Word Counts and Body Counts: On Video Games and the Writing Life

June 28, 2013 | 1 book mentioned 10 min read

In 2009, a few weeks before the start of my last semester in college, I began living a double life as familiar as it was embarrassing. By day, I wrote fiction in the library, relegating myself to a windowless office to work on a thesis-cum-novel. By night, homework permitting, I played Grand Theft Auto IV. I blew through an average of three hours a day wreaking havoc in a virtual city. Whenever my classmates prodded me with questions about my work, I cited my latest word count as evidence of a Puritan industry. I failed to mention — I couldn’t mention — how closely it tracked with my body count.

cover Technology evolves, the culture changes, but gamers keep the mantle of delinquents. Even those few of us who profit off our hobby contend with a debilitating stigma. In his book Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, the writer Tom Bissell recounts how a girlfriend of his, upon witnessing a particularly egregious example of video game dialogue, immediately “revoked all vagina privileges until further notice.” As part of a 10-minute bit about the oddities of virtual avatars, the Irish comic Dara O’Briain, wringing his hands like a schoolboy caught stealing fruit snacks, jokes that video games rank on the Shame Scale up there with hardcore porn. In a piece for Kotaku, the blogger Mike Fahey tells how his ex-wife, shortly after claiming to accept his love of games, waited for him to leave for a conference and promptly moved out of the house. In spite of the fact that the games industry is now larger than Hollywood (and despite the critical apparatus being formed by new sites like Kill Screen), the medium and its constituents retain an adolescent air. For this reason above all others, playing games — even now — means losing a portion of your dignity.

I knew all this on that January day when I picked up Grand Theft Auto. I knew I was dooming myself to months of stagnant development. As I went back to my apartment, I thought of my father, circa 1997, rattling off a list of things I could learn if I stopped playing Mario. I could learn to play baseball, he said. I could learn to speak German or French. I did none of those things, and because of that I came to believe, as my father did, that games were a waste of my time. I came to regard them as relics of a self-hating era. If I were to pick them up again — especially with a thesis to finish — all it would do is negate my own better instincts.

But then, as the weeks wore on, I began to notice something strange. The more time I spent in Liberty City, the better I seemed to write. My antics in the game were helping me write my novel.

Growing up, I knew that my father saw the rise of the games industry as a sign of cultural decay. To him, the cartridge was an emblem of sloth and crassness, incapable of providing the kind of enlightenment sought after by right-living adults. For much of my childhood, he forbade me from owning a console, on the grounds that letting me keep one in the house would “turn my brain into mush.” After two years of begging, he relented, but only on the condition that I limit my playtime each day. He drew up a tally — stuck via magnet to the fridge — that let him see at a glance how worrisome my habit was becoming. Eventually, as one hour a day became two, and then three, our schedule fell by the wayside. Unhappy with the seeming collapse of my self-discipline, my father resigned himself to a state of perma-disapproval.

For their part, my friends’ parents echoed my father’s discomfort, albeit with fewer barnburning lectures and warnings. Even during sleepovers — when diplomacy blunted the edge of familial conflicts — it was clear that gaming was a matter of household debate. On many weekends, the dynamic between the kids and the parents played out as a generational standoff: the kids play a game, the parents urge the kids to go outside, the kids make a promise to get some fresh air upon reaching some goalpost in the game. When the kids reach the goalpost, they decide to reach another one, which leads to them reneging on their vow to enjoy the nice weather. Unwilling to enforce harsh discipline, the parents crack a joke, the most common one being that their kids were the victims of alien bodysnatchers.

Beneath the levity of that joke was an important belief. Our parents thought video games were essentially complex toys. In classing them alongside comic books, Legos and action figures in the roll call of juvenilia, they managed to convince themselves our fervor had a sell-by date. In general, the culture supported them  — the top place to buy games in my hometown was the local Toys “R” Us.

For used games, the number one choice was Funcoland, a chain that resembled a cross between Best Buy and KB Toys. The marketing in these places conveyed a distinct message: that games, like violent cartoons, were meant for 10-year-old boys.

