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Growing Leaders Blog

on Leading the Next Generation


When Virtual Becomes Reality

You may not believe this, unless you heard it on the news last Wednesday.

A 20-year old college student and lacrosse player at Auburn University was arrested in Baton Rouge, LA on several counts of reckless driving and hit and run accidents—after he ran into a wall with a stolen car and was arrested by police. Zachary Burgess now faces charges of auto theft, simple kidnapping and nine counts of hit and run.

His reason for doing this?

During questioning, Burgess allegedly told an officer that he “wanted to see what it was really like to play the video game Grand Theft Auto.”

video game

Yep. You read it right. Zach had played the video game incessantly and just decided to do it in real life. Now, it’s “Game Over” for this Auburn University student whose crime spree, police confirm was, indeed, inspired by the popular video game.

According to the report, Burgess stole a parked and running truck while a female passenger sat inside of the vehicle and began to drive wildly around a parking lot.

The passenger was “forcibly held” in the truck due to Burgess’ “erratic and dangerous driving,” according to the arrest report. “After each of the nine vehicles were struck, by the Defendant’s driving, he fled the scene of the accidents with no signs of him intending to [return] the truck to the rightful owner,” the report said.

The passenger said, “He didn’t even acknowledge me. He was in a zone.”

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case. Not long ago, an Arizona kid attempted a similar experiment, wanting to feel what it was like to experience his video game in real life. Earlier, a young male got injured in the streets when he was hit by a car, as he emulated his video game, Frogger.

What Does This Tell Us?

Because we read increasing numbers of stories like this, we might do well to interpret what they mean. Psychologists have said for years that our minds are the most powerful tool we possess. Because our imaginations are so strong, our brains do not tell the difference between a real experience and an imagined experience. Today, psychologists are saying that video games are so “realistic”, kids want to move beyond a screen and believe they can actually live them out. The simulation of a screen convinces them of their ability to perform in reality.

Three Truths We Must Embrace:

1. Life will imitate TV and video games, whether we admit it or not.

For decades now, social scientists have questioned: does life imitate TV or does TV imitate life? The truth is, both happen. And we must acknowledge that input like violence and sexual exploits on a screen may lead to real life exploits if we don’t manage them. There is a connection between pornography and rape. Consider this: if what we watch on a screen doesn’t impact our lives, we’d never see another advertisement or commercial on TV again.

2. Virtual reality (video games, etc) offers experiences without consequences.

This young man was twenty years old. He should have known better. The reason he didn’t is he has grown up in a world where we can enjoy virtual experiences without consequences. That’s what a video game is all about. Perks with no price. Rewards but no real responsibility. This has all changed for Zach. The more kids are allowed to make decisions without real benefits or consequences, the longer they stay a kid.

3. What we feed our minds will eventually lead to outcomes.

Computer programmers used a phrase decades ago: Garbage in, garbage out (GIGO). I believe it’s true. We actually created a Habitude that explains this. It’s called Personal Laptop. Our minds work like laptop computers—they are portable and they record every experience we consume, just like a document. I know this sounds old fashioned, but this is why we must help students digest helpful, redemptive content as they mature.

I know this welcomes debate. What are your thoughts?




  1. David on October 4, 2013 at 6:34 am

    I’m not going to debate with you because I believe you are right on target! Thanks for your excellent insights.

    • Tim Elmore on October 4, 2013 at 8:23 am

      Appreciate the feedback, thanks David!

  2. Old joe on October 4, 2013 at 7:20 am

    G square I & G square O = Gross Garbage In & Garnished Gaebage Out

  3. Adam on October 4, 2013 at 9:33 am

    Tim, I’ve used your ‘karaoke parents’ term repeatedly. When parents are more ‘friend’ than ‘parent’ it rarely ends well. Our org. has worked with thousands of teens in residence and remarkably we see the parents being the source of issues surrounding the kid. More is caught than taught. When parents aren’t present to show their kids ’cause and effect’ and leave it to mediated realities I believe we’re going to see a lot more of what Zach did.
    Btw, your content is great!! @AdamJonesHHF

    • Tim Elmore on October 7, 2013 at 9:35 am

      Adam, thanks for your comment. I agree with you; if we, as parents do not present the “cause and effect” learning moments, our kids will instead learn this through various media outlets. The problem, as you stated is that these media outlets often only present a cause with no real effect.

  4. Timothy Lynn Burchfield on October 4, 2013 at 12:12 pm

    I heard my favorite “Nerd Wanna Be” Tom Peters warn us of a generation that thinks their computer screen is reality and that interacting with someone in person would be considered virtual.
    This has come to pass in my opinion. I am constantly observing a whole generation absorbed in their “smart” devices. I believe we will come to refer to them as “disconnected dumb down” devices when it comes to understanding relationships.
    My remedy? Focus on high technology and high touch. Every person on earth thrives when emotionally touched in a significant way. I will perfect my ability to keep up with technology while touching the souls of those around me through meaningful relationships.

    • Tim Elmore on October 7, 2013 at 9:39 am

      That is valuable advice, thanks Timothy. High technology, high touch is a great way to look at it. I think there is often a disconnect in kids focusing on technology contact, while adults focus on face-to-face contact. We all need a balance of both.

  5. Lynn on October 4, 2013 at 1:05 pm

    So interesting, I believe that much of this goes back to the ability to be present.
    This is a skill that is going to need to be taught to more young people along side of the other soft skills they’re also in need of, in order for them to cultivate better ideas and outcomes. Learning how to connect to what you “feel” about something is at the centre of helping to determine how you’ll interpret the difference on the screen and in reality.
    Thanks for all of your great conversation starters Tim.

