Book review: Simon Parkin asks what makes video gaming so addictive, if not downright dangerous, in Death by Video Game
For many years I lived more in a virtual world than anywhere else. My game of choice was Planetside – a vast, constant futuristic war. Leaving that game (we joked) was logging on, not off: to me, and many of my comrades, reality was there – behind the flickering screen. Why? The game industry is now bigger than Hollywood and music. What invisible grip does it have over so many? What invisible grip did it have over me?
“Certainly no lives are saved,” says Simon Parkin, “no babies delivered, no crops harvested, no cities built, no sickness cured, no fires extinguished, no seamen rescued, no wars won and no laws passed through the act of play.” His new book, Death by Video Game, “is an investigation into a slew of deaths in which young men and, occasionally, women, have been found dead at their keyboards after extended periods of video-game playing”.
It begins as macabre as it sounds (and looks: there is a skull on the front cover). Parkin serves an opening montage of malnutrition and fretful, broken nights; slum apartments, unwashed bodies and ultimately death. Indeed, such was the concern with the power of video games over us that in 1981 a British MP proposed the Control of Space Invaders and other Electronic Games Bill to prevent people from turning to “theft, blackmail and vice” to fuel their addiction.
Only, Death by Video Game is not really about death at all. Every book needs a “hook”, but as we travel with Parkin to discover the allure of video games, we learn that his is a poor one – and it does scant justice to the book and the games themselves.
This book is not the narrow, tragic story of the human casualties of gaming. It does something more ambitious, more difficult and more interesting than that.
It’s the characters – as diverse and interesting as the games they play – that are the star turns. And each one tells the story of the way gaming can provide meaning far beyond the pixelated images. He stretches from the obsessional fight to top the leader board of retro Donkey Kong to the monastic Beverly Hills retreats of today’s professional competitive gaming teams – each “ultimately a way to somehow endure”. We meet Mac, winding his slow way to the edge of Minecraft, cheered on by legions of fans who have also donated more than $300,000 (Dh1 million) to charity in appreciation of his epic digital odyssey; and learn about how games can satisfy that primal urge to find the end, to press a limit, to go as far as you can. Games like No Man’s Sky allow each of us to be a new Columbus, to step into worlds where everything is not known, where we can discover new planets, caves, peaks and seas.
Parkin shows us the political and social complexity of Eve – a galaxy where 500,000 people explore, fight, mine, plot and cooperate. Every year, Eve’s council of stellar management, who have campaigned and been elected in the game, are flown to the office’s creator to lobby on behalf of players. Games such as Eve allow us to step out of a messy chaotic world that is basically indifferent to us and into one of order and sense that has been built with us – the player – in mind. These are systems that give us meaningful agency over its world, where we are treated fairly and where effort is rewarded – something the real world all too seldom offers.
Next, enter the unknown and unlikely champion of Dance Dance, a physical game where you basically put your feet on a number of electronic pads on the floor in time with the music. He is “short, plump”, “glistening and portly”, but never misses a beat. Games, therefore, are a route to social kudos; to know the joy of mastering a skill and bathing in the social warmth that its public demonstration brings. Parkin then takes us to Meridian 59 – the world’s first “massively multiplayer online role-playing games” or MMPORG (and the first I played). Once a busy thoroughfare “filled with a babble of voices”, its capital, Barloque is now a digital ghost town, reduced to a few dozen souls, determined to stay and to keep the game alive. They are kept there by the strength of the bonds that the game created – friendships and enmities now 15 years old – that they cannot bear to let die.
We then go to an area known as “Back o Beyond” in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, where the trees “loom conspiratorially” and gamers comb the woods looking for a mystery lurking in the code. Bigfoot has been glimpsed peering out of the gloom, but the creature’s existence is flatly denied by the developer, Rockstar North.
Other games prod and explore real mysteries. In the controversial JFK: Reloaded, you play as Lee Harvey Oswald, looking down on John F Kennedy as he drives down Elm Street, complete with the right number of lampposts and correct wind speed.
Parkin is a powerful writer and, of course, clearly loves video games.
The prose gleams with enthusiasm and wonder and as far as any book can transport us into these digital worlds, Parkin does so marvellously well. The trees in Skyrim’s Tamriel are “defiant and snow dusted”, surrounding icy lakes while “grey mountains rise and fall in the distance, clouds draped around their icy necks”. The wind “whips up angrily, lifting with it white, swirling powder”. The view is of “Iceland with the contrast turned up”, but “dig a little deeper and you find Iceland with a cave-troll infestation”.
Parkin’s lessons stretch beyond the gamers and the games – they are about the human psyche. He taught me that the reason I had been sucked in was because games connected with my primal human needs. They satisfied a need for violence, when I didn’t want to be reasonable, didn’t want reconciliation, but what I wanted, in a safe, consequence-less way, was to scream bloody victory atop a pile of vanquished enemies. They were a hiding place, a “numbing escapism” – to check out of the world that I didn’t want to inhabit – at least for a while. From escape to survival, creation, social recognition, belonging and discovery, games are virtual means to very human ends: letting us do the things that make us human and make life worthwhile.
The most moving and powerful section of the book is also the most unsettling, upsetting and difficult to read. This is when Parkin looks the furthest beyond games as simply entertainment. In 10 Seconds in Hell, the player, placed in a locked room seconds before your violent partner enters, feels something of the “horror and hopelessness” of the domestic abuse victim.
But the most moving story of all is about That Dragon, Cancer. A puzzle without a solution, it was created by Ryan Green about the hopeless agony of trying to care for his four-year-old son with terminal cancer. As Parkin plays (although “play” feels the wrong word), he explains: “Joel Green is hysterical and there’s nothing I can do about it. I try bouncing him on my knee but whenever I stop the giggles make way for fresh anguish.”
Later, Joel smashes his head against the railings. “I hunt for an undo button ... but the only prompt I find reads simply: Pray.” Its creator, Ryan, explains “I want people to love my son the way I love my son and to love my son you have to meet my son.” It feels wrong to call this a game but more, as Parkin puts it, “telling stories that speak to the deepest things that people have to deal with”. It is, in Parkin’s words, “not only a study of human suffering but also a celebration of human life”.
Stick with the book beyond the thin conceit on the front cover (“tales of obsession from the virtual front line”), and you will be rewarded. Sometimes good, sometimes bad, but with a capacity to be powerful and moving, happy and sad, Parkin shows us video games as aesthetic and emotional appreciation, ways of enduring life’s miseries, even of living a better life. They are art, and as art, life-affirming above all else.
This book is available on Amazon.
Carl Miller is a digital researcher at the think tank Demos.
Updated: August 20, 2015 04:00 AM