What is it about video games? The UK spent £2.5bn on them last year, eclipsing any other form of entertainment media. Collectively, more cumulative hours were spent in their company than even the most talked-about box sets. And yet if you take a look through any newspaper's arts section, in many cases they may as well not exist. How can we account for this disparity in critical collateral?
It's this question that sits at the heart of Death by Video Game, Simon Parkin's entertaining meander through the world of this most underappreciated of creative enterprises. Using as his starting point a spate of young Taiwanese men dying during marathon gaming sessions in internet cafes, the author draws on a range of case studies to deliver both a potted history and an impassioned defence of the medium.
As one of the leading voices in video games journalism, Parkin, along with the likes of Christian Donlan and Keith Stuart, has done a huge amount to raise the level of dialogue around the subject, and makes for a genial and erudite guide. Essentially a series of essays, the breadth and scope of the writing makes it clear why his work has featured in publications including The New Yorker.
Unfortunately, this scope is limited by the book existing within the same cultural landscape that Parkin criticises, and so what seems at first glance a Jon Ronson-esque collection of whimsical long-form interviews does, at points, become bogged down in self-justification. It's a problem the author himself is no doubt aware of, taking time to mention the “endless articles and television programmes … that primarily exist to plead the case that games matter”. This is a mainstream publication, and so, seemingly, has to play by the same rules.
We meet a bereaved father whose game about cancer helped him cope with the death of his infant son, and a programmer who worked through his abusive childhood by casting his father as an end-of-level boss. In these more intimate stories, the book excels - Parkin's enthusiasm and compassion shines through. But when he suggests that searching for a secret item in a video game is fuelled by “the same hope that has inspired humans throughout history to search for God”, this enthusiasm is pushed just a little too far.
So while Death By Video Game makes for fascinating reading, it also, in some ways, reflects the problematic attitudes it investigates. Let us hope that Parkin one day write a follow-up in which he doesn't feel as compelled to go on the defensive.