TECH
08/14/2015 03:15 pm ET

Why People Die Playing Video Games

It's a matter of obsession, according to journalist Simon Parkin. We asked him all about it.

"He played the game to pass the time: ten hours of uninterrupted questing. Then, mind hazed by the room's thick cigarette smoke and eyes stinging from the monitor's flicks and throbs, he decided to step outside for some fresh air. Feng stood, took three steps then stumbled and collapsed, his mouth foaming."

If that doesn't set a scene, we don't know what will. The words belong to Simon Parkin, author of the new book Death by Video Game, and they describe just one example of a phenomenon that stretches back to the 1980s: People become absorbed in a video game, lose track of time and, sadly, die in real life. (Usually, their in-game avatar follows suit.)

Parkin's study of such deaths -- far from the morbid grave-ticking it might seem -- helps describe why the relatively young art form of video games is so powerful. The Huffington Post spoke with him via Skype to learn more.

Simon Parkin

Tell me what inspired you to take this approach.

The deaths of people who've been playing video games for an extended amount of time, say two or three days, seemed like an interesting hook into the subject of "what is it about games that cause us to lose our sense of time within them?"

The entire book is not entirely focused on these deaths. That's really almost completely dealt with in the first chapter. And from there, we go into more of a philosophical examination of what is it about the human brain that finds games so fascinating, what causes us to give ourselves to them so completely?

That was the thinking behind the slightly morbid angle. 

I was shocked to learn about the man who died playing the arcade game in the bar in central Illinois, way back in the 1980s. To me, and I think many others who might read this book, "death by video game" is better associated with the stereotype of Asian "League of Legends" obsessives in an Internet cafe. Can you explain why it was important for you to break this stereotype?

There is truth in the stereotype to a certain degree. It's to do with things like the fact that in Taiwan, the cost of the Internet in a cafe is so cheap. That's why most people going to play a game for a prolonged amount of time do so in a cafe.

Within this cafe, the behavior tends to be that everyone is smoking, people have caffeinated drinks, and when you combine that with the humidity of the climate, all of these things come together to increase the likelihood of blood clots, for example. Certainly, there is a higher concentration of death by video games in Taiwan. Elsewhere in Asia, the government has introduced laws to cut down on that behavior.

It was important for me to say, look, this is something that can happen in any sedentary pursuit, even though the Western mainstream media tends to report these stories as if it's something unique or particular to video games. Part of me wanted to say that this is something that can happen anywhere. You can die from a Netflix binge, and I'm sure people have. But there is something unique about video games that I can see in my own life. I'm much more likely to sit and play a game for a whole day than I am most other entertainment activities.

Anyone who's played games as a student when you have a surplus of free time can testify to that. 

You write that video games "meet our deeper, more human needs." That's part of the reason why people get so absorbed in them that they don't take care of themselves. Can you explain this idea a bit to me?

When you have so many millions of people engaging in an activity every day, there has to be something there. That medium has to be meeting some sort of need on an elemental level, otherwise people wouldn't be doing it so much. People like competition, people like rivalry: Video games are very good at quantifying achievement.

But there's another side to many video games that isn't about the sports attribute. It's about speaking to the human experience, or holding a mirror up to the systems in which we live in the world.

At a very practical level, many games let us better understand the world around us. An example would be a game like "SimCity" where you take on the role of a city planner, and you get to figure out where to put houses, where you put the industrial area, where you put the business district. You manage things like taxes and how recycling works. Doing that, you gain a greater understanding of how cities function. That's a very practical function. 

But there are deeper ways, as well. Games can provide us with a very fair and just reality in which to play. When things aren't going well for you in your own life, when you're not getting a promotion at work or you've just split up with your partner, video games can be very comforting when you assume the role of a character who will progress if you do the right things. And they work with these fair rules where there's always a sense of justice. 

YouTube

The "Game Over" screen from "Resident Evil 2."

Most video games have this aspect of survival to them as well. If you look at the language of games, we use this terminology like "Lives" and "Hearts" and "Die." When you "die" in a game, you lose a "life." There are these elements of human survival. That taps into something very deep and old in the human mind. It gives us a chance to do that in a world where the threats we face in our daily life might be a bit different, a little less elemental.

It seems that video games have transformed so much since the 1980s, when the "death by video game" concept first took hold. Perhaps at the time, "Space Invaders" did seem like a legitimate world for one to get lost in, but now we have incredibly immersive games like "Destiny," say, and we're moving closer to virtual reality being truly accessible to consumers. What do you think about what the future holds compared to where we've come from?

I think the basic things that video games do, they're going to continue doing. Things like virtual reality will very slightly tweak how we experience this stuff. But the first principles of the medium have been established, and we're looking at different permutations of them. If you break them down to the basics, there's very little difference between "Space Invaders" and the latest "Call of Duty." You're still trying to shoot them before they shoot you, you're still ducking behind cover.

You can drive the most expensive car int he world in "Gran Turismo" or "Forza." You kind of see what it's like to be a marine in "Call of Duty." These are obviously aspirational experiences that we get to play through in video games. Virtual reality wil continue that.

What we're starting to see now is designers starting to try to place us in different kinds of roles in life that are maybe not aspirational in order to achieve interesting effects and say things about the world. In the game "Cart Life," you play as a newspaper seller on the poverty line in America. That's not something you'd think most people would want to do. But there's something about playing as that character and seeing what his life is like that has interesting effects. It generates empathy for people who are in that situation. We're seeing a whole lot of games that are starting to explore this rich territory, and we're just at the beginning of that, I'd say.

When you 'die' in a game, you lose a 'life.' There are these elements of human survival. That taps into something very deep and old in the human mind. Simon Parkin

Is that because it's easier for indie developers now?

Yes. Since Apple's App Store, the barrier for independent development has gone down. Ten to 15 years ago, the idea would have been laughable -- now, you can sit in your bedroom at home, make a game and upload it to Steam or the App Store, and suddenly everyone in the world can play your game.

While the industry is predominantly occupied by people with a computer science background, as the tools are being democratized, people from more walks of life are able to make games. And as that happens, more diverse games are starting to be made. 

What are you playing right now?

"Beyond Eyes" on Xbox One. You play as a blind girl trying to find her cat.

That sounds uplifting.

I don't think it's a great game, but I do think it's an interesting game, and I'm glad it exists. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

CONVERSATIONS