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…
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