A young Michael Clune sits in front of his family’s television long after the jumbled noise of the VCR tape has stopped, absorbed in a primordial void of static, waiting for something. What is he waiting for? He does not know. After 30 minutes, the static begins to take form. From the nonsensical ocean of static frizz, a single symbol emerges: a winged ‘W’ hovering over the formlessness of the black and white slats. “I was ready for the words at the end of television,” writes Michael Clune. So began his initiation into a new world of video games. But Michael has barely scratched the surface of this new revelation; what awaits him beyond the ‘W’ at the end of television is the binary at the end of language. What Michael has yet to realize is that ‘W’ is a fabrication of an even deeper reality: the terrifying determinacy of numbers.
Gamelife, by Michael Clune, is a memoir about coming of age in a time when technology has just begun to dominate children’s imaginative and emotional worlds. It is also, therefore, a timely memoir. Millennials are the first generation to be raised with easy access to virtual realities. C.S. Lewis once wrote that George McDonald’s fairy tales baptized his imagination. Clune’s imagination is baptized by the Commodore 64 and a library of floppy disks: Suspended, The Bards Tale II, Wolfenstein, and Elite. This changing world leads Clune to adjust his own understanding of reality. Through powerful storytelling, he demonstrates how, for better or for worse, video games provide narratives, hermeneutics, and revelations that shape how adolescents move through the world. “My imagination was as weak as a bay’s arm until computer games trained it. I can’t even remember the things I imagined before computer games.” Video games, though a kind of artifice, act as formative agents, teaching him how to understand his environment, God, life and death, and himself by training him through intensive repetition that would put a Suzuki pedagogue to shame. In narrating this formative aspect of gaming via memoir, Clune demonstrates the influence that virtual reality can exert on human lives. Though mediated by technology, the game worlds players inhabit, however temporary, take on lives of their own through their sheer expansiveness, becoming seamlessly merged with players’ interpretations and implicit philosophies.
Take, for instance, Michael’s experience of video game statistics. After facing an impossibly tough boss battle in The Bard’s Tale II, Michael wonders what it means to be hit for 490 points of damage. “What did it look like? What did it sound like? What did it feel like?” This arbitrarily large number, an expression of the “damage” the boss was able to inflict on Michael’s in-game avatar, begins to work on Michael’s imagination. For Michael, numbers become the key to completely new imaginative horizons, some of which are terrifying in their numerical precision.
Perhaps it is this precision that Michael’s parents fear in his experience of video games. When Michael’s mother realizes that The Bard’s Tale II is a role-playing game similar to Dungeons & Dragons, she confiscates it immediately: “It’s turning kids into satanists. They’re acting out the violence from it in school!” The video game becomes a forming subject; while still a fiction, “it” is nevertheless capable of transforming children into real life versions of the in-game characters. There is an intuitive linking of the numerical values and landscape of the game with the moral values of the real world. Though the game is a fantasy, it is not a stretch to imagine that it bears out real-world consequences. The numbers, their proportions, can be extrapolated into life itself. Like many evangelicals who grew up in the 90s, I was raised in a home where video games were strictly regulated based on content. Rather than dismissing these fears, Clune validates them. “I don’t think you have to be an evangelical Christian to know that there is such a thing as an evil truth and to know that it leaks constantly from the fantasy of numbers,” Clune observes dryly. Clune’s “evil truth” is that the numbers are, in a sense, more real than words. Words are insufficient, pale imitations of reality. “If we talk to nature or God in words, it doesn’t understand us. Words just sound like noise to nature.” Words are static. The primordial ‘W’ that emerges from the television static before Michael’s eyes is simply formlessness given shape.
While words are superficial, Clune claims that numbers are a fundamental scientific reality; they determine everything—even morality. Numbers can explain something as simple as a children’s game, or candles on a birthday cake. Numbers can describe the funnel of a tornado, or the severity of an earthquake. Numbers are utterly determinative—terrifyingly so. Clune’s revelation is that video games are, just like the world behind our computer screens, “numbers become flesh.” The numbers are real, and the images that wrap them are simply a shell. This is true of both fantasy and ‘reality’; the preeminence of numbers, Clune claims, is one of the universe’s foundational truths. If, as Clune claims, numbers are the cellular building blocks of reality, then real life is actually a video game that we are always playing. “All you really need for a good body is something that sees, something that knows, and some numbers underneath.” Perhaps this is all you need for a system of ethics as well.
The lessons that Clune learns from video games are not novel. In fact, in the utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill, western philosophy already has an ethical system based on mathematics. In Utilitarianism, Mill writes, “the ultimate end… is an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments, both in point of quantity and quality.” For Mill, experiences of pleasure and goodness are quantifiable, being that which afford the greatest enjoyment to the largest number of people. What follows is Mill’s metric for evaluating the morality of a pleasure:
“If I am asked, what I mean by difference of quality in pleasures, or what makes one pleasure more valuable than another, merely as a pleasure, except its being greater in amount, there is but one possible answer. Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure.
