Video Games: The Secret Life

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New World Computing
A screenshot from Might and Magic II: Gates to Another World (1988), one of the computer games Michael Clune writes about in Gamelife: A Memoir

1.

The slightly ungainly title of Michael Clune’s new book, Gamelife, gives an indication of what an unusual cross-breed it is: at once an affecting memoir of a lonely midwestern childhood in the 1980s and an argumentative essay on how video games work and what they can mean. It is brief and passionate, driven by the conviction that its subject matter is both essential and too often overlooked. “When it comes to probing questions about their intimate life as computer-game players,” he writes near the end, in what amounts to a kind of backdoor manifesto, “most people don’t have much to say…. Society has convinced them that computer games are a trivial pastime and there’s no reason to think about them.”

The crucial word there is “intimate.” Video games have become immensely popular and lucrative—155 million Americans play them, according to the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), spending over $22 billion a year, as compared to $10.4 billion on movie tickets—and are often written about as a business phenomenon or societal issue. But they are of course not experienced in anything like those terms; they intertwine with the daily lives of those who play them in all sorts of ways. A commuter may poke through a few minutes of the puzzle game Candy Crush Saga on her cell phone every evening after work, idly shifting a random assortment of colored shapes into matching lines with her mind still half on the workday. A teenager may play Bloodborne on a console all night in her room, entirely absorbed in its complex simulated combat and dreamlike environments.

Clune’s book shows just how intense and intimate an engagement with video games can be. The book’s structure equates the passage of time with the passage from game to game—seven chapters cover both seven games and seven years of his life, from Suspended (1983), a text-only adventure Clune plays as a seven-year-old, to Might and Magic II (1988), a fantasy role-playing game with 3-D graphics in which he takes refuge at thirteen, during the final months of middle school. The events of these years—friendships made and betrayed, conflicts with teachers and schoolmates, the divorce of his parents, a move from one suburb of Chicago to another—are mostly familiar in kind; but as Clune describes them, the games let him burrow beneath, to depict the fraught, ever-changing mental life that underlies these childhood incidents, all the time spent alone, staring inward, becoming himself.

Games, then, here take the part often taken by books in other memoirs of childhood, providing the first, decisive encounters with adult solitude, and an adult’s unanswerable questions. It was from video games, Clune writes, that he learned “about the big things”; games “teach us about death, about character, about fate, about action and identity.”

In a way, it is surprising there haven’t been more books that do this, more hybrid memoirs of games and life. Writing about video games almost always tends toward memoir, if only implicitly. Games are consumed actively in a way that is very different from encounters with books, movies, or other art forms: by definition, one’s time with a game is time spent taking actions, making decisions; and video games generally require a long time to play—dozens, even hundreds of hours, spread out over weeks or months. All this means that an account of playing a video game inevitably involves a recollection of a portion of one’s own life, including a few of one’s own successes and failures, decisions and regrets (though the actions and results of the game are simulated, the choices, and the emotions they inspire, are not). Memories of a game and of the life led around it often bleed into each other.

Many of the best recent books about video games have a tendency to break suddenly into autobiography. A chapter in Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter (2010) is about Grand Theft Auto IV, a sprawling action game set in a vast, fictionalized simulation of New York (other entries in the series portray Los Angeles, Miami, and London), which Bissell says may be “the most colossal creative achievement of the last twenty-five years.” But it also tells the story of his cocaine habit:

The game was faster and more beautiful while I was on cocaine…. Playing GTA IV on coke for weeks and then months at a time, I learned that maybe all a game can do is point at the person who is playing it, and maybe this has to be enough.

This Gaming Life: Travels in Three Cities (2008), by the British video game critic Jim Rossignol, begins with the slightly harrowing story of how he became a professional reviewer: consumed with playing Quake III—one of the purest examples of a type of game called a first-person shooter, with simulated gunplay seen down the gunsights of the combatant you control—he is fired from his job as a financial journalist. “I felt the rush of sudden freedom: now there was nothing between me and pure indulgence. I could concentrate on [Quake III] seven days a week, without interruption.”

But Clune’s Gamelife is the only book I’ve seen that sustains this double focus for more than a few pages. Much of the book moves in counterpoint, alternating in short subchapters between exterior and interior, life and game, letting the two halves of Clune’s experience jostle against each other in unexpected ways. He writes of his first encounter with the 1983 game Ultima III: Exodus, a fantasy role-playing game in which the player controls several characters through an elaborate, complexly simulated fictional world (such games, descended from Dungeons and Dragons, tend to feature a lot of conversations, and a lot of numbers).

