Tag Archives: suicide

How a life among monsters can help you learn

RPG gamers: come out of hiding! Photo by Flickr user greenwise art.

Once upon a time, role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons were something kids and teens played in secret, for fear their parents would find out. Some parents had become convinced that these games allowed kids to flirt with the occult or even suicide and murder. Today, we mostly laugh at those ideas, and those who hide their RPG tendencies do so less out of fear of what their parents will think, and more out of fear that they’ll be branded as nerds stuck in childhood. Some stigma remains.

Which is why, when an accomplished writer like Samuel Sattin writes about his history as a role-playing gamer in Salon, it’s in somewhat hushed tones:

Now, I realize I’m risking no small amount of social capital by putting my history with Dungeons & Dragons into print. I’ve made similar confessions concerning my long time love of video games, a medium many respected cultural arbiters—Roger Ebert comes to mind—says can never be art. New forms of media, new forms of creative exploration, especially when they try to assume dignity or—shock—artistic respect, are bound to be repudiated by establishment critics who maintain genre is divorced from aesthetic permanence. There’s a reason Ursula K. LeGuin hasn’t won a Pulitzer yet, and it’s not because she isn’t amazing. It’s because there’s a war going on right now, especially in the literary world, over the definition of cultural value.

That, however, is not really the point of Sattin’s essay. Instead, the point is that his experiences playing D&D actually gave him the skills he needed to write his debut novel, League of Somebodies, which is coming out next spring. He talks about how all those hours spent creating characters and stories provided the building blocks for his imagination to craft a story and that, someday soon, we will all be able to experience. Tolkien and Lewis, Milne, George Lucas — they have all created worlds that don’t exist, but that do now because of their imagination, and to some extent they were all role-playing.

Okay, so maybe you don’t want to write stories. That’s not the only useful thing to come out of RPGs. Take, for example, 12-year-old Julian Levy, whose D&D monster manual helped his dad, psychologist Alan Kingstone, solve a conundrum about human behavior. Kingstone was studying where people look when examining a new creature; usually it’s the eyes, but what if the eyes aren’t in the expected place?

The recordings showed that when volunteers looked at drawings of humans or humanoids (monsters with more or less human shapes), their eyes moved to the centre of the screen, and then straight up. If the volunteers saw monsters with displaced eyes, they stared at the centre, and then off in various directions. The volunteers looked at eyes early and frequently, whether they were on the creatures’ faces or not.

This isn’t just an academic exercise, says Kingstone. “If people are just targeting the centre of the head, like they target the centre of most objects, and getting the eyes for free, that’s one thing. But if they are actually seeking out eyes that’s another thing altogether,” he says. It means that different parts of the brain are involved when we glean social information from our peers. It might also help to explain why people with autism often fail to make eye contact with other people, and which parts of the brain are responsible.

Kingstone’s research paper is called “Monsters Are People Too,” natch.

Exactly how many kids has heavy metal sent to Hell?

Recently, someone calling themselves “April and Wayne Show” (it’s not clear whether that’s the name of a couple of the name of their show) began posting videos to YouTube purporting to expose metal bands as “Satanic Illuminati.” Although the dictionary says “illuminati” means “those who are enlightened,” many people colloquially use the term to refer to something cult-like.

As I’ve said before, while some metal bands use anti-Christian symbolism as a theater prop, very few are actually Satanic. Still, some people look at these bands and see nothing else. At first, it seems like April and Wayne Show’s videos might seem tongue-in-cheek, but the tone comes across as fairly serious and straightforward. Which means we’ve got some debunking to do.

Some of their claims include:

“Metal destroys the lives of many youth and leads millions of souls to Hell.”
“Metal has caused many youth to turn to drugs, become rebellious, and become sexually promiscuous (including bisexuality).”
“Metal promotes self-destruction (including suicide). Rock music gets millions of youth to experiment with drugs.”
“Metal artists have sold their souls to the devil and Satan uses metal bands to lead millions of souls to Hell.”
“Metal … promotes witchcraft and Satanism, demonic possession and rage, violence, blasphemy …”

Note that all of this is presented without a single shred of evidence. There’s no science backing their claims about drugs, sexuality, or even suicide. To say nothing of their more spiritual claims. Sure, it’s hard to prove whether “millions of souls” have gone to Hell, or that Satan’s using the music to lead them there, but you could at least try.

Let’s assume for the moment that these teens get to Hell by committing suicide. Roughly 4,400 teens a year succeed in killing themselves. Even if every single teen who committed suicide since 1970 — the year proto-metal band Black Sabbath released its first album — and we assume that every teen who commits suicide a) did so because of metal, and b) went to Hell because of it, it comes to 184,800. Unfortunately, that’s a lot of kids, but it’s by no means “millions.”

