Breathing Machine(s)

Reading early responses to Leigh Alexander’s Breathing Machine, it looks like a lot of folks couldn’t help but reminisce.

It’s the mark of a particularly powerful work, like a dish whose heady spices remind you of childhood.

Invoking things like HyperCard, and mazes of twisty passages, she mentions a “primitive voice program” on an old powerbook. That certainly shakes the rust off the old memory machine. I think of 7th grade typing class where I fed some boxy school mac a spontaneously-concocted and hugely offensive story, then set it to play during “quiet typing time.” I remember Mr. Frank (with his horrible lisp) infuriated, demanding to know “Whosse responssible for thiss?” And everyone shamelessly points to me.

I laughed most of the way to the principal's office.

In places, Breathing Machine feels like a book typed in a haze, when suddenly out of the mist Alexander’s surreal half-memories give way to vividly-painted “cool” disc jockeys and porn site promoters. It's part of what makes the book evocative. For me, that adolescent internet fog blends together like so many nights in bars. It is, I suspect, a mix of fog and memory that defines childhood for so many of us.

Too few books talk about that, let alone capture it.

Back then they really were breathing machines, for some of us.

AOL had a button to randomly contact any other user. And it was not completely unexpected or unwelcome to get such a message. One night you could be telling flirtatious Australian ladies that you were a 24 year old hunk (with a monstrous and efficacious… pickup truck) the next a New York poker champion just rarin’ to give a 15-year-old The Lady Advice. It was in that atmosphere, and on the clunky Mirabilis chat program “I seek you” that I fell in love for the very first time.

And so, because of Leigh’s book, I thought I would share that story with you now.

Then I thought again. 

I was struck by the imagery, from her book, of sushi being served from the torso of a vivisected woman, who blushes. We're handing out our stories like so many ice-bathed kidneys, and I already plan to put plenty of my life on the rotating sushi bar of this new internet.

So I'll keep that one to myself. 

But thank the book, for a healthy little stroll down memory lane. 


The Nerdstank

Counter-Strike swept through the dorms like a herpes outbreak. Freshmen year I’d watched over shoulders as neighbors became terrorists and counter-terrorists -- as they shot, stabbed, and flashbanged groups that screamed at them from down the hall. I wanted what they had – but couldn’t really catch it.

One prophylactic was my ancient computer. Its equally aged mouse had one monstrous, lumpy ball that required frequent and careful cradling to de-grime. My friends’ mice ran on lasers, goddamnit. It was like flaunting a circa-1990s brick-style cellphone; Indiana Jones would sweep in at any second, rescuing the machine from my miserly clutches while screaming, “It belongs in a museum!”

Another vaccination came during a souring in the free air of dorm life. There arrived, well, a smell. Hunter – my very tall, very burly, very gay high school friend and dorm roommate – sniffed me, a disturbing breach of personal space coming from a clinically OCD gentleman. Was he about to snap? Climb Mary Gates Hall with a semi-automatic AR-15 assault rifle, start mowing down his ivory tower oppressors? Realizing that a random sniffing was not standard practice for sane individuals, for a few days he let this apparent phantasmagoria rest.

Then I smelt it: a dry, unpleasant reek. Validated, Hunter seemed energized, because now was the time for adventure, for solving a mystery. His reward would be lording moral superiority over the literal unwashed, righteously demanding they tidy their acts. I wasn’t so sure. To me, this reek seemed to signal that behind one door down our hall was a corpse, bulging with intestinal gas, maybe leaned against a heater for days.

Behind door number one, just rowing jocks. Sweaty, always swilling creatine, but bathing at least occasionally. Door number two lead to a couple of acne-riddled, grinning vegans. Hunter and I readily identified a specific aroma, but it wasn’t the noisome, toxic concoction filling the hallway.

Nobody answered door number three.

This door belonged to another pair who'd been friends in high school. The first was pasty and tall, with a forgettable face. The second was a redhead with close-cropped hair and a monster truck’s tire around his waist. Easily 300 pounds, the redhead was a definite crowdpleaser for people watching. From the common room window, Hunter and I could snarkily comment on his thrice-daily beeline to grab a Double Husky Burger, fries, a massive soda, then hurry straight back to his room. We hadn’t seen either for a few days.

