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Authors: Simon Parkin

Tags: #Travel, #Essays & Travelogues, #Popular Culture, #Social Science

Death by Video Game: Tales of Obsession From the Virtual Frontline

Death by Video Game: Tales of Obsession From the Virtual Frontline
Simon Parkin
Serpent's Tail (2015)
Tags: Social Science, Popular Culture, Travel, Essays & Travelogues
Social Sciencettt Popular Culturettt Travelttt Essays & Traveloguesttt

Whether it's Space Invaders, Candy Crush Saga or Grand Theft Auto, video games draw us in and don't let go. In Taiwan, a spate of deaths at gaming cafés is raising a question: why is it that some of us are playing games beyond the limits of our physical wellbeing? Death by Video Game uncovers the real stories behind our video game obsession. Along the way, award-winning journalist Simon Parkin meets the players and game developers at the frontline of virtual extremism, including the New York surgeon attempting to break the Donkey Kong world record; the Minecraft player three years into an epic journey towards the edge of the game's vast virtual world and the German hacker who risked prison to discover the secrets behind Half-Life 2. Investigating the impact of video games on our lives, Death by Video Game will change the way we think about our virtual playgrounds.

DEATH BY VIDEO GAME

Copyright © 2015 by Simon Parkin
Originally published by Serpent’s Tail, an imprint of Profile Books Ltd, in the United Kingdom, August 2015

First Melville House Printing: June 2016

Melville House Publishing
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Brooklyn, NY 11201

and

8 Blackstock Mews
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London N4 2BT

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Ebook ISBN: 978-1-61219-541-4

Design by Marina Drukman

v3.1

To Christian Donlan, vital companion
through worlds real and imagined

What if we had a chance to do it again and again, until we finally did get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

KATE ATKINSON
,
Life After Life
You’ve been playing for a while. Why not take a break?

NINTENDO

CONTENTS

Cover

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Epigraph

Introduction

1. Chronoslip
2. Success
3. Lost in the System
4. Discovery
5. Belonging
6. Evil
7. Empathy
8. Hiding Place
9. Mystery

10. Healing

11. Survival

12. Utopia

Acknowledgements

About the Author

INTRODUCTION

January 2012: A young man is dead and if a video game wasn’t the culprit, then it was, at very least, an accessory to the crime.

This isn’t the first time that a video game is a suspect in a young person’s death. Thirty years earlier, almost to the month, eighteen-year-old Peter Burkowski walks into Friar Tuck’s Game Room in Calumet City, Illinois, posts a high score on the arcade game
Berzerk
and, moments later, collapses dead. Since then, fresh reports of ‘death of a video gamer’ (as Burkowski’s story was reported at the time) have been a regular fixture in the news.

With each new story the video-game medium’s reputation sinks lower. No longer is the popular charge merely that video games are a tremendous waste of time (a message that’s been sustained for more than three decades, since games first emigrated from the bellies of esteemed American universities and into the local bars as
Pong
and
Space Invaders
cabinets); now they are killers too. And in our mortal reality, unlike that of the benevolent video game with its interminable supply of lives, there are no second chances.

The video game makes for an obvious suspect in these cautionary tales. Look at the player, sat there on the fat couch, motionless apart from the steady twitch of the hands, the unblinking eyes, the occasional grimace. This is not the lung-expanding, cheek-colouring variety of play we find on the playground or football field. It’s not obviously
wholesome
. No, this appears to be an especially impoverished,
depraved form of play, onanistic or, perhaps worse still, infantile, as the controller’s umbilical-like cord twirls and stretches between the human and the television screen.

If nothing else, as the youngest form of art and entertainment, games are, accordingly, the least trusted. This is their inevitable lot.

Every new medium encounters similar resistance, a fear (usually generational) of change and its attendant loss, often capitalised on by the media of the time as a subject for easy sensationalism. For example, on August 26, 1858, the
San Antonio Texan
printed the following cautionary (although presumably fictional, or at least exaggerated) tale about the dangers of overindulging in novel-reading.

A whole family brought to destitution in England, has had all its misfortunes clearly traced by the authorities to an ungovernable passion for novel reading entertained by the wife and mother. The husband was sober and industrious, but his wife was indolent and addicted to reading everything procurable in the way of romance. This led her to utterly neglect her husband, herself and her eight children. One daughter in despair, fled the parental home, and threw herself into the haunts of vice. Another was found by the police chained by the legs to prevent her from following her sister’s example. The house exhibited the most offensive appearance of filth and indigence. In the midst of this pollution, privation and poverty, the cause of it sat reading the last ‘sensation work’ of the season, and refused to allow herself to be disturbed in her entertainment.

