Death of a Video Gamer

The following article from Video Games, October 1982, pp. 14-15, documents the first known death attributed to playing video games.

Peter Burkowski had not been drinking when he arrived at Friar Tuck's Game Room in Calumet City, Illinois. He hadn't been using drugs either. According to the owner of Friar Tuck's, Peter and a friend walked in about 8:30 p.m. Saturday, April 3, and went straight to the games. Peter was eighteen, likeable, and apparently healthy. An "A" student, he had plans to become a doctor someday. Peter was also good with the games. In fifteen minutes of play, he wrote his initials at least twice in the "Top Ten" on the Berzerk screen. Then, tired of that game, he turned, took about four steps, dropped his quarter into a second machine, and collapsed. By 9 p.m. Peter was dead. The cause: heart attack.

The next day, one newspaper headline read, "Video Game Death." Was Peter, indeed, a casualty of the games? "Yes and no," says Mark Allen, Lake County's deputy coroner. Though the autopsy found unsuspected scar tissue on Peter's heart that was at least two weeks old, Allen believes, it's possible that the stress of the games triggered the attack in Peter's weakened heart.

"We certainly don't want to scare people away from video games," Allen explains. "Peter could have died in a number of stressful situations. 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, but it's also quite interesting."

After Peter's death, camera crews descended upon Friar Tuck's, filming the games (especially Berzerk) and interviewing players. "I don't like this kind of publicity," says the owner, Tom Blankly. "Peter's heart had a time bomb in it that just happened to go off here. I expected it to hurt business, but if anything, business has been up."

Profits aside, it turns out that video game playing is a lot more stressful than most people think. Next time you're in an arcade, take a few moments to watch the other players. Notice the twitches of concentration, the way some players' hands and feet shiver in excitement. Often, they pound the machines as if they were battling real invaders.

More than five years ago, cardiologist Robert S. Eliot, M.D. at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, noticed that same behavior in Pong players. Realizing that video games could be used in the lab to create the same stresses his cardiac patients face outside, he began monitoring the patients while they played the games. His findings (Eliot has charted over 1000 patients) are nothing less than startling. "We have had heart rate increases of 60 beats per minute and blood pressures as high as 220 within one minute of starting a computer game. It happens quite a lot but the patients have no awareness.

According to Dr. Eliot, one out of three people have dramatic physiological reactions to mental stress. While not enough data has been compiled to determine whether video games are dangerous for these people, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that too much stress is connected to heart disease and hypertension. At this point, Dr. Eliot, who is being consulted on the case of Peter Burkowski, has no comment.

In any event, if you play the games to relax after a long day, think again. If you're a cardiac patient, you might want to stay at the bar. In Dr. Eliot's lab, he stops the game when a patient's blood pressure gets too high. Unfortunately, Peter Burkowski was never given this advice.

--Stephen Kiesling

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Lee K. Seitz (
Created: 25 Aug 1998; Last Modified: 25 Aug 1998