“Die, die, die,” the Parkland school shooter wrote in a story for language arts class in middle school. His explanation: It was a line from his “Call of Duty” warfare video game booklet.
Teachers were concerned that he was spending too much time playing “inappropriate” video games — as much as 15 hours a day, some neighbors told investigators. His mother struggled to limit his playing time, believing it was a source of his hostility at home.
The role of video games in the shooter’s life has not been closely examined publicly, but some details have emerged in school records and documents filed in the court system in wrongful death suits related to the murders of 17 staff and students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.
One contention is that mental health professionals, working for Henderson Behavioral Health, did not properly diagnose or treat Nikolas Cruz and, actually, provided therapies that aggravated his condition. The allegations included having him sign personal contracts that included playing violent video games as a form of anger management.
Henderson has denied it bears any legal responsibility for the murders. It has asked Broward Circuit Court Judge Patti Englander Henning to throw out the lawsuits filed against it. She is expected to rule Tuesday.
Video games and killing
Cruz, now 20, faces the death penalty if convicted of the murders. It’s unclear what role, if any, video games will play in his bid to escape execution.
Because mass shootings are relatively rare, there is no scientific evidence linking them to violent video games. But decades of research shows there is a link between the games and an increase in aggressive thoughts, feelings and behaviors in children, said Lauren Caldwell of the American Psychological Association.
“Aggression” can take many forms, from name calling to pushing, shoving and even excluding people.
The American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement in 2016 saying it “continues to be concerned about children’s exposure to virtual violence and the effect it has on their overall health and well-being.”
No one is saying that playing violent video games causes school shootings, said Iowa State University psychology Professor Douglas Gentile, an expert on the effects of violent video games. But consuming violent media can be one additional risk factor for children dealing with other severe mental problems and stress factors.
An FBI school shooter report prepared under the Clinton administration suggests that educators be aware of children who are fixated on hatred and weapons, particularly if “the student spends inordinate amounts of time playing video games with violent themes, and seems more interested in the violent images than in the game itself.”
The Broward School District’s own manual for educators evaluating threats recommends interviewing the troubled student and asking: “What are your favorite movies/video games/TV shows/music groups/Internet sites?[Look for themes of violence].”
The Xbox obsession
Police seized three Xbox game consoles from Cruz in their investigation of the Stoneman Douglas massacre, prosecution records state.
In a 2014 interview with school officials, Cruz’s mother, Lynda, who is now deceased, talked of her son’s obsession with the Xbox.
The Xbox console was a source of many of Cruz’s frequent outbursts at home. He would shout and swear when losing. And when his cord broke, he kicked a hole in the wall and ripped the drapes off when his mom didn’t replace the cord quickly enough, a complaint filed by the family of a wounded student, Anthony Borges, states.
When Nikolas had a tantrum, his mother told school officials, things got broken and nothing was safe. “She said that this behavior occurs on a daily basis, especially while playing the Xbox after school because he does not like to lose and gets extremely angry.”
Over nine years, Cruz received hundreds of hours of therapy sessions from Henderson, according to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public High School Commission, which examined systemic failures leading to the shooting.
Henderson Behavioral Health, Broward’s largest mental health organization, provided Cruz and his mom with family counseling, case management and crisis services. He also saw school therapists, a therapist from Camelot Community Care and private psychiatrists.
Rather than let him hit walls, Henderson workers provided Cruz with a punching bag and suggested that he hit pillows instead, the Borges suit states. In addition, as part of his “anger management” therapy — one Henderson professional recommended that his mother get him his own Xbox Live account. Sharing an account with his brother upset him.
In the winter of 2014, a Henderson professional “made Cruz sign contracts actually agreeing to play violent video games as an anger management technique when he got upset,” the lawsuit alleges.
Such therapeutic contracts, generally, can lay out rewards and consequences to help people control certain behaviors and make them more aware of their choices.
Henderson’s use of video games as an anger management tool was an “unmitigated disaster,” the Borges suit contends.
“I don’t think it’s a positive influence on anybody and particularly somebody with the mental issues he had,” said attorney Jim Lewis who represents the Snead family, which briefly took in Cruz after his mother died.
The Sneads saw Cruz’s affinity for military style video games firsthand, though Cruz was “docile” and “respectful” while with the Sneads, Lewis said.
Henderson representatives have consistently declined to comment about its treatment of Cruz, citing an order Judge Henning issued requiring that Cruz’s mental health records be protected.
“Services Nikolas Cruz received were very helpful. The records show he did extremely well receiving services from Henderson Behavioral Health,” Joshua B. Walker, an attorney for the nonprofit, said in court Thursday.
Not an ordinary child
It’s not unusual for teens to scream and curse while playing video games. But Cruz was not an ordinary child.
When a preschooler, he was determined to be developmentally delayed.
He was considered to have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. He had serious problems with impulse control and was preoccupied with guns and war.
The Marjory Stoneman Douglas Commission reported that days before the massacre Cruz visited websites where he watched Columbine documentaries, gun range videos and other material, including violent video game trailers.
He also viewed scenes from shooting video games with “Pumped up Kicks,” playing in the background. The song is about a school shooter.
On the morning of the killings, Cruz watched a video clip online from a Wolfenstein video game, featuring KKK and Nazi themes, according to an investigator working for the public safety commission,
After the shooting, Cruz abandoned his AR-15 semi-automatic rifle in a stairwell of the high school, along with ammunition magazines etched with swastikas.