They go on:

“Metal artists are under demonic control during performances. These demons not only control artists’ performances, but enhances (sic) their skill.” (Quotes from artists ensue.)

Their example is a drummer they describe as “faceless,” who plays with his eyes closed (how does he have eyes if he doesn’t have a face?), but somehow plays perfectly, as shown in the video. Have these people never heard of dubbing? Or, you know, muscle memory? Many skilled musicians can play with eyes closed; it has nothing to do with demons. Also, since when are demons good at performing music?

Then there’s a narrative from a “regional bride of Satan,” named “Elaine,” who claims that numerous musicians told her that they sold their souls to the Devil, and that she attended “numerous ceremonies” in recording studios to place “Satanic blessings” on the music recorded there. And that the demons appeared on the records, especially in the “backmasked messages.”

I think it’s worth saying that we probably shouldn’t trust a woman who believes she was married to Satan. Even if you get beyond the idea that Satan is a real being who can get married, it’s not like such a marriage would be legally recognized anywhere. At this point, it’s safe to assume that “Elaine” was imagining or hallucinating pretty much everything she claims. The red herring is the “backmasked messages” comment, considering that the metal bands accused of backmasking messages were exonerated in court, after it was found that the “subliminal messages” were imagined, not intentional.

Part 2 of the video series gets into the idea of a “secret society.” “What secret society?” “The Illuminati!” — mostly old, rich guys. Who, as we know, are serious and hardcore metalheads:

I won’t go through the whole thing line-by-line, but needless to say these videos are not worth trusting. I hope parents who come across them while searching for information about their kids’ interests don’t give them too much credence. If anyone has questions about what they’re seeing in these videos, please ask in comments.

Or, if you see something in one of these videos you’d like to debunk, please do. Cite your sources!

I watch the 20/20 special on heavy metal so you don’t have to (but you’ll probably want to anyway)

In 1987, after the press had exploded with freaked-out suggestions that heavy metal might be an easy scapegoat in the suicides of Ray Belknap and four teens in Bergenfield, NJ, 20/20 felt it was time to explain “the truth” behind heavy-metal music to unsuspecting parents.

It weaves a lot of sensationalism throughout — this type of broadcasting was particularly rampant in the 1980s, between 20/20 and Geraldo Rivera — but it also does a number of things right, including talking to metalheads, musicians (Bruce Dickinson is fantastic), and heavy-metal experts. It’s too bad it’s also full of misinformation and scaremongering, by Tipper Gore and others.

