Best Wishes, Eric Hall

It sounds like we may have finally seen a case of a videogame sending someone off the deep end.

Now hold on a second there. Before you start getting your hackles in a bunch and start decrying either videogames or people who blame videogames, take a second to learn the facts. This post on GamePolitics would be a very good place to start.

The story is still developing, but we know this much: Eric Hall, a 24-year old marine who was badly injured in Iraq has gone missing. After returning home, he had been exhibiting signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and it is known that while in Iraq he had seen his friend killed in the very same battle that had injured his leg. To top it all off, he was in a dispute with the VA over his disabilities benefits. Overall, whether or not he’s found again, it all sounds like an incredibly sad story.

Now here’s where videogames come in, and I want you to read this very carefully: a cousin mentioned that before disappearing, Hall had played Call of Duty (almost certainly the fourth in the series), and the family fears that the experience of playing the videogame may have triggered unpleasant memories from the war. It’s important to note here that nobody is blaming Call of Duty for driving Eric Hall into the wilderness. They are simply stating, factually, that he may have played the game before he drove off on his motorcycle and then abandoned it by the highway (note here that we don’t know for sure that he did play the game. It’s all hearsay at this point).

This is not a case of a videogame driving a normal person crazy. From what we know, Eric Hall was already a very distressed individual. However, this also isn’t a case where videogames had absolutely nothing to do with the story. Anybody who has played Call of Duty 4 knows how intense it is and can easily imagine that it might provoke some very bad flashbacks in a man who has just returned from Iraq. Of course, this then leads to a bunch of other questions. If it’s true that Call of Duty 4 caused something to snap in Hall’s mind, how was it that he started playing the game at what seems to be a rather inappropriate time of his life? Was it his choice or was he playing it with some friends?

But I want to point out something else, too. This is a case in which a videogame was potentially involved. But the story isn’t about the videogame. Call of Duty 4 is an intense experience, but this episode could have been triggered by any number of other things. People who suffer from PTSD have been known to react badly to the sound of a car backfiring. For that matter, there have been reports that many World War II veterans found the first several minutes of Saving Private Ryan too brutal to watch. This is a case in which a videogame was potentially involved but in which any number of other media could have played the same role. And to the credit of the people reporting this story thus far, there has been a notable absence of histrionics and finger pointing. The mention of Call of Duty itself in the original newspaper article is little more than a few sentences at the end.

And this is where we should hope the mainstream of view of videogames ends up eventually: as one of those aspects of life that can have accidental and unexpected effects on people just like hundreds of other things in our lives. They aren’t the great evil, but they aren’t totally detached from our reality either. For now, most people seem to be reacting to this story the way they should be which is to hope and pray that Eric Hall returns home safely and gets some help. Ironically, in the one story where a videogame may have directly played a role in someone’s mental health, the politics of videogame regulation have absolutely nothing to do with the story.