Book review: Death by Video Game situates gaming at the heart of life

A story about players who don't stop until it's game over

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 November, 2015, 12:01pm
UPDATED : Friday, 06 November, 2015, 12:00pm

Death by Video Game

by Simon Parkin

Serpent's Tail


Sometime during a 23-hour gaming session at a Taipei internet café in January 2012, 23-year-old Chen Rong-yu died. Although the venue was packed with other gamers, nobody noticed Chen's stiff, slumped body because they were glued to their screens. And even when Chen's lifeless body was finally discovered by a cafe employee, the other gamers continued playing.

Chen's story is one of several told in Death by Video Game: Tales of Obsession from the Virtual Frontline, an in-depth look at the role of video games in society. While death is the book's hook - its cover art features a human skull, after all - its 273 pages offer much more than that. Written by unabashed video game lover Simon Parkin, the book is less a cautionary tale than an ode to and a defence of a medium that is often unfairly disrespected.

Parkin has done extensive research on the history of video games and makes a compelling argument that this form of digital entertainment provides gamers - typically young males - with a connection to their most primal human needs: violence, survival, creation, discovery and social recognition.

Chunks of the book, such as sections on how a man coped with the loss of a child by immersing himself in a role-playing game, or a video game that was developed by a man coping with terminal cancer, are more a study of the human psyche than of PlayStations and Nintendos.

An established journalist with bylines at various reputable publications, Parkin writes with an investigative prose, though he doesn't attempt to mask his enthusiasm and fandom either. The only fault with the book would be the occasional hyperbole - in his eyes, serious gamers play because of a supposed desire to seek "immortality".

Early video games were created to be linear experiences. From Space Invaders to Super Mario Brothers, Street Fighter and Mega Man, the goal was the same: beat one level, move on to the next. Eventually you reach the last one, and once you beat that, game over.

Technological advancements in the past decade or so have changed that. Many video games today are vast open worlds that you explore to your own liking. The great ones, such as Grand Theft Auto 5, offer a virtual world so sprawling that you can never truly "beat" the game.

In a way, this sea change in video game structure serves as a fitting metaphor for Death by Video Game. It's billed as a sensational tell-all about gamers so obsessed they played to the death. Instead, it invites readers to examine human nature and the multitude of ways video games fit into our world, both physically and mentally.