Published August 13 through Serpent's Tail, Death by Video Game is writer Simon Parkin's collection of stories of obsession, escape, addiction, and ultimately, either defeat or salvation depending on the situation—every tale framed by the culture of video gaming. It sets out to present the truths behind headlines, the realities of gamers who use their digital adventures as life support, for guidance, and who come out the other side of the experiences changed one way or another.
The book opens and ends in East Asia, with Parkin investigating the tragic fates of people who played themselves to death, in the real world and their virtual one of choice. One such gamer was Chen Rong-yu, a 20-something who in early 2012 sat down at an internet café in Taipei City and launched League of Legends. He played and passed out, only to awaken and play more. Except one time when he closed his eyes, he never opened them again—his dead body was found, slumped in front of the screen, by a member of the café's staff. He'd been dead for nine hours.
"A few years ago I noticed that there was a fairly regular rhythm of news reports arriving, usually from Taiwan or South Korea, about people who were dying at the computer after video game binges," Parkin tells me, when I ask about the inspiration behind his book, and its title. "These reports were usually presented in the Western media as a kind of cautionary tale, one that either warned of the danger of playing games for prolonged amounts of time without breaks or, depending on the outlet, a sharper critique on the general dangers of all video game playing.
"But there has been very little reporting on why people are dying from video games. As someone who spends a great deal of time playing games, sometimes for hours on end, I wanted to investigate that question more thoroughly. Of course, a physical autopsy only provides a surface understanding what's going on here. There's also the broader, deeper question of why video games inspire us to give ourselves so fully to their realities, even to the point of physical harm. What appears to make games different from other media in that regard?"
While there are sad stories to be found within the pages of Death by Video Game, there's hope, too, woven through some very personal, intimate recollections of how gaming has steered Parkin's subjects back onto a path of positive progress. It's also a book that highlights that gaming really isn't (just) for kids, and that it's not a medium entirely obsessed with guns and scantily clad girls and murder and driving really recklessly fast. It paints Parkin's generation—my generation—as the one that is going to make a difference in gaming, that will be responsible for turning a pastime demonized by naïve tabloid hacks and politicians looking to score cheap points from intimidated parents into an art form every bit as culturally relevant as any other.
"I think that change is well underway," Parkin says. "Obama was often photographed with a Pac-Man sticker on his laptop while mounting his presidential campaign. The stigma around video games has changed, especially in the last five years, as increasingly people who grew up playing games have moved into senior positions as writers, editors, educators, and politicians. The old tabloid story about the video game nasty—which was, notably, planted in the media by Max Clifford around the launch of the second Grand Theft Auto, as a marketing technique—has almost disappeared. At the very least it's become a cliché—even though, it's worth noting, many game players still feel as though they are misunderstood and looked down upon for their hobby.
"I believe that video games have this amazing, shimmering potential and that they are often wonderful miracles painted across our screens." –Simon Parkin
"As someone who has dedicated a great deal of time and energy to writing and thinking about gaming, my hope is that we're moving to a time of more nuanced discussion. Rather than a polarized debate between the generally young, who love games, and the generally old, who distrust them, perhaps we are approaching a time where we can hold two conflicting ideas in mind simultaneously. I believe that video games have this amazing, shimmering potential and that they are often wonderful miracles painted across our screens. But I also believe that this potential is often squandered, and that many games are troublesome or, at very least, tiresome."
It's true enough that games makers can be easily swayed towards what the commercial market expects over creating experiences that genuinely sing with originality, but I agree that change is afoot. We've seen it in the indie sector for a fair few years now, and even triple-A developers and publishers are beginning to take relative risks—for example, I don't think that a company as massive as Square Enix would have supported a project of such quiet introspection as Life Is Strange prior to indies having moderate success with that style of game.
"In the book I look at some of the psychological things that video games provide us with," Parkin says. "For example, the tremendous sense of belonging, the triumphant and sports-like sense of dominance and mastery games can provide, and the sense of comfort and even, in some cases, space for healing that this form of escapism uniquely offers." The chapter "Hiding Place," which you can read an edited excerpt from below, examines the case of Chris Ferguson, who turned to Skyrim for comfort when his wife was in hospital. You can find out more about Death by Video Game, and order a copy, on the Serpent's Tail website.
"Hidden Place" begins after the video below
Chris Ferguson had almost given up on video games when he first visited Skyrim.
"The power fantasies had worn me out," he tells me. "Whether it was pretending to be the perfect sportsman or a man changing the world through the power of guns, I was bored of the fantasy. As I began to adjust to the idea of fatherhood, I was more or less ready to leave all that behind."
Ferguson and his wife, Sarah, had been married for seven years and, during that time, had "never not been trying for a baby." In that sense, the news that the pair was expecting a baby wasn't unexpected, but it was still a surprise.
