Are video games bad for you? Could they even kill you? That's the kind of rhetoric we're accustomed to hearing from cable television, not from one of the best journalists and critics who writes about games. Simon Parkin's terrific new book, Death by Video Game, ends on just that note, however. "No, video games won't save you -- they might even kill you -- and the jury is still very much out as to whether they improve or imperil the world," Parkin writes in his book's final chapter.
I called Parkin and asked him about this ambivalence toward games -- given that he writes about them for places like The New Yorker, the Guardian, Eurogamer, and, on occasion, Kotaku -- for the latest episode of Shall We Play a Game?, the podcast I co-host.
"Once I started having to opportunity to write about video games for an audience that traditionally doesn't care about video games and thinks they're a waste of time -- all the clichés -- the tendency is to go, 'Hey guys! Video games are great! You guys should really take notice!' And to slip into this advocacy role," he said. "Whereas when you're writing for people who are very familiar with video games and conversant in them, you allow yourself to be much more nuanced. Or I did, at least.
"That's the wrong approach," he went on. "If we want video games to be taken seriously, then don't pretend that they're all amazing. Because they're not. And we all know that. Loads of them are terrible. Isn't it better, don't you treat the medium with more respect, if you can say, 'Some parts of these video games are incredible, and they moved me, and they taught me about the world, and they taught me about myself. And then some parts of them, I'm really unclear on whether they are any good and whether they help anyone, or whether they actually depress the spirit in some way.' And it's possible to hold those two thoughts at once, if we're adults."
Parkin and I also discussed his decision to write a book that begins and ends with a discussion of why several young men have died during extended video-game binges in Internet cafes in East Asia. Millions of people around the world are playing video games all the time. It seems unexceptional that some people would die while playing them. Couldn't these deaths be coincidental?
"The circumstances in which many of these deaths are taking place are eerily similar," Parkin said. They usually take place in South Korea or Taiwan, in 24-hour Internet cafes, and the victims are usually young men who have been playing a game for an extremely long period, days at a time. "Why are people playing video games for so long, and losing their sense of time in a way that you don't, perhaps, with a book or a crossword, or even with a Netflix season?" he said.
Equally important, he said, is that this urge to lose oneself in a video game is something that all players can recognise, even if it doesn't lead them to amuse themselves to death. "Maybe I didn't play games for 48 hours without sleep in a public place when I was a teenager," he said. "But it's something that I probably would have done, had the opportunity arisen. There's something common in there. Anyone who plays video games can perhaps recognise a part of themselves in that."
Disclosure: I am in the acknowledgments of Death by Video Game because a few paragraphs of an essay by Parkin that I edited, for Medium's New York Review of Video Games, ended up in the book. And as I mentioned earlier, Parkin, who has written about video games for the Guardian, Eurogamer, NewYorker.com, and the Awl, among other places, has also written on occasion for Kotaku.