The Choking Game

Levi Draher came back from the dead. Other players were not so lucky.

In a raspy whisper, Levi utters his first word since Carrie found him on the floor.

"Water," he says.

Some kids like playing solo.
Some kids like playing solo.
It wasn't until after his twin sister's death that Kirby found out she had continued to play the game.
Daniel Kramer
It wasn't until after his twin sister's death that Kirby found out she had continued to play the game.

Of all the different names the choking game goes by -- space monkey, blackout, California dreaming -- perhaps the most appropriate is “suffocation roulette.”

That was the title of a 2003 report by Israeli doctors in Annals of Emergency Medicine. Their curious patient was a 12-year-old boy who had gone off to play with friends, only to return disoriented, two days in a row. The boy had told his father that he blacked out on both occasions, but he had no memory of the time immediately preceding the blackouts. The boy said he wasn't sniffing, smoking, drinking or shooting anything. He “denied physical abuse by his peers.” Stymied, the doctors ran a battery of tests. The boy finally fessed up when one doctor asked him point-blank if he knew anything about the choking game.

“We believe that this dangerous game should be brought to the attention of parents, physicians, educators and social service personnel,” the physicians wrote. “Recognition of this game as a possible cause of [passing out], together with prompt educative intervention, might prevent adolescent morbidity and mortality.”

Yet despite the efforts of organizations like GASP, it appears that kids are learning more about the game's fun than its danger. Critics are quick to point to MySpace and YouTube, where adolescent auteurs have recorded themselves playing the game solo or with friends. The videos star laughing, normal-looking kids, all waking up at the end, perfectly healthy. (YouTube's “code of conduct” states that users should not post “videos showing dangerous or illegal acts.” When asked if the choking game was a dangerous or illegal act, a spokesman for YouTube simply referred the Houston Press to the code of conduct.)

The folks at GASP would rather kids see the video of a 15-year-old Twin Cities boy named Ryan Tucker. That clip, on GASP's site, shows a kid who played the choking game and woke up with severe brain damage. Ryan now looks like he was born with cerebral palsy and spends his days in therapy, learning how to walk and trying to launch a ball into a brightly colored set of little plastic bowling pins.

In an article about the choking game, Julie Rosenbluth of the American Council for Drug Education wrote, “A child playing this game could lose consciousness within a minute and die in as little as 2–4 minutes, as the weight of their body further constricts blood and oxygen to the brain.”

According to Rosenbluth, most kids playing the game are between 9 and 14. “Many preteens and teens participate in this lethal game out of curiosity — not rebellion, depression or anger,” she wrote. “The game may be played by kids who are not outwardly at-risk — students who may do well in school and are close with their families. To many kids, the choking game seems like a harmless way to get a rush.”

This description would have applied to Haley Kinney, the popular 14-year-old girl the Harris County Medical Examiner's Office originally believed committed suicide in a nearly full house, leaving behind neither a note nor a history of depression or suicidal behavior. Haley's father, Gary Kinney, says he was unhappy with the initial police investigation and Medical Examiner's ruling. Seven months after he requested another investigation and examination, Haley's manner of death was changed to “undetermined.” Gary Kinney maintains that the ruling should be “accidental.”

Her brother says he and Haley learned of the choking game in sixth grade. It was the last week of school, during a “free day” where the students got to play outside on Strack Intermediate's field and gorge themselves on ice cream. One of the kids was showing the others how good it felt to hyperventilate and pass out. Kirby liked it immediately. He never knew how much Haley liked it. He never thought she played it after that week.

In seventh grade, Kirby saw the movie Life as a House, and watched as one of the characters tried to play the choking game by hanging himself from his closet clothes rack. To Kirby, it looked perfectly inviting. He would wait until the house was empty and then get the belt.

“I always seemed to land on my stomach, or something...and wake up,” he says.

Then, when it happened, when the medics were kneeling by Haley's body, Kirby ran upstairs and punched the walls. He threw chairs. The anger carried over into the classroom, and after the 29th time he was written up, Kirby transferred to Klein Annex, an alternative school. He needed to shake the stress, but he knew he could never play the choking game anymore. He tried marijuana for the first time and was surprised to find a familiar feeling. But his parents found out and put an end to that. And even Kirby wondered what he was doing. Haley abhorred drugs and would've been disappointed. He was going to have to get through this straight. But it would be hard for Kirby, knowing that this person who was always right there was gone.

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