Taking a Bite of the Digital Madeleine

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Near the end of my first date with Mary, the woman who would become my wife and mother to my son, I asked her if she would mind going out with someone who had a thing for video games. It was late at night and we were waiting together for her BART train.

Not at all, she said, as her train whooshed into the station. Her brother, who’s a great guy, loves video games. Giddy, glad to have gotten out of the way the only obvious obstacle I thought could kill my courtship, I took a taxi home, grabbed a Diet Coke out of the fridge, and fired up the PlayStation.

Much later, when it was clear we were going to make a life together — and she had long witnessed me sitting for entire afternoons on a hard chair in front of the TV, mangling the black game controller in my hands, muttering “goddamns” and “fuck fuck fuck”s — she told me she thought I had been joking. Who the hell ever heard of a book review editor spending hours at a time on video games? Probably no one, which is why Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, is such a relief. It is the finest work yet to explain the artistry and artistic possibilities of video games, which means it explains better than I ever could how a literary-minded person well into kissing range of middle age could swoon (and agonize) over what video games proffer. (You can read my review of it here.)

Bissell isn’t the first critically acclaimed writer to proclaim his love for video gaming, a passion seemingly at odds with intellectual and artistic pursuits. (Extra Lives itself is proof it’s not.) Pulitzer Prize-winner Junot Diaz, for example, did a review of Grand Theft Auto IV for the Wall Street Journal. (Bissell devotes a chapter to the same game, and how it dovetailed with a coke habit.) And in my years when I was the book editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, I had many informal conversations with writers about what they thought of certain games: How far along were they in them? Would they recommend buying it?

Perhaps it’s a generational thing. “I grew up in the idiom of video games,” Diaz tells me over email, when asked why they continue to have a hold on him. “It’s one of the basic building blocks of my childhood.” Though it helps that the technology keeps improving and the games’ mechanics and storytelling get more interesting, maybe the reason we keep playing video games as grown men is because we imprinted with our Atari 2600 as kids. Diaz points out “there aren’t really a lot of spaces in our culture where an adult can exercise his imagination in quite the way you can in video games.”  They provide “a space and a reason to exercise muscles that always gave me peace and pleasure, and that might have under other circumstances atrophied.”

Novelist Paul Beatty, author of the modern classic White Boy Shuffle, and a man not unfamiliar with the allure of video games, put it bluntly: “Video gaming is masturbation without the mess.  But imagine if masturbation had high scores and replays, then where would we be?” We would be up late at nights while the wife and child sleep, or skipping classes, or calling in sick to work, trying to clear one more level, trying to win one more game in a simulated season.

What makes Extra Lives – arguably one of the best books of the year – so ultimately satisfying is it acknowledges how video games work like certain movies, or songs, or books, serving as markers in our maturity (or lack thereof) and a way of understanding ourselves. It encourages you to think of a game you’ve played, and to make sense of your life then and now. So with apologies to Mr. Bissell… :

Yar’s Revenge (1981)

My buddy who had this game lived with his mom in a condo complex not far from the low-income apartments I grew up in. He and his brother were redheads, and his mom was single, and the quiet of his home, the nice furniture and the fact they had an indoor staircase, made me think, This is how white people must live.

Graphically, there’s nothing on the screen making instantly clear that Yar’s Revenge is the showdown between an insect-like warrior and the assholes who blew up his planet. But my 11-year-old brain fleshed out the drama around trying to chip through a force field protecting a cannon in need of destruction. Actually, for all Atari 2600 games you pretty much had to supply the details to make them epic. Visually, there was nothing there. This goes straight to what Diaz says about exercising the imagination.

Jordan vs Bird: One on One (1988)

To keep us out of trouble in the neighborhood, my brother and I were packed off each summer to stay with family in a small town near Monterrey, Mexico. The last time I went to visit — halfway into college, and a good distance from finding enjoyment again in wandering for hours around dusty plazas and dry creek beds – it hit me hard that there was truly nothing to do here. But there was this: a video game already a few years old, where Michael Jordan gets to humiliate Larry Bird over and over in a pick-up game.

It gets brutally hot in northern Mexico, and when it does, you stay indoors. That’s when my cousins, my brother, and I went at it nonstop. If you picked Bird, the secret was to rain down three-pointers; if you picked Jordan, you pretty much could do what you felt like. The game seemed rigged.

Now, people there stay indoors when it’s hot, after 9 p.m., or whenever they see military on patrol. Quite a few of the guys we hung out with as boys are in jail or have disappeared or have been killed.

I haven’t visited since college.

Madden NFL (1989–)

The game above all games, the one that’s consumed just about every free (and spoken for hour) of my life and that of so many others. It’s the only game to have come out year after year, in newer (though not necessarily better) editions, for more than 20 years. John Madden insisted on the game being rich in verisimilitude. Football players can learn coverages from it; fans can learn why their team sucks.

This is me, drinking beer, playing against my roommate in our student apartment at USC on a Saturday night, with another friend doing color commentary. This is me, playing against my roommate’s boyfriend in my apartment on a beautiful Saturday in the Richmond District, sitting on a luggage crate, plowing through a pile of dim sum in a Styrofoam box between us. We’re supposed to be cleaning up the place.

This is me, in the same apartment, much later, playing my beloved Chargers against the Raiders, chugging a Diet Coke, back home from a first date.

This is me …

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Rumpus original art by Walter Green.


Oscar Villalon is a San Francisco writer. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Virginia Quarterly Review, Black Clock, the Believer, and NPR.org. Follow him on Twitter at @ovillalon. More from this author →