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Book Review: Gamelife

By (September 21, 2015) No Comment


by Michael W. Clune

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2015

“No one remembers the first time they saw their mother,” Michael Clune writes in his surreal and beguiling new memoir Gamelife:

No one remembers the moment they first recognized that the thing in the mirror is me. But the generation of humans who were approximately seven years old when PC games first became widely available, we remember the first time we did something methodical.

The tone is revelatory, and it runs throughout Gamelife, in which Clune’s discovery of the world of gaming that existed underneath and alongside his ordinary youth in suburban Illinois plays out like an open-ended breaching of El Dorado – right down to tense confrontations with the natives, in this case when Clune, increasingly compelled to understand the elaborate order of board games like Dungeons & Dragons, tries to bluff his way into the local dungeon-master’s circle:

My ignorance of some D & D basics soon stirred Henry’s suspicions, and before we’d played many turns he kicked me out of his room, telling me never to come back.

But for twenty minutes that afternoon, I was transformed. Luxor swung at a goblin. My character Eric attacked an orc. Henry looked at me, and I spoke out the number that was in me.

Two hundred sixty.


Four hundred ninety.

My mind had become a perfect mirror. One by one the numbers looked into it and saw themselves dressed in the skin of a boy.

“When it comes to probing questions about their intimate life as computer-game players, most people don’t have much to say,” Clune comments, in one of the book’s mercifully few stabs at deeper sociological insight, “They’ve never thought about it. Or they’ve repressed it. Or they’ve forgotten. Or they’re embarrassed. Society has convinced them that computer games are a trivial pastime and there’s no reason to think about them.” He elsewhere only glancingly confronts the possibility that most people are taciturn about the time they spend playing video games because the sheer amount of that time, if revealed, would be intensely embarrassing (video games being the entirely passive and mind-numbing waste of time that they are). But in Gamelife, such digressions invariably yield the stage to one virtuoso invocation of the gaming experience after another, one semi-delirious reconstruction after another of time spent grappling with programming, and the way those conflicts can mold the soul:

Drop predecessor.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

Enter predecessor.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

Exit predecessor.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

Find predecessor.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

Go predecessor.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

Look at card, look at keyboard, type word on card on keyboard. When you have gotten to the bottom of your senses and your capacity to think, you are ready to embrace method. To embrace method is to become a pure servant of fate.

Objectively speaking, Gamelife should be all but incomprehensible to readers unfamiliar with the world of 1980s gaming it so rapturously describes. Objectively speaking, even readers familiar with gaming should be revolted afresh at the closed-circuit idiocy of the obsession. Non-gamers should hate the book as the ultimate confirmation of all their suspicions about how video games warp and degrade the thinking of the young people who play them for 10 hours out of every 24. But these things never happen. Instead, by tapping a vocabulary of exaltation that goes all the way back to St. Augustine, Clune manages the near-impossible: he makes video games seem real.

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