Did video games make him do it?

In the weeks before he stormed his high school with weapons, Alexander Youshock played “violent video games in which characters were often armed with pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails,” according to wire reports. Image from Call of Duty 3.

On August 24, 2009 — days after school started for the fall — teenager Alexander Youshock arrived for morning classes at Hillsdale High School in San Mateo, Calif. Unlike his fellow students, he was armed with 10 pipe bombs, a chainsaw, and a 10-inch knife.

Youshock’s fate now rests in the hands of a jury, currently deliberating in a San Mateo County courtroom where Youshock stands accused on two counts of attempted murder and other charges. No one was injured in the attack; Youshock was unable to start his chainsaw, and the two pipe bombs he detonated weren’t close enough to harm anyone. If the jury finds him guilty of any charges, a second trial will determine his sanity.

Youshock is allegedly schizophrenic; he told the court he began hearing voices when he was in the eighth grade. In high school, he said he felt “singled out” by counselors and teachers who pushed him to participate in classes and do homework. His cracked state of mind may have motivated the attack on the high school, expert witnesses testified.

And yet, somehow video games get tangled up in all this: “In the months leading up to the Hillsdale attack, Youshock spent most days in his room playing violent video games in which characters were often armed with pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails. His ability to tell the difference between his violent fantasies and their possible consequences in the real world became obscured by his mental disorder, [psychologist Alfred] Fricke said.”

Once again, video games are dragged through the mud in a court case where it’s not apparent that a teen’s gaming habits — or even his mental stability — are to blame. Sure, it’s possible that Youshock has the very rare form of schizophrenia that can make some sufferers harbor violent fantasies and even act on them. Youshock himself said that his inspiration came predominantly from the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre and a 2009 school shooting in Winnenden, Germany.

But most people who learn about such shootings don’t bring bombs to high school. The same can be said of most schizophrenics, and most players of violent video games — even ones with pipe bombs in them. It takes a lot more than any of these factors — and more than these factors combined — to push someone this far. And, so far, we don’t know what leads boys like Youshock to attack their own stomping grounds. As long as we keep focusing on distractions like video games, we’ll never figure it out.

Parents, what are your concerns about video games like the ones Youshock played? Have you ever prevented your kids from playing them? How did that effort turn out?


4 responses to “Did video games make him do it?

  1. As I write this, I am watching Clash of the Titans (an admittedly violent movie) with my 11-year-old son. He is at the age when these things are of interest to him. It is a relatively new interest, but one I am willing to let him entertain…with proper supervision and discussion. He is a mature kid and he knows how to distinguish fact from fiction. I guard his mind, and I will continue to do that. Violent video games are not an option. What he ingests becomes a part of him, and it is a special occasion to watch movies like he is watching right now. He is squirming a little (that’s good) because he is no where near desensitized yet. We talk a lot about the chemistry of his brain and what happens as a result of the images he takes in. I won’t be able to watch him forever, but I hope to instill in him a pride about guarding his brain himself.
    Great topic to research!!

    • Thanks so much for this comment. You say violent games are not an option. Do you mean at his current age, or at any age (assuming under 18 here)? I would love to hear more about your decision-making process there. Also, as he gets older, how will you make sure he’s not playing such games when he’s with friends or on his own? I think your interest in teaching him how it all works, and what you hope and expect for him, is a great step.

  2. I should have clarified. Because he is only 11, the violent games are not an option right now. I am not naive enough to think if I ban him from those games, he won’t be even more curious and find any way he can to play them. I actually talked to him about your article, and I told him my response. He said, “But I’ll play them when I’m old enough.” and I said, “Sure, but how long do you think would be good to sit playing a game like that?” “An hour?” he tentatively responded. He and I then talked about how realistic the games are and how they make your mind think they are happening. They change the chemical balance in the brain…and he has heard me talk about how the “high” kids get playing video games is similar to the high experienced in drug users. I’m not terrified about all the options our kids have, I just promote moderation and awareness. Awareness when behavior, mood, and performance (either athletic or academic) are tied so closely to sleep, screen time and food.
    Wow…sorry to get on the soap box. I am happy to chat more about this…you can send an email to me if you want: choosingtogrow@meaganfrank.com

    • Meagan, it sounds like you’re being pretty sensible. And it sounds like he is, too. 🙂 There are some studies (some of which I’ve linked to on this site) that suggest these games are actually GOOD for kids, so it makes me sad when parents totally shut them out of kids’ lives, or try to. But I also think moderation is important. Good luck!

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