Jonathan, a ten year-old boy clutching his favorite stuffed animal, a three-legged giraffe, cracks a toothless smile as he waves good-bye. He has just spent his afternoon killing people. During our hour together he has thrown hundreds of animals and soldiers from the upper tower of my toy castle, crashed a flying dragon so hard into its sturdy stone wall that a visible crack has appeared, and created a raging fire that has slaughtered all the people who were trying to save the others. He has said very little during this intense hour, only once breaking his silence when he whispered, "It's a killing world," as a mother tried to save her newborn baby from the growing flames. This week, Jonathan has been only one of several children who blew up buildings, fired up blazes, and crashed airplanes. Jonathan's therapy session with me, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, has taken place only three days after September 11, 2001.
Several months before, Jonathan had played violent games obsessively. His dad had tried to limit the activity, until I discovered that Jonathan was trying to cope with a bully at school. As he worked through that conflict, his violent play decreased. Then, after the 11th, it increased again dramatically. Jonathan told me that he was pretty scared after the terrorist activities. In fact, the only time that he wasn't scared was when he was playing scary games—then he felt okay.
Killing games gave Jonathan control over events where he and others felt none and, perhaps even more important, they gave him control