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ShortRead: Simon Parkin

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The ShortRead of 19 August

Death

Death by Video Game

Author: Simon Parkin

What's the story: Three hours. Maybe four. We can't remember how long our Candy Crush marathon lasted, but it's the power of this sort of addictive gameplay that's up for discussion in Simon Parkin's exploration of the subject. 

A journalist by trade, whose writing has appeared in The New Yorker and The New Statesman, Parkin delves into the light and dark of video game culture, offsetting stories of its negative influences with tales of how it's helped keep kids off the street in war-ravaged areas. 

A read that won't help you beat that Bloodborne boss, but will only further your passion for video games.

Release date: Out now, published by Serpent’s Tail at £12.99 paperback and ebook


Extract

January 2012: A young man is dead and if a video game wasn’t the culprit, then it was, at very least, an accessory to the crime. 
 
This wasn’t the first time that a video game was a suspect in a young person’s death. Thirty years earlier, almost to the month, eighteen-year-old Peter Burkowski walked into Friar Tuck’s Game Room in Calumet City, Illinois, posted a high score on the arcade game Berzerk and, moments later, collapsed dead. Since then, fresh reports of ‘death of a video gamer’ (as Burkowski’s story was reported at the time) have been a regular fixture in the news. 
 
With each new story the video-game medium’s reputation sinks lower. No longer is the popular charge merely that video games are a tremendous waste of time (a message that’s been sustained for more than three decades, since games first emigrated from the bellies of esteemed American universities and into the local bars as Pong and Space Invaders cabinets); now they are killers too. Video games apparently take not only our young people’s attention, but also, every now and again, their lives as well. And in our mortal reality, unlike that of the benevolent video game with its interminable supply of lives, there are no second chances.
 
The video game makes for an obvious suspect in these cautionary tales. Look at the player, sat there on the fat couch, motionless apart from the steady twitch of the hands, the unblinking eyes, the occasional grimace. This is not the lung-expanding, cheekcolouring variety of play we find on the playground or football field. It’s not obviously wholesome. No, this appears to be an especially impoverished, depraved form of play, onanistic or, worse still, perhaps, infantile, as the controller’s umbilical-like cord twirls and stretches between the human and the television screen.
 
Video games also destroy time. So too, of course, does a particularly engrossing novel or television drama series, but, unlike those examples, video games demand not only our full attention but, also our full participation. The video game’s appetite for human contact is insatiable and, as such, their detractors see them as little more than an antisocial distraction from reality and all the important stuff of life.
 
If nothing else, as the youngest form of art and entertainment, games are, accordingly, the least trusted. This is their inevitable lot.
 
 
Every new medium encounters similar resistance, a fear (usually generational) of change and its attendant loss, often capitalised on by the media of the time as a subject for easy sensationalism. For example, on 26 August 1858, the San Antonio Texan newspaper printed the following cautionary (although presumably fictional, or at least exaggerated) tale about the dangers of overindulging in novel-reading.
 
A whole family brought to destitution in England, has had all its misfortunes clearly traced by the authorities to an ungovernable passion for novel reading entertained by the wife and mother. The husband was sober and industrious, but his wife was indolent and addicted to reading everything procurable in the way of romance. This led her to utterly neglect her husband, herself and her eight children. One daughter in despair, fled the parental home, and threw herself into the haunts of vice. Another was found by the police chained by the legs to prevent her from following her sister’s example. The house exhibited the most offensive appearance of filth and indigence. In the midst of this pollution, privation and poverty, the cause of it sat reading the last ‘sensation work’ of the season, and refused to allow herself to be disturbed in her entertainment.
 
Indolence, addiction, neglect, vice, filth, pollution and poverty: each noun a gavel strike aimed at the unassuming romance novel. The excerpt is echoed, if not in tone then in purpose, by contemporary newspaper articles decrying the perils of videogame addiction. Stories of video games’ nefarious effects have followed the medium since its inception. In Martin Amis’s nonfiction book Invasion of the Space Invaders we read of Anthony Hill, ‘one of the more spectacular casualties of the bleeping sickness’. (Even Amis, a staunch video-game advocate at the time, employs the language of injury and disease when discussing the video game’s effect on the heart and mind.) Hill was,
according to Amis, an unemployed seventeen-year-old who sold sexual favours to a seventy-four-year-old pastor in exchange for money in order to fund a Space Invaders habit.
 
This was not an isolated report. In the early 1980s police in the south of England claimed that the Space Invader craze had ‘doubled housebreaking figures’. The medium’s apparent absence of virtue was debated in the English Parliament (where Hill’s case was mentioned, although the boy’s identity was not). On 20 May 1981 the Labour MP George Foulkes (now a baron in the House of Lords) proposed a bill for the ‘Control of Space Invaders and Other Electronic Games’ in the House of Commons. The Bill
would have meant arcade and bar owners would require licences or even planning permission in order to install arcade machines for their customers. At the Bill’s proposal, Foulkes said:
 
‘I have seen reports from all over the country of young people becoming so addicted to these machines that they resort to theft, blackmail and vice to obtain money to satisfy their addiction. I use the word “addiction” not in its increasingly common misuse, as being generally fond of something, but in its strictly correct sense of being so attracted to an activity that all normal activity is suspended to carry it out.’
 
If other honourable members didn’t believe Foulkes’s observations, he proposed that they ‘go incognito to an arcade or café in their own areas and see the effect that it is having on young people’. There they would find, he claimed, young people ‘crazed, with eyes glazed, oblivious to everything around them’. He then described the profits arcade machines made as ‘blood money extracted from the weakness of thousands of children’.

(Images: Flickr/Kate Hiscock; Rex)

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