In his second memoir, “Gamelife,” Michael Clune has given himself quite a task: to examine how computer games, popularly synonymous with hours wasted vegetating in front of a screen, profoundly shaped his identity. Clune, who spent his younger years in the suburban Illinois of the 1980s, grew up playing games like “Pirates!” and “The Bard’s Tale II.” Now an English professor at Case Western Reserve University, he argues for the spiritual depth of those games and seeks to challenge the “superstitious fear that computer games were sucking my life dry instead of nourishing it.” Through the lens of seven salient games, Clune describes exciting, confusing, and harrowing episodes of his childhood. Ostensibly, the book focuses on the games; ultimately, however, the games serve as the framework with which he explores his childhood, not the other way around. The result is an unexpectedly aching exploration of growing up.
Each chapter of “Gamelife” follows roughly the same structure, to varying effectiveness. First, Clune gives some context: his age, his social and familial situation, and the particular dystopian element of the ’80s that struck him then, among other orienting details. Next, he introduces a game and recounts his experience with it. Surprisingly, these descriptions are so enticing that they draw comparison with his considerably different earlier memoir, “White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin,” a critically acclaimed account of addiction and the “heroin underground.” Through his writing, Clune makes it clear why these games, so simple by modern standards, were so captivating; most of the truly page-turning parts of “Gamelife” are indeed his game descriptions. He then dives into the metaphorical significance of each game, ranging from the benefits of two-dimensionality to the implications of the pirate economy on 21st-century capitalism. These analyses, however, do not particularly impress. “Gamelife” may be at its strongest describing the allure of the games, but it is often at its weakest conveying their philosophical import. Sometimes, in doing so Clune does intrigue: He convincingly argues that World War II shooter games like “Castle Wolfenstein” and, later, “Call of Duty” succeed because they capture the mystique and power of history like no book can. But, for example, when he makes the procrustean comparison between hit points in “The Bard’s Tale II” and real-life emotion, he simply bewilders.
Tellingly, as Clune ages and the events of his life become more interesting, his game analysis plays a less central role in the book. What remains is his story, driven by the universal adolescent struggle to define and accept oneself. It is here that “Gamelife” truly begins to shine. Whereas “White Out” illustrated the exotic, “Gamelife” seeks common ground. Its characters aren’t always three-dimensional—but they are immediately recognizable. The pretentious ten-year-olds, the status-obsessed middle-schoolers, the paranoid parents—“Gamelife” is populated by all the people who make childhood uncomfortable.
Fortunately, Clune avoids the all-too-common pitfall of authors who write about children: giving their young characters a patronizingly simplistic voice that hamstrings any attempt to convey the incredibly complex thoughts and emotions with which children respond to their world. Instead, in “Gamelife” even 11-year-old Michael is as witty, skeptical, and existential as he is charmingly naïve and identifiably unsure of himself. When a teammate criticizes him at 6th-grade basketball practice for his lack of hustle, he waxes philosophical: “I tried to try. Not everyone has the ability to try.” Through games, interactions, and often-hilarious internal monologue, Clune gives his younger self a real, capable voice—a major aspect of the book which saves it from Clune’s less appealing impersonal points.
As much as Clune deviates from the traditional, under-appreciative understanding of computer games, he diverges from the typical, over-romanticized portrayal of childhood. Like most, Michael has a boyhood altogether defined not by carefree afternoons but by uncertainty and unreality. By the time they reach middle school, Michael and his friends are frantically bluffing and bullying to establish their savvy and masculinity. The adults are not much better; his Catholic-school teachers are cruel, his friends’ parents are overly familiar, and everyone is possessed by Reagan-era consumerism, fads, and hawkishness. Clune’s best game analysis uses the interstellar-travel game “Elite” as a digital Seurat: The closer he looks at the three-dimensional space station, the more it breaks down before his eyes. So, too, does the society around him.
At one point, Michael’s mother warns that if he doesn’t reconnect with his friends, who have entirely and inexplicably stopped talking to him, he “could very well never have friends again!” She goes on, “The meaning of your life is in the quality of your human relationships, Michael. My therapist says it, it says it in the Bible, everyone knows it, Michael!” At its core, this is what “Gamelife” is about: It denounces not just the idea that computer games are a waste of time but also the conception that the meaning of life is defined solely in terms of other people. His criticism of the latter belief resonates far more his presentation of than of the former.
“Gamelife” closes with a winning reflection on those “wasted” hours. Surrounded by all the unreality of “real life,” all the cruelty and hollowness of other people, Clune concludes that computer games offered him a way to explore other worlds, fantastic characters, and, through them, his identity. Years later, he has returned the favor with a powerful defense of games—and of solitude.
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