Editor’s Note: CWRU professor Michael Clune on a pixelated childhood

Matt Hooke, Executive Editor

Everyone can remember the first video game they loved. For me, it was “Spyro the Dragon” for the PS1 when I was around ten-years-old. The three-dimensional graphics and mythology captured my ten-year-old brain. Though I only occasionally play video games now, I still remember how much I enjoyed them when I was younger.

In his 2015 memoir “Gamelife,” Case Western Reserve University professor and Guggenheim Fellow Michael Clune writes about growing up in a computerized boyhood. The book is Clune’s second memoir after “White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin.” The games that obsessed Clune were massively different than the games that capture our attention today, without fancy graphics or DLCs. 

With memes that scream “Gamers rise up!” proliferating the internet on the eve of the release of the new Joker movie, there is no better time to talk about the relatively new medium. Among all artistic forms, from film, writing, visual art to theater, games are unique in how they center the audience, or the player, in the work. This is why they can create such a reverent following. When you play a game, you are not watching someone else, but rather observing yourself. Gaming is, essentially, an out-of-body experience. 

There are games that take inspiration from other mediums. Hideo Kojima’s 1998 PS1 game, “Metal Gear Solid,” uses cutscenes and dialogue to build a detailed world around a stealth game shell. There are post-modern games like “The Stanley Parable” by Davey Wreden that turn the video game mechanics that mocks the very mechanics of story-driven games, with a narrator that grows increasingly more frustrated if you disobey his commands. 

The aspect of games that excites me, as someone is more of a casual player than anything else, is how players often construct their own narratives and backstories around a character because they are the ones control the actions. Though games are often considered, often for justified reasons, little more than time-wasters, they also remove the distinction of audience vs. participant. The medium is meant to be experienced directly not watched passively. 

Clune ties large social themes into the small scale stories of video games and the drama of his 

youth. Clune writes that “Sid Meier’s Pirates!” with its focus on trading gave him a taste for the modern business world. Clune is a master of going from big story discussions of economic systems to a small story discussion of his daily life with his family and his school days. As an eighth-grader inspired by “Pirates!” Clune tries to create a scheme selling stolen candy to other children. Clune sees this as a revolution where kids can create their own economy away from the prying eyes of school administrators. The scheme falls apart when his compatriots decide to eat the candy instead of selling it. Clune uses this incident to talk about the fall of the Soviet Union and unfettered capitalist domination in the 1990s.

“And all over the world as 1988 turned into 1989 the pirates ate their candy,” writes Clune.

The first game Clune writes about, “Suspended,” is an entirely text-based adventure, and “Pirates!” the last game Clune describes, is still at an “Oregon Trail” level of graphics complexity. However, the games’ mechanics and stories are what put an impression on Clune. More importantly, these games offered a way of growing and maturing in a way that did not require other people. Clune describes games as a godsend for him as a shy child, as it was a way for him to make an inner story, without relying on interpersonal relationships.

“There’s a warm red heart for people, true,” writes Clune. “But there’s also another heart. A heart that moves through time. A heart made of the enduring stuff of mountains or stars. Or pixels. Or sky.”

Video games are not made to discount the importance of our relationships with others. However, having something else that we can have our life “climb,” as Clune puts it, can offer a sense of security and growth that can enable one to go out and face the world on its own merits.

“It gave me a new direction to grow,” said Clune on playing ”Suspended” at the age of seven. “While my parents and teachers were helping me grow toward the people, another part of me had begun to grow out away from them.”

As someone who was shy as a child can identify with parts of Clune’s narrative. Though I never became as big of a fan of games as Clune, his narrative offered a relatable story on a boyhood spent alone pursuing solitary interests as much as being outside with friends. 

Video games, as an art-form born of the technological revolution, might be best equipped to tell the stories and ideas that spring from this time dominated by transistors and silicon. The ability to tell a straightforward story or comment on the mechanics that make the game function in the first place gives developers the ability to express a multitude of ideas beyond the simple fun of “Pac-Man” or “Fortnite.”

“If an insight can’t be made into a computer game, it can’t reach us,” writes Clune. “It’s not for us. It’s not real.”