For my friends and I, this kiddiness helped justify our obsession. We reasoned that, if it was true that games were made for our demographic, our parents should expect us to play them as much as we could. At the same time, however, the argument had a flip side: teenagers and adults looked down on gaming as beneath them by definition. In this way, we confirmed the existence of a nebulous sell-by date, an age when adolescence would force us to put down our controllers.

Every so often, I ran into peers who claimed to have moved past games. I remember one night in sixth grade, a night I spent at the house of my oldest friend. A couple of his neighbors flanked us on his living-room couch. We tore through a match of Killer Instinct, during which one of these neighbors, a kid wearing basketball shorts and a loose-fitting gray T-shirt, munched on handfuls of Tostitos and watched us play without comment. He never joined in, and when I asked him why, my friend explained that his neighbor had stopped playing games. “John’s pretty busy,” he said. John then delineated his schedule for the week, which included a fishing expedition, basketball practice, and working as a lifeguard at his pool. The subtext was obvious: John didn’t play games anymore because John was growing up.

For months while writing my thesis, I hated the hours I spent every day in the library. To me, it seemed that no matter how hard I worked, no matter how long I stared at my gargantuan Word file, nothing I came up with evoked a palpable setting, at least not well enough to belong in a decent novel. To friends, I groused that my syntax was clunky, my imagery lifeless, my similes dead in the water. At times I wondered exactly where I stood on the spectrum of functional literacy.

In part, these thoughts explain why, after years of disinterest, I went back to my original sin. Like Netflix marathons, beer can towers, and drawers full of unwashed sweatpants, video games told the world loud and clear that a college kid was Giving Up Hope. Like cash left in front of a junkie, they stood for a fatal temptation. The story in which I was playing the main character is cliched but always tragic: the ne’er-do-well, given one last chance to work hard, gives in to his laziest impulse and blows his shot at success. In the context of that year, my choice was a form of self-sabotage.

Some have argued that in GTA IV, the star of the game is not the protagonist, Niko Bellic, but the fictional Liberty City. I grew to agree with this argument in the course of my defeatist campaign. Early on, Niko completes missions in Broker, Dukes, and Bohan, respective facsimiles of Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. The missions vary — one involves taking a local girl out on a date — but most of them force Niko to venture to unknown neighborhoods. Pinging from locale to locale, stealing cars and Hummers and trucks, Niko (which is to say the player) comes to know the geography of the city. In my case, it got to the point where, without consulting a map, I could drive from the South Bronx equivalent to the beach in pseudo-Bay Ridge.

It might not seem useful to memorize a virtual city. As pointless activities go, it ranks near learning Klingon. Yet I couldn’t help but notice that, as my faculties developed, they bled into the rest of my life. On campus, I paid more attention to byways, shortcuts, and alleys, enough so that my travel time from class to class went down. My body felt more dextrous, less likely to drop or spill things. Persnickety facts and statistics gradually became easier to recall. And back in my carrel, I found a new confidence. I didn’t dread my work as I had before I picked up the game.

At first I chalked this up to the fact that the game relaxed me. Few things help relieve pressure like indulging in a childhood passion. But then my adviser, a man who didn’t know what I did in my spare time, made clear he was seeing improvements in my drafts. In meetings, he said my dialogue was tighter, my sentences leaner, my character portrayals more accurate. He congratulated me on ridding my drafts of tiny grammatical snafus. Apart from the easy explanation — that months of practice were finally paying off — I never said a word about where this improvement came from. I figured it wasn’t possible, no matter the weight of the evidence.

Later on, some years after I graduated, I stumbled upon a few writers who’d noted similar connections. In Extra Lives, Tom Bissell describes the typical platformer in explicitly literary terms, labeling the modern-day heir of Donkey Kong a “strange, nonverbal poem” — one that, like a poem, “does not disguise the fact that it is designed, contains things you cannot immediately see, and rewards those willing to return to them again and again.” Junot Diaz, in a review of GTA IV, shed light on the storytelling failures that kept it from being a masterpiece, implying that a competent story might have raised it to the level of a good novel. Nathan Englander, in conversation with Rivka Galchen, praises Gears of War as a “magnificent” accomplishment that creates “new narrative spaces.” Like the journalists now forming a critical discourse around games, these novelists recognize the birth of a serious art form.

