest "fads" for all the evils. Like Rock-N-Roll before them, video games are now the whipping boy of the feeble minded old folks who can't find anything else to blame.

You know what? A crazy person is a crazy person. We had them before video games and we will have them after video games.

But since no one will ever know what was going on in his head, all we have are pundits like you making crap up.

Maybe he was pissed because all the people at the clubs were pretty, had money and friends? Maybe they represented all that he couldn't have?

Maybe he just thought it would be the best way to get to be remembered, and wanted the most sensational place he could find?

Get off your high horse. A wacko will kill with whatever tool they find for whatever reason they make up. You can't make the world safe from every nutjob.

Here is an idea.

Give people education, good jobs, and universal health care which includes mental health coverage.

7:46 PM  
Blogger wheels said...

I agree with the much of the substance of "Anonymous"'s comment, if not the charming language.

Many times over the past few years somebody has gone on some rampage and they've been found to have been playing violent video games. But I don't think there's a causal relationship there, particularly because there have been more cases that have not involved video games (the anthrax guy, US soldiers and contractors in Iraq, terrorists, etc). I'll bet all these people have toilet paper in their houses too, and yet somehow that's ignored as a potential cause.

It's more likely that this man, and probably others in the past, already had abnormally depressive, destructive tendencies, and tried to use his video games as an outlet. In that case, use of violent video games are a symptom, not a cause, of depressive, destructive tendencies.

And of course, we can't look at someone playing video games and say, "oi, potential homicidal maniac," just as we can't look at someone sneezing and say, "aack, avian flu." There are lots of reasons people play violent video games and most of them are entirely socially acceptable.

It might make people feel better to assign blame for a tragedy such as this one to some recent social phenomenon, but it's bad logic, and it serves no-one. To me it's not far from blaming Hurricane Katrina on homosexuality.

12:30 AM  
Blogger Rick Seifert said...

Anonymous is, well, anonymous. As such, he (sounds like a "he") carries no responsibility for what he says or, more importantly, how he says it. He needs to get real, literally. If you write for real people, you address them humanely.

I agree with him on one point: "Give people education, good jobs, and universal health care which includes mental health coverage."

That indeed might have spared the lives lost to Saturday's violence.

Note that Anonymous said "give." I am reminded of the truism: From those to whom much is given, much is expected.

In the case of Anonymous, my expectation would start with his name.

Wheels: I'm not "assigning blame" to violent video games. I'm saying that they may be a contributing factor. Would Erik Ayala, a real gun in hand, depressed and with a history of mental illness, have taken the lives of others if he hadn't spent hour after hour experiencing a virtual world from the shooter's end of a gun and slaughtering anonymous game-offered victims?

Would it have made any difference?

Several studies indicate that it might have.

My larger point — and I should have dealt with it separately — is that addictions to these games remove us from life. That's why we call them addictive. We have lost control of our lives.

Certainly there is a role for video games as entertainment. Many are educational and intellectually challenging. But when they define us and our world (at the expense of our families, friends, communities and society, at the expense of our own potential), there's a problem.

Another off-blog writer has suggested that there is a "positive balance" we can strike with gaming. I sincerely would like to explore what that balance might be and how it might vary from person to person?

What would the "balance" have been for Erik Ayala? And how would he have come to discover it?

8:24 AM  
Blogger wheels said...

I certainly agree that balance and moderation are necessary, and to that I would add that obsession and addiction broadly, not violent video games specifically, are real issue here. Obsession with one's weight and appearance or a job are just as destructive as obsession with video games. Balance is absolutely necessary in all these endeavors. But the endeavors themselves don't cause the obsessions and addictions. Drugs are another story, of course.

And while I agree that the violent video games may have influenced his behavior, it's almost certain that Erik Ayala was already predisposed to homicidal/suicidal thoughts before he chose to use the video games as an outlet. In other words, the video games may have colored the nature of his final act, but they were not likely the cause.

To paraphrase Adlai Stevenson, there is no evil in video games -- only in men's souls.

10:47 AM  
Blogger Rick Seifert said...

Hey Andy,

It's good to have you in on this discussion.

I agree with most of what you say. The one point I'd like to explore a bit more is this: "But the endeavors themselves don't cause the obsessions and addictions."

By building in a system of rewards the games are designed to "hook" you on playing. Very Pavlovian. There is more having to do with images and on-line experiences that evoke hormonal reactions and addictive changes in our body (and brain) chemistry.

Your thoughts?

11:11 AM  
Blogger wheels said...

True, games are designed to attract players, with an eye toward selling more of them. Individually, they are addictive, to a point. They are also made to bore the user after some time, again, with an eye toward selling more of them.

But again, video games are not alone as addictive activities, and they do not, in themselves, cause addiction (you're right, though, they don't help). Life, after all, contains its own system of rewards (I work for a month and then receive the means by which I eat and stay warm -- quite addictive). And I don't think the increasing tendency for video games to mimic life is a bad thing.

As video games have evolved to contain greater complexity, their 'hooks' have become less dependent on senseless violence, in favor of complex problem solving. Simpler, more violent games will still exist, but they'll never be as fun or fulfilling -- or addictive -- as those that mimic the complexity of real life.

You brought up online experiences. The tendency for more and more aspects of life to be lived online is a completely new trend, incomparable to any historical trend I'm aware of. It is likely an irrevocable part of our culture now, even as it evolves and grows, but our society should proceed with a measure of caution.

But online experiences, like blogging (which, you must admit, also has a built-in system of rewards that can pull a person away from his/her real life), general social networking like facebook, or the focused social networking built into Barack Obama's presidential campaign, have an enormous capacity to enrich our lives, even as they carry many risks.

So again, just like so many other aspects of human life, there are good and bad things about video games. Humans, however, choose what games to play, what activities to pursue, and what lessons to learn from them. Balance is the key (and it's the reason I don't own a video game console).

2:31 PM  

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