Video games chew up your sense of reality. They can even kill you. But online worlds also let us brainjack into our potential
The exciting potential of the video game fizzes on the restless screen (Image: Jan Johannessen/Panos)
WE START with a body. In February 2012, a member of staff at the Big Net internet cafe in New Taipei City, Taiwan, realises that the young man slumped in front of a screen is not asleep.
Chen Rong-yu had been dead for nine hours. His arms were still in front of him, hands flexed into the shapes they had held over keyboard and mouse. “Like the pulp detective thriller in which the lifeless hand points towards some crucial clue, Rong-yu’s final pose appeared to incriminate his killer,” writes Simon Parkin.
But Death by Video Game is not a whodunnit. Sure, there are several unexplained deaths, some red herrings, and a host of usual suspects. But for the hundreds of millions of gamers worldwide who don’t wind up dead, there is a more important question. The book is a whydunnit, says Parkin.
Rong-yu’s case sounds extreme. He had been playing League of Legends, an online team-battle game, on and off for 23 hours before resting his head for the last time. He is one of a handful of people who have died playing a video game sinceSpace Invaders conquered the world in the 1980s. Why do video games inspire such monumental acts of obsession? Other pastimes can be equally absorbing. Yet we don’t hear of death by novel, or death by film.
“Any activity that compels a human being to sit for hours on end without moving is, arguably, a mortal danger,” writes Parkin. You could die sprawled on the sofa in a box-set binge, or reading Harry Potter. But you don’t. Video games, he argues, are different.
Already in Taiwan police are doing spot checks in cafes after 10pm to see if any under-18s are still there. The Taiwanese government is bringing in regulations on how long teens are allowed to play. Films have long had age ratings, but video games may end up being the first entertainment medium in history to attract legislation controlling how long anyone can interact with them before taking a break, writes Parkin.
Cafe owners are also taking measures: dead customers are bad for business. “We have a system to prevent customers from sitting in front of the computer for too long,” says the manager of the Ingame Café in Tainan, not far from where Rong-yu died. They will now ask customers to leave. “We don’t allow any customers to play for more than three days at a time.”
“We don’t allow customers to play for more than three days at a time, says one manager of a games cafe”
Fears about the dangers of time-wasting activities are perennial, of course. Parkin cites a Scientific American article from 1859 about the dangers of chess: “Those who are engaged in mental pursuits should avoid a chessboard as they would an adder’s nest, because chess misdirects and exhausts their intellectual energies.”
But for Parkin, one of the best writers around on games and games culture, the effects are way beyond moral panic. As he describes it: “We consume a book, but a game consumes us. It leaves us reeling and bewildered, hungry and ghosted in the fug of chronoslip.”
(Image: David Lefranc/Corbis)
Games take us out of ourselves to such an extent that we forget where we are. We lose the sense of time passing. We swap our normal lives for the power fantasy, the exotic, the elsewhere. “When Rong-yu’s heart failed, he simultaneously departed two realities,” observes Parkin. He died in a corner of an internet cafe. And he died in a game.
Rong-yu may have had a pre-existing heart condition, he may have suffered from deep vein thrombosis, he may have collapsed because of the poor quality of air inside the cafe. Or he may have been killed by a cycle of stress and release over a long period of time that elevated his blood pressure and heart rate. Many play games with the focus and enthusiasm of an employee chasing a promotion. The Japanese have a term for that: karoshi, death by overwork.
But Parkin’s quest for the big picture quickly takes him on to the many ways in which video games are a part of life. This is a book about people, not games. We meet the arcade performers and the e-sports athletes. We meet the players who want to be better than everyone else and the players who simply want to fit in. We meet those seeking refuge and those looking for escape.
We have loved games since the beginning. In the 1970s, Pong arcade machines proved so popular that their coin mechanisms seized up. But we’ve come a long way in four decades. Now there are games for anyone, about anything: they reflect the human condition even more than novels or films, Parkin argues. Here lies their power, their compulsion.
Parkin takes us out in London on a Saturday night. In a games arcade just off Piccadilly Circus, a crowd loiters around a machine with big speakers and a small platform. “They are not here to play,” he writes. “They are here to perform.” Dance Dance Revolution is an excuse for a dance-off – part West Side Story, part hopscotch. When the music starts, coloured markers flash in time, showing where you need to place your feet. The adept are worth watching, and know it.
Public performance is now a big aspect of video games, in arcades and now online via YouTube and Twitch. “Video games are closer to music than film in this regard,” writes Parkin. “They allow their players to accent, to flex, to showboat, to be virtuoso.”
And the “rush” generated by competition, by chasing high scores, is also a big part of the obsession. Like sports, games are challenging, driving players to strive for domination. They are an opportunity to measure yourself against others, and an outlet for aggression and rivalry.
League of Legends, the game Rong-yu played, is one of several games to become a sport. Teams compete for million-dollar prizes in international tournaments. But you don’t have to be a pro to be gripped by the urge to win. “For some people, devotion to improving at a video game begins to mimic the unbreakable grip of substance addiction, if not the chemical dependence.”
Parkin takes us to Baghdad, where military-themed shooters, with players taking on the role of a soldier to blast through their enemies, are particularly popular with the generation who grew up during the Iraq wars. Mohannad Abdulla, a 25-year-old Iraqi, was taught how to use an AK-47 at school. “Shooting terrorists in a game is cathartic,” Abdulla tells Parkin. There is also little else to do. “Video games are the only viable entertainment we have,” he says. They let you have fun with friends, yet stay safe at home.
Far from being loners, players make friends globally through games. “The social connections that they encourage, both within Iraq and beyond, have built empathy in ways that may have a profound effect on the way some young people view their place in the world,” explains Parkin.
But the world view reflected in big-name games remains one-sided. Games spread a particular set of Western values. What previous generations picked up from Rambo, today’s kids learn via shooters like Call of Duty or Battlefield.
For a very different form of engagement, Parkin introduces us to Ryan Green. When Green’s infant son was diagnosed with cancer, he decided to make a game about it. In That Dragon, Cancer, players experience what it is like to try to console a 4-year-old in pain – and fail. Baby Joel cries and there’s nothing you can do but pray. For Green, games are a way to invite people in. “I want people to love my son the way I love my son, and to love my son you have to meet my son,” Green tells Parkin.
Joel died last year. His father is still making the game, now a celebration of a life as much as a study in human suffering.
As a teenager, Parkin’s parents separated. Games gave him routine and direction when he needed it. “Literature is able to remove us from our own lives and focus on the hopes, dreams and conflicts of another,” he writes. “But only a video game gives us the sense of being in control, of being the author of our destiny.”
“A video game gives us the sense of being in control, of being the author of our destiny”
Video games won’t save you, says Parkin. They might even kill you. But, as he writes, “the potential – that shimmering, vivid, endlessly exciting potential – is there, fizzing on the restless screen.” For good or ill, that potential is our potential too.