Gamelife

Thu Mar 31, 2016

Michael Clune and I have several things in common: we’re about the same age (I’m a bit older), we’re both English professors, and we played many computer games during our youth, adolescence, graduate education, and perhaps even now. Gamelife: A Memoir is not so much about the games themselves but rather their formative effect on the author. Though I also spent many hours playing The Bard’s Tale II, Suspended, and few other games cognate to the ones Clune writes about (Ultima IV instead of III, Doom instead of Castle Wolfenstein, Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri instead of Pirates!), they did not affect my lifeworld to the same extent. I once spent an entire seventh-period science class scribbling possible solutions to the time-travel puzzle in Sorcerer, a text adventure from Infocom like Suspended, and I was accused of taking notes to study at home by a classmate who regarded such activity as fundamentally corrupt. I was very proud of not needing to study or do homework at this point in life and indignantly defended my honor. Since I was the only person in class who owned these games, their very reality was questioned. (I did not solve that puzzle by the way. I turned in shame and despair to Invisiclues, and not for the first time.)

I would expect a book of this type to focus more on the games themselves. If I wrote it, that’s how it would be.* But Clune is much more interested in the phenomenology of the game-playing process. Some of the most intriguing passages concern his fascination with the numerical representation of attributes in Dungeons and Dragons derived games like The Bard’s Tale II. He amusingly talks about Super Mario as being worthlessly work-like, because one head-bumping coin is one coin, against the multifaceted reality of a world where 490 points of damage can be dealt. (I don’t remember anything in the game being capable of doing damage on that scale. Gods in the Deities & Demigods handbook topped out at 400 hp, for example. One of Clune’s friends who knew about D&D speculated that damage of this type would lead to metempsychosis, a descent along the chain of being.) It also amused me quite a bit that Clune reported his Catholic mother in suburban Chicago being horrified by the demonic qualities of The Bard’s Tale II’s packaging and forbidding him to play it, whereas none of my Southern Baptist relatives in my remote fishing village in North Carolina ever mentioned it. I owned the Dungeon Master’s Guide, with its blatantly Satanic and pornographic cover, at age 7, and learned many good words and phrases from it. Dementia praecox, for example.

The adolescent anecdotes involving locker-room scatology I could have done without. The detail about Simon Le Bon being trismegistus in one fevered imagination was poignant. I also never played Might and Magic, and the name “Central Research Observational Nacelle” is wonderfully suggestive. He never mentions the solution to the cryptogram, which is yet another temperamental difference that leads me to believe that I’ll never publish a memoir about computer games. Clune has another memoir about a different type of addiction that I haven’t read, though I do admire his literary criticism. I doubt that there’s another book like Gamelife: A Memoir on the contemporary market, and I recommend it to a variety of character classes.

  • I would have written about the blatant New Testament place name references in this game, which I think I caught but dismissed as irrelevant when I played it, for example, and related it to the cultural wars surrounding D&D type entertainment in the 80s. I might have examined the career of its programmer. The poverty of historicism.