In Ultima III, the player’s “character was represented by a small blinking humanoid figure at the center” of “a flat map…a thing of unthinkable complexity…swiss-cheesed with dungeons and castles and cities.” The game leads eleven-year-old Clune to a kind of pixelated Zen state. “The map-based computer role-playing game is a spiritual device for separating action from ego,” Clune explains. “Freeing movement from the narrow prison of character.” He wanders his neighborhood for hours as darkness falls, lost in a reverie of the whole world as an immense, fantastical “map scroll[ing] beneath” his feet, terribly late for dinner, before getting picked up by the cops and brought back to his irate mother.

A brief conversation early in the book between Clune and a visiting cousin combines the daft quasi logic of childhood inquiry and the inevitability of a dream, all spoken in the language of games:

“How many times can you die?” I asked James.

“Three,” he said. “You mean in Pac-Man?”

“No, in life,” I said.

“Oh,” he said. He thought. “I don’t think you can die too many times.”…

“In Suspended I die every day,” I whispered….

“Look, Michael,” he said. “If ya had to venture a guess about how many fuckin’ times you can die in fuckin’ Suspended, what would you say?”…

“If I had to guess,” I said…. “One trillion times.”

He seemed impressed. He looked down at his feet, the way he did when he was thinking about something secret.

The idea of death, and of the representation of death, permeates the book. Video games, of course, depict death constantly, and always inadequately; death in a video game is in many ways the exact oppose of actual death: temporary, repeatable, in most senses meaningless, since a character is reborn immediately after he “dies,” and in any case doesn’t exist. But for Clune that very inadequacy, that easy, endless recurrence, allows a glimpse of the real thing, in all its devastating indifference.

Chapter five, for instance, begins by announcing his parents’ divorce: “One day in June [my father] was standing in the sun, smiling uncertainly…and the next day he was gone.” A few pages later, the chapter turns to Elite (1984), in which the player pilots a simulated spaceship, engaging in both combat and more mundane tasks like trade and asteroid-mining. Young Clune loves the game, but finds himself completely unable to dock his ship at one of the game’s rotating space stations, an infamously difficult feat of hand-eye coordination; each time he attempts this basic, incongruously difficult task, he crashes, his ship explodes, and he, as the pilot, dies. But he keeps trying:

I smashed myself to bits on…space stations again and again and again…. Ten times a half hour. Twenty times an hour. In especially intense periods of play, I had the uncanny experience of seeing through my death every three minutes for two full hours.

The end of the chapter jumps forward ten years. Clune, now in his twenties, addicted to heroin (the subject of his previous memoir, White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin), overdoses in a hotel in Amsterdam. “The bag of white powder dropped from my fingers, I fell back on the bed…. And when the stars came through the transparent hotel room walls, I recognized the feeling. I recognized it from Elite.”

2.

Why, on the verge of death, would someone remember a game played—poorly—a decade earlier? A game, furthermore, with no real story, without sound (in the version Clune played), with simplistic “wireframe” graphics in which every object is a white, transparent polygon (“eighties PCs weren’t powerful enough to generate the illusion of solid three-dimensional objects”). Video games, from most perspectives, are an asinine art form, a matter of pressing a few buttons in the right way, at the right time, when presented with the right little pattern of lights. The player exists in a world, as Clune writes elsewhere in his book, that contains only “three feelings: VICTORY, DEFEAT, and FRUSTRATION.” How could a game possibly matter so much?

Liel Leibovitz, a professor at NYU who teaches classes on video games and cofounded the NYU Faculty Council on Games, asks much the same question at the beginning of God in the Machine: Video Games as Spiritual Pursuit. A parent watching a child play a video game, he writes, sees a “rapid twitching of thumbs, hear[s] the cacophony of explosions and howls and shrieks,” all at “a rhythm much too fast to allow rational thought,” and wonders: “What, after all, is the satisfaction of furiously pressing all these buttons without pause or reprieve?”

The answer, for both Clune and Leibovitz, is precisely that absence of reprieve. For Leibovitz, “the logic of video game play is that of repetition.” The player, twitching away, advancing from one setting and series of tasks to another, all-but-identical setting and series of tasks, is “in perpetual movement and yet perpetually stuck.” Leibovitz’s book is brief but wildly ambitious, studded with references unexpected in writing on this subject; here he brings in Kierkegaard, who wrote that “the only happy love” is offered by repetition. It is this happiness that Leibovitz argues the video-gamer finds, and he quotes Kierkegaard at length: “It does not have the restlessness of hope, the uneasy adventurousness of discovery, but neither does it have the sadness of recollection—it has the blissful security of the moment.”