    • Tim Elmore on October 7, 2013 at 9:55 am

      Being able to live in the moment, and connect with people and the environment is an essential soft skill that leads to great communication. Thanks for the comment Lynn!

  6. Blane on October 4, 2013 at 1:21 pm

    If game developers eventually create virtual reality games where a person actually is in the game, do you think that this would have a greater impact on how gamers view their own reality?

    • Tim Elmore on October 9, 2013 at 6:49 am

      Blane, thanks for the interesting thought. I believe that this type of game would have a very similar outcome to what we are experiencing today, and maybe even a worse outcome is they see themselves acting out a violent situation.

  7. Meagan on October 4, 2013 at 2:22 pm

    I’m from the Baton Rouge area, and Zachary Burgess is NOT from Baton Rouge. I just wanted to clear the air, because this was an Auburn fan who was in town for the LSU vs. Auburn game. I know we have a lot of crazies in Baton Rouge, but this instance was not one of them. LOL!

    • Tim Elmore on October 7, 2013 at 10:03 am

      My apologies, thanks for the correction. His information is updated in the article now:)

  8. karen on October 4, 2013 at 3:46 pm

    Because of the availability of games and TV through modern technology many young people are constantly thinking in game mode; this hinders their learning and sometimes even their communication skills.

    • Tim Elmore on October 7, 2013 at 10:05 am

      You are so right, Karen. It is unbelievable to me, the times that I have witnessed a young person playing video games. They are one-point focused, totally in the zone, unaware of anything going on. This is unsettling to think how this mindset can transfer into real life.

  9. MaryLou on October 5, 2013 at 8:49 am

    My 16 year old son says he is aware of the difference between the video game and real life. He says those kids have other problems, and you can’t be in your right mind and act out a video game. He and his friends stopped playing Call of Duty, another violent game, because it was boring. I think it depends on the other experiences in their lives. It would be interesting to study the other meaningful activities present. I want my child to grow up in control of media, there will be plenty of it in college.

    • Tim Elmore on October 7, 2013 at 10:07 am

      I appreciate your thoughts! That would be a very interesting study, I definitely believe that other meaningful activities influence how prevalent video games are in one’s life. Technology is a means to supplement basic learning functions, and I am confident we can instill ways for it to positively impact lives with the right perspective.

  10. Daniel R. on October 7, 2013 at 9:50 am

    Thank you for your post, I believe it is accurate and thought provoking. We as human beings should be very careful about what we fill our minds with because it will spill over into our lives; that is just the way we are wired. This is a biblical principal: The gospel of Luke, ch. 6, vs. 45 says ” A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.”

    • Tim Elmore on October 7, 2013 at 11:04 am

      Thanks for sharing Daniel. We see this concept play out in so many areas. Just as I described the “Personal Laptop” Habitude in this post, it often takes discipline to monitor what information we allow to come in, in order to control the actions and behaviors that are expressed.

  11. Eric Wilbanks on October 7, 2013 at 4:14 pm

    Some are quick to point out that the video game is not to blame for the actions of this young man. No doubt, the student deserves the blame and all the legal consequences that go along with it. Nevertheless, to assume that a message bears no weight of responsibility for it’s impact is equally dangerous. If words have the power to influence toward life or death (Prov 18:21), then surely an immersive experience such as video games can have at least SOME influence. We’d be wise to consider those influences in our own lives and in the lives of those to whom we have a responsibility to guide through life.

    • Tim Elmore on October 10, 2013 at 10:51 am

      Thanks for your thoughts Eric. As I mentioned in the article, if words, sounds, and visible messages didn’t have a powerful influence over us, there would be no place for advertisements and marketing strategies. It would definitely be wise for us to stop and think about what content we are feeding ourselves, to understand why we act out certain behaviors (good or bad).

  12. Will on October 15, 2013 at 3:06 pm

    I agree with you. Teenagers should think about what they are doing when they play video games. My son also plays these games.It seems like he is addicted!

    • Tim Elmore on October 16, 2013 at 2:29 pm

      Thank you Will for sharing! It sounds like you are concerned. I have written a blog post on cell-phone agreements with teens. Maybe a video game agreement will help balance “screen time” with “face time”. Here is an article I wrote on what to do with an addiction to technology:

  13. Maximilian Wicen on November 8, 2013 at 4:12 pm

    Snap! I really need to uninstall Super Mario before I start eating fly amanita

  14. Tommy E. on November 9, 2020 at 10:54 pm

    Look, Tim, I’m gonna be honest with you. You’re right. I once played video games for almost an hour straight and I could not get the violent thoughts out of my head. The game I was playing was called Mario Super Maker 3 or something like that. As I watched Luigi plummet to his inevitable demise for the 80th consecutive time, I realized that life is pain and the struggle is futile. But you, Tim, have inspired me to put away these childish things and truly contribute to society. I’ve purchased the Habitudes package for the low cost of $600 from your website and the learning I’ve ascertained from the program is truly invaluable. I was surprised to learn that you are an actual Gen Z expert! How does one go about doing that? Anyway, thank you for changing my life and destroying my passion for Nintendo, which I now realize is a mind-control scheme meant to turn our children’s minds to broccoli. Hail Tim!

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When Virtual Becomes Reality