May 12, 2016
Summer Books Preview: Death by Video Game, by Simon Parkin
by Melville House
In his first book, Simon Parkin—who has been called “gaming’s Jon Ronson”—asks what it is we’re really doing when we play video games, examining both the norms and the extremes of the gaming world. Steven Poole, author of Trigger Happy, calls it “the best book about video games I’ve read since I wrote one.”
Brought out by Serpent’s Tail last summer in the UK, Death by Video Game will be published in the US by Melville House on June 21st. In the meantime, to help you survive the wait, here’s an excerpt adapted from the opening chapter.
Chen Rong-Yu died in two places at once.
At 10 p.m. on Tuesday, January 31, 2012, the twenty-three-year-old took a seat in the farthest corner of an Internet café on the outskirts of New Taipei City, Taiwan. He lit a cigarette and logged on to an online video game. He played almost continuously for twenty-three hours, stopping occasionally only to rest his head on the table in front of his monitor and sleep for a little while. Each time that he woke, he picked up his game where he’d left off. Then, one time, he did not raise his head. It was nine hours before a member of the café’s staff tried to rouse the motionless man, in order to tell him that his time was up, only to find his body stiff and cold.
Chen Rong-Yu died in two places at once. Not in the sense that during those final moments his mind drifted to another place (the landscape of some comforting memory where he might be soothed or cheered, for example). Rather, when Rong-Yu’s heart failed, he simultaneously departed two realities.
He died there in the Taiwanese café, with its peeling paint and cloying heat. And he died in Summoner’s Rift, a forest blanketed by perpetual gloom. Summoner’s Rift has the appearance of a remote, unvisited place, but each day it is frequented by hundreds of thousands of people, players of the online video game League of Legends, arguably the most popular online video game in the world. Summoner’s Rift is the pitch on which they do battle.
Rong-Yu had died here many times before. He had been speared, incinerated, or otherwise obliterated by rivals as he scrambled through its thickets and across its river in an endlessly repeating game of territorial warfare.
Many games are metaphors for warfare. The team sports— football, hockey, rugby, and so on—are rambling battles in which attackers and defenders, led by their captains, ebb and flow up and down the field in a clash of will and power. American football is a series of frantic First World War–style scrambles for territory measured in ten-yard increments. Tennis is a pistol duel: squinting shots lined up in the glare of a high-noon sun. Running races are breakneck chases between predator and prey. Boxing doesn’t even bother with the metaphor: it’s a plain old fistfight ending in blood and bruise.
So it is with League of Legends, a game in which two teams attempt to overwhelm each other. In warfare, real or symbolic, there are inevitable casualties. To date, Rong-Yu’s deaths in the virtual forest had been symbolic and temporary, like the toppling of a pawn from a chessboard; a griefless death, easily undone. That night, however, his virtual death was mirrored in reality. It was true and final.
When the paramedics lifted Rong-Yu from his chair, his rictus-stiffened hands remained in place, as if clawed atop an invisible mouse and keyboard. Like the pulp detective thriller in which the lifeless hand points towards some crucial clue, Rong-Yu’s final pose appeared to incriminate his killer.
Rong-Yu’s death is a whodunnit of sorts. It’s not an event that can be easily pinned on any one person or thing. There’s Taiwan’s local economy and infrastructure, which promotes the extended use of Internet cafés. There are the natural conditions of the country’s humid climate. There’s the lack of regulation with regard to how long people can use these cafés and, of course, there are the video games themselves, which promote prolonged engagement through their elegant, compelling design, often iterated upon hundreds of times to inspire humans to willingly offer their uninterrupted attendance and attention.
But there is another, more pressing, more interesting question that arches over all of these, one that is, perhaps, more relevant to the billions of people around the world who play video games and don’t wind up dead from doing so: whydunnit?
What is it about this medium that encourages some people to play games to the extremes of their physical well-being and beyond? Why do video games inspire such monumental acts of obsession? Is it something within the games’ reality that proves so appealing, or is it external circumstances that push certain people to take refuge in a cosy unreality?
Games offer conflict within safe bounds, so perhaps it has to do with the human desire to be heroic, to perform acts for which they might be remembered, to stave off death’s great whitewash.
Or is it the competitiveness of the athlete: the desire to win and assert dominance over our peers and rivals? Or is it to do with friendship and community, or showboating and braggadocio?
Video games offer the intrigue and joy of solvable mysteries. They also grant access to mysterious places in need of discovery. Through them we have the opportunity to, like our ancestors, become explorers when Google satellites have mapped every inch of our own world, leaving few places where we can truly explore the unseen.
Glory, justice, immortality; a chance to live over and over again in order to perfect our path, a place in which change and growth in us are measured on the irrefutable high-score table. Video games offer all of this and more. The allures of the video game, and the ways in which it salves our internal problems and instincts, are myriad.
Is it so curious that a person might become forever lost in this rift between the real and the unreal?
Death by Video Game, by Simon Parkin
ON SALE: June 21, 2016