When Michael Clune’s memoir Gamelife was published in October, I was certainly in the target audience. The book views Clune’s childhood through the nostalgia-tinted lenses of seven computer games that, as the dust jacket puts it, “worm into his head and change his sense of reality.” It’s part traditional memoir, part philosophical meditation on computer games. In this way it’s similar to Clune’s deservedly praised White Out, a memoir about heroin addiction that juxtaposed a traditional recovery narrative with Proustian musings on addiction and memory. But that’s where the parallels end. Clune regretted heroin, or at least was glad to have quit. He has no regrets at all about the time he spent playing computer games.
Clune’s first game is called Suspended, which he plays on his Commodore 64 when he’s seven years old. An early example of a text-based adventure, Suspended is set deep underground beneath an automated but malfunctioning utopia. The player, the planet’s last line of defense, is in cryogenic stasis and must interact with the world by commanding six robots, each with different senses and capabilities. “You have been awakened,” the game begins—and for Clune, it’s true. The first time he plays, he feels transported. “After a few seconds the frustration drained away, and it hit me: I’d been inside. I’d been somewhere else.”
Clune is a lonely kid, and Suspended is a lonely fixation. His siblings won’t play with him and his cousin just wants him to shut up about it. But the game turns his loneliness from painful to explorative. Clune never beats Suspended, but he never really leaves it behind either. “Suspended was gone in the way of being everywhere,” he writes:
I played it at the right time. I don’t know what would have happened if I had waited until I was sixteen, but playing it at seven changed me. It gave me a new direction to grow. While my parents and friends and teachers were helping part of me to grow up toward the people, another part of me had begun to grow out, away from them.
Clune writes as if the games don’t just teach lessons, but know things themselves. A role-playing game called The Bard’s Tale II “knows” that “the world is made of numbers,” not words. Cold, inhuman numbers make up the fabric of the universe, which Clune spins into a compelling explanation for why random number generators like those used in Dungeons & Dragons can make pure fantasy feel so real that eighties evangelists may have been justified in attributing diabolic power to role-playing games. Clune refers to these insights as “dark lessons”: they’re subversive, sometimes dangerous. In one particularly funny chapter, a trading game called Pirates! inspires him to turn his middle school into a black market for stolen candy. “Is an eighth-grade classroom more like an office or a pirate ship?” he asks. “We were going to find out.”
One reason Clune talks about games knowing things is that the creators themselves may not know them. For instance, a series of popular first-person World War II shooters, starting with Beyond Castle Wolfenstein and ending with Call of Duty, teach him, over the course of a decade, that world history ended with the defeat of Hitler:
The computer games know about history because they know about fun. And the only reason to have history anymore is for fun. The world doesn’t need it. The world has capitalism now, it doesn’t need history. … 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 irresistibly forward against our enemies. History doesn’t make sense. … History has stopped. And we can find out exactly where it stopped. Because when the fun experts want to make a game that is totally fun, they discover that the closest period they can set it in is World War II.
The idea that history is over is not a new one, as Clune is certainly aware. Francis Fukuyama proposed in his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man that the absence of alternatives to liberal democracy signaled the end of sociocultural change; he also wrote that life at the end of history would be boring. It may be disingenuous for Clune to suggest that a video game “taught” him something he’d have had every reason to learn while earning his Ph.D. in literature at Johns Hopkins. On the other hand, it’s undeniable that he has found brilliant and unexpected support for Fukuyama’s thesis in the established tradition among game developers of setting their shooters in America’s last true ideological war, where they have found the most satisfying, least guilt-inducing enemies for players to mow down with automatic rifles. As Clune puts it, “Computer games about World War II aren’t fun because they’re true. … Computer games about World War II are true because they’re fun. True because of how they’re fun.”
Gamelife’s most important passage comes when Clune is thirteen years old. He and his siblings have just moved to a new house in a new town, where he spends the summer playing a space-flight simulator called Elite, which shows him how to “see through” his own death. He loves Elite, but suddenly he becomes fed up with it. He begins to crave Pirates!.
“It’s not always easy to know when you’re ready for a new game,” he writes:
It’s like changing a habit. Let me explain. 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. … Everything that happens in a computer game happens ten thousand times. 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.
Clune goes a step further: “If an insight can’t be made into a computer game,” he writes, “it can’t reach us. … It’s not true.”
When I first encountered this idea, it struck me as discordant with what I knew about Clune’s attitude toward repetition. A particular theory of the relationship between time and habit is central to his thinking. A running theme in both White Out and the more academic Writing Against Time is Clune’s belief that habit is “what destroys the world.” From White Out:
Take a new car and put it in an air-controlled garage. Go look at it every day. After one year all that will remain of the car is a vague outline. Trees, stop signs, people and books grow old, crumble and disappear inside our habits. The reason old people don’t mind dying is because by the time you reach eighty, the world has basically disappeared.
As we could learn from cognitive science or from Proust (Clune draws on both in Writing Against Time), the vividness of a perception is a function of the time and energy it takes the brain to process the information. To be habituated is to process information more efficiently—which means, in part, to leave more information out. Each time we encounter a thing, more information is ignored. To the extent that perception creates the world, then, habit makes various parts of the world disappear. Practically speaking, this process is indispensable. People with brain damage that prevents habit formation are easily overwhelmed by sensory information. If we had a choice between a world without habituation and a world of total habituation, we would be faced, really, with a choice between paralyzing vividness and zombified survival.