It’s Wednesday, November 9, and I am 31,000 feet up and have a ground speed of 504 miles per hour.
No Mastodon today. I’m in a reflective mood. I just finished reading Gabrielle Zevin‘s Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow - A Novel, so today’s episode is going straight back to being about technology and what it is like to be a person.
Here are some things to know about me:
When I was around 16 years old (which is strange, in my head I remember being younger), Microserfs, by Douglas Coupland, was published in the UK. It expanded on a short story that was included in a 1994 issue of WIRED, says Wikipedia, which is probably why my memory is all fuzzy.
Suffice it to say that Microserfs is one of my comfort books, alongside The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy which, I’m afraid to admit, makes me a stereotype, cliche and trope walk into a bar and order a man of a certain age on the internet.
Microserfs is about a bunch of young college grads working at Microsoft, a sort of follow-up to Coupland’s Generation X (which I read, and never really grokked, to be honest) and, I don’t know what it is to be young and working at Microsoft at that critical early 1990s era of computers and culture. The characters are geeks and nerds and talk in top 10 lists and they email each other, there’s a Windows app called WinQuote that would let people check the Microsoft stock price just as right now Meta employees may be despairing at what their RSUs are, or are not, worth.
I was 16 and impressionable and loved computers, everything about them, and like some of the characters hated my body and wished and believed that the thing that mattered about me was my brain and my intellect and that really, all I needed was my brain and my fingers so I could type.
Now, a good 27 years later, it hurts when I type.
Anyway. I wanted to be them. I wanted to be those nerds who lived with those computers and had a network in their house and I ate that shit up, I had the copies of Byte in our house, but at the same time I was sixteen and there people were in their early to mid twenties, I hadn’t even moved out of the house yet. But then they were quitting their jobs, following their savant Michael and their dream of creating a universal object-oriented programming-based game, a proto-Minecraft and, I think, a fantasy of all game designers at some point in their lives: the everything game.
This was 1995, so at the same time many middle class people of a certain age were about to get hooked on the mass-media phenomenon of the friends, those people living aspirational lives of doing apparently not very much and sitting around quipping at each other when they didn’t even have Twitter accounts yet.
The thing about Microserfs, and then later, the thing about the Mythic Quest episode A Dark Quiet Death, is that it took seriously the experience and interior life of what I suspect was at the time a relatively small number of people: people who had grown up with the personal computer revolution, who were lucky enough, in stable enough, rich enough families to have encountered those computers and were of that particular mix of introverted/problem-solving/world-creating personality and temperament to look at a computer and see: what worlds we could create with this.
In the 1980s and 1990s we were early of course and our reach far outmatched our grasp, but as human brains are wont to do, we filled in the gaps and just thought about what would be because Moore had promised us that we only had to wait eighteen months, and then another eighteen, and then another eighteen. And the benefit of youth, of course, when eighteen months could simultaneously feel like nothing and everything.
There is a part of Zevin’s novel where the protagonists reflect on whether they were born at just the right time. Any earlier and they’d have had to ship games around in ziplock bags. Any later and, well: look around you. The crushing intensity of creating in the open on the internet. The economics of the videogame industry. It’s any generation’s prerogative, I suppose, to look back on its childhood and early adulthood and say: nobody else had it like this, and only our time was unique, and of course that is always going to be true. But allow me to maintain the fiction that the course and trajectory of computing and its effect and penetration in society had a particular curve, and there were definitely certain portions of that curve at which you could be a certain age.
The thing that has absolutely wrecked me about Zevin’s novel is how much she has captured what it was like to grow up while the videogame industry grew up, what it was like to grow up in with a creative medium that was defining itself (me, on Twitter: have you noticed how there were no dad videogames until the videogame industry was old enough to have dads and now suddenly there are so many dad videogames everywhere?1) in a cyclical feedback loop. I am an ignorant, spoiled philistine so I will assert without research or evidence this: when else has there been such a quick cycle of technical innovation combined with the aging of a cohort deciding and defining the stories it wishes to tell, with the ability to affect so many?
And they say some people wonder, ineffectually, into the fucking void, whether videogames are art. Of course they were fucking art, he says, desperately attempting to stave off re-litigating this stupid argument. They were made by people trying to express something about the world and themselves whether they knew it or not and they communicated to their audience and I’m sorry if that was too alien or scary or threatening to you but you know what, it made our generation.
Zevin’s is a novel where ludonarrative dissonance is casually tossed in, no heavy-handed explanation to the reader because of course the reader knows, and if the reader doesn’t know, then of course the reader can look up the fucking word. Zevin is 45, I see, and that doesn’t surprise me at all, in some ways it makes me pleased and relieved that there is someone in my cohort who writes so achingly, beautifully and heartbreakingly well to describe, in a little way, what it is like to be me.
I say this not only because I have made videogames, not only because I have made them in a partnership, not only that I have made them under a spotlight and a business, not that I am a non-white person in a white world where people might not like you just because of the way you look, not only because I felt like I identified with the crushing weight of expectations and the ever-present looming of failure, not only that I nerded out over the conversations about game engines, not only that I saw echoes of the abusive mentor in both my own experience and that of my friends, but because in the scant 24 hours I’ve spent talking about this book and, honestly, raving about it to anyone who will listen, so many people have also replied: ah, yes, that was also what it was like to be me.