00:13: “When a form of music that our children like becomes linked with ghoulish images and violent theatrics, and even (sensitive but dramatic pause) … suicide…” Very objective, Barbara.
00:24: “So-called hea-vy-met-al music…” I love how she’s enunciating this like it’s the first time anyone’s heard it. Maybe then, it was.
00:45: Using sensationalized news reports on heavy metal to bolster your own sensationalized news report on heavy metal: Always a smart journalistic move.
1:00: Know how you can tell this reporter doesn’t understand music or metal? He calls Iron Maiden a “supergroup.”
1:18: “Screeching guitars, flamboyant bands, lyrics obsessed with sex, Satanism, and even suicide…” Several sociological surveys of themes in heavy-metal lyrics showed that these topics were in the minority. Mostly, it was the journalists who were “obsessed” with them.
1:33: “Togetherness!” The first metalhead quoted in the program says this is what metal is all about. If everyone listened to this kid, we could have all saved ourselves a lot of trouble.
1:47: “As Frank Zappa was saying, if your kid comes home with an album with a guy with a chainsaw between his legs, you’d better find out what that music is talking about.” That’s not exactly what Zappa said (during the PMRC hearings): “I would say that a buzzsaw blade between a guy’s legs on the album cover is a good indication that it is not for little Johnny.” He was referring to the cover for W.A.S.P.’s “Animal (Fuck Like a Beast)” single.
2:05: “Teenage suicides, like the ones in Bergenfield, New Jersey.” Yes, they were AC/DC fans. But they were also despondent about the death of a friend a few months earlier — not to mention the fact that adults viewed them as losers. Read Donna Gaines’ Teenage Wasteland for the whole story.
2:30: Lyrics, badly quoted, from Metallica’s “Fade to Black.” People failed to recognize the difference between a song about suicide and a song encouraging suicide. Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich said, “We got hundreds of letters from kids telling us how they related to the song and that it made them feel better.”
2:45: I still encounter people, metalheads included, who think “Suicide Solution” is about suicide. It isn’t. It’s either about Ozzy’s unhappiness that his friend, Bon Scott, drank himself to death — or about Ozzy’s own struggles with alcoholism.
3:09: Record-burnings. Because that worked so well for the Nazis.
3:29: Tipper Gore: “We have explicit and graphic sex, extreme violence, suicide in lyrics, that is going to children that are sometimes not even teenagers yet…” Keep in mind, this is a woman who was embarrassed to discuss masturbation with her daughter. The poor girl had to find out about it in a Prince song.
3:40: Bruce Dickinson. Bless. It’s time someone said something sensible. “Who are the real people who are poisoning people’s minds, and why are they doing it?”
4:45: “Teaneck High has its own group of so-called tough kids, hoods, or burnouts.” Note the dire tone in his voice, like he’s talking about people who roast babies.
5:28: It’s great that 20/20 actually bothered to talk to some metalheads. And I love that these kids chose to play SOD for the reporter, who was never going to pick up on the satire.
5:35: “It calms me down.” LISTEN TO THESE KIDS, people.
5:44: “And you can sort of drown out the world that way,” says the reporter, putting words in his mouth.
6:05: Note how it transitions without warning from real-world scenes of kids hanging out to a dramatic, fictional clip from a Twisted Sister video.
6:31: “They spend their afternoons in the record shop…” A different reporter could have picked up on how metal serves as a lingua franca for these kids, a way of connecting. Instead he blows it off as though it were a waste of time compared to sports, clubs, etc. Kids who develop encyclopedic knowledge about any subject — and then use that knowledge to connect — are smart kids. Period.
7:11: And now, an interview with a preppie girl, who deeply understands these poor, troubled kids. “They need some support. They need some people to inspire them. Some people to look up to.” What, a fencer/pilot and a musician who overcame an industrial accident aren’t worth looking up to?
7:52: “This song is about nuclear war.” He’s talking about Megadeth’s “Peace Sells.” A song which actually challenges stereotypes about metalheads. Oops.
8:19: Tipper Gore quoting Motley Crue’s “Too Young to Fall in Love.” Because everyone knows all music lyrics are meant to be taken literally.

00:06: “They say parents pay more attention to the lyrics than they do.” I think there are plenty of kids who do pay attention to the lyrics (I’m one of them), but again, there’s a difference between a song being about something, and encouraging that something.
00:24: “You just avoid the music you don’t like, that’s all.” Kids know their limits. Really.
1:24: “Without heavy metal, there would probably be a lot more suicides.” It’s too bad they buried this halfway through the segment, because it really ought to be the headline.
2:00: Aw, little Jay in KISS/corpsepaint. His dad has the right approach: try to listen along, even if you don’t like it.
2:55: Ah, moshing. Great for some scary-looking video. “At times it looks more like a contact sport.” (Because contact sports are so wacky and unAmerican).
3:35: RULES TO DEMETAL KIDS. Didn’t anyone listen to the guy who said without metal, there would be more suicides? Why would anyone think this is a good idea? We can’t see all the rules, but the ones he reads off — tear down posters, impose a dress code — are more like a dictatorship than a parenting strategy.
3:45: This kid realizes it’s rude to talk back to his parents or take out his anger on them, and he’s found an appropriate and safe outlet. Some adults don’t know how to do this!
3:59: This kid’s dad threatens him. And people are worried about what music he listens to?
4:30: Tipper says, “I advocate a system where people can make up their own minds according to their own values and their own assessment of where their child is on a developmental spectrum.” It’s true, her book does that. It’s too bad the rest of it is filled with anti-metal propaganda designed to do the thinking for readers.
5:28: \m/
6:05: It was smart that Iron Maiden and Bruce Dickinson get to be the heavy-metal ambassadors in this program. I wonder if the producers realized that, or whether they thought they’d just get a bunch of Satanists talking about “the number of the beast” and were unpleasantly surprised to discover how thoughtful and forthright Dickinson is.
7:05: “This is hostile music.” Barbara was apparently watching a different program than the one the rest of us were watching.
7:18: “But it isn’t the music that does them harm.” “No.” Okay, maybe she was paying attention.
7:34: “The point is, tune in, and let it be known…” And there the video cuts off, so I guess we’ll never know what the point was, exactly.

Is the media focus on gunmen becoming more responsible? Why I’m not holding my breath

What video games did Benjamin Barnes play? What music did he listen to? So far, the press is silent. And that’s just fine.

