Virtual obsessions prove fruitful
Why do humans play video games? Viewed from a remove, they can seem like little more than merit-less timewasters. This can be true even for those embedded in the culture, such as British journalist Simon Parkin, whose first book, Death by Video Game, explores this question at length and from a variety of engrossing angles.
“In humanity’s ongoing project of survival and propagation, video games seemingly contribute little,” he notes in the introduction. Yet there are compelling depths to the virtual worlds that we can explore with keyboard, mouse, controller and smartphone screen. Indeed, as the title suggests, a spate of young gamers have been so smitten by these worlds in recent years that they have been found dead at the keyboard after extended periods of play.
“But we’re not going to linger with the corpses,” Parkin writes. “The more pressing question is what compelled these young people to emigrate from reality into their virtual dimensions beyond the natural limits of their wellbeing?” It’s a good question, and Death by Video Game splits the answer into a dozen chapters, with titles such as Belonging, Empathy, Healing and Chronoslip, the last being a term coined to describe the common experience of losing track of time after becoming immersed in a game.
Parkin’s journalistic approach to the topic sees him uncovering an array of untold stories wherein humans choose to interface with games, to their benefit or detriment. Importantly, however, he does not remain an impassive observer throughout the narrative: the author occasionally interjects with personal stories, such as how he and his university friends regularly took part in marathon late-night sessions of the 1997 Nintendo 64 game GoldenEye 007, or how he came home one evening to find his wife still sitting on the floor and playing Animal Crossing in the exact same position as when he left hours earlier. “She turned her head stiffly, eyes hooded, as if awakening from a coma,” he writes. “‘ Whoa,’ she said. ‘I am cold and hungry.’ ”
The best of these personal interjections is saved for chapter eight, Hiding Place, which tells two stories of people using games to escape troubling personal circumstances: first, a man whose wife suffers a painful complication in her pregnancy, so the pair escapes into the cold, grim world of Skyrim as a temporary coping mechanism; and an Iraqi teenager who becomes one of the world’s top Battlefield 3 players, which is ironic as it’s an American-centric war shooter title primarily aimed at Western audiences.
In the midst of these two affecting stories, Parkin offers: “I remember when, as a teenager, my parents first separated. I too found routine and direction in a video game (mine was Final Fantasy VII) when the framework of my life seemed to be collapsing.”
Passages such as this point to the remarkable strength of Parkin’s style, which is energised by empathy alongside his ability to craft an engaging human story. After all, at the heart of every video game is human endeavour and all its successes and failures; the code is dreamed up by human brains and typed by human fingers, all for the enjoyment of other humans.
The question of why many millions of us choose to engage in this behaviour is deceptively complex, and in Death by Video Game Parkin skilfully analyses it in an accessible yet deeply considered manner. This fine book is a mustread for those who play games as well as those who seek to understand the attraction that this form of play holds for others — such as parents bemused by their child’s immersion in the popular world of Minecraft, perhaps.
Far more personal, but rooted in similar soil, is Michael W. Clune’s second memoir, Gamelife, which explores his life between the ages of seven and 13 as he discovers computer games and swiftly becomes consumed by them. This is a fascinating book to contrast with Death by Video Game, as Clune’s work is an immersive tale of obsession from the virtual frontline.
The narrow focus of this title seems to be quite a departure from Clune’s first memoir, White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin (2013), which I have not yet read. It’s a curious stylistic decision for this middle-aged author to return to his childhood love of computers and textbased games — especially after writing about his experiences with the adult realm of illicit drugs — but it works very well.
I assume that significant creative licence has been taken with the reconstructed dialogue and scenes that Clune sets out across seven lengthy chapters — how many adults can reliably recall specific details of their early existence? — yet once this narrative conceit is accepted, Gamelife is an engaging and enjoyable read. The author addresses this matter head-on early in the piece, when he writes of manually copying commands from a game manual line by line: No one remembers the first time they saw their mother. No one remembers the moment they first recognized that the thing in the mirror is me. But the generation of humans who were approximately seven years old when PC games first became widely available, we remember the first time we did something methodical.
The details are where this story sings, and Clune has a fine eye for the awkwardness of growing up as an unathletic child who frequently experiences social isolation. His sense of humour shines through, too: during a middle school basketball game, he writes of fantasising about taking a shot and “missing the basket by so much that the ball simply disappeared”. Later, he observes that 13 is “an awkward age. At 11 you want candy. At 15 you want beer. At 13 you want stolen candy.”
At the heart of the narrative are computer games, around which the young Clune’s life re- volves. When he has access to them, he is thrilled by the seemingly infinite possibilities and challenges they offer his still-developing mind; when they are taken away from him, usually by his overbearingly religious mother he and dreams up schemes to obtain them.
The story takes a sharp, brief turn into Clune’s adult life around the halfway point, where he draws a line between an early experience with the primitive Nazi shooter Beyond Castle Wolfenstein in 1987 and his decision to invest months in playing its sequel, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, in late 2001, ostensibly while studying for a PhD. He then recounts the tale of becoming consumed by another World War II shooter, Call of Duty, in 2004, despite the warnings of his friends and professors.
“They did manage to plant an irrational fear that computer games were sucking my life dry instead of nourishing it,” he writes. “Deadening my brain instead of illuminating it. Burying facts under fiction. Life under fantasy.” Clune argues otherwise, of course; Gamelife is itself an impassioned argument that playing games improved his life rather than ruining it. (He notes, however, that soon after he returned to the virtual battlefield in 2004, his girlfriend left him.)
A clear thinker and a skilled writer, Clune has thought deeply about why we play games, and he has come up with some worthy answers. “They teach us about the big things in a way nothing else can,” he writes. “They teach us about death, about character, about fate, about action and identity.”
To his credit, the author shows rather than tells, and to pull these pithy quotes out of context does him something of a disservice.
Clune is concerned with much more than simply reminiscing about the part games played in his young life, however. Much of the narrative drive comes from his attempts to find and define his identity as a boy, and some of the most compelling scenes are those that describe his attempts to win and maintain friendships with a fickle collection of similarly aged boys who rarely want anything to do with games.
Set in the 1980s, the simplistic titles Clune first played — Suspended, Elite and Pirates! among them — have long since been superseded by the immersive, graphics-intensive worlds with which Parkin is largely concerned, yet the details that he wrings out of his young memory are rich and illustrative.
The excellent work of both authors here should be more than enough to convince the average reader that the longstanding view of video games as little more than merit-less timewasters is both outdated and ill-informed.
is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist and author of Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs.
Screenshot from a recent version of Call of Duty, a game that consumed Michael W. Clune a decade ago