In December of 2017, the World Health Organization included "gaming disorder" in its list of mental health conditions for its upcoming 11th International Classification of Diseases. That same week, a Kansas man was shot by police over a fake call stemming from a video game dispute. By the time Wichita police realized that the report of a deadly shooting and hostage situation was false, Andrew Thomas Finch was dead. Not only did the police have the wrong person, so did the prank caller. According to his family, Finch did not play video games.
The shooting has sparked national speculation about whether the officer who shot Finch was justified and whether his actions were “objectively reasonable.” Finch's family, meanwhile, has recently filed a lawsuit against the city of Witchita, seeking unspecified damages. In a statement, their attorney said, "Two children — a 7-year-old boy and an almost 2-year-old girl — lost their father because of the unjustified and unconstitutional acts of the Wichita Police Department." But the incident has also raised wider questions about accountability. On December 26, Tyler Barriss was arrested in Los Angeles in connection to the call to police in Wichita. Barriss, according to the LA Times, had been linked to at least two dozen hoax emergency calls all over the United States before the tragedy in Kansas. Barriss has been charged with involuntary manslaughter, and his next court hearing is on January 25.
The call was reportedly made over an online argument in a Call of Duty game on UMG gaming, a company that operates online tournaments. The tactic, known as "swatting," involves placing a hoax emergency call to draw a strong police response to an address. It has become an increasingly popular tactic among online gamers.
Wichita Police Chief Gordon Ramsay said in a press conference on January 5 that it is still an active investigation and that there are other people involved. After the criminal investigation is done, the police department will conduct a thorough review of the incident.
“This is a serious case that has wide-ranging implications,” said Ramsay. “There are not clear laws for this type of activity, which adds to the difficulties of it.”
Ramsay said in a phone interview with the Wichita Eagle that the hoax call had spoofed a local 316 area code and that it is his understanding that this was the first fatal swatting shooting in the United States.
While it’s not confirmed if anyone else has died before now, swatting has been around since at least 2008, when the FBI labeled it a dangerous new phenomenon. In 2015, an Oklahoma man shot his town’s police chief during a raid on his home after a swatting call with a bomb threat. The police chief survived, and the man was not charged with any crimes.
In 2016, Congresswoman Katherine Clark was a victim of swatting after speaking out about the issue and sponsoring the Interstate Swatting Hoax Act. Authorities were called to Clark’s home after a false anonymous call about an active shooter. The anti-swatting bill has not been signed into law yet.
Finch’s death has caused a national uproar, but for many in Wichita, the focus is on the community and teaching proactive video game habits.
Viet Hoang, the owner of Next Level Cafe, a local Wichita video gaming café, was moved to act when he heard about the swatting incident. The cafe hosted a 72-hour gaming marathon January 12–15, with the event’s proceeds donated to the Finch family’s GoFundMe page.
Hoang says that he was inspired to put on the event because of the heartbreak he felt for Finch’s family.
“Knowing that a man lost his life to something as petty as online gaming is very unfortunate. I know that none of this can bring Andrew Finch, a father and husband, back, but at the very least it should help with funeral cost or whatever else [Finch’s family] needs. The last thing I want them to deal with is any financial issues,” said Hoang.
Hoang also wanted to show the positives of video gaming. “Gaming communities can bring people together but they can also divide,” said Hoang. “In this case, what that guy did, he doesn’t speak for all of us. I hope that he gets the help and punishment he deserves.”
Ramsey Jamoul, the CEO of Wichita eSports and another active member of the Wichita gaming community, said that Wichita eSports works to prevent some of the online gaming stigma by fighting anonymous interactions.
Jamoul said that in his experience, swatting seems to be more related to livestreaming, and this incident does not reflect gamers in general. He encourages people to know who they are playing with online.
“Across the board, knowing the first and last name of people you play with makes a huge difference,” said Jamoul. “That’s the difference between having a real relationship and not, even if it’s something online. You also shouldn’t be sharing your address with anybody online.”
Dr. Molly Allen, a licensed psychologist in Wichita, Kansas encourages parents concerned about swatting incidents to be involved in their children’s online video gaming habits.
“When it comes to videogames, as a parent, be involved in the purchase of it. If it’s recommended for a certain age range and your child is younger than that age range, then the answer should be no. There is a reason they have age ranges on video games,” said Dr. Allen. “I don’t think parents should take video games away altogether. It’s a very popular, prevalent form of entertainment.”
Dr. Allen said that if a child is involved in gaming to a large extent, discuss appropriate play and boundaries. “It would be a good idea have a talk with them that you will sometimes come in and watch them play over their shoulder,” said Dr. Allen. “If they are interacting with others, it should be in a way that wouldn’t give you as a parent any kind of concern, language wise or content wise. [Say] that you’ll do spot checks on that. If you catch them pushing those limits, you take away the controls to the game.”