We summoned the bubbly, Indian, five-foot-tall RA. Her voice, You guys okay? outside the door did nothing. It was, curiously, the jingling of her keyring that unlocked this door to horror. It creaked open slowly, as the pasty roommate rushed back to his computer on the clean side of a long, wraparound desk.

David Lynch couldn’t have outdone the corroded perfection of this room. It was cut in two by a line of blue masking tape, demarcating one obsessively-spotless side, from the other. Two cold, stale-looking Husky Burgers on the wraparound desk. Easily five stacks of the grease-blotched paper baskets, marks of fallen Husky Burgers, freckled bright green by the mold growing off bun leavings and thousand island dregs. These were piled anywhere from three to eight baskets high, the taller ones leaning improbably. One of these towers had collapsed, mixing with a sea of stained sweatshirts, crushed Coca-Cola paper cups, spilled, dried condiments, crumpled two-liter Mountain Dew bottles, even a few black blobs of what could only be more mold. The whole mix had been swept back over the blue center line countless times, leaving dark stains on the tile.

What struck palpably, like walking from air conditioning into humid, 115-degree heat, was the smell. It roiled over our faces, sweeping over in waves, seeping into every exposed pore. A potpourri of heavy, stale sweat, sickly sweet rot, and, perhaps the faintest touch of Eau De Old Urine? Never in my life have I weathered so perfect a storm of the olfactory grotesque, though I’ve encountered shades of it since. The Nerdstank.

By the time we’d gotten past the shell shock of this initial sensory clusterfuck, the pale roommate had lurched back to his clean chair, on the clean side of the room, seemingly unaffected by the poisonous atmosphere he was roasting in. Right back to gaming. The redhead, locked into his chair by his own trash, might not have noticed we were there. While this dynamic duo made high-powered tactical advances in the game StarCraft, Hunter and the RA got in sideways words, gave them dispirited pieces of their minds. Take a bath. Deodorant costs a dollar. But neither was listening.

The air only cleared after the redhead, rather than attend a few hours of midterms, just played StarCraft. They kicked him out, first quarter. Hefting his shit through the halls, he proudly announced he’d never do anything different, never change, and never let the man get him down. All marching, head held high, back to mom and dad’s.

I kept doing my homework.


Next: The Word "Fun" >>

In Play: Tales of the Gaming Netherworld is available in paperback and kindle. Dooo eeet! Doo et! Come onn! Get it nowww!

Intro to Pt2: Fun


"Games as a form of media is incredibly young.  The amount of unexplored territory is staggering.  It’s damn exciting to see developers pushing and poking the jello and seeing what jiggles."

-Brendon Chung, Blendo Games


Start at the Introduction

Back to Part 1: Games

(1/29/14) Got the kindle and print books to not look terrible. Right now I'm waiting on a physical proof of my ridiculous near-400 page tome. I'm almost expecting some kind of hefty blunt weapon, at that weight.

I've set the prices as low as standard kindle pricing will let me, and as low as I can on the print book without actually losing money when it goes through certain distribution channels. There was also a neat feature that let print-buyers get a copy of the ebook for free, so I checked that. And also a DRM-free option, so I checked that too.

Oh, also, a few things changed in the very last moments of print/ebook organization. In Play's foreword was renamed to an introduction, which was then further named, "A Pickle." Seemed a hasty last-minute name choice, but it kept making me grin, so I never got around to consigning it to oblivion.

And on that note, one of In Play's many dead darlings is probably going to get posted today, thanks to Leigh Alexander's Breathing Machine, which I read in one of those sleepless manic fits you get after 18 hours of typesetting. More on that soon.

(1/30/14) So I didn't end up posting the story, though I did review the book. 



At ten years old, one computer game – by virtue of how mesmerizingly it simulated space combat – captured me for an entire summer. Misadventures with homemade fireworks, learning the taste of honeysuckle, and a first stirring of crushes on girls, those memories feel pale next to the adventures I had aboard the spaceship carrier Tiger’s Claw.

