It’s inevitable: You’re going to die. I’m sorry to break this to you. I wish it weren’t so.

Death is the one inescapable truth of our existence; no matter what else can be said of us, whatever else we may or may not accomplish, we are all, at some point, going to die. 150,000 people do it each day. That’s more than the population of Topeka, Kansas.

That we’ll die is certain. The only questions are when and how.

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For one South Korean man, a 28-year-old identified by authorities only as “Lee,” the “when” was August 6, 2005. The “how”: He played videogames to death.

“We presume the cause of death was heart failure stemming from exhaustion,” a Taegu provincial police official told Reuters.

For three days Lee played StarCraft in a public computer cafe in Taegu, South Korea. He left his computer only to use the washroom, sleeping nearby on a makeshift bed.

Lee had recently quit his job in order to spend more time playing games, presumably so that he could eventually “go pro” and compete in South Korea’s popular gaming competitions. It was a life choice that would ultimately prove fatal.

Sadly, this case is not an isolated one. Rare, perhaps, but not unique. Three years before Lee’s heart succumbed to the Zerg rush, another Korean gamer, Kim Kyung-jae, shuffled off his mortal coil on the toilet in a gaming cafe in Kwangju. Kim had been playing Mu Online for 86 hours straight. The official cause of death: deep-vein thrombosis.

From PC Gamer:

It’s a horrible condition, for sure. Prolonged inactivity impedes bloodflow around your body, causing clots to form in the deeper veins – usually the legs, but occasionally the arms as well.

Having the clot at all is bad enough, but it can become dislodged and travel through the vein and rest near essential organs such as the lungs, massively increasing the chance of pulmonary embolism.

Kim had apparently collapsed just prior to visiting the toilet, sensing, perhaps, he needed to take a break. Unfortunately that realization dawned far too late to save him. He was 24 years old.

Gaming, it would seem, is a dangerous hobby in Korea. Yet not so dangerous as in Shanghai, where, in 2005, Legends of Mir 3 player Zhu Caoyuan expired after a violent confrontation with his associate and fellow gamer Qiu Chengwei. Cause of death: stabbing.

In February of that year Chengwei acquired a powerful in-game item called a Dragon Sabre. He then loaned the sword to Caoyuan who promptly sold it and pocketed the cash. Chengwei, frustrated by his associate’s betrayal, visited him in person to register a complaint, then stabbed him. Officials called the resulting blow “forceful.”

Chengwei later turned himself in to the police who, he claims, had been alerted to the in-game theft prior to the confrontation but failed to respond. If only Chengwei had lived in South Korea. In 1995, South Korea established a national cyber crime police force, which now spends roughly half its time tracking thefts and other crimes in virtual worlds. China has no such task force. They do, however, have laws against murder. Chengwei is currently serving a life sentence.

Read enough of these stories and Asian gaming culture begins to look a lot like a wasteland of humanity, where hollow-eyed strangers, with little more to lose than their lives, sell their bodies and souls for a few hours of feeling good. Digital junkies cooking virtual meth in an online trailer park. All that’s missing are the starving dogs chained in the yard and the neglected babies dying in their cribs. Wait, scratch that last one. They’ve got those.

“We were thinking of playing for just an hour or two and returning home like usual, but the game took longer that day,” said one of the parents of a South Korean infant who, in 2005, died in her crib after her parents abandoned her for several hours to play World of Warcraft at a gaming cafe. Cause of death: suffocation.

The initial reaction of many Westerners – or perhaps anyone – reading these accounts might justifiably be: “What the hell is wrong with these people?” Professor Mark Griffiths provides a possible explanation:

[These] are not games that you can play for 20 minutes and stop. If you are going to take it seriously, you have to spend time doing it. … They are the types of games that completely engross the player.

So gaming, for some people, is a task so serious as to require vast amounts of time and/or energy and which they take as seriously as some folks take their jobs. Got it.

Griffiths continues: “It does seem to be the case that online gaming addiction for a small minority is a real phenomenon and people suffer the same symptoms as traditional addictions. But the good news,” he says, “is that it is a small minority.”

So they take it seriously and are, perhaps, addicted. Right. But in South Korea it goes a bit deeper than that. In South Korea, as my colleagues writing in this issue of The Escapist have pointed out, gaming isn’t just a seriously addictive hobby, it’s a way of life.

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In 2005 over 30 percent of South Korea’s population played online games, and not just in the “slamming down a few games of Solitaire while watching the clock” way that a third of U.S. citizens play. South Koreans play games the way your 13-year-old cousin plays: hard and fast. And they don’t do it just for fun, either.

From USA Today:

Three cable channels are devoted to broadcasting game matches and a total of 4.5 billion won ($4.4 million) is given out as prize money in competitions each year.

Even the government is embracing electronic sports, or “E-sports,” funding construction of the world’s first e-sports stadium, to be completed by 2008, where online competitions will be displayed on huge screens.

Hong Jin-ho, a 24-year-old professional gamer, earns more than 133 million won ($130,000) a year, living and training with his fellow game team members in an apartment in central Seoul.

In South Korea, where competitive gaming can make you rich and famous, obsessive gaming is the cultural equivalent of street basketball. Young people take up the lifestyle in hopes of making it out of the ghetto and into the spotlight. It’s more than a temporary, fleeting escape from daily life, it’s an escape route to a better life altogether. To get there, you just have to train.

