SEPTEMBER 20, 2015
I AM ON an airplane reading Michael W. Clune’s Gamelife, a memoir about growing up playing computer games in the 1980s. I’ve just finished eating the smoked salmon and kiwi on the “fruit plate” I was offered by the flight attendant but had initially declined. Just like I had declined to review Gamelife for this publication, initially.
For reasons, too. Michael Clune is an English professor and the author of a previous memoir, White Out, about starting and kicking a heroin habit. The whole scenario just felt too tidy, too pat: Fortyish White Male Professor Falls for Drugs, Video Games. The only thing worse would be Fortyish White Male Professor of Video Games Opines on Fortyish White Male Professor Falling for Drugs, Video Games. But here we are.
Swaddled in my airline seat, I’m feeling both grateful and clever that I changed my mind, because I hadn’t realized a fruit plate would include salmon. I’d probably have called it a “smoked salmon plate,” myself. I’m a little angry, to be honest, that I almost missed out on smoked salmon because the flight attendant offered me a fruit plate instead of a salmon plate. I am not proud of this inner monologue, I realize. There are names for people who think these kinds of thoughts.
Moments like these wrest you from habit. This is my life, I guess. I am a video game critic who has somehow duped the universe into valuing video game criticism enough that I am sitting in first class rejecting-then-accepting fruit-that’s-salmon, waxing haughty about doing a far better writer than me the courtesy of saying so in public. Maybe I was just afraid. That the world of letters might meet the world of bits is the ultimate terror and dream of everyone who is foolish enough to look for a place in both of them.
The day after I declined to write the review you are now reading, the Gamelife galley landed on my desk by unrelated happenstance. The last endorsement on the sell-sheet, by the writer Christine Smallwood, startled me out of my dogmatic slumber:
Before starting Gamelife I had zero interest in computer games and, at best, limited interest in male adolescence. But now I’m very interested in Michael W. Clune. I loved this book.
It was too many patterns converging. Smallwood, you see, writes the book review column for Harper’s, a post previously held by my friend Tom Bissell, another fortyish white male (ex-)professor who happens to be the author of Extra Lives, an excellent book about his love for video games, and how that love intertwines with his love for another white powdered narcotic: cocaine. Sometimes the universe reveals a logic too obvious to ignore.
Great video games and drugs are alike, it turns out, but not in the easy way you’d think they are. Compulsively addictive attention-harvesting games like Candy Crush or Crossy Road, or anesthetizing catharsis-indolence fests like Grand Theft Auto or Batman: Arkham Whatever are sometimes lazily compared to narcotics for the cheap thrills they provide, but that’s not what I’m talking about. “There’ll probably never be anything like it again,” the young Clune’s mall clerk says of the space trading game Elite. To which the older Clune responds, “It’s been twenty-seven years. So far he’s right.” Truly great games dominate us, subject us to pattern. They take over our brains, in the same way drugs do an addict’s. By replacing emotion with pattern. By separating humans from their humanity.
Clune’s memoirs will take over your brain, too, but in the opposite way: they will make you more human, by doubling down on your capacity for empathy, as the best literature tends to do. They will leech compassion from your center and radiate it out though your pores, where you will worry others will see it and stare. These are books you should read if you’re interested in being alive on earth. White or male or no, drug addict or no, gamer or no.
Gamelife is grown-up Michael Clune’s story of early adolescent Michael Clune’s life from roughly 1983 to 1988, as told through his encounters with classic computer games of that era — alongside some other entities, including Catholic school, shopping malls, suburbia, and the Reagan administration. Gamers might like it, but only if they already like language or can agree to try. Ex-gamer Gen Xers will like it because it reminds them of their youth. Anyone who was ever an adolescent has a good chance of liking it, if they can overcome Smallwood’s anti-video game bias. That should be easier for the generation that follows Clune’s (and mine), who likely took computational communion religiously.
In Gamelife, Clune argues that games build an exoskeleton of cool, steady logic around a human world obsessed with warm, weird experience. By “logic” I don’t mean “reason,” by the way, but structure and repetition. Pattern. A way of doing things. If used properly, logic can help stanch experience’s tendency to oversupply sensations — the source of all torments — by explaining them as part of a larger cosmic order.
