By Ellie Halpert

The first episode of Netflix’s Docuseries, “Web of Make Believe: Death, Lies, and the Internet,” discusses the unexpected dangers that come with online gaming. Gaming culture is incredibly aggressive and gamers say harsh, cruel things to strangers, or even their friends. In the online gaming community, extremism is “welcome and invited,” which can translate to extremism in the real world as well. The episode’s title, “Death by SWAT,” introduced a new method of revenge: swatting. Swatting began as a way for gamers to get back at their opponents. It involves calling police and making some sort of untrue threat or tip, focused on a specific building or home (where the target of the swatting may work or live). Some of the examples used in the episode include fake bomb threats, hostage situations, and home shootings. The goal of swatting is to have local police, ideally a SWAT team, sent to the desired building, demonstrating the power of the person who made the call.

The episode focuses on a specific “swatter” named Tyler Barriss, who began swatting after SWAT was sent to his home while he was playing Halo. His first swatting attempt made headlines, sending Barriss on a spree of bomb threat calls to elementary, middle, and high schools. Tyler discusses the unstoppable feeling he felt when being able to directly speak to law enforcement, but still not get caught. Barris’ swatting career comes to a head on December 28, 2017, when two teenagers get into a fight over a $1.50 wager over a game of Call of Duty, prompting one of the players, Casey Viner, to reach out to Barriss about swatting the other, Shane Gaskill. Gaskill provides his old home address, which results in police swatting an innocent family and ultimately killing the father, Andrew Finch. The community pushes for the arrest of Justin Rapp, the officer that pulled the trigger that killed Finch, but he is ultimately not charged. Viner is sentenced to 15 months of prison, Gaskill’s case is still pending, and Barriss has been sentenced to 20 years in prison for involuntary manslaughter among other charges.

Throughout the episode, many of the teens discuss how they use video games as a way to escape from their daily life and feel in control. However, there are unimaginable dangers that come with digitally interacting with strangers. No one would have thought a game of Call of Duty would lead to the death of an innocent man until it happened. The concept of swatting is a dangerous one, but unfortunately one that comes with too many obstacles to stop.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you think the online gaming community is toxic? Have you ever said anything to a friend or stranger online you wouldn’t say in real life?
  2. Do you believe Justin, Casey, and Tyler have been punished appropriately? If not, how do you think they should be punished? What punishment for Shane would be appropriate?
  3. Many of the people in this documentary episode claimed they felt gaming was an escape and a place where they felt in control. Do you agree with this? What are some other situations you can put yourself in that may provide this same feeling without the toxicity of gaming culture?
  4. Have you ever felt the need for revenge? Consider how you acted on this feeling and the consequences. Has there ever been a time you would not have reacted how you did knowing the outcome?
  5. Brainstorm some ideas on how law enforcement could potentially bring an end to swatting.

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