The last pages of You by Austin Grossman recount a timeline of video game history. This timeline ends in March 2008 with the death of Gary Gygax, creator of Dungeons & Dragons. While You is a novel set in the world of video game design, D&D, the first role-playing game played on a table with friends and strange sided dice, it suggests the beginning of an age we’re only starting to understand. Grossman argues that today, given the multiplicity of roles a “gamer” may take on, the concept of “you” has become clouded, protean and perhaps, more liberating than ever before.
Part excursion into the recent past of video game evolution circa 1997 and part coming-of-age story, You is that rare work of literary fiction set in an all-too-often decidedly un-literary world. Russell, the book’s protagonist, is a twenty-eight year old whose life has been dictated by what he thinks society values. A Harvard grad, Russell is on his way up the socio-economic ladder when he decides to quit everything he’s ostensibly worked toward and join his old high school friends in the world of video game design.
Russell is our portal to this world, and very much like a character we might assume in a video game, the world is offered to us through his n00b eyes. Russell grew up with three other disaffected kids during the early 1980s. They played Dungeon & Dragons, read Neuromancer, and designed a floppy disk video game world called Realms of Gold. Eventually, they grew up — or some of them did.
Russell’s central struggle is with his late-twenties realization that adulthood, wanted or not, is coming, and he’s spent all the years since high school pursuing respectable, but ultimately empty, career tracks. When we meet him, he’s just dropped out of Harvard Law and showed up at the offices of Black Arts, the company his high school friends formed as Russell pursued more conventional dreams. His interview is short, the only question of any importance is one Russell cannot answer, “What’s your idea of the perfect game?”
This question informs the entirety of the novel becoming an existential stand-in for what increasingly becomes a deeper book than one might assume from the flap. Grossman provides the geek cred and fanboy wonder necessary to a gamer who might read his novel, but he shoots for a larger audience than that. This isn’t a novel about geek culture alone. It’s a novel about the way in which games are changing us as a culture. Between the constant clicks which move our little avatars forward lurks a side effect — the gamification of life. This isn’t just a buzzword, and in fact Grossman never uses it, but it’s between the text. Russell and his friends have turned life into a game — not in the over-hyped, paranoid people use to explain mass shootings, but in the literal way that each of us is a collection of characters. We don these proxy selves and try them out for fit. From adolescence to adulthood, Grossman suggests we are working out these different roles.
Whether it be Russell and his friends or the player-characters who serve as their alter egos, Grossman suggests we are all, avatar and human being alike, living within the parameters of a script. Whether given to us by our parents or society, each of us is struggling to break out of a narrative written by someone else. Late in the book, Grossman likens this struggle to Plato’s allegory of the hermaphroditic people who, upon division into two sexes, must spend the rest of their lives pursuing that other half. He writes, “To forestall any future threat, the gods decreed we should each be separated into halves, and each half hurled into a separate dimension… We became a fallen race and forgot our origins, but something in us longed to be whole again. And so we invented the video game, the apparatus that bridged the realms and joined us with our other selves again, through the sacred medium of the video game controller.”
The reunification of two selves is achievable, or at least metaphorically so, via the interlocutor of the video game. We are always either playing the game or trying to break it. For an American in his or her 20s, our “game” is much about trying to break down narrative walls and write our own story. In this way, Russell and his friends aren’t so dissimilar from a great many coming-of-age heroes. What Grossman brilliantly adds is the experience of growing up filtered through the portal of current technology. The author suggests that gaming, from the pen-and-paper beginnings of Dungeon & Dragons to the forthcoming next cycle of consoles, has altered our relationship with the basic story of our lives. This generation has a host of digital selves to try on and, unlike the toys of old, these characters live in persistent virtual worlds where millions spend large portions of their lives.
Grossman’s prose is strong and his metaphors constructed from words but feeling pixellated, as if distilled through those virtual worlds: “I delved into the substanceless phosphorescent earth for that priceless treasure, always elusive, the transcendent loot of memory.”
Where much of popular society dismisses gaming as escapist fantasy, You suggests it’s giving us a new language to address the world. How long before those pixelated screens will be loaded onto our eyes allowing many of us to wander through virtual worlds skinned over daily life? Who might be wandering through a crowded city while her filters show her goblins, dungeon walls and treasure? At what point do our digitally generated worlds become as real as that in which we live. Grossman suggest they already have.
One of the major plot points of the book hinges upon the interaction between the real world and the virtual world. Reality itself may be just another world we can code to our specifications. Each of us is that ubiquitous “you” from Choose Your Own Adventures novels, RPGs and early text adventures. Our lives are the ultimate game, but this doesn’t devalue those lives. It gives us the opportunity to realize we’re often playing to someone else’s script, someone else’s idea of the world. The video game controller may be looked back on as the first piece of technology which began to allow the individual to break that game, to deconstruct that narrative, to become the “you” of their own story