It was the summer of 1992, and you couldn’t go anywhere without hearing The Edge’s whinnying guitar, and Bono’s It’s alright, it’s alllllright. But you could go a lot of places without seeing a 486 computer. It didn’t matter that one such miracle machine was in the spare bedroom. You want to tell a ten-year-old that the height of modern innovation is… Windows 3.2?


I’d stay snotty and unimpressed until my college-age cousin Darrell – who owned this cutting edge artifact of technology – showed off something else it could do. As I peered over the desk, he swept by Kilrathi fighters, cut through one with laser cannons, and merrily torpedoed their capital ships into space debris, all inside the 3-D space flight simulator Wing Commander. It was as though all that tinkering with homemade fireworks had finally blown off the top of my head. My cousin was a wizard.

My parents could not be troubled to obtain such an expensive and frivolous contraption. His investor parents, however, always needed the newest gadgets, the most technological toys, just as soon as they came out. When their last computer had needed replacing, it moved to my cousin. When he’d outgrown that one – to my utter exaltation – it moved to my dad’s office, with its copy of Wing Commander. My cousin was a generous wizard.

Between stacks of paperwork, checkbooks, a half-dead radio (the volume cranked to max), and all the trappings of a well-stocked office, I was gone. I’d become the blue-haired pilot, scourge of Kilrathi ships, soaking it all in through the extravagantly large 13-inch VGA monitor.

Wing Commander wasn’t like most of the games I’d played at friends’ houses, say the various brands of Mario, or Duck Hunt. If you failed in those, you just lost, or died; you had to start over. In Wing Commander you certainly could fail. You could be vaporized in the cold of space, or eject, and get bitched out in debriefing. You could also fail nominally, little by little. Maybe some of your missions went well, but in others you didn’t save quite enough people. You were almost good enough – but the Terrans, the humans – would start to lose the war. Every few missions the cinematic cutscenes, these pixilated bits of plot, would show human scientists getting murdered, and buildings – human buildings – collapsing in on themselves.

There was a reason to care. And that reason had as much to do with the story as with the game’s system. Those last-ditch space dogfights? One missile left, shields obliterated, armor almost gone, trying to protect a commandeered Kilrathi cruiser with a thousand Terran marines aboard, all to the high-intensity guitar solos in U2’s Mysterious Ways. The wingman’s ship breaks to pieces as he ejects – but you can’t stop now. This is as far as you’ve gotten with the cruiser intact. And when that last missile connects to the last Kilrathi heavy fighter – when the cutscene finally shows scientists anticipating the attack – and those human buildings you’ve seen fall so many times, when they stay standing? That’s magic.

So here I was, ten years old, and already saving the galaxy. You might be able to watch Battlestar Galactica, start to care about the characters, get sucked into the plot. But when Wing Commander puts you in control? When the system put me into the cockpit? In all the other strange realities I’d touch via this clunky 486 (with four megabytes of RAM! And a 33 megahertz processor!) between all the galaxy-saving, princess-saving, Reader Rabbiting, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiegoing, and Super Sleuthing, I remember looking over my shoulder, as daylight wound down.

When would everyone else: mother, father, sister, come tap me on the shoulder demanding their turn? Dad might occasionally kick me off, but he’d use this wizardly device for taxes. Not saving the galaxy. That didn’t make any sense. This was a portal, a magic mirror, and it was right in front of their noses! What had everyone else done with their day?

Didn’t they understand reality?


Back to the chapter introduction

Next: Chapter 2, Fun

In Play: Tales of the Gaming Netherworld is available in paperback and kindle.

Games are Hard

A lot of folks dislike the word “game,” some for good reason. For one, it doesn’t sound all that serious. Which turns off the people who might occasionally want to cover Real Shit. In that vein, “game” is still something a lot of us associate with childhood. Board games, card games, tea parties. Seeing them as strictly for kids makes things tricky for any designer considering (gasp) mature themes – for instance solving a gruesome murder, understanding the disappearance of a gay teen, or dealing with the sexy interludes in a healthy romance – a game developer might be worrying more about frantic armies of parents than just telling the damn story.

Outside judgment is not a good reason to change a thing.

Past fear of righteous retribution, the real question is whether “game” describes The Thing. Whether it’s useful. Which ultimately comes down to what we mean when we use it. Popular definitions for game vary from the merrily esoteric, such as Sid Meier’s “a series of interesting choices,” to the drawn-out, for instance Jane McGonigal’s four bullet-point list of goals, rules, feedback, and voluntary participation (and accompanying research for each).

