Now that I’m an “adult,” I sometimes wish I’d listened to my parents when they tried to get me to stop playing video games. It feels like I spent the majority of the years 2008 and 2009 playing World of Warcraft. Those were my junior and senior years of high school, years that in previous decades I might have spent discovering the capacities of the human body. Instead of a girlfriend, I had a level 70 rogue and a level 70 warrior—characters I ended up selling for $65 the summer before I left home for college, though they were definitely worth more. Getting the full value would have meant finding the right buyer, and by that time I was desperate to get out. Time would reveal this to have been a healthy impulse. Later that year I’d see many of my college hallmates flunking classes because they could not choose rationally between writing papers and running raids.
Don’t get me wrong—as much as I regret all the time I wasted on games, there’s a not-small part of me that misses them, even longs for them sometimes. When I visit a friend’s house and he hands me the controller to play Grand Theft Auto V or Skyrim, I feel like I’ve been handed a live explosive. My heart beats fast and I know that these worlds are compelling enough to sustain this feeling for a long time. But I leave that friend, that game, with a sense of relief. I’m too wary now, too afraid of what might happen if I let myself go. Maybe WoW scarred me more deeply than I’d like to admit, or maybe it’s just that I’m older, but my parents’ voices have become my inner voice, only shriller and crueler than theirs ever were, and ultimately more effective—because now when I play video games, the fun is soon eclipsed by the shame.
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.
For Clune, drugs and art are both technologies designed to help us chart a middle course. Each seeks to be an “anti-habit,” a magical object that evades the corrosive effect of habituation. This is not to say that they necessarily succeed. A poem may shock us into recognition of the world for a little while, but the feeling fades. Rereading might help us admire the poem’s elements, but the increasing familiarity carries us even further away from the initial thrill. Drug use comes closest to offering the experience of perpetual novelty—“every time the addict sees heroin is the first time,” Clune writes in White Out—but the problem with drugs is precisely that they work too well: ultimately the thrill of the anti-habit sucks the life out of everything else.
So why does Clune think habits are important and insight-inducing in the world of computer games, when habit is the destruction of the real world? Shouldn’t the repetition inherent in games make them a basically deadening experience?
Perhaps the contradiction is only apparent: the key lies in the plural. Habits, not habit. When we play games we build a set of habits—a different set for each game. To play a new game is to explore a brand new set of habits. In this way, each game is a miniature staging of the larger and longer habituations that structure life—a microcosm of what Clune calls “the big things.” If this is right, then games would be invaluable machines for producing what Nietzsche, in The Gay Science, called brief habits: “I love brief habits and consider them an inestimable means of getting to know many things and states, down to the bottom of their sweetness and bitternesses.” Clune has said that he used games as a lens through which to view his childhood. Actually, they’re more like prisms. They allow us to diffract our energies into more ways of being, and at a greater rate, than was ever before possible.
But if to play games is to develop brief habits in a virtual world, that doesn’t mean we aren’t also developing an enduring habit in the real one. (Nietzsche: “Enduring habits I hate.”) This is the dark lesson I learned from games like World of Warcraft. One can get into the enduring habit of developing brief habits.
It’s plausible to me that all the time I was playing I was developing systems of habit, so that when I sold my WoW characters I was also in some sense selling identities. I can also imagine that my “regret” is really the kind of regret I might have about a once-close friend I remember liking but no longer remember why, having forgotten not just the friend’s characteristics but also my own at the time. This gulf in memory is the proof that those habits and selves are gone, evidently too limited in use to stretch beyond the frontiers of the games they were forged to master. And if they don’t last, what good are they? When I think about all those irretrievable hours, I can’t help wondering whether developing selves isn’t just a euphemism for resisting the development of the self—not just an ideal or likable self (although it never helped much with that either), but the kind of singular, stable, coherent, partly fictional self we might anachronistically call a soul.
Drop a game into the story of your life and it doesn’t just dissolve—the wisdom, maybe, of Gamelife’s otherwise atrocious title. In the book, descriptions of gameplay lean without transition against scenes of family and school life, and the connections between the two are mostly open to interpretation. Clune’s main storytelling device is juxtaposition, not integration, and while his reliance on this trick might seem like a weakness, with the subject matter it’s hard to imagine an alternative. Something in games is antithetical to narrative’s structuring impulse. Maybe this is a clue to explaining why, for all the stories we can tell about them, video games have only rarely been the vehicles of truly satisfying narratives. In general, the more written or “scripted” a game is, the less it feels like a game.
For me, as a writer and as a human being, the conflict between games and narrativity makes games a luxury I’d prefer to avoid. But I’m aware that not everyone would feel that conflict as a problem. The philosopher Galen Strawson, for example, in his now-famous paper “Against Narrativity,” attacks what he sees as the increasingly fashionable idea that storytelling is central to identity, or should be. Maybe some people experience the self as a stable unit stretching back to childhood and forward to death in a single continuous narrative—the “Diachronic” self-experience—but Strawson contends that many people, himself included, are more “Episodic,” whether by choice or by nature. Episodics (people like Michel de Montaigne, Bob Dylan and possibly Proust) simply don’t feel that the self is continuous, that the center of their most distant memories was the same entity that they are now. Strawson’s goal is not to set the Episodic life above the Diachronic, but to suggest that both may contain rich, rewarding and meaningful ways of flourishing. Episodics might remember their lives just as vividly as Diachronics, but they don’t revise their story until everything fits. For them, the kind of fracturing that I’ve been arguing is a key feature of game-playing would seem commonplace, a feature of life itself.
One of the ironies of Gamelife is that in writing a book that stakes out a role for video games as insight machines, Clune implicitly places those insights beyond the representational capacities of literature. Literature doesn’t have the same power Clune ascribes to games, nor does it use the same tactics. It never asks the reader to repeat the same activity a thousand or even one hundred times (although a respect for such tactics might help explain a few of Clune’s stylistic choices). Literature, then, is relegated to the broad category of things that happen to us only once or a few times, things that Clune thinks do not “enable the repetition of a vivid impression” and therefore “tend to bounce off us.”
If so, a memoir is a peculiar vehicle for the insights gleaned from games. The limitations of the form may account for some of the book’s philosophical confusions. After all, if Clune is right then the revelations he’s building toward would be ineffable, something we could experience only while actually playing the games. This would explain why so many of the scenes in this book are first encounters, threshold experiences, like that first moment in Suspended when Clune blinks and realizes he’s been gone. We can describe the threshold, but what’s beyond it is hard to talk about, hard even to remember. The part of us that crosses over never makes it all the way back.