For those of us who grew up in the ’80s, there was a new childhood pastime that was also a harbinger of our future lives as adults: computer games. Leave aside Atari, Nintendo, Sega, and whatever you might find at an arcade. All those hours spent at the keyboard of a Commodore 64 or an Apple IIe, obliterating asteroids, killing pixelated Nazis, hunting for food on the Oregon Trail, or traveling the world in search of Carmen Sandiego: Were they the world’s way of training us to spend our days staring at computer screens? Was any of it really fun?
I was allowed a few floppy disks of this sort in the late 1980s on the family Apple, and staged my share of simulated one-on-one matches between Julius Erving and Larry Bird, as well as statistically determined ahistorical reenactments of baseball games between the 1927 Yankees and 1975 Red Sox, a Boston kid looking to break the curse with his keyboard. The breakthrough for me was a desktop publishing program the name of which I don’t recall — something a little more advanced than Print Shop — that I used to make what I didn’t yet know to call zines. But for Michael W. Clune, author of the new memoir Gamelife, it was computer games that were transformative. They offered him new ways of seeing the world, understanding history, capitalism, even how to make friends. They were a refuge from anxieties about his parents’ divorce and from bullying at school. And they were often total fun. Clune is an English professor, best known for his 2013 memoir of heroin addiction, White Out. Computer games were also something of an addiction for him, but the real subjects of his book are the painful trials of adolescence, suburban solitude, and the slow, abstract process of what now seems a primitive digital self-education.
It’s important to point out that Clune has little love for the classic, console-based video games. The old computer games, in his view, were conceptually more refined than their more visually sophisticated Nintendo counterparts. To Clune, playing Super Mario Brothers — banging your avatar’s head against a wall repeatedly in quest of digital gold coins — often felt crude, like “unpaid labor.” He favored role-playing games, heavy on text and arithmetic, as a way of assuming new identities. Sitting in front of the computer screen, punching four keys (W, A, D, [space]), and moving an avatar through a 2-D landscape gave the young Clune a sense of power he didn’t feel on the school bus, at the playground, or at the family dinner table. It’s a disjunct that’s hard not to recognize and find a little heartbreaking.
Their mapped 2-D worlds sent him into reveries that transformed the landscape of his hometown of Evanston, Illinois. One night walking home, he lets his imagination take over and the world becomes the mapped world of a game:
The map scrolled beneath me. Chunks of road salt along the curb were villages, sprung up along a river. And here, in the center of an indentation left by a big adult boot, was a vast canyon. The canyon floor was patrolled by wolves. An oddly shaped chip of asphalt rose from the center of the footprint. A tripartite ebony tower. It commanded tribute from the river towns. And here was the narrow winter road where a long line of donkeys carried the gold of the towns down into the canyon. A demon lived in the tower.
The green-and-black landscapes of Oregon Trail and the similarly toned mugshots and dossiers of Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego are burned into my brain, but I never played the games Clune devotes most of his attention to — The Bard’s Tale II, Elite, Pirates! — but his voice brings their obsolete rituals alive: Sometimes he sounds like a thriller writer, sometimes an art critic, sometimes a poet. We don’t think of gamers these days as particularly sensitive people (although they do often show signs of bruised egos and hurt feelings), but maybe if more of them wrote prose like Clune’s, we would. His elegiac book joins Tom Bissell’s 2010 Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter as an exemplary work on a subject that once seemed only to yield disasters like Martin Amis’s buried 1982 turkey Invasion of the Space Invaders.
Some of Clune’s theorizing about the insights games offered him as a youth come across a bit unprocessed, more like the notions of prodigious teenager than a distinguished author. He argues that games that pit the player as part of a struggle of good against evil, “a visceral struggle between titanic forces,” are what constitutes total fun, and says the days of these struggles are over:
Now we have the global market. There’s no one for us all to be against, there’s no reason for us to think of ourselves as part of an invincible whole moving irresistably forward against our enemies. History doesn’t make sense. The objective necessity for history is over. History has stopped. And we can find out exactly when it stopped. Because when the fun experts want to make a game that is totally fun, they discover that the closest time period they can set it in is World War II.
Anyone who’s read Paul Fussell’s Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War might disagree with Clune’s Fukuyama-lite, but then again, it can be hard to tell when Clune has his tongue in his cheek.
And in a deeply deadpan way, this is a funny book, with indelible images of schoolyard tribulations. There’s Evan, the Dungeons & Dragons–playing outcast who, when ganged-up on by a bunch of bullies on a basketball court calling him “Devil Dork,” sinks to a crouch and starts hissing to ward them off. There’s the fateful day Michael chose at random where to sit down for lunch on his first day at a new school, and it turned out to be the “smart kids’ table” — it would take him a year to migrate to the cool kids, a gambit that ultimately backfired. There’s Michael’s failed plan to transfer his success at Pirates! into real life social status and middle-school riches, leading a gang of boys on an ill-fated mission to break through a chain-link fence and steal candy from a local Rite-Aid (the lot of them are given two weeks of detention). There’s a moment when Michael as an eighth-grader goes to the boys’ room during class, spends the period trying to work out a game code, and sits quietly in a stall while two other boys smoke a joint by the faucet; he has no clue what they’re doing, but the contact high makes him vomit. Gamelife strikes a balance between these moments and scenes of him entranced for hours in front of the screen. It’s no wonder that the mostly harmless chaos of being an suburban American kid sent so many of us into dark rooms where enough concentration and repetition gave us a sense that once in a while we could win.