The young Clune’s experiences are what you’d expect from a boy growing up in 1980s Chicagoland: friendship, freedom, boredom, bewilderment, divorce. Gamelife is structured as a series of recollections of such trials, and each chapter uses a specific game as a way to frame a particular advance in Clune’s trajectory. Infocom’s Suspended allegorizes a universe larger than the one inside a boy, even a boy who attends Catholic school. The open-world plunder of Sid Meier’s Pirates! becomes practice for a middle school theft-and-fence empire. The space trading classic Elite, with its nigh-impossible docking maneuvers, prepares a man for death better than any catechism. The stealth shooter Beyond Castle Wolfenstein helps spur the surprising realization that “nothing has happened in history since World War II.”
In both of his memoirs, Clune’s rhetorical move of choice is aggressive juxtaposition. One scene overlays another, and the two become bound together by common figures. In White Out, for example, a one-armed junkie named Henry transforms into a tree outside Clune’s childhood home in a deft, invisible cross-fade:
There was a tree outside my window. Once it had two main branches. But by the time my memory starts it was Henry-shaped; its missing branch, lost in a storm, anchored it in the ocean of time before memory.
In Gamelife, meanwhile, the game world of Pirates! impinges on Clune’s plans to plunder a drug store near his school in order to monopolize the black market in snacks on campus:
Then we’re buying and selling. Take the money from selling the cherries and buy candy. Take the money from selling the candy and buy cars. Take the money from selling the cars and buy gold. […] People call pirates psychopaths, but it’s not true. They’re businessmen. They’re the ultimate businessmen.
The juxtapositions even criss-cross the two books. Young Clune will finally master theft-and-fleece when the older Clune of White Out finds a way to turn memory into powder. And Clune’s father, the hero of White Out (sort of) becomes the villain of Gamelife (sort of). Collocations like these are the parlor tricks of writing (that’s not an insult), and Clune excels at them. Writing is where the messy universe becomes tidy. Books are where everything pretends to make sense.
Clune knows that logic underlies games in the form of numbers, which do what language cannot: they couple directly to the machinery of the universe rather than mediating it through human-made symbols. “When we use numbers,” Clune writes, “we are borrowing them from someone or something else. Probably numbers belong to the devil.” The world of bits, it turns out, can never really meet the world of letters, and so anxious souls like me who dabble in both have nothing to fear, save for our ultimate failure to grant the two communion.
And here is Gamelife’s great accomplishment: it shows that — like good and evil, or God and the devil — affect and logic, language and number, are fundamental opposites. They repel one another. Or as Clune puts it, “The ancient, primitive mollusk suction-and-release of our orifices gives our words breath and makes our thoughts go. Human feeling leans on the inhuman.” The reverse is also true: the inhuman depends on the disavowal of the human. Four hundred and ninety hit points of damage from a troll in The Bard’s Tale II doesn’t demand human empathy for pain, but a mechanical tolerance for quantization.
The implacable logic of video games, Clune recognizes, actually helps make us more inhuman, a feat that poses an obvious problem for us as humans (and humanists). The inhumanism at the root of game playing is powerful, but it won’t ever stick. Logic’s exoskeleton is fragile. While computer games offer Clune private succor, the lessons he learns from the games he plays in basements during stolen moments never successfully apply to the world of humans. There, affect always supplants logic. The logic of Pirates! can’t really train teenagers to become Medicis. The Bard’s Tale II only caricatures numbers’ awesome power; it doesn’t unleash it. Games connect you with the sublime infinity of the mathematical universe, but they intersect with the real world only in secret and for pretend. Only in your head.
Clune’s memoir, then, shouldn’t be mistaken for a paean to video games. He wants us to understand that some games can open portals between logic and lived experience, but not all games. Clune can’t stand Super Mario Bros., for example, a game played with “controllers that looked like something adults would use for their jobs.” These are games of labor, not of logic: “They should be fucking paying me to do this shit, […] monotonously stuffing Super Mario down chutes and up ladders. This is child labor.” Some games access the cosmic sublime, while others just caricature real life.
Repetition is an obsession of Clune’s, in both books. The thesis of White Out, if memoirs can be said to have theses, is that dope disrupts memory, making every moment the same. This is counterintuitive, because the usual line on drugs holds that they inaugurate a negative feedback loop in which increasingly greater quantities of narcotics are required to produce decreasingly effective highs. This might be true in a biochemical sense, but it’s incidental when it comes to the phenomenology of drug use.