Like many who hear the news for the first time in their lives, the pair began to try on the idea of being parents. They bought a red and blue Babygro that said "Just Like Daddy" across the chest and a pair of those implausibly tiny infant socks. They celebrated their final Christmas as two.
On New Year's Day, Sarah was taken to hospital, where she underwent an operation to remove the ectopic pregnancy that threatened her life. If caught early enough, it's treatable with few side effects. If left undetected, it can cause the tube to rupture, causing life-threatening internal bleeding and often resulting in the loss of one of the woman's fallopian tubes. Sarah's tube had ruptured.
"It felt like a miracle to get pregnant at all, and then to have that taken away…" Ferguson says. "But it was never a viable pregnancy at all. That's a funny thing to have to get over. Because in your head it's been your baby, but in truth it was never something that had a chance to become a baby. You then have to come to terms with the fact that it might have been your only chance to have a baby. The human body does make some allowances for only having one fallopian tube, but it was still devastating."
After the operation Ferguson wasn't allowed into the ward to see Sarah, who needed rest. In the chaos of the emergency, no one had taken a moment to explain to him why, as he puts it, he wasn't going to be a dad any longer. Instead, they sent him home.
"I couldn't sleep," he says. "I was dazed. I'm not someone who can sit and watch a film. I have the patience to read a book or refresh Twitter all day, but I can't watch a film. But video games… I can do that."
Ferguson had been given a video game for Christmas. He put the disc into the drive and began to play.
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Skyrim is the name of a vast region set in the northern part of the fictional land of Tamriel after which the 2011 game is named. It's a hardy, unforgiving place, home to the Nords, a people toughened by decades spent battling frost. Lines of coniferous trees, defiant, and snow-dusted, surround its ice lakes. Grey mountains rise and fall in the distance, clouds draped around their necks. The wind whips up angrily, lifting with it white, swirling powder.
It is a world shared by beasts both mythical and real. Elk canter. Rabbits bound, then lift quivering noses to sniff for threats before returning to the whisper and scurry of their busy work. Clicking, overgrown crabs patrol the shoreline. Woolly mammoths tread heavily through the snow. At night you're just as likely to run into a cruel giant as a fox. Freeze the frame and you have a picture postcard: Iceland with the contrast turned up. Dig a little deeper and you find Iceland with a cave-troll infestation. There are friends to be made here, in the nooks and valleys, but generally Skyrim regards you as an unwanted visitor: the land and its people try to expel you.
This place of virtual cold and grim scarcity is not a typical refuge.
In Skyrim you can choose to bring peace or turmoil to the land. The native Nord race wants to free their land from Imperial interference, to become independent. The Imperial Legion, the military of the Empire, seeks instead to reunite and pacify the province. To a certain degree, you are free to choose with whom to side.
One of Ferguson's frustrations with video games at the time was his own tendency to race towards the goal, rather than take time to explore and enjoy the journey.
"Something that I've learned about myself is that, if a game's story is based on saving the world, I will concentrate all of my attention on that goal," he says. "Other characters in the game might implore me to carry out side-quests, helping them with this and that, but I usually never engage in that because… well, because the world needs saving and that seems more important."
This time, however, was different. Ferguson spent his time roaming Skyrim's world, wandering and, as he puts it, exploring for exploration's sake. For Ferguson, this freedom to set his pace and manage his destiny was key to being able to escape the turmoil in his mind and in his home.
"If it had been a shooter or something, I'm not sure I would have fallen into it in the same way," he says. "It's not constantly intense. There's room to wander. It also gets the power fantasy thing right. You have power to change things while none of the missions you're given are particularly taxing."
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A few days later Sarah returned home.
"I remember when I took her back from the hospital I was scared that I'd never bring her back to life," says Ferguson. "She was empty and broken. I brought her tea and beans on toast and when she slept I played. Sometimes, when the loading screens went on too long, I'd start crying. She would call to me and I would pause the game and go and sit with her and tell her that the important thing was that she was well and safe and that she would get better."
Sarah remained in bed for a week. She needed drugs every four hours, which Ferguson administered. He spent the rest of the time cooking, cleaning, or retreating into Skryim.
"I flitted between these few rooms, these two realities," he recalls.
Then one day, a few weeks after he started his journey in Skyrim, Ferguson was finished.
"When Sarah started to recover that's when I started to become emotional for the first time," he says. "I stopped playing. I had a realization that this just wasn't where I wanted to be any more."
A few weeks later he was able to say goodbye to the time spent in the game in a more definitive way when a friend visited.
"He mentioned that he wanted to play Skyrim but couldn't afford a copy," he recalls. "So I gave him mine. It felt good to have something to give that someone wanted. But there was something else, I guess. A sense of closure."