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

Authors: Simon Parkin

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

Death by Video Game: Tales of Obsession From the Virtual Frontline (31 page)

Grand Theft Auto V
, like so many video games, defies straightforward definition or critique because it is so many things at once. As with all cities, when we enter Los Santos we bring with us our own perspectives, hangups, ambitions, and fears. We embrace or reject
them accordingly. Los Santos is a mirror to Los Angeles, but also to the individual. This kind of projection happens with all art and entertainment, but perhaps more so with video games, the only form in which we act. And perhaps more so still in open-world games, in which our freedoms are so broad and so accommodated. And perhaps still more so with Los Santos, city of reinvention, through which you can ride a train and see whatever it is that you need to see.

There’s an old saying: ‘Wherever you go, there you will be.’

I read it as an amiable warning: it’s no use trying to flee yourself. Even if you escape your problems,
will always be there. Video games like
Grand Theft Auto V
prove the point, to a certain degree. Unless you’re deliberately playing against type, or assuming a specific role, you can’t help but bring yourself into the fiction. Your interests and predilections will be reflected in your activity, be it hunting wild animals, racing jet-skis, hiring prostitutes, buying property, planning heists, or hiking first thing in the morning. If you are feeling hateful in the real world, the game provides a space in which to act hatefully. Wherever you go, there you will be.

Of course, the way a game is designed will encourage certain types of behaviour, and many interactions that you might wish to make if you were to fully and bodily enter the fiction are entirely closed off. You may only be able to interact with the world around you via a gun’s sights. In many video games, there is no option to eat, to love, to touch, to comfort, or to use any of the other crucial verbs with which we live life. Nevertheless, the medium’s greatest draw is surely the way in which it allows us to understand more about ourselves and the world, in a safe place, through the mystical act of play. Video games may be escapism, but wherever you escape to, there too you will be, and there you might just find yourself.

Back in Tainan City, in an Internet café popular with players close to the one in which Chen Rong-Yu died, there’s an attitude among players that death by gaming is something that happens to other people, people with bigger problems and deeper issues.

‘I’ve never played for longer than forty-eight hours at a time,’ says twenty-two-year-old Ding Kuo Chih, who has been playing games in Internet cafés for a decade. ‘Nowadays I rarely play for longer than ten hours at a stretch. I heard about the guy who died. My friends and I were just talking about it, actually. We all think it’s just ridiculous to play a game to death. The guy must have had some financial problems or something. Perhaps that’s what happened—he chose to spend all his money on video games, so he had no money to eat and drink properly. Something like that.’

Every player in the café has heard of the ‘death by video game’ stories, but they appear to have had little impact on behaviour.

‘It’s not really changed anything for me,’ says Chiu, a mousy girl who’s playing
. ‘Maybe he had some problem with his heart? It wouldn’t happen to me. I have a job.’

Likewise, for sixteen-year-old Shih, Rong-Yu’s death seems irrelevant.

‘It’s not changed anything for me,’ he says. ‘I am an infrequent gamer. I only come here once a week, so it’s OK for me to play for a long stretch of time. I am just killing time.’

And what better place to kill time? Video games, at times, bring comfort. Often they bring challenge, relief, glory, discovery, even a glimpse of a fairer existence. They reward you for your efforts with empirical, unflinching fairness. Work hard in a game and you advance. Take the path that’s opened to you and persevere with it and you can save the world. Every player is given an equal chance to succeed. There is a prelapsarian quality to video games that makes
them irresistible, especially to people whose experiences in life have been of injustice and unfairness.

Video games are truly a metaphor for a vision of life that can be ordered, understood, and conquered. They may start off as broken places, full of conflict and violence, but they are utopias too, in that the things that are broken can be put right. Hour by hour, in most video games, our work is to restore, rescue, and perfect these virtual worlds.

But, as the experiences of Rong-Yu and all of the others demonstrate, this is not the entire story. Video games can also distract, depress, have a negative impact on health. They can enforce problematic values in profound ways and even lead people away from more effective and important support systems in their lives. Yes, video games can be a useful tool in finding refuge, but they can never replace family or friendships, the natural and fundamental supports of human beings.

Video games can inspire greatness and challenge the status quo, pointing out flaws in our systems, illustrating better ways of living and ruling. In this way they can shape our attitudes, beliefs, and values, perhaps in a more immediate, physical way than other media. But of course, this same power can be used in damaging ways. Video games also have the capacity to demoralise people, and they can vividly reinforce systems of power, privilege, and even oppression.

No, video games won’t save you—they might even kill you—and the jury is still very much out as to whether they improve or imperil the world.

But the potential—that shimmering, vivid, endlessly exciting potential—is there, fizzing on the restless screen. Therefore, so too are we.

Killing time.


Special thanks to each of the editors with whom I have worked and from whom I have inevitably learned so much.

In particular: Nicholas Thompson, Matt Buchanan, Jay Caspian Kang, Alan Burdick, and Anthony Lydgate of
The New Yorker
. Bobby Baird of
Harper’s Magazine
. Keith Stuart of
The Guardian
. Tony Mott, Joao Sanchez, Margaret Robertson, and Alex Wiltshire of
. Tom Bramwell, Oli Welsh, Ellie Gibson, and Martin Robinson of
, Stephen Totilo of Kotaku, Chris Suellentrop of
The New York Times
and Matter, Kris Graft and Simon Carless of Gamasutra, Will Knight of
MIT Technology Review
, Greg J. Smith of HOLO, and Helen Lewis of
The New Statesman

Thanks to Tom Bissell, for reading the manuscript before anyone else, for giving me an example to follow and the encouragement and belief to keep going.

Thank you, Christian Donlan, Brian Taylor, Kieron Gillen, Robert Howells, Will Porter, Ste Curran, Ann Scantlebury, Ed Hawkins, and Tom Fenwick for your friendship, camaraderie, and advice. To Owain Bennallack for ‘chronoslip’ and for your shrewdness and encouragement.

To Steven Poole for showing us all how it should be done with such grace and elegance through the years.

To Jane Finigan, for her ever-present support and guidance, and to the team at Serpent’s Tail, who have worked so hard to make
and chaperone this book. In particular, thank you to Nick Sheerin and Michael Bhaskar.

Thank you to my brother, with whom I first shared a joystick; to my grandmother, who bought me my first Game Boy; to my mother for her care; and to my father for his lyricism. To my wife, who can still lose a day with
Animal Crossing
, and to my children, who each week reveal new reasons to appreciate the unique power of video games, and new reasons to be wary.

is a journalist whose writing has appeared in
The New York Times
Harper’s Magazine, The Guardian, ESPN
, and a number of other publications.
Death by Video Game
is his first book.

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