Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 March - 5 April 2006
Issue No. 788
Features
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Death or dare

For Amira El-Noshokaty, the game gets serious

For weeks now, the talk of the town has centred on an amusement known variously as the choking game, the death game, space monkey and life in suspension. The game -- essentially a way of achieving altered awareness by blocking the flow of oxygen through self suffocation, often by hanging -- reputedly claimed the life of Mohamed Hamdi, 20, a university student found dead after spending the night at a friend's. The game's principal attraction is that it is thought to afford a natural high comparable to that of drugs -- though evidently no such high is in fact obtainable.

Since the case of Hamdi, two incidents reported by the press brought the game to public awareness even more, particularly with respect to the 9-14 age group, among whom it is reputedly widespread, whether it is played solitarily or in groups. Lack of oxygen will routinely result in unconsciousness, one side effect of which is partial, and permanent, brain death. When this is achieved by strangling, while the player is alone, body weight continues to tighten the pressure in the absence of a third party to undo the ligature; asphyxiation will follow within three minutes, as a consequence. A worldwide phenomenon, the game has claimed thousands of lives -- though accurate statistics are impossible with victims easily mistaken for suicides.

To the prosecution, Hamdi's friends denied any knowledge of him practising the choking game.

Yet Hamdi's father, Ahmed Hamdi, testified to noticing "two parallel bruise lines" on Hamdi's neck the night before he died: "when I checked the profile of those who play the game on the Internet, it fit my son to perfection -- sociable, hanging out with the right kind of friends, a good relationship with the family, a water polo champion, religious and a staunch opponent of alcohol and drugs. With such qualities, one assumes that Hamdi's son would have been on the safe side. However, Mohamed was one of those bullet-proof people, a thrill-seeker with too much confidence, always eager to stand out. Last summer in Marina he swam all the way from Gate 1 to Gate 5, an unbelievable distance. He wanted to free-dive into shark- infested waters in Australia. Young people of his kind think that, being young, they are no candidates for death. They challenge it, bored by everyday life; they go all the way. God made me see what was coming, I think. Sadly I didn't know about that game, so I couldn't stop him."

According to Mohamed Ghanem, psychiatrist, this mode of amusement falls under the category of self-destructive behaviour. Wagering one's life helps release dopamine, which can have an effect similar to that of stimulants: "it's a pattern of behaviour linked to highly adventurous pleasure- seekers who risk their lives not for some higher goal but simply for the thrill of it." He went on to explain that this is further compounded by a false sense of control, driving the subject to life- threatening risks. Other factors include lack of purpose and the need to feel unique and different from others. Young people will apparently go to any lengths to achieve that.

The game might be news to most parents, but among the younger generation it is remarkably common -- "a very old game", in fact, according to the testimony of one student in his early 20s.

"When I was 12, I played the choking game several times," he spoke on condition of anonymity. "It was always the same end result but using different processes. One consisted of breathing fast, then being pushed against the wall by several friends -- and they do it so hard you really are prevented from breathing -- then you faint. We did it because it was cool at the time. When you're very young you have nothing much to lose." Yet, though he feels it is pointless -- there is neither a rush nor a high, he says; rather, you just pass out -- he would not prohibit his own children from doing it; his conviction is that banning something will make it appeal all the more: "I'd warn them, and I'd be there to give them CPR afterwards, if needed. It's a silly, dangerous game but not as risky as hanging oneself; that's just going too far."

However harmless this one man's story might seem, it is important to note that it is not representative. Those who practise the game will tend to go too far by default. According to the Stop the Choking Game Association in the United States of America, indeed, the game in any form causes cumulative brain damage. Lack of oxygen can cause seizures, while incumbent fluctuations of blood pressure rates can result in a stroke or retinal damage.

For sociologist Heba El-Naial, it is simply an instance of the drive to break with the norm, driven by curiosity, the experimental urge, the need for excitement, peer pressure, and the adventurous impulse among the 18-35 age group: "in the past the family was the main social unit; today larger community, whether in school, the club or on the Internet, play that role. That makes it doubly important for parents to reach out to their children."

University student Yasmine Khorshid, whose house in Kuwait overlooked an informal car racing course where she witnessed more than one death, corroborates this line of thought. So does Noha Abdel-Aal, another student: "I think peer pressure has a lot to do with it -- not wanting to be left out can lead to the wrong choice."

According to Ghanem, prevention is possible: "first of all, parents must actually know their children; they often don't. Generational differences are less perceptible in practise; and parents tend to have the least influence on their children, even though they seldom realise it. Whereas they really need to be role models rather than over-protective. They must make sure their children have viable goals, in tune with their capabilities. They must stress the spiritual side of things, for it provides the security of knowing that one's actions are not pointless, and that one isn't alone in this life."

"I call on all parents to beware of this. Start communicating with your children, on their own wavelength; they are exposed to many things that of which you are not aware," concluded Hamdi.

Warning signs:

- Inexplicable marks or bruises on the throat.

- Belts, leashes, ropes, shoelaces, whether strangely knotted or in unusual locations.

- Unexplained cuts or bruises from falling.

- Disorientation after spending time alone.

- Locked bedroom doors.

- A thud in the bedroom or against a wall.

- Questions about the effects, sensations or dangers of strangulation.

- Changes in personality, such as overly aggressive or agitated.

- Wear marks on furniture.

Sites offering information on the death game include www.deadlygameschildplay.com , www.stop-the-choking-game.co m and www.chokinggameinformation.

com .

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