Vir­tual ob­ses­sions prove fruit­ful

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - An­drew McMillen

Why do hu­mans play video games? Viewed from a re­move, they can seem like lit­tle more than merit-less time­wasters. This can be true even for those em­bed­ded in the cul­ture, such as Bri­tish jour­nal­ist Si­mon Parkin, whose first book, Death by Video Game, ex­plores this ques­tion at length and from a va­ri­ety of en­gross­ing an­gles.

“In hu­man­ity’s on­go­ing pro­ject of sur­vival and prop­a­ga­tion, video games seem­ingly con­trib­ute lit­tle,” he notes in the in­tro­duc­tion. Yet there are com­pelling depths to the vir­tual worlds that we can ex­plore with key­board, mouse, con­troller and smart­phone screen. In­deed, as the ti­tle sug­gests, a spate of young gamers have been so smit­ten by these worlds in re­cent years that they have been found dead at the key­board af­ter ex­tended pe­ri­ods of play.

“But we’re not go­ing to linger with the corpses,” Parkin writes. “The more press­ing ques­tion is what com­pelled these young peo­ple to em­i­grate from re­al­ity into their vir­tual di­men­sions be­yond the nat­u­ral lim­its of their well­be­ing?” It’s a good ques­tion, and Death by Video Game splits the an­swer into a dozen chap­ters, with ti­tles such as Be­long­ing, Em­pa­thy, Heal­ing and Chronoslip, the last be­ing a term coined to de­scribe the com­mon ex­pe­ri­ence of los­ing track of time af­ter be­com­ing im­mersed in a game.

Parkin’s jour­nal­is­tic ap­proach to the topic sees him un­cov­er­ing an ar­ray of un­told sto­ries wherein hu­mans choose to in­ter­face with games, to their ben­e­fit or detri­ment. Im­por­tantly, how­ever, he does not re­main an im­pas­sive ob­server through­out the nar­ra­tive: the au­thor oc­ca­sion­ally in­ter­jects with per­sonal sto­ries, such as how he and his univer­sity friends regularly took part in marathon late-night ses­sions of the 1997 Nintendo 64 game Gold­enEye 007, or how he came home one evening to find his wife still sit­ting on the floor and play­ing An­i­mal Cross­ing in the ex­act same po­si­tion as when he left hours ear­lier. “She turned her head stiffly, eyes hooded, as if awak­en­ing from a coma,” he writes. “‘ Whoa,’ she said. ‘I am cold and hun­gry.’ ”

The best of these per­sonal in­ter­jec­tions is saved for chap­ter eight, Hid­ing Place, which tells two sto­ries of peo­ple us­ing games to es­cape trou­bling per­sonal cir­cum­stances: first, a man whose wife suf­fers a painful com­pli­ca­tion in her preg­nancy, so the pair es­capes into the cold, grim world of Skyrim as a tem­po­rary cop­ing mech­a­nism; and an Iraqi teenager who be­comes one of the world’s top Bat­tle­field 3 play­ers, which is ironic as it’s an Amer­i­can-cen­tric war shooter ti­tle pri­mar­ily aimed at Western au­di­ences.

In the midst of these two af­fect­ing sto­ries, Parkin of­fers: “I re­mem­ber when, as a teenager, my par­ents first sep­a­rated. I too found rou­tine and di­rec­tion in a video game (mine was Fi­nal Fan­tasy VII) when the frame­work of my life seemed to be col­laps­ing.”

Pas­sages such as this point to the re­mark­able strength of Parkin’s style, which is en­er­gised by em­pa­thy along­side his abil­ity to craft an en­gag­ing hu­man story. Af­ter all, at the heart of ev­ery video game is hu­man en­deav­our and all its suc­cesses and fail­ures; the code is dreamed up by hu­man brains and typed by hu­man fin­gers, all for the en­joy­ment of other hu­mans.

The ques­tion of why many mil­lions of us choose to en­gage in this be­hav­iour is de­cep­tively com­plex, and in Death by Video Game Parkin skil­fully analy­ses it in an ac­ces­si­ble yet deeply con­sid­ered man­ner. This fine book is a mus­tread for those who play games as well as those who seek to un­der­stand the at­trac­tion that this form of play holds for oth­ers — such as par­ents be­mused by their child’s im­mer­sion in the pop­u­lar world of Minecraft, per­haps.

Far more per­sonal, but rooted in sim­i­lar soil, is Michael W. Clune’s sec­ond memoir, Gamelife, which ex­plores his life be­tween the ages of seven and 13 as he dis­cov­ers com­puter games and swiftly be­comes con­sumed by them. This is a fas­ci­nat­ing book to con­trast with Death by Video Game, as Clune’s work is an im­mer­sive tale of ob­ses­sion from the vir­tual front­line.

