Addiction to the Internet and the online version of the fantasy role-playing game "Dungeons & Dragons" is what led a Reno couple to nearly starve to death their young children, authorities said.
Michael and Iana Straw, 25 and 23, are accused of losing themselves in a virtual world of monster-slaying missions while their children suffered starvation and sickness.
One child is 11 months, and the other nearly 2 years old.
Friday morning, the Straws pleaded guilty to two counts of child neglect. Both face a maximum 12-year sentence. Through jail officials, they declined an interview for this article. Their attorneys in the public defender's office could not be reached.
While child abuse because of methamphetamine addiction or alcoholism is common in Washoe County, abuse rooted in computer and video game addiction is rare, said Deputy District Attorney Kelli Ann Viloria, who is prosecuting the Straws.
Last month, addiction experts at an American Medical Association meeting backed away from a proposal to designate video game addiction as a mental disorder, saying it had to be studied further. Some said the issue is similar to alcoholism while others said there was no concrete evidence it's a psychological disease.
Patrick Killen, spokesman for Nevada Child Abuse Prevention, said video game addiction's correlation to child abuse is "a new spin on an old problem." He said there has not been much research on how it impacts child abuse but said it likely goes unreported.
Killen explained that child neglect cases comprise most of the child abuse cases in the state and mistakenly are considered less serious than actual physical abuse inflicted upon a child.
"As we become more technologically advanced, there's more distractions," Killen said. "It's easy for someone to get addicted to something and neglect their children. Whether it's video games or meth, it's a serious issue, and Nevada needs to become more aware of it."
The Straw case was cracked open after a neighbor complained to police about a baby's constant crying. An officer's visit prompted social workers to investigate and ultimately take the children to the hospital where doctors said they were severely malnourished and were on the verge of death, police said.
Both children are in foster care and are doing well and gaining weight, Viloria said.
Michael Straw in September received a $50,000 inheritance which he spent by December on computer equipment and a large plasma television screen that displayed their video games, namely Dungeons & Dragons, authorities said. A relative told law enforcement that Michael Straw met his wife online when she was 16, and both were obsessed with computers and the Internet.
"Instead of providing health care or food for their children, they bought computer equipment," Viloria said.
According to court records, Michael Straw said he was an unemployed cashier while his wife worked for a temporary staffing agency doing warehouse work.
Their daughter, who weighed six pounds at birth, weighed 10 pounds, could not lift her head or sit up because she had no muscle development when social workers found her.
Her hair was matted with cat urine and she had an infection in her mouth, dry skin and was so dehydrated at that point she could not cry or urinate.
Her brother also was severely starved. His lack of muscle development caused him difficulty in walking.
Neither child had received immunizations, and the baby had not received any medical care since her birth, police said.
According to a police report, when the officer responded to the neighbor's complaint, the inside of the Straw's apartment was filled with trash bags of garbage, and pathways were made to navigate around the home. It smelled like garbage, and there were several cats inside.
The children were dressed only in diapers. Iana Straw said her baby cried so much because she was premature. Dirty dishes and food were found in the kitchen. The refrigerator and cupboards contained food and formula for the children.
"They had food, they just chose not to give it to their kids because they were too busy playing video games," Viloria said.
Social workers told the Straws they needed to leave the home so it could be cleaned. They stayed at a motel. When social workers checked on the couple two days after the officer's visit, they immediately removed the children and took them to the hospital.
When questioned at the hospital, the couple claimed the children ate a lot, so much that Viloria said it would have been impossible for children in their condition to have consumed that much food or formula.