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Rockstar Games
A gunfight in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, one of the video games owned by Adam Lanza, who committed the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012

Clune, on the other hand, has argued throughout his book that “the uneasy adventurousness of discovery” is exactly what he found in video games. And it is nothing other than the repetitiousness of the actions of the games that allows that discovery, that lets them, through sheer brute force, approach the most obscure parts of the world and ourselves—“death…character…fate…action…identity.” “Computer games,” he writes,

know that something that happens only once doesn’t mean much to humans. Once-in-a-lifetime events tend to bound off us…. Something that happens ten thousand times? It penetrates our innermost layer. It becomes part of us.

And that’s how computer games work. Everything that happens in a computer game happens ten thousand times…. They turn insights into habits.

Some part of this disagreement may be simple chronology—Clune is writing of a child’s experiences with games; Leibovitz writes as an adult still fascinated by them. The same game will be very different for a wide-eyed ten-year-old burning through summer vacation and a thirty-five-year-old (the average age of a gamer, the ESA claims) unwinding after work; it isn’t hard to imagine the former finding all sorts of novelties where the latter sees only “blissful security.”

But the differences go much deeper than this. For Leibovitz, the defining feature of the video game experience is not exploration, but limitation. Video games offer a drastically curtailed version of life, “the world…reduced to a singular and comprehensible task.” The player is given a handful of buttons on a controller, or a computer’s mouse and keyboard, and told exactly what to do with them. Some games literally instruct the player to press a specific button at a specific time; most are at least a little more involved, embedding the instructions in a fictional, simulated world—saying, in effect, “Make the character jump across those platforms, using these four buttons,” or, “Use the mouse to aim the animated gun at the aliens, and click to shoot.”

Regardless of the specifics, and regardless of the larger fictional justification the game gives for the tasks it sets for the player (the kidnapped princess is on the other side of the platforms, the aliens are invading Earth), what matters is that the tasks are assigned, that they can be completed, and that the player is told whether or not she has completed them successfully—if you navigate the platforms, you continue to the next level; if you don’t, Mario falls in the lava and is killed, and you start over. Playing becomes a constant cycle of certainty: task, result, task, result, on and on until the game is abandoned.

The result is that, no matter what they are ostensibly about, video games can only have one real message to communicate, one satisfaction to give: themselves, the singular experience of submitting to a video game. “The designer,” Leibovitz writes,

through the game, teaches us that the true joy is the joy of learning, of our own free will, to love the game and the designer above all, to abandon all other ways of being in the world, all other claims on subjectivity or agency, and instead embrace the true happiness that comes with understanding one’s place in the world.

For some, this dynamic of submission and limitation is what makes video games inferior to other art forms, or even dangerous. The anthropologist David Graeber, for instance, warns in his recent The Utopia of Rules (2015) that “computer games…turn fantasy into an almost entirely bureaucratic procedure” and “reinforce the sense that we live in a universe where accounting procedures define the very fabric of reality.” Leibovitz agrees that games present “a universe closely governed by rules,” but sees that as entirely to the good; the video-game universe is a “haven” from the “irresolvable anxieties” of contemporary life.

Indeed, by offering a voluntary, temporary experience of guidance, of certainty—of purpose, however arbitrary—video games, for Leibovitz, demonstrate “innate theological sensibilities.” Rather than being driven by boredom, or bureaucratic routine, or—as the most alarmist critics have claimed over the years—bloodlust, “video game players are guided by grace.” Indeed, video games are “like religion,” and playing them is like going to church, or even praying: “Video games…are closer in spirit to ritual than they are to any other human pursuit.”

Many readers will, I think, find this preposterous. All sorts of objections spring to mind: playing a video game lacks the hushed respectfulness of religious ritual (the goal is to beat the game, after all); the player, unlike the worshiper, doesn’t really take anything on faith; and so on. But Leibovitz has at the very least pointed to one of the fundamental paradoxes of his subject. Beneath the competitiveness, aggression, frustration, even outright fear and rage that playing video games can inspire, they do seem to offer some genuine solace. It doesn’t strike me as a coincidence that both Clune and Bissell associated video games with taking drugs, or that both writers continued to play long after they stopped using them.