Clune calls heroin addiction a “memory disease.” Memory normally keeps things in the past, but dope disrupts that function. For Clune, each time he takes heroin is “still as new and fresh as the first time.” Doping is pure repetition, the eternal return of the same for no reason other than to repeat itself. This is the bad kind of habit, just like in Super Mario Bros. A memory disease traps you in time, making all moments, past and present, identical. Junkies aren’t just strung out; they’re out of phase with ordinary space-time.
Like many addicts who recover, Clune finally achieves success by fashioning new patterns and systematizing his daily life. He attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings, which help him understand and avoid the simple triggers that lead to relapse, like deliberately thinking about taking the freeway onramp that leads home rather than to the dope spot. Learning to play a video game is like this, in a way; but alas, never more than in a way.
The numbers in computer games that meld fantasy and reality in Gamelife mirror the logics that mediate between sobriety and addiction in White Out. “Sometimes people call drug dependency a habit,” Clune writes in the latter book, but no, it’s really an antihabit: “It isolates you from things, where a real habit marries you to things. […] Habits are like reunion parties for me and my favorite things that happen every day.”
Video games, by contrast, are the ultimate medium of (good) habit, as Clune recognizes in Gamelife:
Most of what computer games do they do through habit. Computer games know that something that happens only once doesn’t mean much to humans. Once-in-a-lifetime events tend to bounce off us. […] Something that happens ten times, a hundred times, a thousand times. That kind of thing gets through to us. That kind of thing matters. Something that happens ten thousand times? It penetrates our innermost layer. It becomes part of us.
Games get through to us because they mimic the structures of our daily lives, in which the things that matter most happen over and over and over. But then, a question: If that’s the way to get through to us, why does it feel so much more edifying to read books like Gamelife or White Out than to play Super Mario Bros. or even Pirates!? Why does it feel like games, even the greatest games, never get through to us as powerfully as great works of literature do?
Clune’s books, properly understood, answer the question. Language always wins in the end, because our dumb skulls can’t really tolerate explanations by the numbers. Numbers just don’t stick to people. We don’t have the patience for numbers. Words: Those are the real narcotics. They attach themselves to our neurons, and won’t let us go.
The flight attendant finally takes my spent fruit-that’s-salmon plate and I reclaim the tray table for my laptop. Words from the final pages of Gamelife are reverberating in my brain. “There’s a warm red heart for people, true. But there’s also another heart. A heart that moves through time. A heart made of the enduring stuff of mountains or stars. Or pixels. Or sky.” Oh, these words, words about numbers that are more than numbers, but also nothing more. I login to the in-flight wi-fi and shoot off a desperate note to Tom Bissell.
“Did you get the galley for Clune’s Gamelife yet?” I ask.
He responds almost immediately. “From three different outlets.” I know that Tom’s resolved not to write about games anymore, but he tells me so again anyway. “Is it any good?” he asks.
“I’m trying to decide what I think,” I respond. “There are some amazing sentences. I mean, ‘The tornado uncoiled harmlessly into the air it was made of.’ Jesus. But…” and then I say some embarrassing things I’m not going to repeat here, or ever.
Time passes. The in-flight wi-fi wavers, then recovers. I sit there in my blue quilted Delta seat. Nothing happens, except I get hurtled through the atmosphere at 530 miles per hour.
“Aren’t amazing sentences enough?” Tom finally responds. And yes, I have to admit: Of course they are. What is a book but a box of sentences? But something’s still bugging me. Maybe it’s that sentences are made of words and not numbers. In literature, the human will always supplant the inhuman. A book about the power of games is almost a practical joke. It shows how inept games are at doing the cultural work its advocates — myself included — ascribe to them.
It turns out that games can get us into habits, but not past them. To get beyond habit, we need language. Habit and affect are opposites. To be affected, we need literature. Perhaps this is why games are so often associated with the asocial or autistic, the medium of those who cannot deliberately embody affect, or at least who cannot master it.
Gamelife is really a book about the incompatibility, rather than the affinity, of game life and human life. A passage on Dungeons & Dragons makes things clear:
The practical problem with Dungeons & Dragons was that you had to find friends to play it with. And even if you had such friends, there was still the basic paradox of fantasy games. The basic paradox is that the very power of a fantasy fused with numbers saps your ability to maintain the social relationships that are the scaffolding that supports the game. Enraptured by the gameworld, you find it hard to remember or care about the qualities that made the people sitting around the table your friends in the first place. Eventually you lose them.