Two of my favorite descriptions of The Thing don’t use the word game. Ian Bogost offers the term “Procedural Rhetoric,” which is brilliant, and deserves us spending roughly twenty pages. I won’t, sorry and you’re welcome. The cliff notes version is, “using systems well.” From automated telephone systems, “press 0 to speak to an operator,” to the system behind Solitaire or SimCity or Constitutional Democracy. Those are all processes (hence procedural). By rhetoric he means the Western Classical tradition of using words well. He’s interested in how we take a game system, and use that to say something that matters. Which I like; therefore I am a fan of the admittedly heavy term “Procedural Rhetoric.” Bogost’s book Persuasive Games is roughly as light as Noah’s Ark at capacity, but it’s still the very best book yet written on the philosophy of using systems well.

Another good rephrasing of “game” might be James Portnow’s “Interactive Experiences.” The webshow he writes, Extra Credits, argued that trying to define games was wrong, and typically only done by assholes trying to announce that games they don’t like aren’t really games. “Interactive Experience,” lets us know that “the interactor has some choice,” without giving ammunition to said assholes. I like that approach. If you like it too, hopefully you won’t mind that I’m still sort of itching for a good way to refer to The Thing, this muddy concept of game.

Anna Anthropy published what’s probably my favorite definition – “a game is an experience created by rules” – though I’m fairly biased. It’s close to one I’ve used for about six years. Games, I think, are systems designed to be experienced. Phrase it however you like. There’s the automated telephone system part (or procedural, if you like), then the part where someone designs it (usually with some audience in mind), then we experience it.

This book is, by and large, about that last bit.

Where exact definitions are concerned, it’s like the Extra Credits team meant, in their episode What is a Game? And Scott McCloud wrote, in his Understanding Comics, “The best definition for comics will, I think, be the most expansive.” McCloud also wrote that every generation has the right (and probably the obligation) to revisit those definitions anyway. Best not to get attached.

As for whether we call them games, interactive art, or anything else, I take another page from the history of comics. At some point they started calling themselves, “graphic novels,” maybe trying to borrow credulity from literature. They’re still just funny books with pictures in them. Some are mature, some are intentionally made for kids. Both can be cool. The timid still enjoy questioning their artistic integrity, moral value, and inherent coolness. If it’s just about having a word that we use to, like, convey the general idea?

I’m fine with games.



Games are the Devil

Even at nine years old, it was clear that games had power. They also had, well, a certain reputation. Only a couple years before I’d stare down that dragon, Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax would write about the sensationalist press and extremist groups who seemingly loved to attack early gaming. The only reason these groups got traction, thought Gygax, was because games involving dice weren’t exactly as common as games involving some variety of ball. In an absence of generous collegiate scholarships involving games with dice, the population-at-large was left in something of a vacuum of actual knowledge.

“It’s no great wonder many people are ignorant when it comes to facts about RPGs.” Wrote Gygax. “…Role-playing games are only about fifteen years old, and a few people also seem to like to misrepresent them vociferously.”

In the now-cult-classic adaptation of Rona Jaffe’s Mazes & Monsters, a doughy-faced Tom Hanks rolls the many-sided die, and winds up suffering a complete psychotic break. He wholly becomes his character Pardieu, the cleric. This after the dutiful parents very sternly telling him, “no more games!” Running wild across the back-alleys and through the subway access tunnels of New York City, he stabs muggers who he perceives to be vicious monsters. He prepares to leap from the top of the World Trade Center. Only the “maze controller” can stop him.

“Oddly enough,” wrote Gygax, “we don’t seem to have progressed far beyond the Salem witch-hunt stage. “Thar’s demons in them-thar games!” cry the fanatical opponents of RPGs generally and those dealing with fantasy and magic in particular.”

Gygax says that we ultimately can’t change the minds of “witch-burners and book-banners,” but reminds gamers that most sane human beings aren’t fanatical. Games are just new, and so he asks players to, “use logic, common sense, and a fine personal example to combat the wrongs which they constantly wreak upon the whole community of RPG enthusiasts.”

