“I couldn't believe what had happened to my son,” says David Staniforth. David’s talking about his son Chris. He was 20 when he died last year, in the UK.
It’s the kind of quote we might skim over. Another freak death/urban legend about a gamer who spent too long in front of a screen. It’s really not.
Research is starting to show that as gamers we are all increasingly at risk from a very real, deadly and yet easily-preventable medical condition, one that is likely to seriously impact our generation.
Our goal in writing about this isn’t to sensationalise. We just want to talk about it, raise awareness, and hopefully, help you to stay healthy.
Although reports of sudden death of gamers stretch back almost a decade, most originate in Asia and have been given little in the way of analysis or even visibility in the English-speaking media. That's allowed gamers to ignore stories that aren't much more than footnotes. A rare exception occurred in February of this year, with the death of 23-year-old Taiwanese gamer Chen Rong-yu providing concrete (and disturbing) proof that people really were dying while playing video games.
Chen died after playing for more than twenty hours. Not long after, low-quality photos of his body (which we won’t reproduce here), which had sat undisturbed for so long that his limbs had locked in rigor mortis, were circulated in some of the seedier corners of the internet. Like many others, Chen’s cause of death was attributed to cardiac arrest; i.e. the failure of the heart to effectively circulate the blood, and Chen’s autopsy showed that this was due to blood clots seriously impeding his circulation.
It’s understandable if many Western gamers took these stories with a pinch of salt. They don't feel quite real.
In July 2011 the first such sudden death directly attributed to video games was reported in the UK. 20-year-old gamer Chris Staniforth died the morning after an all-night gaming session. He’d been playing Halo Reach online. After telling a friend he had experienced chest pains and shortness of breath the night before, Chris collapsed in the street. Attempts to resuscitate him were unsuccessful.
As well as being a keen gamer, Chris was a bright, social and busy young man who held a student job, played in a band and had just been accepted to study Games Design at Leicester University. His death came as a shock. “I couldn't believe what had happened to my son,” says his father, David. “He was a very active and lively lad, just a normal kid.”
An autopsy revealed that Chris had died from a pulmonary embolism as a result of deep vein thrombosis. A blood clot (known as a thrombosis), formed in a vein in his leg, travelled through his body and blocked the pulmonary artery between his heart and his lungs, causing cardiac arrest. Such cases are not unknown and can affect almost anyone (tennis champion Serena Williams famously suffered one in 2011), but they have traditionally been associated with people who are largely immobile. More typical sufferers are elderly patients immobile in hospital beds or passengers crammed on long haul flights, but as David says, “In effect, Chris was flying long haul most nights,” his gaming habits making it much more likely that clots might form.
“In Chris' case it was like a perfect storm,” David explains. “He'd gone out with his friends for a couple of pints of beer, then he'd come home and started drinking bottles of Mountain Dew, which is a high-energy drink, high in caffeine, another thing that makes you dehydrated. Dehydration and immobility, the two things together for an extended period, can cause blood clots.” As friends in the US logged in and joined him, Chris had sat at his console long into the night, going to sleep in the early hours. It’s an experience many of us can relate to.