It was almost one year ago that Jared Lee Loughner opened fire on a crowd of citizens outside a Safeway in Tucson, injuring more than a dozen people and killing six. One year later, a January gunman may have been found dead in the snow near Mt. Rainier, where a park ranger was shot and killed on New Year’s Day.

So far, the press coverage of Benjamin C. Barnes’ life could not be more different. Articles have focused on his shooting spree during a New Year’s Eve party just south of Seattle, his escape to Mt. Ranier park, and the shooting of Margaret Anderson, a 34-year-old park ranger. Speculation about Barnes’ motives have focused on his service in Iraq, his trouble re-adjusting to civilian life, and threatening suicide a year ago.

With Loughner, reporters pounced on his “obsession with the occult” and his love of at least one heavy metal song. Did Barnes live a life devoid of these interests? Or is the press looking elsewhere for explanations and meaning?

Likewise, when Virginia Tech shooter Ross Truett Ashley killed police officer Deriek Crouse at the college last month — a crime that sent echoes of one of the worst college massacres in history through the school — little was made of his hobbies.

Are reporters finally focusing on violent acts in a more responsible manner, leaving violent-media speculation out of their coverage? Is it because these criminals are adults that we focus on their mental condition rather than their personal interests when looking for murderous inspiration? Given the coverage of such recent events as a Milwaukee meetup gone awry or a child rapist convicted of murder, my hopes are not high. But coverage of these gunmen is certainly a step in the right direction.

Study: heavy metal makes you suicidal, after all

In 1990, Judas Priest was sued for allegedly inspiring the suicides of two teen fans. They were cleared of all charges. Was the judge wrong? Photo by Flickr user Fernando Catalina Landa.

By now, the old moral panic over heavy metal and suicidal behavior is so old-hat that it’s almost laughable, right? Bands like Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne were taken to court over allegations that their music had inspired suicide attempts among fans, but the judges in those cases found them innocent of all charges. Heavy-metal researchers like Jeffrey Jensen Arnett have gone deep into the subculture to find out why some kids love metal so much — and found that the music provides solace for all kinds of listeners. Sure, depression, suicide, and dark music sometimes go hand in hand, but it’s usually the depression that came first.

Not so fast, according to University of Melbourne researcher Katrina McFerran. She has just published a new study claiming heavy metal causes depression and suicidal feelings in listeners. (Editor’s note: the link to the news item about the study lists it as number 666! Coincidence?) Since the actual study appears to be unavailable, we’re going to just have to go on what it says in the press release:

“The mp3 revolution means that young people are accessing music more than ever before and it’s not uncommon for some to listen to music for seven or eight hours a day,” she said.

“Most young people listen to a range of music in positive ways; to block out crowds, to lift their mood or to give them energy when exercising, but young people at risk of depression are more likely to be listening to music, particularly heavy metal music, in a negative way.

“Examples of this are when someone listens to the same song or album of heavy metal music over and over again and doesn’t listen to anything else. They do this to isolate themselves or escape from reality.

“If this behavior continues over a period of time then it might indicate that this young person is suffering from depression or anxiety, and at worst, might suggest suicidal tendencies.”

Whenever I like a song — whether it’s a heavy metal song or not — I do tend to listen to it a lot. I think this is pretty normal among people who passionate about music (as opposed to folks who simply have a passing interest in it). I clearly remember listening to Duran Duran’s “Save A Prayer” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” on endless loop. And, yes, I’ve done this with plenty of heavy-metal songs, too. It wasn’t to block anything out. It was because the song touched me.

Now, McFerran may have a point. Some kids who are already depressed may also listen to the same piece of music over and over, to find comfort in it. But she suggests that this behavior on its own is worrisome and might mean a kid is at risk of suicide. There are already well established warning signs of teen suicide, and “listening to heavy metal on endless loop” isn’t one of them. Generally, people listen to music to make them feel better. Even if it doesn’t seem on the surface that they feel better, it’s keeping them from feeling worse, and that’s an important distinction.

What I’m getting at is: there may be a correlation between depression, suicidal feelings, and love of heavy metal (although fans of any kind of music are certainly susceptible), but that correlation doesn’t suggest that heavy metal is causing those feelings — or that it’s making them worse. But McFerran is suggesting it does, and that’s like suggesting Bic Macs cause bank robberies simply because some bank robbers have eaten them every day for several weeks. (If anything could be said for such eating habits, you could say it causes you to make documentaries. Right?)

At any rate, I suspect McFerran is seeing things a bit backwards — and putting out information that might frighten, rather than assist, parents.