Moral obligation is a construct, inferred from the subject’s environment. Morals are mathematical realities, relative statistics of pleasure, pain, and profit that are learned through experience as the subject moves through society and the physical world. The sanctions we experience that prevent us from doing degenerate things do not descend from on high, as though morals were arbitrated by a divine force or figure. Rather, these sanctions are agreed upon numbers, “numbers given flesh,” as Clune would say. Mill writes that “the sanction… is always in the mind itself; and the notion, therefore, of the transcendental moralists must be, that this sanction will not exist in the mind unless it believed to have its root out of the mind…” For Mill, moral sanctions are inferred imaginatively from one’s environment. There is no transcendental morality informing our decisions. The norms we receive are inferred from the mathematic and scientific realities that surround us; how many people are impacted by this good? Is this good desirable by the majority? What causes the least harm?
This idea was a forerunner of the “radical empiricism” that would be developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by philosophers like William James and Bertrand Russell. Taking Mill’s theory a step further, radical empiricists insisted that mathematical truths were logically perfect, and inherently superior to the linguistic interpretations that enshrouded them. Reality, at its base, is a series of mathematical syllogisms, and language is devoid of meaning unless it directly describes (however poorly) these syllogistic realities. Such a view does away with the need for any supernatural or extra-scientific experience; all that we are left with are the cold, mathematical reality of the universe. This is the “evil truth” of numbers.
It makes sense that this empirical framework is more evident in video games than in lived experience. As virtual worlds assembled on purely mathematical principles, video games are perfectly empirical. A video game avatar’s entire world is circumscribed by numbers and code. Boundaries, abilities, and mortality are strictly delineated by the game’s design. While video games offer the façade of endless possibility, they are in fact profoundly limited. Clune’s avatar in The Bard’s Tale II may wander through its 8-bit landscape in a parody of perfect freedom. But then, in combat, a boss strikes Michael for 490 damage. This is a simple equation, empiricism in its barest form: 490 damage equals death. Numbers become an uncheatable barrier. To get by the dragon, troll, or sorcerer you need to play the numbers game. Divide and multiply. Like any child, Clune reaches to understand this reality, making imaginative leaps in the process. The numbers inflate the battle on an exponential scale, and Clune can’t get his head around them. They reach beyond his lived reality, and somehow they seem more real. The numbers present an actual quantity, nearly tangible in its specificity. There is no mystery, no deus ex machina. All that remains is the machine.
Video games teach Clune, with more honesty than his own social world, the difference between how things appear, and how things are. Numbers, angles, lines of sight; the structure of video games come to structure the world his body inhabits. They offer his imagination a hermeneutic, an interpretive lens, to grapple with the confusion and disorientation of puberty in public school, moving to a new home, and divorce. In a life of constant change, there is something therapeutic, even preferable, about living in a world in which everything is explicable and predictable. As Clune describes his real-world experiences alongside the video games he played at the time, he integrates reality and fantasy, interchanging them, even confusing them. Video games have been mapped onto his life.
I was surprised and disturbed by Gamelife. It is not only an engaging read, but a poignant one as well, depicting a difficult childhood through the lens of virtual reality. Video games are not merely toys. They grip us, much like a painting, a film, or a novel. The images they present stick in our minds, and become points of reference for us. Though they are not “real” per se, we receive their meanings as applicable to our lives because of their believability. Clune’s memoir is an honest assessment of what video games are capable of, both as a form of entertainment and a form of education. Video games are not escapes from reality, but tangents. And as tangents, they are half-truths. Our world is, in a sense, circumscribed by numbers. This boundedness is an “evil truth,” or at least a limiting one. And yet, the inexplicable remains. None of us actually describe our lives in terms of syllogisms or formulas; we do so with stories and images, and even develop our own unique terminology for these experiences. Video games can teach us much, but they cannot circumscribe our reality, even though we may want them too. And sometimes, when we question this reality, we arrive at a different answer than Clune.
“What did it look like? What did it feel like?” When I was a ten-year-old playing Pokémon Red Version, I wondered how a tiny Pokémon, like the worm-like Caterpie, could possibly survive an attack from one of its larger brethren. If a Snorlax (visualized in the game as an obese, narcoleptic sloth) performed a ‘Body Slam’ on a tiny Caterpie, shouldn’t the smaller Pokémon be squished to death? After all, I knew what happened to insects that were trampled in real life. But in the game world, if the Caterpie was “leveled” enough, if it had enough hit points to receive the damage from its foe without “fainting” (Pokémon’s sanitized version of in-game death), it would in fact survive the blow, shrugging off the weight of a creature more than twenty times its size. This fact was fundamentally at odds with reality as I experienced it outside of the game world. That I could revive my tiny Pokémon to fight again after such an onslaught made no sense. Wouldn’t the Caterpie simply become flattened, squished, or otherwise cease to exist? What would happen in the real world if the same amount of force were exerted? Instead of intuitively using virtual reality to question and clarify my lived experience, I was doing the opposite. I was taking what I knew of the real world to reveal the artifice of the game.
Clune was formed by The Bard’s Tale II, but only insofar as he chose that reality over another. The Bard’s Tale II wasn’t “right” about numbers being our fundamental reality, and when we think about it, The Bard’s Tale II had no authority to make such a declaration. Nevertheless, Clune wanted The Bard’s Tale II to be right, in the same way that many of us want our imaginations to be right. The trap of the video game, as a completely immersive experience, is that it makes its case so persuasively. We are persuaded because video games have the capacity to become reality to us, as they did for Clune. This is why Clune’s memoir is so valuable. We, too, should reflect further on the imaginative transformations that are occurring as we move through a world in which the digital and the physical, the ‘0’ of binary and the ‘W’ of language, are increasingly enmeshed.