peteg's blog - noise - books - 2015 09 23 Clune Gamelife

Michael W. Clune: Gamelife: A Memoir.

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His second memoir, Gamelife, on computer games as spiritual education...
— Michael W. Clune on his homepage at Case. I guess that makes his first a memoir of how heroin eases recovery from a nihilistic upbringing. Or something.

There was no chance I wasn't going to read this. Amazon makes it trivial to preorder ebooks for the Kindle, so here we are only a few days after release and I've already chowed it. The price was $US11.99. Once again his prose is so seductive that I was well into it before I realised I should be taking notes.

This is less of a spiritual education than an account of how Clune learnt to look at the world. Chicago burbs Evanston and Mettawa feature large here. ("After Mettawa the map's blank." — evokes my childhood too: our house in Orange was on the western edge of the city, and before that we were about as far south as you could go before you needed to catch the out-of-town bus to school. West of where I was born is desert; we were on the wrong side of the tracks in Dubbo, but one could argue there is no right side to that town.) So does Catholic school, and computer games. The games he played were not the abstract ones I remember, but those that liberated the DnD ultra-geek from the need to meet his fellow geeks in meatspace. I never played, not even in Sweden; I tried from time-to-time to get into Rogue-likes such as Ragnarok but they never stuck, being always too capricious or closed. And almost all of them were trivial or very frustrating. Games of the 80s were mostly born too soon; those that worked well were spawned by the heavy iron of university departments, in the same way that UNIX was birthed, or by very creative people in California.

I like to think of C++ as DnD for adults, and what a hacker Clune would have made.

Those games were like books in demanding acts of imagination while technology gestated. Interactive text adventures, decreasingly fake 3D. Clune was never a mathematician so he's not going to pretend to understand fractals. Apparently he avoided programming, so there goes the demo scene and the relative merits of various shading algorithms. (The exotic Phong shading from my youth, a piece of Vietnamese technology I now learn.) His impressions of life in 2D seemed quite alien to me, text being my natural habitat. Maps, yes. That a 2D object on a screen may have an obverse never occurred to me; on the other side of the screen was an electron gun in a vacuum. He similarly demonstrates no awareness of the chiptunes microscene.

Clune observes that, leaving aside FRUSTRATION, those games notionally offered VICTORY and DEFEAT. Their sheer repetitiousness ("Nintendo", in the limit) was an early harbinger of adulthood: at some point we run out of the truly novel and are left only with the choice of what to do again; we level up, we walk the hedonic treadmill, grind for status, score the next hit. Strangely enough I learnt method from another game Clune rubbishes, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?: I enumerated all properties of all cities, criminals, etc. and reduced it to a pure lookup activity. He is right to question the educational value of those "pedagogic" games. Oregon Trail, yeah.

Personality, I mean that's what counts, right? That's what keeps a relationship going through the years. Like heroin, I mean heroin's got a great fucking personality.
— Sickboy in Trainspotting.

Seeing as his video game addiction outlasted his one for heroin, Clune must therefore draw the obvious conclusion that these games have superlative personalities. Unlike his segue from text to DnD to first-person shooters (Nazi hunting comes in for special scrutiny in this book), my experience was more Lolita-like: I was fixated on Lode Runner from circa 1988, an artefact of a Band of Brothers. Being perennially late to the party, I finished it only recently. It felt like VICTORY until I started on Championship Lode Runner, where I learnt that I had learnt nothing.

Leaving aside the games, Clune recounts a few brutal stories: his mum comes across as fearful, neurotic, and superstitious: somehow tarot is OK if it comes from the right direction, but the runes on a game's box are not. His father disappears after the divorce, and is replaced by poverty. A kid gets his uniform completely trashed after gym class. As always he is comic at the sentential level, and like Oscar Wilde, makes me want to respond, to write. That's a huge achievement in itself. Similarly he is crazy-brave, especially when alluding to the heroin that ate his 20s.

Clune's publicity hounds have been highly successful:

  • Gabriel Winslow-Yost at the New York Review of Books. In response to his Section 2, I would just say that Clune remembers the game because he has no choice: these things are etched deeply into our brains. As is observed further down the article. He is dead right about games being curtailed versions of life. I remember the colour of the sky because I got it wrong in art class. I didn't notice that the sky gets lighter towards the horizon. I used warm blue rather than cool. My sky comes out just after the sun properly sets, before the night fully kicks in. My mate Stuart got it right for the rest of the day. Pick the empiricist.
  • Christian Lorentzen doesn't quite seem to get that what's happened since World War II has required the U.S. to engage with shades of grey. Hitler was the last moral certitude on offer. That's Clune's point: ethical ambiguities are not fun.
  • An interview on NPR. On addiction:

    I believe that heroin addiction for me and drug addiction was the absolute opposite of the experience I had when playing games. Addiction removes you from any world. It completely — it isolates you, but ... your isolation has none of the richness of the solitude that I experienced in games.

    With addiction I was continually like a rat in a maze trying to capture the very first time I ever had that first hit. With games, the first time I played them was very difficult and awkward. Only gradually, when I mastered their commands, was I able to inhabit that world.

    And so, if with addiction I was trying to continually recapture a first time I never could, with games I was exploring a world, and exploring myself, in a way that I found meaningful, whereas I felt addiction stripped my life of all meaning.

  • David Auerbach at Slate sinks the boot in. I don't think he's wrong to do so, but he fails to consider that Clune may be merely baiting the hook here. Perhaps that's all he could do if he had it as backward as this review asserts. Games taught us not to give up, just because we're not making progress toward the impossible with manifestly inadequate tools.
  • Bijan Stephen.
  • Ethan Gilsdorf at the New York Times (October 17, late to the party).

I'll stop as the internet is infinite but life is not, and close with a quote that was Andreas Rossberg's signature for an age:

Computer games don't affect kids; I mean if Pac Man affected us as kids, we would all be running around in darkened rooms, munching magic pills, and listening to repetitive electronic music.
— Kristian Wilson, Nintendo Inc.

Clune, of course, would not have given Pac Man the time of day.