When gamers read Gamelife, and if game enthusiast websites deign to review it, they may allow Clune’s appeals to their nostalgia to lead them astray. They will be flattered that their hobby has been enshrined in lapidary literary prose. See how the formative experience of game playing can lead to so much charm and tenderness! they will opine. But really, it’s not games that have produced this charm and tenderness: it’s Clune’s writing, with its fake-out juxtapositions and crisp sentences that crunch like an apple on a lonely day. Games do the opposite: they stave off affect, holding emotion at bay so that logic can overcome it. Which it does, but then you can never share your accomplishment with anyone. That requires language.
Airplanes are amplifiers of affect. The hum and the recycled air and the isolation and the intimacy put everyone’s feelings on a short leash. This is why people cry so easily in flight. It’s why I’m so full of mixed feelings about Clune’s tribute to video games, which might as well have been a tribute to Catholic school or the Chevrolet Suburban or any of the other apparently incidental rivulets that thread through the toes of a boy who would battle the whiteness of habit to become a dealer not of drugs or numbers but of words.
I set my copy of Gamelife down on the folded-over tray table, intent on using the lavatory, which is occupied. The cover of the book, by the way, is brilliant, done up in the style of a text adventure, with prompts and cursors and responses:
Is this a book
Is this fiction
(Error is another of Clune’s themes. Early in Gamelife, Clune’s Catholic school teacher extols, “To read a book is to create! Without a book reader, the words are just marks! They’re nothing!” To which Clune shouts in response, “Errors!” And she in turn, “Yes, Michael! Yes exactly! A book by itself is an error!” Errors are stains, conditions that don’t cohere in the world of men. The cosmos, by contrast, doesn’t mind.)
I stare at the book for a moment while I’m waiting in my seat for the bathroom to become available, then glance over at the businessman in shirt and tie sitting next to me. He’s been tapping at a spreadsheet or something the whole flight. He even chose to forgo the fruit-that’s-salmon plate. That’s pattern’s victory over affect for you right there. I glance back at the book lest he catch me staring at him punching coins like Super Mario.
Is this a memoir about computer games
Yes. Sort of.
By which I mean not only that Gamelife is only sort of about computer games, but also that it’s only sort of a memoir. The rise of the sort-of memoir in recent years has been swift and decisive. Memoirs were once a staid, unadventurous format for the aged and washed-up. These days, though, the memoir often inaugurates success rather than commemorating it. Girls’s Lena Dunham has one. So does Playboy bunny Holly Madison. Orange is the New Black was a memoir before it was a hit Netflix series. Literary fiction, too, has shifted closer to memoir: Karl Ove Knausgaard, Ben Lerner, Maggie Nelson, Teju Cole, Tao Lin, Sheila Heti. Even academic scholarship, like Alice Goffman’s On The Run, can now take the form, and claim some of the poetic license, of memoir.
In another sense, our cultural moment is an endless hailstorm of micromemoir: a cacophony of people speaking in their own voices, in quips and hot takes and overshares on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and on personal blogs and online magazines. Most of our internal monologues don’t warrant preservation, and so they vanish, rightly, into the oblivion of deep scrolling. But some memories really are worth holding on to, and that’s why we still need books. This is the power (and the danger) of the memoir form: It allows mental connections to flourish, merely because they emanated from the mind of a writer who can render memory into memorable prose. Memoir is a virus for memories, reproducing them in the brains of strangers. A way of sharing not just what’s on our minds, but how our minds work.
Smallwood gets it right (even if, sadly but not surprisingly, her endorsement didn’t make the dust jacket). Clune’s book is about Clune, and that turns out to be much better than Clune’s book being about computer games. Gamelife is the opposite of dope, and of games, too. Hot affect versus cool pattern. It is its own thesis and antithesis: a song of praise to the world of numbers that can never fully earn that praise, except by entering the world of letters.
The lavatory is finally unoccupied, and I glance a final time at Gamelife’s cover as I lift the seatbelt flap. “Is this a memoir about computer games?” Getting up out of my seat, I flip the book over so no one will see the cover. To hide Gamelife from real life. To separate pattern from feeling, games from writing, number from language.