In April 1982 a young man walked into Friar Tuck’s Game Room in Illinois and began playing an arcade game called Berzerk. After fifteen minutes of intense button-mashing, he posted a new high score and collapsed. He had suffered a heart attack. One newspaper covered the story with the headline ‘Video Game Death’, the first instance of a game (digital, computer or video – the prefix varies) being publicly labelled as a health risk.
The Berzerk incident would not be isolated one. Three Taiwanese men died in 2012 at gaming cafes, establishments that stay open around the clock and provide reliable, fast internet connections for avid gamers. As recently as January 2015, two more men died gaming in Taiwanese cafes. As Simon Parkin notes in this precise and fluent study of the phenomenon, which he uses as a means of exploring the wider world of gaming, the ‘death by video games’ story ‘occupies a peculiar place in the modern news cycle’. He is well placed to think and write about games, having spent the last decade building a profile as a highly respected games journalist and commentator. ‘We don’t read of “death by cinema”, “death by literature” or “death by crossword”,’ he writes, ‘even though humans must surely have died while engaged in any of these mostly inactive pursuits.’ So Parkin seeks to discover if it is something particular to certain games that prompts players to neglect their health to life-threatening degrees. In doing so, he becomes a guide to the diverse worlds – geographical and metaphorical – that games occupy and the incredible range of complicated emotions they elicit from players.