One of the most overwhelming effects a novel can have on a young mind is to expose a distressing truth: the world does not revolve around you. In the pages of a book, you meet people who do not act, think or live like you, and who, contradictory to those around you in real life, are not there to satisfy your every need. The effect of video games is almost the opposite: it provides a world built totally around the whims of its player. Irresistibly and suddenly, you can choose what type of car you would like to drive, how to spend your finances, whose head you’d like to stomp upon and what clothes to wear. Children are permitted an element of practical agency in video games that is otherwise unknown within the usual stifling and sensible parameters of childhood.
Each kid who has played video games in the past thirty-five years has experienced this type of moment – a sparkle of opportunity within the screen. Michael W. Clune, professor of English at Case Western Reserve University, explains how playing the video game Suspended changed him. He writes that the video game gave him a new direction to grow.
We have come to a point in time when the first generation of people to play video games in their houses as kids have grown old enough to think about how video games might have coloured or shaped their lives. “Armada,” Ernest Cline’s recent novel, explained the dream of many a child from the nineteen-seventies to bodily go into the world of Space Invaders; and Adam Sandler’s recent movie Pixels placed a video game aficionado against characters from video games such as Centipede and Pac-Man – although Disney’s Wreck It Ralph did a better job of excavating that terrain. The creators of these projects each state the case for the developmental effects of video games.
Clune wants something a bit different. His new memoir “Gamelife” uses his memories of playing video games as a window through which to tell a literary coming-of-age story. Tightly centered on the period between the age of 7 and early adolescence, the chapters in the book are each dedicated to one of seven different video games which jointly form a kind of digital topography of Clune’s childhood.
Nevertheless, the book’s implied argument is that video games provided Clune with an area in which to explore his nascent character. Video games provided consolation and contentment; even if their lessons did not 100% translate usefully to reality. As Clune’s stories show, the right game played at the correct moment in one’s life can have an overwhelming effect. When joined with difficult circumstances, video games can become a refuge.
In the end, video games were influential for Clune basically because he loved them, and he loved them. Debatably, it is his talent as a writer that lends his video games their importance and places them meaningfully into his personal history.