Interview: Michael W. Clune, Author Of 'Gamelife' Michael W. Clune spent much of his childhood alone — just him and his 8-bit computer. But, as he writes in his new memoir, playing text adventures and role-playing games helped prepare him for life.
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In 'Gamelife,' A Portrait Of The Writer As A Young Role-Player

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In 'Gamelife,' A Portrait Of The Writer As A Young Role-Player

In 'Gamelife,' A Portrait Of The Writer As A Young Role-Player

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

As a little kid, moving from one town to another can be difficult. But moving from Ireland to Chicago, that's like relocating to another planet.

MICHAEL W. CLUNE: I had a very difficult time fitting in when I started elementary school. I had an Irish accent. I wore Irish clothes, Irish fashions. And so learning to deal with other people was a real challenge, one that left me feeling isolated quite a bit.

RATH: That's Michael W. Clune. For him, school was cliques and bullies. Home was a refuge for a while until his parents started fighting.

CLUNE: When I was 12, my parents divorced, and so the safety net of my childhood, the aspect of my childhood that really was a warm and safe environment shattered at that moment.

So that's the basic arc, and it's one, I think, that's shared by, you know, many people who grew up when I did. It's a story that if you just reduce it to bare outlines, you know, it sounds quite stereotypical.

RATH: And like many kids who grew up in the '80s, Clune sought refuge in video games. But here's where the stereotype breaks down. He wasn't obsessed with "Pac-Man" or "Mario Bros." Clune found his joy in role-playing games like "Bard's Tale" and "Ultima III"; fantasy worlds with orcs and dragons, spaceships and robots, where hand-eye coordination takes a backseat to thinking and character development.

CLUNE: When I sat down to write this book, I really wanted to tell the story of my childhood. But because so much of the stories we tell about our lives involve our relations with other people and because my relations with other people were so complex, I was really - didn't know how to tell that story. And I finally got the idea while I was playing a lot of these games - let me try to explain my childhood or just explore childhood through the lens of these different games. And so in a strange way, my interactions with the games provided a template for my interactions with my childhood friends, family and so forth.

RATH: The story of your socialization in this book, it's pretty sad. You're a pretty lonely kid. I mean, do you think that the life that you lived in video games was to the detriment of your social life as a middle schooler?

CLUNE: My mother told me early when I was young that what's most meaningful in life are the relations you have with other people. In this book, what I really wanted to explore was the part of life we have - the part of life we live when we're not with other people, the part when we're alone. There's the cliche that we're born and we die alone, and I take that quite seriously. And I believe that our most powerful and profound experiences in many ways are solitary experiences. And I believe the computer games, like literature and like some other devices in my life, were a means of training me for that kind of solitude.

RATH: You have another memoir that's been very highly praised, and that was about your battle with heroin addiction.

CLUNE: That's right.

RATH: This is going to seem awfully glib. Forgive me for asking this, but it's natural to ask if there's some - something in common between addiction and this kind of relationship with videogames you describe in this book.

CLUNE: I believe that heroin addiction, for me, and drug addiction was the absolute opposite of the experience I had when playing games. Addiction removes you from any worlds. It present - it completely - it isolates you, but not - it doesn't give you - your isolation has none of the richness of the solitude that I experienced in games. With addiction, I was continually like a rat in a maze trying to capture the very first time I ever had that first hit. With games, the first time I played them was very difficult and awkward. Only gradually, when I mastered their commands, was I able to inhabit that world. And so if with addiction I was trying to continually recapture a first time I never, with games I was exploring a world and exploring myself in a way that I found meaningful, whereas I felt addiction strips my life of all meaning.

RATH: There's a reference in the book to you playing games as an adult and also getting kind of absorbed in them. Do you still play, are they still - you still get a kick out of them?

CLUNE: I absolutely do. And I'll tell you a story. When I got clean from heroin, which was 14 years ago, I did not play any games for three years. I believe that there may well be a connection between games and addictions, so I stayed away from them. And then I accidentally, more or less, started playing a game about three years after I'd been clean. And it was the best decision I ever made.

RATH: What was the game?

CLUNE: The game was called "Call Of Duty." It was a sort of World War II or one of these World War II games. And I started playing it, and I was just completely enraptured. And I felt this, you know, sort of feeling of joy and connection, but it wasn't like with addiction. I didn't find myself compulsive. I've never played games for more than an hour or two a day. They've never interfered with my work or my relationship with my significant other or anything like that. They've just been really enriching. So I continue to play games an hour or two a day at this moment.

RATH: Michael W. Clune's new book is called "Game Life." It is out this Tuesday. Michael, it's been a real pleasure speaking with you. Thank you.

CLUNE: Thank you so much.

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