Wednesday, September 28, 2016
Video Games have been around for forty years or so -- depending on whether you count from Spacewar! or Pong or earlier, even quirkier things -- and they're solidly into Category Three. (Oh, sure, they still get the odd bible-thumper attack or concerned-mother tsk-tsk, but so do rock music and movies and D&D and horror novels. Anything younger than opera gets that.) So there has been a thread of smart books about video games going back twenty years or so -- the last one I remember seeing personally was Tom Bissell's Extra Lives, a few years back, but there have been plenty of others. (If I ever write one, I'm claiming Anything Not Saved Will Be Lost as my title. So everyone else keep off.)
Simon Parkin's Death by Video Game is solidly a Category Three book; Parkin is a serious reporter who has been covering video games for most of the past decade, and he's interested about their stories -- the stories in the games themselves, and the stories of the people who play them (why, and how, with who, and when -- all of the usual reporter questions). Death doesn't acknowledge any prior publication, but it's a book of parts, so I have my suspicions that parts of it are based on his prior stories, or at least grew out of those stories.
The hook is Chen Rong-Yu, who died in an internet cafe in New Taipei City in early 2012 after a twenty-three hour League of Legends session. That's where Pakin begins, and the first chapter looks at other cases of "death by video game" -- mostly, these days, young people in Asian internet cafes after multiple days online, but not entirely. But Parkin irises out quickly from there: he's not looking to find out why these people died (heart failure and similar things -- congenital conditions aggravated by stress and bad air and all that stuff) but to look at what they were doing and why. What was so enticing that they could die doing it?
Each chapter looks at a different way of gaming, or of thinking about games -- not according to the usual taxonomy, but based on how the gamers interact with the game (and, probably as much, on what Parkin has already seen and done and played and reported on). So he looks at Minecraft and Desert Bus, Animal Crossing and Papers, Please, Skyrim and That Dragon, Cancer -- but his stories are all about the people playing those game, from the guy obsessively running through Skyrim to heal after his wife's miscarriage to the vlogger trying to get to the end of the world in Minecraft, from the Iraqi teenager playing Battlefield 3 levels set in his hometown to the Alaskan native community saving their oral tradition in the game Never Alone.
It does read a bit like a collection of articles on a loose theme -- that theme being that video games are interesting and can illuminate complicated or difficult elements of life -- but each chapter is a strong essay on a carefully constructed view of a particular slice of the video game world. Parkin does interview some designers and creators, but this is not a book about making games. It's about playing games, and what the games we play say about us -- or about how we can use games to do things we need to do, to connect to others, to get through our days.
It's about how games are art, in the end. Because those are the ways that people use other art forms -- paintings or novels or movies or musicals -- to process their own lives. Games, though, are interactive in ways other forms aren't. (Every artform has its specific powers and strengths; this is where gaming stands out.) And Parkin is particularly interested -- and interesting -- in looking at that aspect, at seeing the things that games can do that other artforms can't do in the same ways, and the things that games bring to the front because of that core element of player choice.
Death by Video Game is almost certainly the best book on video games to come out this year. (Maybe this half-decade.) If it's an artform you care about at all -- or if you're interested in the questions of how artforms grow and expand into their full powers -- it's a vital, exciting book to read.