Facing down my buddy’s mom, I wasn’t quite ready to whip out any snappy eloquence. No surprise there, it’s something we’re still working on.


Back to the chapter introduction

Next: Games are Hard >>

Games are Fun

I'm one of four gunslingers, making the trek across a long and dusty road. Thunder shakes the desert, and a blue dragon crests the nearby mesa. The other three run for cover. Me? I’m nine years old. I unholster my six shooter.

“The dragon unleashes its icy breath, threatening to turn you into a popsicle. Roll a saving throw,” says Zach, the adventure’s narrator.


“Roll the 20-sided die.”


“Dice. Die is a word for dice.”

“Oh.” I think I rolled a 9.

So he killed me, the bastard.

It’s actually pretty easy to remember where all this started, that afternoon where my life took a sharp turn towards this arcane and magical world of games. With a nine year old’s imagination, and an older kid’s narration, I’d been there. I didn’t need to know the word ‘badass’ to have – at least for a few seconds – felt like one. Zach and I spent the rest of that night with the Dungeons & Dragons Red Box, a pre-arranged assortment of simplified manuals, and dice. Everything to get the young player started.

I made a burly female battle-priest. She was technically a “cleric,” but that word doesn’t do justice to the manual’s picture of some badass chick swinging a mace. It wasn’t about feminist sensibilities, or anything high-minded. At nine, there was only the simple allure of a heroine in heavy armor.

“Strength of 16?” Zach asked. This seemed to make him uneasy. “It’ll affect your Charisma. I mean, are you trying to make a female body builder?”

I was not to be deterred. Not only could this cleric heal someone after an axe-hit, she could preempt the axe-hit with a righteous blow from her mace. Only a few days after this eureka evening, one of my mom’s friends stopped by. She had a son my age. Still amped up from the other day, I asked her if Jon could come over and play some D&D.

“Dungeons and Dragons?” She asked, looking me over a little too closely, a little too critically. “That was in the news. Don’t those books have spells for summoning The Devil?”


Back to the chapter introduction

Next: Games are the Devil >>

Intro to Pt1: Games


"Take time to examine a cross section of video games and you'll encounter grand life simulations, blistering fictive racing experiments, ultradetailed management tools, savage retina-roasting fractal spectra, pet dogs, Escher physics, digital cooking competitions, boundless horror, and impossible geographies… video games still represent a fascinating, ostentatious landscape of experiences that were not previously available to us.”

-Jim Rossignol, This Gaming Life


(1/15/14) Sort of making up the web layout as I go along. I'm thinking these chapter pages will eventually link into a Table of Contents elsewhere on the blog, which I will make when I'm not frantically wrapping this last edit, so that I can frantically typeset, and so on while of course drinking champagne.

Now pardon me while I post this and play with its editing for awhile.

(2/13/14) Yay! The book has been available as a kindle for a little while, but now the paperback is on Amazon as well. Scroll down in the LOOK INSIDE to see the red devil on the back cover. =P

Introduction: A Pickle

Introduction to In Play

A Pickle

I’m driving through the creepy forests outside Redmond, WA, feeling that very particular anxiety of being lost for awhile. I left the paved arterial for (what I hoped) was the correct turn, and the cratered gravel road dumps me at a house that’s somehow too modern to be this far out. It was ReSTART, America’s first inpatient treatment program for “problematic” gamers and internet users.
I’d met the brains behind ReSTART: Hilarie Cash, PhD, a few months prior. We were carpooling from Redmond to Portland in her humble teal sedan. She wasn't yet appearing on The Daily Show, Rock Center, Fox News, and so on, billed as Co-Founder of ReSTART. Nor was she yet, I don't believe, charging five figures per patient. That day, we were just off to Oregon, to talk about “Pathologic Computer Use” for our mutual friend Dr. Block.

