In some respects, the title of Simon Parkin’s latest is something of a misnomer. In case you don’t know, there are people in the world who have died whilst playing videogames. The media has a tendency to over-react (what, you say?! the media?! over-react?! are you sure?!). See! the media says. This is a medium so entrancing, so hypnotic, so compulsive, you might forget to eat/empty your bowels, take a walk [insert life preserving things here]. As if videogames are the movie in Infinite Jest so compulsive that you watch and rewatch until you die. Ah and that’s not all: what about school shooters? What about that Swedish nutbag who shot all of those people? Those people liked videogames too! Therefore videogames are iniquitous and must be stamped out. Relatively early on in proceedings, Parkin shares a tidbit from the 19th century in which some reactionary sort rails against chess. See, he seems to say: new artforms are always greeted by hysteria.
What then follows is a spirited defence of games and gaming. Although you can quickly tell Parkin is a serious gamer, there is also a very genuine note of enquiry in his questioning – as if Parkin himself cannot quite put his finger on what it is that is so exciting about gaming, as if he would like, as much as we would like, to get to the bottom of things. So, after we have touched upon the young men who have expired in various internet cafes playing games non-stop for three days or longer (?!), without really grappling with the why of what happened to them it must be said (perhaps it can’t be grappled with, perhaps it is so culturally specific as to baffle us), Parkin explores chapter by chapter, different elements of the gaming experience: the desire to win and succeed, the search for utopias, worlds that feel better than the one you inhabit, the need to explore and discover, the itch to solve puzzles, the sense of games as containable units in which answers can be found and accomplishments achieved irrespective of social background, the skills that can be honed, the almost taboo-like way in which games offer you skins to slips inside that allow you to kill and maim, amongst other things.
Along the way, there are some great stories (the guy currently making a living walking across Minecraft leaps to mind, as does the sad tale of the man who dealt with the loss of a child by playing Skyrim – until he had worked through his grief and, almost shamefully, deleted all of his game history), and some almost answers to what it is that makes games so compulsive:
‘Interactivity is one of the core features that differentiates games from passive media like film. In a game we play a role. Most of the time, the roles we play in games are roles of power. Space-marine, world class footballer or hero plumber.’
Where Death by Videogame comes into its own, however, is in exploring the ways in which games creators have been and are currently looking at ways to buck the game tradition: using games as war reportage, using games to explore difference, weakness, personal tragedy and ill health. It seemed to this reader, and this is where Parkin’s skill comes to the fore, however much you know, enjoy and participate in gaming, there will be something in Death by Videogame (a) that you recognise (thereby giving you that communal sense of being part of something larger than yourself which so many people seem to like and (b) you didn’t know before (and we all like to learn fun stuff about things we like right?).
Any Cop?: Really enjoyable nonfiction for game fans; although it might be Parkin is largely preaching to the converted – I’m not sure how much mustard he would cut with people who just do not get the whole gaming thing.