Dying to win – Internet gaming and sleeplessness (3/1/11)
An Unnecessary Death
In 1967, Tom Simpson died on the 13th stage of the Tour de France. The superb British cyclist had won considerable fame in his short life, and was expected to join the greats of the sport. The autopsy showed small amounts of amphetamine and metamphetamine, a combination that killed him climbing stony Mt. Ventoux.
It also marked one of the first of the many doping scandals that bedevil professional sports yet. Lance Armstrong stands accused of hair-raising sessions of intravenous drug and blood infusions in hotel bedrooms, while professional baseball has asterisks attached to many of its greatest performances.
Each month new drugs are devised in kitchen labs and elsewhere to beat the standard testing protocols. Athletes take them. Sometimes they win their meets, sometimes they die. But winning athletes are often separated by the smallest of performance measures, and the tiniest change can lead to great fortune as well as immense fame. Why do some internet gamers, who often play in total obscurity, keep playing until they die?
Last week a 24 year old gamer outside Beijing died after gaming in the same spot for 86 straight hours. He had spent about $1500 paying for games the month before, an enormous sum for a Chinese worker. In 2005 Seungseob Lee played 50 hours straight in Taegu, South Korea before collapsing with heart failure. Other young gamers have died in similar circumstances.
There are many ways that Internet Games become addictive. They include:
1. A completely immersive environment – the game morphs into the world.
2. Social interaction. The major stories of addictive behavior generally come from multiplayer games, where many people feel responsible for their own and their peers’ success.
3. A better reality – game results are clear. You win; you lose; you gain rewards. Success can be instantaneous, leading to more rewards and an encroaching sense of power, unusual for some in a time of economic uncertainty and personal chaos.
4. Multi sensory impact – the games include great shifts in noise levels and stunning visuals, requiring constant attention and decision; on the level of the game, life and death stream by in fractions of a second.
5. No closure – games can go on and on; generally there is no final measure of success that cannot somehow be exceeded.
6. Competition – humans are competitive animals, and games provide instant, continual, repetitive feedback that plays to some of the cortex’s deepest sensitivities and responsiveness. In games you can become an actor in a drama determing the future on a mythic or cosmic scale.
And then there’s sleep.
The Strange Effects of Sleep Deprivation
Internet games require machines. Machines do not renew themselves. They’re not organisms. They continue as long as the electricity stays on.
Animals are different. In migration some birds can fly 24 hours a day, day after day. Yet animals cannot exist without rest.
That includes humans.
Rest is how terrestrial life regenerates itself. Sleep deprive any animal in a laboratory and eventually it dies.
Deaths in internet gamers generally involve long bouts of gaming without sleep. Though the final, fatal gaming event may last two or three days, often the players have been playing addictively for weeks or months.
Therein may lie another kind of attraction for long-period gamers. In most people kept up all night against their will, sleep deprivation makes them depressed, anxious, and irritable.
It’s a different story with depressives – and many young people. Many of them feel temporarily higher in mood with sleep deprivation. Often with depressives there is a dramatic improvement in mood – which disappears with even a brief nap.
Young people like to stay up. Some enjoy enthralling performances or social gatherings. Yet not a few also feel a brief euphoria after being up.
Practitioners of strict meditation programs also can experience the strange euphoria that attends some bouts of sleep deprivation. With many hours of enforced meditation, as in Japanese Zen temples, practitioners find that lack of sleep may provide a sense of great well-being. When meditators go days without sleep and food, they often see visions.
Gamers already experience visions playing – right in front of them. Especially in multiplayer games they may stay up many hours to keep playing with colleagues in different time zones and countries.
Sometimes they experience the timelessness of flow. They don’t notice the clock. They don’t notice themselves. They become one with the game.
And they want to keep that feeling going. Here energy beverages play a role. Legal stimulants are abundant – just a few feet away at the internet café’s kiosk. And stimulants can give you a sense that you don’t need to sleep – or eat.
The Public Health and Internet Games
Fortunately, deaths from gaming remain rare. Many times the worst results come not to the gamers but their charges – like the South Korean couple whose infant died while they kept playing infant rearing games in an internet café.
The real dangers may arise when adolescents and young adults become social isolated. They will appear in the combination of sleeplessness, lack of food, and stimulatory medications.
Heart failure generally does not happen to physically healthy teenagers and twenty-something. Yet the euphoria of sleep deprivation can be increased by the addition of energy beverages. And energy beverages, particularly those with high doses of caffeine, can cause arrythmias in perfectly normal hearts.
The heart is more than a pump – it is an exquisitely timed and tuned electrical system. Stimulants can disrupt that system for the briefest periods and cause death.
Tom Simpson died of stimulants at the Tour de France. Now legally available stimulants may cause extreme, unexpected side effects to youthful gamers.
Gamers need reminding that rest is more than regeneration. It’s required to live.
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