Indolence, addiction, neglect, vice, filth, pollution and poverty: each noun a gavel strike aimed at the unassuming romance novel.

The excerpt is echoed, if not in tone then in purpose, by contemporary newspaper articles decrying the perils of video-game addiction. Stories of video games’ nefarious effects have followed the medium since its inception. In Martin Amis’s nonfiction book
Invasion of the Space Invaders
we read of Anthony Hill, ‘one of the more spectacular casualties of the bleeping sickness.’ (Even Amis, a staunch video-game advocate at the time, employs the language of injury and disease when discussing the video game’s effect on the heart and mind.) Hill was, according to Amis, an unemployed seventeen-year-old who sold sexual favours to a seventy-four-year-old pastor in exchange for money in order to fund a
Space Invaders
habit.

This was not an isolated report. In the 1980s, the medium’s apparent absence of virtue was debated in the English Parliament (where Hill’s case was mentioned, although the boy’s identity was not). On May 20, 1981, the Labour MP George Foulkes (now a baron in the House of Lords) proposed a bill for the ‘Control of
Space Invaders
and Other Electronic Games’ in the House of Commons. The bill would have meant that arcade and bar owners would require licences or even planning permission in order to install arcade machines for their customers. At the bill’s proposal, Foulkes said:

I have seen reports from all over the country of young people becoming so addicted to these machines that they resort to theft, blackmail and vice to obtain money to satisfy their addiction. I use the word “addiction” not in its increasingly common misuse, as being generally fond of something, but in its strictly correct sense of being so attracted to an activity that all normal activity is suspended to carry it out.

If other honourable members didn’t believe Foulkes’s observations, he proposed that they ‘go incognito to an arcade or café in their
own areas and see the effect that it is having on young people.’ There they would find, he claimed, young people ‘crazed, with eyes glazed, oblivious to everything around them.’ He then described the profits arcade machines made as ‘blood money extracted from the weakness of thousands of children.’

The following year, on November 9, 1982, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Everett Koop gave a speech at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Pittsburgh, in which he challenged America to confront the causes of domestic violence and child abuse. After the speech, he took a question from an audience member asking whether he thought video games had a negative effect on young people.

‘Yes,’ he replied. Teenagers were becoming addicted ‘body and soul’ to video games, a form of entertainment in which ‘there’s nothing constructive.’

While Foulkes’s bill did not pass (although it came preposterously close) and Dr. Koop retracted his comments the day after his speech, the image of the glazed addict has persisted, even as video games have become increasingly widespread and accepted in many cultures. Indeed, the sustained level of popular distrust received by video games is one that their forebears in music, cinema, theatre, and even print seemed to pull away from more quickly. Across the decades, video games have been blamed for a multitude of crimes, from inspiring dangerous driving to being used as training devices for murderers in school shootings. Today, the president of the United States carries a laptop bearing a
Pac-Man
sticker, yet video games are still seen by many (including, I suspect, some who play them) as, if not a wholly corrupting influence, then at least a meritless time-waster.

Is that a fair appraisal?

Certainly no lives are saved, no babies delivered, no crops harvested,
no cities built, no sicknesses cured, no fires extinguished, no seamen rescued, no wars won, and no laws passed through the act of play. In humanity’s ongoing project of survival and propagation, video games seemingly contribute little. Then again, movies and paintings are hardly known to have prevented much global bloodshed.

Advocates argue that games have been shown to improve hand-eye coordination, cognitive flexibility, decision-making, and even vision. Video games are increasingly sociable and inclusive. And at the philosophical level, play does, of course, educate us and prepare us for usefulness in the world. But video-game play, with its abstract geometries, its fantastical dragons, and its extraterrestrial threats, seems more likely to provide an escape from the roles and responsibilities of life on this side of the screen than a guide towards them.

Escapism is a powerful force. It’s one of the foundations on which all literature, theatre, film, and even fine art have been built: spaces into which people can retreat from the mundane familiar. But while the promise of escape might catapult humans into works of fiction, it’s perhaps not enough by itself to keep them there. And if all we want is to sit back and escape, why choose a video game, with its incessant demands and tests of our competence? Far easier to lie in front of a film and let the story wash over us, unimpeded.

Why, then, do we play video games, beyond the dopamine rush of the tiny victories they afford us, or the way in which they allow us, for a short while, to step outside of ourselves and our immediate problems and circumstances? If people are dying to play video games, it’s worth investigating why that might be.

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