Play Time

What hap­pens when we lose track of our­selves and put too much into play­ing videogames? Chronoslip – and po­ten­tially fa­tal con­se­quences


Chen Rong-Yu died in two places at once.

At 10pm on Tues­day, Jan­uary 31, 2012, the 23-year-old took a seat in the far­thest cor­ner of an In­ter­net café on the out­skirts of New Taipei City, Tai­wan. He lit a cig­a­rette and logged into an online videogame. He played al­most con­tin­u­ously for 23 hours, stop­ping oc­ca­sion­ally only to rest his head on the ta­ble in front of his mon­i­tor and sleep for a lit­tle while. Each time that he woke he picked up his game where he’d left off. Then, one time, he did not raise his head. It was nine hours be­fore a mem­ber of the café’s staff tried to rouse the mo­tion­less man, in or­der to tell him that his time was up, only to find his body stiff and cold.

Chen Rong-Yu died in two places at once. Not in the sense that dur­ing those fi­nal mo­ments his mind drifted to another place (the land­scape of some com­fort­ing mem­ory where he might be soothed or cheered, for ex­am­ple). Rather, when Rong-Yu’s heart failed, he si­mul­ta­ne­ously de­parted two re­al­i­ties.

He died there in the Tai­wanese café, with its peel­ing paint and cloy­ing heat. And he died in Sum­moner’s Rift, a for­est blan­keted by per­pet­ual gloom. Sum­moner’s Rift has the ap­pear­ance of a re­mote, un­vis­ited place, but each day it is fre­quented by hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple, play­ers of the online videogame League Of Le­gends, ar­guably the most pop­u­lar online videogame in the world. Sum­moner’s Rift is the pitch on which they do bat­tle.

Rong-Yu had died here many times be­fore. He had been speared, in­cin­er­ated, or oth­er­wise oblit­er­ated by ri­vals as he scram­bled through its thick­ets and across its river in an end­lessly re­peat­ing game of ter­ri­to­rial war­fare.

Many games are metaphors for war­fare. The team sports – football, hockey, rugby and so on – are ram­bling bat­tles in which at­tack­ers and de­fend­ers, led by their cap­tains, ebb and flow up and down the field in a clash of will and power. Amer­i­can football is a se­ries of fran­tic First World War-style scram­bles for ter­ri­tory mea­sured in ten-yard in­cre­ments. Ten­nis is a pis­tol duel: squint­ing shots lined up in the glare of a high-noon sun. Run­ning races are break­neck chases be­tween preda­tor and prey. Box­ing doesn’t even bother with the metaphor: it’s a plain old fist­fight end­ing in blood and bruise.

So it is with League Of Le­gends, a game in which two teams at­tempt to over­whelm one another. In war­fare, real or sym­bolic, there are in­evitable ca­su­al­ties. To date, Rong-Yu’s deaths in the vir­tual for­est had been sym­bolic and tem­po­rary, like the top­pling of a pawn from a chess­board, a grief­less death, easily un­done. That night, how­ever, his vir­tual death was mir­rored in re­al­ity. It was true and fi­nal.

When the paramedics lifted Rong-Yu from his chair, his ric­tus hands re­mained in place, as if clawed atop an in­vis­i­ble mouse and key­board. Like the pulp de­tec­tive thriller in which the life­less hand points to­wards some cru­cial clue, Rong-Yu’s fi­nal pose ap­peared to in­crim­i­nate his killer.

Yu’s story is un­usual, but not unique. On July 13, 2012, another young man, 19-year-old Chuang Cheng Feng, was found dead in his chair at a dif­fer­ent Tai­wanese In­ter­net café. Feng, a five-foot-five taek­wondo cham­pion, had set­tled down to play the online game Di­ablo III af­ter a friend he was sup­posed to meet failed to show up. He played the game to pass the time: ten hours of un­in­ter­rupted quest­ing. Then, mind hazed by the room’s thick cig­a­rette smoke and eyes sting­ing from the mon­i­tor’s flicks and throbs, he de­cided to step out­side for some fresh air.

Feng stood, took three steps then stum­bled and col­lapsed, his mouth foam­ing. He too was pro­nounced dead at the scene.

There are oth­ers. In Fe­bru­ary 2011 a 30-year-old Chi­nese man died at an In­ter­net café on the out­skirts of Bei­jing af­ter play­ing an online game for three days straight. On Septem­ber 2, 2012, a 48-year-old man named Liu died in Kaoh­si­ung City fol­low­ing a seven-hour stint at the con­troller. His was the third game-re­lated death of the year recorded in Tai­wan.

In 2015, the deaths came sooner. On Jan­uary 1, a 38-year-old man was found dead at an In­ter­net café in Taipei, ap­par­ently af­ter play­ing videogames for five days straight. A week later another: a 32-year-old man, known as Hsieh, en­tered a café in Kaoh­si­ung on Jan­uary 6. Two days later em­ploy­ees found him slumped on the desk at which he’d been play­ing an online game. He was pro­nounced dead on ar­rival at the hos­pi­tal.

In May 2015 a man in He­fei, the largest city in the An­hui province of China, re­port­edly col­lapsed af­ter play­ing a game for 14 days straight. When the paramedics ar­rived, one news­pa­per re­ported him as say­ing, “Leave me alone. Just put me back in my chair. I want to keep play­ing.”

The deaths aren’t lim­ited to South­east Asia, and they aren’t only con­tem­po­rary.

In April 1982 an 18-year-old Amer­i­can man, Peter Burkowski, walked into Friar Tuck’s Game Room, a pop­u­lar videogame 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. Burkowski was a top stu­dent who hoped to be­come a doc­tor. He also had a tal­ent for ar­cade games. 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 next day, one news­pa­per head­line read, ‘Video Game Death’, the ear­li­est re­port of its kind. Sim­i­lar in­ci­dents have con­tin­ued through the years.

In July 2011 a young Bri­tish player named Chris Stan­i­forth died from a blood clot fol­low­ing a pro­longed ses­sion at his Xbox 360.

“When Chris got into a game, he could play it for hours on end,” Stan­i­forth’s fa­ther told re­porters at the time. “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.”

Stan­i­forth’s fa­ther ab­solved Mi­crosoft, Xbox’s


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