"When it comes to probing questions about their intimate life as computer-game players, most people don't have much to say," writes Michael W. Clune in his absorbing new memoir Gamelife. "They have never thought about it. Or they have repressed it. Or they have forgotten. Or they're embarrassed. Society has convinced them that computer games are a trivial pastime and there's no reason to think about them."
Clune, now a professor of English at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, has given deep thought to the role that PC games played in his childhood. You might be able to suss out his age by the dated phrase "computer games", which he uses throughout Gamelife. The book is "at once an affecting memoir of a lonely midwestern childhood in the 1980s and an argumentative essay on how video games work and what they can mean", as Gabriel Winslow-Yost put it in the New York Review of Books.
(Video games in the New York Review of Books? Well, Winslow-Yost wrote a terrific review of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games three years ago; it's now behind a paywall.)
Clune quit playing video games for almost three years in the early 2000s, while he was in graduate school. "My professors and so-called friends had broken me," he writes in Gamelife. "But they did manage to plant an irrational fear of computer games in my head. A superstitious fear that computer games were sucking my life dry instead of nourishing it. Deadening my brain instead of illuminating it."
He was lured back by the sight of the first Call of Duty in a Best Buy. He now plays games for one to three hours every day, he says. He's currently playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. I interviewed Clune about his book and his experiences with video games for my podcast, Shall We Play a Game?
"I would say that the decision to put down games was one of the worst I've ever made," Clune said. "It was based on an idea that I've thought a lot about. I don't write a lot about it in the book. It was based on the idea that my relationship to gaming might be addictive, in the way that my relationship to drugs was addictive. And I kind of bought that reasoning for a while."
Clune's previous memoir, White Out, was about his addiction to heroin in his 20s.
"My relationship to games is actually the opposite of my relationship to addictive drugs," he said. "With drugs, I was continually obsessed with the first time I ever used. I was always trying to get back to that place. It was just like a rat race. And it left my life enormously empty, in that I was always trying to get something that I could never actually have. And it led to compulsivity and all of these negative consequences.
"Gaming has a different structure for me. Instead of being this amazing first time that I'm trying to get to, the first time I learn to play a game is actually very awkward and uncomfortable and difficult to learn. And once I've mastered that, I'm able to enter this new world. And the process of entering a new world, and feeling my way around this new space, is to my mind a really enriching activity. And it makes use of cognitive capabilities that were not at all in use in addiction."
In Gamelife, video games give Clune "a new direction go grow" as a child, away from people rather than toward them. He writes about seven different games: Suspended, The Bard's Tale II, Ultima III, Wolfenstein, Elite, Pirates!, and Might and Magic II. They give him new imaginary (yet also solid and numerical) vistas to escape into, new ways of seeing the world. He describes the screenshots on the back of boxes on the shelves at the mall store Babbage's as the "new eyes" he will be given when he plays a game.
"The cover image is a representation of the game," he writes. "They never show the game on the front of the box. The game isn't made to be looked at. The game is a way of looking. A way of moving."
Gamelife is not filled with unmitigated praise for video games. As a child, Clune hated Super Mario Bros., perhaps out of resentment for being given a Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas instead of his desired gift, Elite.
"This is child labour, I thought as I smashed Mario's head against a brick again and again and again and again for gold coins," he writes. "One single coin a smash. Didn't anyone at Nintendo ever think to use a number? Like, hit this brick once and get thirty coins? Hit this brick and the number 30 floats up with the coins?"
He later adds, "Nintendo is for people who can't count past one, I thought." And these are perhaps the meanest sentences in Gamelife: "Computer games distill the spiritual essence of time and space. Nintendo is spiritual cancer."
Gamelife is layered with small insights about the ways that video games shaped Clune as a child and as a man. Many are direct, like this one: "Everything that happens in a computer game happens ten thousand times," he writes. "Because computer games mimic habit, they get through to us. They teach us about the big things in a way nothing else can. They teach us about death, about character, about fate, about action and identity. They turn insights into habits."
Yet many others are indirect, expressed through the juxtaposition of the time he spent playing a video game with a childhood memory of playing outside with a friend, or watching a classmate get bullied, or trying and failing to find someone to play Dungeons & Dragons with.
"We're the first generation that had this technology shape our imaginative lives from a very early age," Clune said to me on Shall We Play a Game? (I, too, am 40.) "That's definitely what I'm writing about. It's a technologically shaped childhood development, in a more intensive way than earlier generations, which had TV or movies or radio, because of the interactive element that games have.
"And all the different elements that got woven into my childhood imagination through the funnel of those games — the numbers, the maps, the 2D and then the early halfway 3D with wireframe graphics and so forth — this extended my senses in a way that I think our parents' generation couldn't really relate to, or even maybe people that are five or 10 years older than us."
The book is, in part, "about what games can teach literature," Clune said.
"People want to dismiss games," he said. "People want to dismiss them as trivial activities, or addictive activities, or whatever. I'm just making a very serious case that thinking seriously about our lives as gamers is as important for our generation and younger generations as thinking about our relationships with other people. I don't think it is emptier or more debased than our other kinds of relationships."
Even many video game players argue that video games are not worthy of serious thought, Clune said.
"All they will talk about is the surface of the games, the details of the games themselves, which are really important," he said. "But they will be really shy or reticent, and unreflective, about their own experience, how this affects their lives, how it fits into other parts of their lives, how it illuminates parts of their lives. And I was like that too, until I started writing this book. I want to encourage people like myself, and hopefully give people a vocabulary for describing the part of our lives that we spend with games."