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