Gamelife: A Memoir

Gamelife: A Memoir

by Michael W. Clune


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You have been awakened.

Floppy disk inserted, computer turned on, a whirring, and then this sentence, followed by a blinking cursor. So begins Suspended, the first computer game to obsess seven-year-old Michael, to worm into his head and change his sense of reality. Thirty years later he will write: "Computer games have taught me the things you can't learn from people."

Gamelife is the memoir of a childhood transformed by technology. Afternoons spent gazing at pixelated maps and mazes train Michael's eyes for the uncanny side of 1980s suburban Illinois. A game about pirates yields clues to the drama of cafeteria politics and locker-room hazing. And in the year of his parents' divorce, a spaceflight simulator opens a hole in reality.

In telling the story of his youth through seven computer games, Michael W. Clune captures the part of childhood we live alone.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374536381
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 09/13/2016
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 873,372
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Michael W. Clune is a professor of English at Case Western Reserve University. He is the author of the memoir White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin and of two scholarly books, American Literature in the Free Market and Writing Against Time.

Read an Excerpt


A Memoir

By Michael W. Clune

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2015 Michael W. Clune
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-86547-828-2



I wasn't surprised when the computer appeared. I'd seen it coming on TV. Television was pictures on a screen. After television came the words. In the den of our old Victorian house in Evanston, after the VCR tape of The Parent Trap was over and my sister Jenny dozed beside me, and my parents were upstairs and hadn't yet noticed the television babble had stopped, I watched the static. I waited for something to emerge. I was seven. After fifteen minutes, nothing. After twenty minutes, still nothing. After a half hour the static was like a pulverized alphabet. Ten minutes later I saw the first letter. W. Assembled in a flash from tiny gray and black slats, it jumped from one corner of the screen to the other and vanished.

So I was ready for the words at the end of television. My father set up the computer in the small second-floor room by the back staircase. My mother said that in the old days that had been the nursery. She said my great-grandfather had lived in that room when he was a baby. He was dead, I'd never met him. My mother said he was probably thinking about me.

The Commodore 64 was a swollen beige keyboard. The small television and the keyboard housing the mysterious computer circuits sat on a card table. I sat on a wooden chair — an extra from the kitchen table far below. Behind the ex–television screen, and slightly above it, a narrow window showed the blue summer sky. The pre-words of high clouds spun in the static of the sun. I realized why the default setting of the computer screen is blue. I typed in a sentence.

-Color 2

The screen changed to green.

-Color 3

The screen changed to red.

-Color 10


-Color 15


-Make Castle


The first thing a human needs to know about computers is that not every sequence of words will work. The second thing a human needs to know about computers is that almost every sequence of words will not work. I took a deep breath. I looked down at the keyboard, a hive of unknown words. XFK. CRYSTEP. SEPT1HLP. Which combinations would work? Which ones were error?

I stared at the red screen. The undersides of my legs grew sweaty on the hard wood chair.


I stopped typing. The cursor blinked at me. Make what? I closed my eyes. Nothing. The error was in me! I didn't know what I wanted from the computer.

When my father found me, he gently raised my head from the keyboard. He dried my eyes with the edge of his shirt. Then he started to tell me about computer games. A computer game is a device for giving people things to want from computers.

The game I picked out with my father at the store was called Suspended. It belonged to a now-forgotten genre known as "text-based adventures." It was made by a company called Infocom, which had practically invented the genre with their 1978 game Zork. The front of the box had a picture. On the back of the box were words:

A robot who hears but cannot see ...

You are suspended — physically immobilized, frozen but alive — 20 miles beneath the surface of an automated planet. Three computers, supposedly perfect and fail-safe, control the entire planet's weather, transportation, and food production. You are linked to the computer system in case of an emergency — in case, for some unthinkable, unimaginable reason, the computers malfunction.

A robot who sees but cannot wander ...

Should the impossible happen, should something go wrong, you must fix the computers as quickly as possible, since people will be dying — victims of a utopia turned nightmare — unless you do.

A robot who feels but cannot hear ...

You cannot move. You have six robots at your disposal to do your work for you — highly specialized, programmed robots, all obedient, all helpful, all individualized. You will have to manipulate them in and around an Underground Complex where the computers are controlled. You will address and work them separately and jointly, and they will report back to you with their progress and perceptions.

Think logically. Act decisively.

This description mesmerized me. I read it through four times. Then I turned the box over to examine the picture on the front. A man's large blue face. His eyes closed. Suspended, I thought.

"How old are you, son?"

I jumped a little. It was a clerk, staring down at me through wire-rim glasses.

"Um ... seven," I stammered.

He shook his head.

"This game is designed for older players," he said. "Ages sixteen and up."

He took the box from me and replaced it on the shelf.

"There's some games you might like over in the next aisle," he said. "Fun games."

I turned where he pointed and walked away, dazed. Sixteen? I did the math in my head. From seven to sixteen is ... nine. Nine years until I would be sixteen. I couldn't wait nine years!