Three years ago I said that in the next few years, someone would write the High Fidelity of videogames, and by that I meant someone would write something that captures the zeitgeist of growing up with videogames not as a solitary pursuit but as something that’s a shared connection with an entire generation, the same way music is, that’s the tenuous connection with High Fidelity, and obviously someone would need to write it in a way that wasn’t Ready Player One because boy howdy do I have opinions about that creative work, of which the most constructive I can say is that it is certainly about a thing and that it was not for me.
I am not a music person. I don’t know why, but it didn’t really happen for me. I am a videogame person, I think, but then just like with music (I think?) there is my insecurity of well, maybe I don’t like the right kind? Maybe what I like is the wrong kind? Maybe other people are liking music (sorry, videogames) better, in a more proper way than me?
But no, because here is the thing: they are fun and that is all you need to know.
Zevin’s novel isn’t even particularly about growing up online which is a related yet somehow completely separate thing. The story focuses on their creative pursuits but then that would be a disservice to how the story covers their creative pursuits. Sam, Sadie and Marx are three particular people and they’re not, I don’t know, your stereotypical literary fiction people, whoever those people might be. At least, it doesn’t feel that way. These are people who explain their experience in the world in a way informed by the language of videogames in a way that I don’t know previous generations might have been able. Were other people able to see life so easily through the lens of a game, was it so accessible to see life as a series of choices and that if this time, just this one time you could go back and reload and try again? It’s not as if regret and dwelling in the past and wondering what-could-have-been are in any way exclusive to the arbitrary slice of people born in the mid 1970s toward, say, the mid 1980s (if that!) who happened to align on a particular curve of personal computing progress, but at the same time with my own myopic and selfish, egotistical view: come on. It’s right there. We created worlds that we wanted to control because of course we were young and were trying to figure out who we were and have you seen the world out there? It’s horrible and arbitrary and there is death and disease and hurt so why not. Why not create a pocket universe, why not have the courage to invite someone into it, why not experience the joy of creation in a somewhat safer environment where the worst that could happen is maybe you write such a screwed-up autoexec.bat and config.sys on both the hard drive and all your boot disks that you’ve hosed your home/family computer and you need an adult friend’s help to make the damn thing work again.
Why not make a world you could play with that you could pour your imagination in to. And what if you could share that feeling both of participation and creation with your friends. And for the first time, because nobody really had to know, what if you could just do it and it didn’t matter who you were, that of course you could be a dog with a keyboard, you could make something and you knew there’d be other people out there like you, who thought a little bit like you, and somehow, for some fucked-up reason, they could look at that CRT and they could see what it was going to become.
There is no single player game, just in the same way that there is no single player and no single person. A single person, isolated, alone, is the most unimaginable torture and punishment we could inflict as a society. Of all things, this is one of the things I remember from working on a brand campaign for Facebook, a good nearly ten years ago, when were figuring out how to talk about the benefits of a social network and how it might not be that bad, really. But as I was saying, there is no such thing as a single player game because so long as there are other people, there is always the chance that you will someday be able to talk to someone else about the game you played and maybe they will get to play it, too.
I am not just talking about play – if I wanted to talk about play I would point you to Bogost and Lantz and Salen and all of the textbooks and Koster and Schell and Jo Kim and so on and I don’t need to talk about how humanity has always played and what the rules of play are and the scourge of gamification (there is my brother, who has covered that amply), I am talking about the play that we made with computers and the play that we made with each other.
When I read that Iain M. Banks played Civilization that was a connection that I had in a way I never thought I’d experienced when people talk about music together because I was right there with him at 3am in the morning, the phosphorescence from the cheap CRT burning away at my face and skin so it would feel taut in the morning even though I was so young and we would be able to talk and joke about how it was silly, silly, right, that you could have a fortified phalanx in the 21st century and it would still do pretty well against, I don’t know, tanks.
I know that I can talk about what it was like to get a copy of Doom or whatever off a CD-ROM from a magazine or someone had found a BBS to download it and have your PC driven around to a friend’s house and scrimp and save for an NE2000-compatible video card, for you to figure out how to get IPX networking set up on the school network, about how for a school fete you’d be able to take your home computer, an honest-to-god pirated copy of Indy 500 or whatever proto-not-even-gouraud-shaded racer and charge kids 50 pence to play for a fundraiser.
I would like to think that this isn’t just oh weren’t those days good but what would I know. All I know is that someone else wrote the story and more than any other time in my life, I read these characters and saw and felt so much.
Of course videogames are art. They always were.
This observation is in and of itself also a reflection of its author: I could say the same about have you noticed about casual games or farming games, or social games, because the thing that happened was that slowly, inevitably and in no way anywhere damn finished the the videogame industry start diversifying and accepting that perhaps videogames might be for and made by people who weren’t straight white dudes who liked shooting things (not that lots of people don’t enjoy shooting things now and then) ↩