To people like ourselves, the charming allure of video games is something we know too well. We've dedicated days, weeks and perhaps even months of accumulated time to this art form—and we love it. After all, video games can positively improve our cognitive functions or even help us combat depression.
But love for this kind of escapism can potentially lead to an unhealthy form of obsession and damaging antisocial behavior. There have been numerous examples of individuals around the world whose lives were cut short by a fatal attraction to video games, but you'll find that their deaths are more indicative of human nature than the medium itself.
When we talk about addiction, people tend to focus on drugs, alcohol or nicotine. It's not exactly stigma that has brought these three problems to the fore, but rather the numerous support bases in place for these forms of addiction.
However, studies have demonstrated that, if a reward system exists, human beings can become addicted to anything.
Addiction is defined by how external stimuli impact our health and social lives. Therefore, video game addiction can have many things in common with more "traditional addictions," for lack of a better phrase.
In terms of social impacts, sufferers may be prone to moodiness, absenteeism, violent outbursts, relationship problems and monetary instability. Health effects can include anxiety and depression, insomnia, migraines, stress-related disorders and all manner of physical pains.
So when we talk about the death of Hsieh, a 32-year-old man who died from cardiac arrest after playing for three days without stopping in a gaming cafe in Taiwan, it makes more sense to examine the individual rather than the game.
What Do These Deaths Tell Us?
In the example of Hsieh, authorities believed that cold temperatures and over-exhaustion were to blame. An employee of the cafe commented that, "He [had] been unemployed for a long time, and internet cafes were the only place he could go to." Additionally, his family mentioned that "he would disappear for two to three days on end."
These descriptions fall in line with the addictive personality traits that I outlined, such as absenteeism and depression. They paint an image of an isolated and lonely individual who sought refuge in the world of the games he played for hours and even days on end. Rather than succumbing to alcoholism or drug addiction, Hsieh found solace in some of the games that we probably know and play ourselves.
The author of Death By Video Game, Simon Parkin, notes "this story is unusual, but not unique."
For instance, 2012 was a year that saw numerous video game-related deaths. On Tuesday, 31 January 2012, 23-year-old Chen Rong-yu took a seat in a corner of an internet cafe on the outskirts of New Taipei City, Taiwan. He played almost non-stop for 23 hours, occasionally taking a short break to rest his head on the desk in front of him. On one of those occasions, Chen never lifted his head again. He passed away silently in front of the computer.
Another young man of 19, Chuang Cheng-feng, was also found dead in his chair later that year in yet another Taiwanese cafe. He had taken a seat as he waited for the arrival of one of his friends, who never showed up. He played Diablo 3 while he waited for a total of 10 hours without pause. After such time he decided to step outside to relieve himself of the smoke-addled room and glaring monitor. He took three steps before collapsing on the floor.
While the majority of these reports come from South-East Asia, it's important to understand that these deaths are neither limited to this part of the world nor a modern phenomenon.
In April 1982, an 18-year-old American man, Peter Burkowski, walked into Friar Tuck’s Game Room, a popular video-game arcade in Calumet City, Illinois. According to the arcade’s owner, Tom Blankly, Burkowski and a friend arrived at 8.30pm and began playing Berzerk. Within 15 minutes, he’d posted his initials next to two high scores on Berzerk’s leaderboard. Then he took four steps towards an adjacent machine, dropped a quarter into its slot and collapsed, dead from a heart attack. - The Guardian
But while these incidents are labelled as "video game deaths," we need to refocus our attention.
Human Nature & Video Games
I find it fascinating that the father of a young British player, Chris Staniforth, who died following a prolonged session with Halo's multiplayer at a very young age, didn't lash out at Microsoft or Bungie.
“He got sucked in playing Halo online against people from all over the world. I’m not for one minute blaming the manufacturer of Xbox. It isn’t their fault that people use them for so long.” - Chris' father
This man was capable of circumventing stigmas and newspaper agendas by looking past the fact that his son was playing a video game and rather focusing his attention on his own boy's personality. What a remarkable thing to do. Especially when newspaper articles are so quick to throw the words "video game" and "death" into their headlines. No other entertainment source receives the same form of coverage. We don't hear about people dying while listening to MP3s for 20 hours straight, or during a particularly long Netflix binge, so why does it happen with games?
Perhaps it's a form of pandering to the old idea that staring at screens is bad for us. Perhaps it's a form of validation for those who hold the view that their children are wasting their time with this form of escapism that remains alien to a generation. New forms of media are always quick to be targeted.
But this bias clouds the truth. It obscures the images of people who were either unaware of their own limitations, or driven to gaming cafes by a sense of isolation, depression or addiction.
Gamers, of all people, are in the best position to understand the benefits of this art form. It explores ideas in an inherently unique way, challenges in a manner that no other medium can replicate and in many instances can connect us with like-minded people with whom we can form long-lasting bonds. Stories of gamers dying at their keyboards highlight how our very nature can be destructive if we seek extensive periods of respite from our daily lives. We must look at these people and attempt to understand why they've pushed their bodies so hard and how we can help others who may suffer the same fate, rather than pointing a finger at everyone's favorite entertainment enemy: video games.