I stopped. The aisle was piled with brightly colored boxes. I looked at them. Games about mazes. Baseball. There was even a box with Big Bird on the cover. No way. I turned around. Leaned past a shelf piled with computer manuals to scan the aisle I'd just left. The clerk had his back to me, talking to another customer. I inched back toward the Suspended boxes.

What if I got it anyway?

I looked over my shoulder, suddenly worried that my father was watching. But he was at the counter, chatting with the cashier. So what if I play it nine years early? I thought. It's a game. How could it be dangerous?

I'm going to get it, I decided. I crept up and snatched the box from the shelf, and walked as quickly as my legs would carry me to the counter.

Hurry, I thought, looking back for the bad clerk.

My father glanced at the box, nodded. I gave it to the cashier so he could ring it up. The cashier looked at me, but he didn't say anything.

My father had the radio on as we drove back from the store. President Reagan was on it. He was talking about Iran. He said that the best gift human beings could give to the future was an error-free world.

"We will not stand for error," Reagan intoned.

"Eliminate error," my father whispered to himself.

No more error, I thought. Outside the car windows, the giant summer daisies turned slowly on their stems. The road beneath us vibrated like an eyeless, earless, noseless robot. Deep summer blue above, the color of swarming airplanes.

Everything is about to change, I thought.

* * *

"You have been awakened."

Floppy disk inserted, computer turned on, a whirring, and then this sentence, followed by a blinking cursor. I'd lowered the blinds over the window, but the rims of sunwheels slid through the slats.

I studied the card with the list of words the game recognized. It was a short list. "Report." "Move." "Press Button."

"Auda, report," I typed.

Auda was the robot who could hear.

"I hear wind coming from the sloping corridor."

I studied the colored map that had come with the game.

"Iris, report," I typed.

Iris was the seeing robot.

"I am in the Transit Control Area. The screen shows malfunctioning aircabs have now killed twelve thousand people on the surface. There are three buttons."

"Iris, press button."

"I do not have hands," she said.

"Sensa here," scrolled across the screen. "I am picking up a disturbance by elevator bank A."

"Auda, report," I typed.

"I am hearing the sound of footsteps in the sloping corridor," she said.

"Whiz, report."

Whiz had intelligence.

"I am in the data library sir. What would you like to know?"

"What are the footsteps?"

"I don't know what that means."

"Iris here. Malfunctioning aircabs have now killed twenty thousand people on the surface. There are three buttons."

"Auda, press button," I typed.

"There is no button here," she said.

"Sensa here," scrolled across the screen. "I am sensing a disturbance in the library."

I checked the colored map. The sloping corridor led from the elevator banks to the library.

"Whiz, report," I typed.

"Whiz has been disabled," scrolled across the screen.

"Auda, move to Transit Control Area," I typed.

"I don't know what that is," Auda replied.

I studied the command sheet, studied the map.

"Auda, move southeast," I typed.

"Moving southeast," she said.

"You hear footsteps in the room outside your chamber," the screen scrolled. "You see shadowy shapes bent over the controls of your cryogenic suspension tank. Your life support systems have been disabled. You have failed."

The screen went black.

"What the hell?" I said.

After a few seconds the frustration drained away, and it hit me: I'd been inside. I'd been somewhere else. I looked to see where it was I was.

An angle of sunlight cut across the reflection of the small boy in the computer screen. Summer wind moved behind the walls. The boy's great-grandfather stood behind the wooden chair. He stood without eyes, without ears, without hands.

* * *

The next time I played, I discovered Waldo, a robot with multiple arms who could move quickly and lift heavy things. Waldo, Iris, Auda, Sensa, Whiz, and Poet. Poet could sense the flow of electricity. I also discovered the hulk of a seventh robot. I moved Waldo to the Transit Control Area, where he was able to operate the controls that disabled the aircabs, which ended the murder on the planet's surface and delayed the arrival of the squad sent to disable me.

I also discovered a strange text on the back of the game manual, after the page with the commands. It was a paragraph long, and it described the game's creator. His name was Michael Berlyn. The paragraph described how Michael was a valued and creative member of the Infocom team. It said that he drank a great deal of coffee. It then said that he had worked too hard on Suspended, and that he had become insane following completion of the game. At the time, I didn't understand that this was game-designer humor.

"Do you know anyone who has become insane?" I asked James.

James was my cousin from Ireland, visiting for the summer. He was three years older than me and had wonderful fair hair, and all the girls in our summer school class had a crush on him. We were sitting on the beach a couple of blocks from my house. James shrugged.

"Me mother went insane," he said. "From drugs, it was."

I was taken aback.

"She's okay now, though?"

I'd seen my aunt just last summer. A large, warm, melancholy woman.

"Oh, ay, she's right enough now," said James.

"So ... when you become insane, do —"

"Why are you so fascinated with becoming insane all of a sudden?" James asked.

"I'm not," I said. "So when you become insane, what happens?"

He shrugged.

"I dunno."

"But you said your mother —"

"Look," he said. "Now I'm going to tell you just this one thing and then we're going to shut up about insanity, all right?"

I nodded.

"Right then," he said. "When you get insane, you can't talk right."

"Can't talk right. Like how?"

An idea occurred to me.

"Like you don't understand a lot of sentences?"

He nodded.