In addition to the e-sports stadium, Korea has put massive amounts of capital into a national high-speed internet connection among the fastest in the world, and since the late ’90s, gaming cafes, called “baangs,” have become as ubiquitous on Korean street corners as Starbucks. According to MSNBC, 64 percent of 5-year-olds in Korea use the internet, and 93 percent of preschoolers suggested they go online just to play games like StarCraft. The country is, in other words, growing gamers the way we grow basketball stars.

“I don’t have any hobbies,” 24-year-old Choi Yeun Sung told Time Magazine. “I just practice as much as I can, so I will improve.”

Choi’s team consists of 20 members who share two apartments in one of Seoul’s upscale housing structures. They train for 12 hours a day, taking only an hour off each for lunch and dinner and playing until 3 A.M.

The team’s coach, sports psychology graduate Ju Hoon, says to make it in pro gaming requires “absolute mind control,” and a willingness to endure near constant pain to pursue the dream. Most gamers don’t have what it takes.

Jun Mung-gyu is one of the ones who washed out. Jun gave up the – there can be no other word for it in this context – sport in 2005 at age 27, citing constant, throbbing headaches and sore shoulders from sitting hunched over his keyboard for 15 hours a day. He now operates a baang in Seoul.

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“You have no life, you only focus on gaming, putting off everything, like getting a haircut,” Jun told USA Today. “I’ve seen people who play games for months, just briefly going home for a change of clothing, taking care of all their eating and sleeping here.”

Jun seems to be describing Lee to a T. Lee’s reasons for playing games until he literally collapsed may not be entirely reasonable, but, in the context of a society where a national gaming obsession is an inevitable by-product of the state’s emphasis on internet connectivity, and where a passion for gaming can be parlayed into a lucrative career, they are certainly understandable. Add in the fact that games, in and of themselves, are enjoyable pastimes, and it’s a wonder more countries don’t have these problems.

Nevermind. It would seem they do. And they learned it from watching us.

Peter Burkowski, the first man ever recorded to have died playing videogames, was a fan of the classic arcade game Berzerk. He was 18 years old, a straight-A student and planned to become a doctor. Instead, he gamed himself to death.

At 8:30 P.M. on April 3, 1982, Burkowski walked into a local videogame arcade in Calumet, Illinois, dropped a quarter into Berzerk and played for 15 minutes. During that time he recorded his initials “at least twice” in the game’s leaderboard. Then he died. Cause of death: heart attack.

“Peter could have died in a number of stressful situations,” said Mark Allen, the Lake County, Illinois, deputy coroner. “We once had a boy who had a heart attack while studying for an exam. It just happened that he died in front of a video game.”

Point being, it could happen to anyone, anywhere. Deep-vein thrombosis, heart attack or even, one supposes, murder. Games are just the catalyst. As responsible as the weather, or what’s playing on the television.

People die all the time. Death is, after all, the one thing we can all be assured we will experience. What makes these gaming deaths remarkable is the fact the deceased all perished doing the thing they truly loved. Of all the ways to die, surely there are worse than gaming.

  • Sky Diving
    In 2004 Steven Hidler died in the United Kingdom while competitively skydiving. Cause of death: massive trauma. Investigators estimate he hit that ground going about 120 miles per hour. The investigation also showed the cords on his parachute had been cut. The jump, while fatal, was also successful in that it put Hidler and his team ahead of the other competitors. Friends and relatives all suggest he died doing what he loved.
  • Boating
    In August of this year, 48 – year-old Wilmington, North Carolina, resident Kenney Whitman died in a boating accident when his aluminum fishing boat struck a dock pylon and launched him and his passengers into the water. Whitman was hit by the boat’s propeller and suffered massive injuries. He was dragged from the water by emergency workers and pronounced dead at the scene. His son told reporters Whitman lived a “fast life” and died “doing what he loved.”
  • Crocodile Hunting
    Steve Irwin, also known as “The Crocodile Hunter,” was killed by a poisonous sting ray while filming a documentary off the coast of Australia. Family, friends and colleagues all suggest he died doing what he loved.
  • Sex
    Among the celebrated entrants to the book of in delicato flagranto morto is, according to an article in the May 1996 issue of Cosmopolitan, Félix François Faure, a 19th-century president of France. Faure died in 1899 in the company of a young woman who, upon discovering he had died, suffered lockjaw and had to be surgically removed from the corpse. There is no doubt President Faure died doing what he loved.
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That we die is not newsworthy, but the manner of our death, along with the date and that of our birth is all that will ever be recorded about most of us. And unless we croak while getting lucky in the workplace or in a gaming cafe, our 15 minutes of fame will be more like 15 seconds, buried six sections under the headlines on the obituary pages.

Can we equate playing videogames to skydiving, boating or sex? Expiring from exhaustion, heart attack or DVT from playing a game for three straight days to accidental death while pursuing a leisure activity? Aren’t the two the same thing? Die in the act of love and you’re a hero. Die playing a game, and you’re a freak. The gaming stigma endures, even in death.

Yet considering the virulence of the gaming obsession in South Korea, what’s remarkable isn’t that they are dying while playing games, but that, considering the odds, more of them aren’t dying while playing games.

According to the latest census information, Americans spend, on average, about four hours a day watching television and up to as much as a quarter of our waking hours. Imagine the headlines in Korea about dead Americans.

Russ Pitts hopes to die in a fiery explosion, after driving over a cliff at a high rate of speed, in a fire engine red Ford Torino. His blog can be found at www.falsegravity.com

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