To Live and Die in Pixelation

Death by Video Game is a must read not only for gamers, but for anyone interested in learning about well researched and supported argumentation.

Death by Video Game: Danger, Pleasure, and Obsession on the Virtual Frontline

Publisher: Melville House
Length: 272 pages
Author: Simon Parkin
Price: $25.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2016-06

It seems that every modern form of entertainment and/or technology has been met with wildly divergent reactions. Be it film, music, television, or even the internet and smart phones, there are people who champion its beneficial potentials and people who admonish its detrimental possibilities.

As polarizing as those types are, though, arguably none have received as much opposition over the last few decades as video games. Initially conceived and received as mere interactive recreation in the ‘70s (well, at least commercially), video games have since been deemed everything from magnificent educational and developmental tools capable of exquisite storytelling, acting, and social commentary, to immoral wastes of time that lead to psychological trauma, social inadequacies, emotional regression, and outright violence.

Clearly, there’s a lot to talk about when it comes to video games, and while there has been plenty written about the subject (including PopMatters’ own lengthy examinations, as well as Steven Johnson’s excellent Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter), few approaches have been as engaging, multifaceted, exhaustive, and touching as Simon Parkin’s debut book, Death by Video Game. Sectioned according to central topic (such as “Survival”, “Evil”, and “Healing”), each chapter expertly interweaves firsthand accounts, precise examples, and scholarly analysis and research to yield a continuously compelling exploration. Best of all, Parkin more or less keeps an objective stance through it all, allowing outside facts and feedback to strengthen both sides of his arguments.

Parkin introduces his book with appropriate contextualization, discussing how several deaths over the past several years were attributed to excessive video game activity. In doing so, he touches upon a few important [mis]representations:

With each new story the video-game medium’s reputation sinks lower ... the image of the glazed addict has persisted, even as video games have become increasingly widespread and accepted in many cultures. Indeed, the sustained level of popular distrust received by video games is one that their forebears in music, cinema, theatre, and even print seemed to pull away from more quickly. Across the decades, video games have been blamed for a multitude of crimes, from inspiring dangerous driving to being used as training devices for murderers in school shootings ... if people are dying to play video games, it’s worth investigating why that might be.

In “Chronoslip”, he explores one of the most controversial and contentious factors of video games: “the unique way in which [they] cause their players to become oblivious to time”. Afterward, Parkin addresses the logical counterargument that people also get lost in other forms of entertainment (so video games aren’t the only culprits of this “phenomenon”) before addressing a major distinction: that “games are active rather than passive media... We step into a game world and emerge, hours later, with little sense of where the time has gone. Sometimes the immersion is so complete that our bodies’ physical signals do not penetrate the unreality: we forget to eat, to shift position in our chair ... to keep warm, to pee”.

In addition to highlighting how well-rounded Parkin’s support and evidence is, this chapter also demonstrates how well he incorporates blunt responses from his interviewees. For example, he speaks with Huang, the 27-year-old branch manager of Ingame Café (in Taiwan, where many video game café deaths have occurred), who admits that “people playing games for prolonged periods of time is an issue.” That said, she also notes that “the problem with this sort of addiction stems from those addicts themselves ... it’s probably their family or their education that’s to blame. It’s really a matter of self-discipline.”

Parkin concludes “Chronoslip” with rhetorical questions like: “Why do [they] 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 refuse in a cosy unreality?” Thus, he serves as an objective and intriguing observer deadest on revealing how complex the circumstances can be.

On the other side of the spectrum, both “Belonging” and “Hiding Place” touch upon the positive aspects of gaming with profound emotion, justification, and honesty. The former discusses how certain titles offer players the chance to sift through their personal struggles in order to find understanding and peace. Specifically, Parkin highlights how the homosexual relationships depicted in PC heavyweight The Sims were very important for gay players because “in the game, if not in life, they had found a place where they could be accepted.”

Along the same lines, “Hiding Place” legitimizes video games as fruitful, if not necessary means of escape and distraction when real life becomes unbearable. Much of the section revolves around Chris Ferguson, who depended on the revered RPG The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim to get him through the sadness, anger, and bafflement of his wife’s miscarriage (as well as the subsequent emotional, mental, and relational turmoil the couple endured). As usual, Parkin interprets Ferguson’s story masterfully into his overarching inferences:

For Ferguson, bewildered with grief and confusion, Skyrim was a place he was able to visit in order to be anchored. It might seem strange that someone might choose to find their feet in a place that doesn’t exist. But when reality has let you down with an event of colossal indifference and capriciousness, the reliable rules and outcomes of a video game become all the more inviting... Literature is able to remove use from our own lives and focus on the hopes, dreams, and conflicts of another. But only a video game gives us the sense of being in control, of being the author of our destiny.

Death by Video Game is an exceptional examination of an industry that, even after several decades of technological and creative progress, in addition to staggering financial growth, is still easily dismissed by too many outside parties. Parkin excels at combining in-depth, unflinching journalism with smart prose to ensure that even readers who aren’t personally invested in his topics are still highly involved in and informed about them. Without a doubt, his greatest strength here is presenting everything as unbiasedly and professionally as possible so that his audience is free to make up their own minds about the pros and cons of the medium. Because of that, Death by Video Game is a must read not only for gamers, but for anyone interested in learning about well researched and supported argumentation.

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