Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Dr. Karl-Heinz Hochhaus
Hsieh would often disappear for days at a time inside an internet cafe in Kaohsiung, the second-largest city in Taiwan. But on January 8, after binging for three days straight on computer games, he collapsed. He wasn't discovered until hours later, after his body had already begun to stiffen. As medics and police filled the cafe to retrieve Hsieh's carcass, other customers barely looked up from their screens. At the hospital, doctors determined he died of cardiac arrest.
In America, when people die from gaming, it's a bizarre anomaly—like the Florida woman who killed her baby when she was playing Farmville. But in Asian countries, gamers engage in deadly marathon sessions with disturbing regularity. What's more: Hsieh's death is the second one to happen on the island in 2015. East Asian countries sponsor video game tournaments and make big bucks doing so. But they seem to be doing little in the way of protecting gamers.
China just lifted its 14-year-ban on video game consoles earlier this month, but during that time Taiwan developed a underground video game culture that's still thriving. Names like Nintendo are so entrenched in the larger Taiwanese culture that a video game console is considered as much of a household staple as a rice cooker, according to The Video Game Explosion: A History of Pong to Playstation and Beyond. But because piracy is such a big problem in Asia, many game companies prefer to produce online games, which means they're even more popular.
"It's the social element and the worlds that really make the binge happen, because that's gonna be there whether you're playing or not," the book's editor, Mark Wolf, told me. "There's that feeling that if you're not there, you're missing out. That's opposed to a console game, because if you turn that off, it goes away."
Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Vmenkov
The culture around esports also breeds an obsession. In 2000, the South Korean Ministry of Culture and Tourism teamed up with its Ministry of Information Communications and Samsung to launch the World Cyber Games. Billed as the Olympics for video games, wins bring a great deal of national pride and losses can poke at pre-existing political tensions. At the very first event, for instance, a 17-year-old whiz kid caused a political scuffle with mainland China by shouting "Taiwan Number 1!" after taking home the gold.
But even as the South Korean government was funding this tournament, its citizens were dying from gaming addiction. In 2002 Kim Kyung-Jae died from playing a medieval-themed online game for 86 hours. He is believed to be the first person to die from gaming too much, but there were many more deaths to come. In 2005, when a man named Lee Seung Seop from South Korea also died in an internet cafe, the government took action. A few months later, the South Korea Agency for Digital Opportunity and Promotion starting sending psychologists to internet cafes to disperse information about the negative impacts of excessive gaming.
And while the effort seems to have slowed the number of high-profile deaths in that country, the problem spread across East Asia. A Chinese man identified only as Zhang died in 2007 from playing games for seven days straight. Four years later, another Chinese 33-year-old died. And the year after that, an 18-year-old named Chuang died from playing Diablo III in Taiwan.
In 2012, the South Korean government did even more to protect gamers. Although there are apparently loopholes around the law, children 16 and younger are now banned from playing online games between midnight and 6 AM.
While South Korea is stepping up to the challenge of gaming addiction with legislation, Taiwan has pretty much done nothing and more people are dying every day. "There are ways that they protect the game industry, but as far as actually protecting gamers, there's nothing," Wolf told me. Meanwhile, two Taiwanese men just died in January of this year, with Hsieh being the latest to make headlines.
Sure, more people probably suffer heart attacks while having sex or from binging on Baconaters than playing World of Warcraft. But if people are increasingly known to binge on an activity that's now accepted as "addictive," it seems like the government ought to step in and do something about it. Unfortunately, simply clamping down on internet cafes doesn't seem like a viable solution.
"Those [games] can be dialed up from home. It wouldn't solve the problem," says Hay, the academic. "If someone dies at a gaming center you could ask why no one noticed they were sick. But if they die at home, what was anyone supposed to do about it?"
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