In fact, the final pages of Gamelife are surprisingly congruent with Leibovitz’s argument. It is 1989, and Clune is a few weeks from graduating from middle school. He has been suddenly and mysteriously ostracized by all his friends and classmates, has become almost literally “invisible,” someone “the others won’t look at.” He spends his free time pondering his isolation and playing Might and Magic II, a game of exploration, puzzle-solving, and combat set in a fantasy world. It is “full of the usual unicorns, goblins, and demons”—typical in fantasy games—but there is one aspect of it that is “genuinely new. It showed a 3-D view of the world.” Though other games “had attempted something similar,” only “Might and Magic II, with its sophisticated modeling of perspective and shading effects…incorporated an element of reality.”

Thirteen-year-old Clune is entranced, and disconcerted. “This 3-D,” he thinks, “it has something, something…effervescent.” (“I’d heard the word on a commercial for a new soda,” he interjects as an adult.) And then he realizes what it is: “Anywhere you went…you could always see the sky.” The sky in Might and Magic II is bright blue, with just the right scattering of puffy white clouds, and the game’s “weirdly low walls” meant that the sky is never blocked from view. As Clune observes, such a clean, lulling sky was “easy for even the relatively primitive graphics of late-eighties computer games to represent” because “the sky, as everyone knows, is the least realistic element of the real world.” From the Vikings, who “believed it to be the blue skull of a giant,” to medieval Christians, who “saw it as the veil of heaven,” to a miserable teenager spending his days alone, “it has always been easy for humans to believe the most fantastical things about the sky. To look up at the sky in the middle of a busy street is to be somewhere else.”

Alone yet again at recess, Clune finds himself “invisible, looking up at the sky.” He thinks about Might and Magic II, and he thinks about his absent father—and here he circles unexpectedly, obliquely, in Leibovitz’s direction:

I remembered driving with my father, I must have been six or seven…. Looking through the car window at the blue sky. What was blue color outside was a quiet feeling inside me and I thought: I will stay like this forever. Peace, I thought. Like they say in church. Peace….

That sky, the sky of the May of my thirteenth year, was the most beautiful sky I’ve ever seen…. The magic sky…. It’s not easy to talk to yourself. To really talk to yourself. To stand under the circular sky of your interior…. You need a code…something that’s not yours. A ruler to measure everything that is. A fixed point. A horizon for your inner sky.

In any other book, you’d guess such a rhapsody was about faith, or a great love, or the ideals of a revolution. But in Clune’s, it’s about video games—seven, quite specifically. He names them; “I stack them, one on top of the other…. When I die, I will remember the color of the sky.”

3.

I remember that feeling, too, though my games were different—Fallout instead of Might and Magic II, Half-Life instead of Wolfenstein, Planescape: Torment instead of Ultima III; not that the specifics really matter. And I remember coming back to that feeling, that sky-blue, simulated peace, a few times before I read Clune’s memoir. Once was when I first saw Cory Arcangel’s 2002 installation Super Mario Clouds, currently on view at the Whitney Museum: a copy of the old Nintendo game Super Mario Brothers, projected on the wall, manually rewired to remove every visual aspect of the game except its flat blue background and the white, pixelated clouds that slowly drift across, right to left, forever. Another was last year, when I read the Connecticut state attorney’s report on the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary, and a number of the related police reports on the murderer, Adam Lanza.

On one of Lanza’s hard drives, I learned, there was a folder labeled “Fun.” It contained, according to the reports, “images of [Lanza] holding a handgun to his head,” “images of [Lanza] holding a rifle to his head,” a “5 second video titled ‘postal’ depicting children being shot (dramatization)”—and several recordings of Lanza playing video games.

To many, the meaning of all this was obvious. In the months following Lanza’s horrific crimes, a great deal was written about his life as a video game player. He was, we were told, “enthralled by blood-splattering, shoot-’em-up electronic games.” He played alone for hours in his “eerie lair,” a “windowless bunker.” “He may have been copying a video game” when he killed. He was “motivated by violent video games.” According to an anonymous “tough career cop” quoted in the New York Daily News, the Newtown massacre

was the work of a video gamer…a violent, insane gamer. It was like porn to a rapist. They feed on it until they go out and say, enough of the video screen. Now I’m actually going to be a hunter.

Lanza did indeed own a number of violent games: entries in the militaristic Call of Duty series, the frenetic zombie-slaughtering games Left 4 Dead and Dead Rising, the anarchic Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. He apparently spent hours with Combat Arms, an online first-person shooter that can be played for free. But the game that shows up the most in the reports, the game he seems to have played with a peculiar, unnerving intensity, isn’t violent at all.