"What else?"

"Your hearing gets messed. Like I'll be after talking to her for ten minutes and it'll be like she heard nothin'."

I was astounded. James noticed.

"Can she move her hands?" I breathed.

"You mean when she's insane?" He thought about it. "Yes," he said. "I mean no."

He looked over his shoulder. My little sister, Jenny, who we were supposed to be keeping an eye on, was making drip castles by the water.

"I'll tell you something else, if you keep it quiet," he said.

It was getting late. The sun's giant face was crossed with air transit lines, and on the lawns behind the beach, the daisies had stopped moving. The lake droned.

"Insane people see things that aren't there," James whispered.

"Oh!" I said.

"And it's inside," he said. "It's inside that it goes bad. When you're insane, it's the inside that rots. The things she'd say, her not understanding plain English, the look in her eyes. Well that's all small stuff, really. But it's what it shows that counts. What it shows about what's happening inside."

"What's happening inside?"

"It was the priest told us that," James said. "The priest said her soul is disturbed."

"Poet, touch seventh robot," I typed.

"I am detecting faint electrical activity within this hulk," Poet said.

"Iris, look at seventh robot."

"I see a giant robot. Its eyes are closed."

"Sensa, report."

"I sense a disturbance inside the seventh robot."

"Auda, what do you hear?"

"I don't understand that."

"Auda, listen to the robot."

"I don't understand that."

"Auda, report."

"I hear wind," said Auda. "I hear footsteps."

* * *

"I wish I could stay here," said James.

"You have to go back to Ireland at the end of the summer," my little sister told him. "You have to go back to school."

"Shut up, Jenny."

"Everybody has to go back to school."

"Jenny, you be quiet," my mother called from the front of the station wagon.

We were on our way to Studio M. Mrs. Larson, the third-grade teacher from St. Mary's, the small Catholic school Jenny and I attended, ran a month-long summer session of creative activities for gifted children. The criteria for giftedness were elastic. Jenny's gift, for example, was complaining that if James and I got to go, then she should be able to go. My gift was lip-synching. James's gift was writing.

The low brick school building pulsed dully in the sun. We trooped out of the station wagon. I was the last to leave, and as I got out, my mother reached through the car's open window to grab my shirt.

"Michael," she hissed.

"What, Mom?"


She looked furtively at the school entrance twenty paces away, where James and Jenny stared back at us. She pulled me close.

"James can't stay with us," she hissed in my ear.


"He's going to want to, and honey, I wish we could. God knows, he's going to want to stay with us even more now that his mother — damn it!"

Jenny was running toward the car.

"What, Mom?" I asked.

"Nothing!" she called out, loud enough for James to hear. "Have a good time, children. See you in two hours!"

The station wagon sped off into the summer haze.

"What was she on about?" James asked.

"Who knows?" I said.

Inside, we joined the seven other gifted members of Studio M. Mrs. Larson stood over everyone, beaming. She was a hyperactive woman gifted at projecting her facial expressions through time and space using the funnels of children's brains. What Mrs. Larson expressed was happiness. Her face worked exclusively with happiness. Compacted into impossible densities in the pressures of her interior, concentrated happiness sprang out of her face, uncoiling through our spiral lives.

When her expression of joy emerges at the other end of us it will be a constellation in the sky.

I love her.

"Who wants to start?" she sang delightedly.

"Start what, Mrs. Larson?" we chorused.

"With a creative event!" She sprang to the blackboard, yellow chalk stick in hand.

"In the last week who has experienced a CREATIVE EVENT?"

And as our answers babbled out she answered herself, shouting, "Everyone! Everyone has experienced a creative event. Neil!"

"I finished Prince Caspian," said Neil, a blond kid whose father worked for the FBI and had a gun. "Prince Caspian is one of the Chronicles of Narnia."

"Wonderful, Neil!" said Mrs. Larson, the magic words of the title unspooling from her pinwheeling hand at the board. "A wonderful book! To read a book is to create! Without a reader the words are just marks! They're nothing!"

"Errors!" I shouted.

"Yes, Michael!" she screamed. "Yes, exactly! A book by itself is an error! A reader like Neil is a CREATOR! James!"

"I started writing a story, Mrs. Larson."

She had to sit down. She pulled up one of the tiny chairs meant for eight-year-olds and lowered herself onto it. We leaned forward.

"Now maybe," she whispered, "maybe your wonderful Irish accent has tricked my poor old ears, James. But I thought you said ... no! You can't have. You can't have started ... started to write ..."

She looked at him imploringly.

"I've started a story, Mrs. Larson."

Looking directly up at God, she ascended from her chair like the space shuttle.

"But a story without a reader is nothing," Neil called out worriedly. "Reading is the creative part! Like Prince Caspian. Right, Mrs. Larson?"


Excerpted from Gamelife by Michael W. Clune. Copyright © 2015 Michael W. Clune. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1 Suspended 3

2 Four Hundred and Ninety Points of Damage 29

3 The Devil in the Garden 59

4 World War II Has Never Ended 91

5 The Sun and the Stars 119

6 Pirates! 147

7 A Heart of Sky 181

Acknowledgments 213

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