Cover of book: Death by Video Game

Simon Parkin
Death by Video Game

In Death by Video Game Simon Parkin quotes Scientific American warning about a type of game that is particularly dangerous on account of the obsessive practice necessary for proficiency; according to the magazine, it leaves players mentally depleted and neglectful of work and study. The game: chess. That article appeared in 1859. A century-and-a-half later, with a string of reports of players dying at their consoles, video games stand accused of similar crimes and worse. Parkin, an award-winning English cultural journalist, acknowledges that “We consume a book, but a game consumes us.” And yet, he also persuasively demonstrates that to millions of dedicated gamers around the world, video games are also places of refuge, exploration, self-discovery and belonging, even healing.

Parkin, himself an avid gamer, writes about the complex world of video games with insight, elegance and sympathy while confronting such disturbing issues as the virulent misogyny of “Gamergate” and the problematic social and political agendas of some popular games. He notes that as virtual worlds replicate the world we live in with greater fidelity, both in terms of aesthetics and via technological advances such as motion control and virtual reality, “the moral duty of game makers arguably intensifies in kind”. And yet to reduce the video game world to a cluster of negative clichés is to miss all that is good, even great, about it as well.

If some games allow, even force, players to assume the role of killer, others encourage the exercise of curiosity and creativity – and foster empathy as well. That Dragon, Cancer, created by the father of a child with cancer, invites others to walk in his shoes. There are cathartic games about coming out, or dealing with an abusive parent, that take a less literal but no less affecting approach: in one, an alcoholic father is represented by a giant who becomes a monster every time he licks a frog. Others have radical or educational agendas: exploring life below the poverty line or promoting the oral traditions of the Iñupiat people of Alaska, for example.

Video games “cast light on our world”. But, as Parkin observes, they boast something that our world lacks: structural fairness. Each action has a predictable consequence. Do well, go up a level, thrive, survive; mess up, and pay the penalty. Life is not so fair. It is in that disjuncture that both their appeal and danger lie.  CG

Allen & Unwin, 288pp, $27.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 24, 2015 as "Simon Parkin, Death by Video Game ".

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