Video games: Saving lives, soothing depression, tickling brains and quieting the nag (since 1972)

Gamers behind the Mario Kart wheel. Photo by Flickr user RonaldWong.

In the arcade, being gay simply didn’t matter; it wasn’t a place of sex or relationships, so it didn’t matter that I was wanting to be romantically involved with guys as opposed to girls. All that mattered there were good matches and getting better.

So I did.

And that saved me from my desire to die. While I was improving myself in the arcade, either with Guilty Gear or at home with Smash (and my local train station had a gc with smash set up in front of it to attract customers to the game shop there). My time out of school was mostly dedicated to improving myself.

This may sound sad, spending so much time fixated on games. But at the time I was so depressed it was hard to hang around people. So what did this fixation do for me? It occupied my mind. During those days I started considering how to improve my ky or Bridget in GG, how to improve my use of Link’s Boomerang usage and so on. It stopped me thinking about death all the time. It saved me from going insane.

— Rowan Carmichael, How Games Saved My Life

Ashly Burch (blogger at Hey, Ash, Whatcha Playin’?) created How Games Saved My Life last month as a way to gather stories from gamers that show video games’ positive side. Already, she’s collected dozens of stories and she’s poised to attract many more, now that she’s gained attention from sites like Kotaku and Ars Technica.

I heard many similar stories while conducting interviews for Backward Messages. Perhaps not every gamer has such a story, but I suspect many, if not most, do. These aren’t stories that many kids share with their parents — these stories remain especially hidden when the parent/child relationship is most fractured, and this is when kids most need games as an outlet. Fellow gamers and parents can come to a site like this, browse around, and hear something similar to what their own child might be too shy or scared to talk about.

These stories are powerful. Beyond that, they reveal an incredible amount of self-awareness — a self-awareness many adults do not give kids credit for possessing. Those who would try to keep video games, including violent games, out of the hands of minors on the grounds that they are too violent make the assumption that kids who love these games are a blank slate, not considering what they’re playing. On the contrary, kids seek these games out like medicine. They know what they need, and know they are healed by it. And we need to listen to them.

Burch’s site comes at a time when the news wires have been jumping with reports about video games. For example, TodaysTHV.com, a news station in Arkansas, recently reported, “Study links teen depression risk to hours spent with online media.” Look at that, and then look at Rowan’s story. Then check out this quote from one of the study’s authors, Erick Messias:

“We need to do a better job of understanding how the Internet and video games, whether violent or not, affect young people. For many, the Internet and video games are the only form of social interaction they have; they are their primary source of communication,” says Messias. “We fully don’t understand the consequences of this kind of stimulation, but we hope this work will lead to improving the screening process in adolescents.”

Correlation is not causation. Teens turn to video games as a source of solace from problems, including depression. The video games aren’t the problem — they’re part of a coping strategy, even a recovery process. That’s what needs studying.

Over at Forbes, blogger David M. Ewalt posits, “Do Video Games Make You Smarter? Maybe Not.” In it, he analyzes a new study that questions prior research showing that video games improve mental acuity and performance. One problem with such studies, he says, is, “gamers perform better on cognitive tests because they’ve heard that gamers perform better on cognitive tests.” Well, true. This is a complicated issue, to be sure — and games have many benefits beyond what’s shown in scientific tests.

Amusingly, the Deseret News recently reported that “Negative, nagging parents cause kids to play video games more, not less.” No ironies there; of course kids who feel henpecked, particularly over their favorite pastimes, are going to turn to those pastimes as an escape. Actual dialogue about specific video games and their appeal to a child is always going to be more effective.

Readers, did a video game save your life, or the life of someone you know? Share stories in the comments.

Frightened By Your Teen’s Interests? Get Involved!

Just picture it: you’re dressed in black lace with cat’s-eye makeup, dancing in a dark, misty club to something called Switchblade Symphony. Or you’re in a surging hurricane of dancing bodies at a concert while a dude onstage screams into a microphone, lyrics unintelligible. Or you’re dressed in a cape, running through a park with a foam sword while 10 teenagers chase you. Can you imagine it yet?

For decades, certain media influences have been linked again and again to violent or suicidal behavior in teens. Reporters would have you believe that too many first-person shooters cause high-school massacres like the one at Columbine High School, or that becoming a Wiccan will make your kid start sacrificing chickens to Beelzebub. Meanwhile, heavy metal and goth culture have reputations as one-way roads to suicide, and role-playing games supposedly turn players into Satanic lunatics who see dragons on every street corner.

Yes, I’m exaggerating – but only a little.

Read the rest over at Radical Parenting