The nar­row fo­cus of this ti­tle seems to be quite a de­par­ture from Clune’s first memoir, White Out: The Se­cret Life of Heroin (2013), which I have not yet read. It’s a cu­ri­ous stylis­tic de­ci­sion for this mid­dle-aged au­thor to re­turn to his child­hood love of com­put­ers and textbased games — es­pe­cially af­ter writ­ing about his ex­pe­ri­ences with the adult realm of il­licit drugs — but it works very well.

I as­sume that sig­nif­i­cant cre­ative li­cence has been taken with the re­con­structed di­a­logue and scenes that Clune sets out across seven lengthy chap­ters — how many adults can re­li­ably re­call spe­cific de­tails of their early ex­is­tence? — yet once this nar­ra­tive con­ceit is ac­cepted, Gamelife is an en­gag­ing and en­joy­able read. The au­thor ad­dresses this mat­ter head-on early in the piece, when he writes of man­u­ally copy­ing com­mands from a game man­ual line by line: No one re­mem­bers the first time they saw their mother. 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 de­tails are where this story sings, and Clune has a fine eye for the awk­ward­ness of grow­ing up as an unath­letic child who fre­quently ex­pe­ri­ences so­cial iso­la­tion. His sense of hu­mour shines through, too: dur­ing a mid­dle school bas­ket­ball game, he writes of fan­ta­sis­ing about tak­ing a shot and “miss­ing the bas­ket by so much that the ball sim­ply dis­ap­peared”. Later, he ob­serves that 13 is “an awk­ward age. At 11 you want candy. At 15 you want beer. At 13 you want stolen candy.”

At the heart of the nar­ra­tive are com­puter games, around which the young Clune’s life re- volves. When he has ac­cess to them, he is thrilled by the seem­ingly in­fi­nite pos­si­bil­i­ties and chal­lenges they of­fer his still-de­vel­op­ing mind; when they are taken away from him, usu­ally by his over­bear­ingly re­li­gious mother he and dreams up schemes to ob­tain them.

The story takes a sharp, brief turn into Clune’s adult life around the half­way point, where he draws a line be­tween an early ex­pe­ri­ence with the prim­i­tive Nazi shooter Be­yond Castle Wolfen­stein in 1987 and his de­ci­sion to in­vest months in play­ing its se­quel, Re­turn to Castle Wolfen­stein, in late 2001, os­ten­si­bly while study­ing for a PhD. He then re­counts the tale of be­com­ing con­sumed by another World War II shooter, Call of Duty, in 2004, de­spite the warn­ings of his friends and pro­fes­sors.

“They did man­age to plant an ir­ra­tional fear that com­puter games were suck­ing my life dry in­stead of nour­ish­ing it,” he writes. “Dead­en­ing my brain in­stead of il­lu­mi­nat­ing it. Bury­ing facts un­der fic­tion. Life un­der fan­tasy.” Clune ar­gues oth­er­wise, of course; Gamelife is it­self an im­pas­sioned ar­gu­ment that play­ing games im­proved his life rather than ru­in­ing it. (He notes, how­ever, that soon af­ter he re­turned to the vir­tual bat­tle­field in 2004, his girl­friend left him.)

A clear thinker and a skilled writer, Clune has thought deeply about why we play games, and he has come up with some wor­thy an­swers. “They teach us about the big things in a way noth­ing else can,” he writes. “They teach us about death, about char­ac­ter, about fate, about ac­tion and iden­tity.”

To his credit, the au­thor shows rather than tells, and to pull these pithy quotes out of con­text does him some­thing of a dis­ser­vice.

Clune is con­cerned with much more than sim­ply rem­i­nisc­ing about the part games played in his young life, how­ever. Much of the nar­ra­tive drive comes from his at­tempts to find and de­fine his iden­tity as a boy, and some of the most com­pelling scenes are those that de­scribe his at­tempts to win and main­tain friend­ships with a fickle col­lec­tion of sim­i­larly aged boys who rarely want any­thing to do with games.

Set in the 1980s, the sim­plis­tic ti­tles Clune first played — Sus­pended, Elite and Pi­rates! among them — have long since been su­per­seded by the im­mer­sive, graph­ics-in­ten­sive worlds with which Parkin is largely con­cerned, yet the de­tails that he wrings out of his young mem­ory are rich and il­lus­tra­tive.

The ex­cel­lent work of both au­thors here should be more than enough to con­vince the av­er­age reader that the long­stand­ing view of video games as lit­tle more than merit-less time­wasters is both out­dated and ill-in­formed.

is a Bris­bane-based free­lance jour­nal­ist and au­thor of Talk­ing Smack: Hon­est Con­ver­sa­tions About Drugs.

Screen­shot from a re­cent ver­sion of Call of Duty, a game that con­sumed Michael W. Clune a decade ago

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