I’d be lying if I said these appraisals weren’t gratifying. On occasion, I wished I could go back in time, to 1997, and tell my 10-year-old self there was no good reason to feel ashamed. I’d tell that miserable, guilt-ridden kid that huge numbers of people, successful adults with mortgages and publications and families, loved playing video games just as much as he did. Above all, I’d tell him to please sit tight and wait.

In high school, I went through a long stretch when I rarely (if ever) played games, though not because I got sick of butting heads with my father. I gave up because, in the way of teenagers everywhere, I discovered other things to do. I diverted my free time from upcoming games to follow music and culture on sites like Pitchfork and Slate. At the same time, I met gamers who were drug addicts, dropouts, and poor students, whose lives did more to convince me to quit than years of disdainful lectures. The more I read, the more effort I devoted to writing, schoolwork, and music. From this my parents concluded that games had been part of a phase.

Then, one week in my first semester of college, I got in an accident that forced me to stay in my dorm. I was taking a Kung Fu class as part of a phys ed requirement (really). My flying jump kick went all right, but I botched the landing, cracking my ankle upon contact with the ground. Incapacitated, I asked my sister to send up my PS2.  For the next two months, I played through Final Fantasy X, working through its puzzles while my cohort went off to parties.

What’s interesting is how many hallmates came in to watch me play. Crowds of eight or 10 guys (and they were always guys) stopped by on weekday nights, elbowing each other for space on the carpet of my unkempt dorm room. I looked over this crowd of my peers and saw that good kids — the kinds of kids you expect to chase after their loftiest goals — enjoyed immersing themselves in this world as much as I did. I didn’t know for certain if their parents disapproved like mine had, but I guessed, judging from the number of bashful faces in the room, that many if not most of us were part of a quiet solidarity. Come look, our actions told our stern-faced elders. Come look at us wasting away.

To graduate college in 2009 was to hear how unlucky you were. It meant watching as friends moved home and fought to land part-time gigs. It meant finding, the moment you finished the gauntlet of the American college experience, that now your days were composed of endless, unstructured free time. At that point your choice became to live as an autodidact — a path we might call the Way of the Ambitious — or else to give in to a long-dormant penchant for apathy.

For most people I knew, seesawing between the two options proved to be the way to get by. Three- and four-day weekends curled up with Office reruns gave way to nine-day-periods of frenzied job-hunting and study. Upon signing the lease for my first apartment in New York, I vowed to spend whatever time I wasn’t looking for jobs reading classic fiction and crafting a series of short stories. I did read more, and I did write often, but somehow — predictably — I got addicted to retro games.

It was shameful, or so I thought. The guilt that haunted me as a college senior (that here I was wasting time allotted for study) transmogrified into fears that I was a bad adult. My enjoyment of Super Metroid, interpreted through the lens of these fears, had nothing to do with the game’s eerie world or brilliant, exploratory mechanics. It represented a need to be unproductive, to refuse to work on myself in a measurable, dignified way.

To combat these fears, I told myself — as new graduates have since the beginning of time — that everything would sort itself out once my career finally took off in earnest. In September, I landed an internship, which then led to a part-time job, which then led to a full-time job on the 10th floor of a SoHo skyscraper. Like many New Yorkers, I suspect, adulthood crept up on me in increments, rearing its head first as residence in a decent neighborhood, then as a working knowledge of the city, then as a nine-to-five job at a company whose name strangers would recognize. Yet throughout it all, I kept playing games — sometimes for an hour a week, sometimes for two hours a day, but always enough that some part of me could hide out in a game when I chose.

Last year I left New York to get a Master’s degree in Dublin. I packed my PS3 in a storage container the week before I lit out. As I did, I told myself this was really the end, a sign to the universe that I was now ready to cast off childish things. It marked the last time I’ve played a game since then. Right now I can’t say whether my life has improved, nor can I say that I feel more secure in my maturity. Wherever the truth lies, I know that if the need ever strikes me — if the urge that first struck me at six years old returns in full force — my downfall and my joy is in a Brooklyn warehouse, waiting.

Image Credit: Unsplash/Sigmund.

is a staff writer for The Millions. He lives in New York.

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