Nov 17 2011

Field of Screens

Michael Thomsen



In fiction, video games act as both the harbingers of dystopia and the means of salvation from bleak techno-futures. Between these two poles lies a vast possibility space, something William Gibson formulated with the idea of cyberspace in his 1982 story "Burning Chrome," a "colorless non-space of the simulation matrix, the electronic consensus-hallucination." Ultimately, when video games appear in fiction, they embody the hallucinations of those who use them, and illuminate the desires that brought them into being.

Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie

After watching his children marvel at them, Rushdie composed a coming-of-age fantasy in homage to video games. Luka is a lover of "pocket sized alternate-reality boxes" whose father goes to sleep one night and cannot be woken the following morning. To revive him, Luka rides a flying carpet to the Mountain of Knowledge to snatch the titular fire; all while benefiting from frequent save points, level progressions, and the ability to store up lives. (Death only bursts Luka into "a million shiny fragments" and sends him back to the previous save). Inside the game, Luka is "Super-Luka, Grandmaster of the Games" who "felt at home, at home in a completely different way than the way in which he felt at home in his home, but at home nevertheless."

God Jr. by Dennis Cooper

For a writer so at home with youthful depravity, it's darkly appropriate that Cooper's turn to video games comes in the form of a father grieving the death of his son. The video game here isn't a simulation of reality, but the husk left behind by a child—one that the bereaved father tries to fill. Jim Baxter is a wheelchair-bound, marijuana muddled 40-something who inadvertently causes his teenage son's death in a car crash. After the accident, Jim falls obsessively into his son's favorite game, which features a bear collecting honeypots in a cartoon forest. When Jim decides he must recreate the game in his yard as a monument to his son, the strains of Cooper's morbidity appear. The further Jim advances with his plan, the more he loses touch with his former life. Eventually, the game's characters become his final companions. "Death doesn't hurt," a polygonal snowman coaxes. "You just stop moving. We'll just forget you... Now, honestly, doesn't that sound nice?"

Reamde by Neal Stephenson

Like many modern video games, Neal Stephenson's writing is awe-inspiring in its ability to render luxuriant amounts of background detail, relevant or not, with seriousness. Reamde is a violent thriller about the creator of an online role-playing game that uses a sophisticated geological modeling system to distribute virtual gold, which takes so much time and effort to harvest that it gains real-world value. Enter hackers from China, Russian mobsters equipped with a powerful computer virus, and a Welsh cyber-terrorist, all of whom draw our hero toward a climactic gunfight along the U.S. Canada border that's long enough for a standalone short novel. Like an immersive video game, Stephenson captures the absurd compulsion that games bring out in people. His details are not to be dwelled upon—at one point he describes the gradual changes in a department store restaurant's color scheme over the years—but they do hold your gaze until the next dramatic imperative comes crashing through the wall.

For the Win by Cory Doctorow

All new art forms fantasize about their world-changing powers. For Cory Doctorow, video games actually contain revolutionary potential. In For the Win, online games are the means by which the downtrodden laborers of the world strike back at the suits who exploit them. The plot pits teenagers from Southern California, Shenzhen, Singapore, and Mumbai against corporate tyrants in the world of online role-playing games, with games serving as virtual sweatshops and battlefields. It's solidarity propaganda from a war waged over the right to profit from pleasure. But, as Doctorow reveals, when games transcend all cultural and technological barriers, they also leave us terrifyingly open to other kinds of exploitation. "The hours had stretched into days," Doctorow writes of the playroom cum sweatshop, "the days had stretched into months, and one day Matthew woke up in the dorm room filled with farts and snores and the smell of twenty young men in a too-small room, and realized that he'd had enough…"

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

"Everyone my age remembers where they were and what they were doing when they first heard about the contest," Cline writes in the opening line of Ready Player One. In Cline's imagined future, James Halliday is the playful, cryptic creator of the online game OASIS. When he dies, it's revealed that has bequeathed his estate to whoever finds the Easter eggs he hid in the game. Cline's utopianism is satiric (Wade, the wunderkind who discovers the first secret, lives in a slum in a dilapidated trailer park) but Cline's fondness for games and the cultural dross they embrace (the book overflows with 1980s references from Winona Ryder to The Greatest American Hero) is sincere. When Cline describes the advent of OASIS as "the dawn of a new era" that disintegrates the barriers between a person and their avatar, one senses no disappointment about a future in which video games subsume history itself.

Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson

Designer Frank Lantz has said the future will not be one of computers with games in them, but one where people play games that sometimes contain computers. Mona Lisa Overdrive is the final book in Gibson's Sprawl trilogy, three seemingly disconnected stories braided together by their conclusion. Of primary concern in Mona Lisa Overdrive is a pop star named Angie who has the supernatural ability to connect to cyberspace without a computer. Mona, a young sex worker with a strong resemblance to the singer, is drawn into a plot to kidnap her and exploit this power. As the kidnapping overlaps with stories of a Yakuza's mourning daughter, holographic ghosts, and a man hooked up to a computer so powerful that it contains a full simulation of reality itself, Gibson uses cyberspace to isolate and magnify the needs of those who use it. Even after the conspiracy is resolved, the troubled desires of the people who created it are left behind, their reflections visible in towers of 1s and 0s.

Michael Thomsen lives in New York. He has written about sex, video games, and male lactation for Slate, The Daily Beast, The Believer, The New Inquiry, and Kill Screen.

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