As far as one can tell from the police reports, Adam Lanza’s favorite video game was Dance Dance Revolution. The wildly popular DDR series, first released in the US in 1999, with dozens of sequels since, is bright, rhythmic, cheerful, and overwhelmingly repetitive. The player stands on a raised platform with four large buttons on it, arranged in a cross; a song plays and the player presses the buttons with his feet, in time to the music and according to the instructions on the screen in front of him, moving his feet so they match the screen displays. Success is pressing the right button at precisely the right time, over and over, often at very high speed.

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Steve McCurry/Magnum Photos
A man playing a Dance Dance Revolution game, similar to the one Adam Lanza played, Tokyo, 2008

This is the game Lanza is seen playing in the videos stored on his hard drive. (It isn’t clear if the videos were taken by Lanza or someone else; a brief handheld clip, supposedly of Lanza playing, has surfaced online, but its giggling cameraman is standing some distance behind the player, whose face cannot be seen.) He would drive to a movie theater in Danbury, Connecticut, about fifteen minutes away from his house, and play the DDR machine it had in its lobby; it isn’t specified in any of the reports, but it seems to have been the eighth iteration, 2002’s Dance Dance Revolution EXTREME. He would “only come to the theatre to play DDR,” according to the reports, and came so often (and was so reticent about his name) that he became known to the employees as “DDR Boy.”

At first—in the months around April 2011—he would sometimes come with a friend, who might go to a movie and then come back out to play with him; the machine had two sets of controls, allowing simultaneous play. Sometimes he would play with one of the theater’s employees. During this period Lanza “would come to the theatre every Friday thru Sunday…playing for about 4 hours” per day. “He would play the game so much that he would sweat profusely.”

In August 2011, he started playing for eight to ten hours a day. He stopped coming for a month, then returned—but now always alone. In August or September 2012, one of the theater employees, who used to play with Lanza, and was one of the few to whom he eventually told his first name, noticed that Lanza was “more distant than he normally was.” Lanza became sweaty from playing, and went to the restroom to dry off. When he came back, the employee “approached him and ask him if he was ok.” Lanza answered “that he didn’t have any money and also stated ‘I just don’t want to go home now.’” Lanza’s right sleeve was rolled up a little, allowing the employee a glimpse of “a large circular welt…on his forearm. After noticing that, he offered [Lanza] twenty dollars to play the game, which he accepted.” When the employee left for the night, Lanza was still playing. His manager told him the next day that he had had to unplug the machine in order to get Lanza to leave, “which he did without incident.”

This was the last time that the employee had contact with Lanza. Another person working at the same theater told the police that Lanza was last seen there “sometime in November about a month before the shooting.”

It is all but impossible to see any aspect of Lanza’s life clearly through the haze of thirdhand testimony, broken hard drives, redactions, and cop-speak summaries, his mental illness and fixations on the military and on previous mass shootings, and the sheer overwhelming horror of his crimes. His time with DDR was unusual because of its intensity but also because it was public; most of his video game playing, like most of his life, is invisible to us. We don’t know what he was doing during his monthlong hiatus from the game (we do know it began with “a large snowstorm”). We can’t see everything else he was playing, or how he was playing it.

We do know that he played some violent games, but we don’t know how often—one acquaintance interviewed by the police “believed Adam played many violent/shooting type games,” another that he spent “the majority of his time playing non-violent video games all day.” And there is nothing even close to a consensus about the effects that playing violent games may or may not have. In 2005, and again this August, the American Psychological Association declared that “violent video game play is linked to increased aggression in players,” though not yet “to criminal violence or delinquency.” Some two hundred scientists and professors signed an open letter objecting to the APA’s report as “misleading and alarmist” (Leibovitz, for his part, calls the connection between real and video game violence a “thoroughly refuted canard”).

Still, what I think I see—what I recognized, or thought I recognized, when I read these accounts of one small part of his existence—is not the “porn to a rapist” that unnerved so many. It is, instead, a distant, awful version of the story Clune tells in Gamelife, and of the experience Leibovitz tries to explain in God in the Machine, and of the times in my own life and in the lives of many of my friends when we’ve played some video game as long as we possibly could, for one reason or another.

Descriptions of video games, especially ones aimed at people who don’t play, tend to focus on what the game is “about,” on the setting and events it depicts, as if it were a novel or a film. But the experience of playing a game grows and shifts, gaining implications and intensities as it meets the mind of each player. I spent months, for instance, playing Grand Theft Auto V (sequel to the game that consumed Tom Bissell and to several of the games Lanza owned) when it came out two years ago. It is violent and as sneeringly misanthropic as its predecessors, and yet my memories of it are peaceful, even meditative, its glittering, anarchic simulation of Los Angeles like the world seen from the window of a car, distant and safe.