Hilarie seemed to especially enjoy the breadth and grit of my anecdotes for the fringe element in gaming. The schizophrenic BDSM romances between online friends, the Mexican barmaids who used their orc rogues to tease salacious Baja fishermen, violent Russian citizens dodging mandatory Army service by living in America on expired student visas. Then there was me. Twenty six, living with a nineteen-year-old woman I’d met in the World of Warcraft, recently hired to teach ethics at a college for game developers.
Back at ReSTART’s grand opening, Hilarie greets me warmly at the door. She’s nearly sixty, tall and stout. Her bouncing white curls still show a fair trace of red, and her clothes and jewelry billow freely around her. A little sign asks me to turn off my cellphone. The classy spread inside includes hand-cut prosciutto, a fondue fountain spilling a constant stream of warm chocolate, all surrounded by red ripe strawberries. Outside, there’s a treehouse dolled up to look like high-fantasy elven architecture. I’m told they use it for group therapy. There are daybeds, hammocks, and baby goats wander in a little pen. I talk awhile with Ben, the young, skinny gamer who’d been the first of Hilarie’s students. He seems chuffed to be the self-proclaimed “addict” for Time magazine’s ReSTART feature, apparently their crew had visited earlier in the day. He points at the goat pen and says, “Sometimes, we’re not sure how, they get out.”
In 2009, the reSTART website listed the cost of attendance at around twenty grand. In 2013, articles often report attendees leaving with significantly more out-of-pocket debt. For a 45-day group retreat, I’ve heard mixed reviews on whether that’s fair.

At one point, with the evening winding down, I sit down opposite to Hilarie and her business partner Cosette. They ask if I’d be comfortable publically endorsing reSTART. Maybe approach some of the big local tech firms about creating scholarships for treatment. I could always take a stay myself, they say, free of charge. I’d have to be serious about my abstinence of course.

I take a long moment – check myself – and measure my response.
I don’t, for instance, mention my reservations about abstinence-based recovery for technology. I understand it can do great things for alcoholics and heroin junkies. The stand-up comedian Russell Brand – outspoken about his heroin use – is an inspired writer and speaker on the necessity of abstinence. In his Guardian piece My Life Without Drugs, he recounts re-watching the video of his younger, strung-out self. “…what is surprising is that my reaction is not one of gratitude for the positive changes I've experienced but envy at witnessing an earlier version of myself unencumbered by the burden of abstinence. I sat in a suite at the Savoy hotel, in privilege, resenting the woeful ratbag I once was, who, for all his problems, had drugs. That is obviously irrational.”
Sitting with Hilarie and Cosette, my reservations don’t stem from the belief that games represent some subordinate addiction, beneath drugs and alcohol. The compulsion to game had me slouching on hardwood floors over a massive, fifty-pound computer monitor in the game Star Wars Galaxies for nearly a full year. I’d stewed in my own trash, playing twenty hours a day, evading my harried parents like a withering shit ninja. The degree to which I was able to escape myself is something that I find enviable too, now and again. I agree with Brand, that the envy is both irrational and powerful. But part of me wanted so badly to believe that gaming was different. That I’d left my problems behind. That I was fine.
Games were just experiences, and the only way to abstain from all experience is to get locked in a room with a blindfold and a straightjacket. What I wanted, instead, was to be smart about experience. Learn to pick the good ones, avoid the bad, whether in games, life, wherever.

I didn’t have the tools. It must have been obvious. When I mention wanting to keep playing, wanting to balance games with everything else, Hilarie grins and says,
“It sounds like the pickle wants to go back to being a cucumber.”
Two months later I’d be broke, single, and living with my parents. Again.
Two years after that – two years almost entirely without games – I was staring at Jane McGonigal’s New York Times bestseller Reality is Broken, getting very dangerously drunk. Her thesis was straightforward: games will save the world. It made me pretty fucking angry, at the time. My working thesis had been to avoid games at all costs. After abandoning that world, teaching had turned into a stable job. I had a nice place, a full liquor cabinet.

Which got replenished perhaps a touch often.

In fact, I’d switched from agreeable Earl Grey to a tall glass of wine, after Reality is Broken told me matter-of-factly that games may be the last shining hope for finding meaning in the world. That, unlike videogames, “Reality wasn’t designed from the bottom up to make us happy.” (This making an exodus from reality entirely good and acceptable). Were people really that fucking selfish, that they expected Disneyland lives? And then there was the tone of the thing.

Reality is Broken uses the word “happy” (if you count variations like, “happiness,” “happier,” and “happiest”) roughly a thousand times, with alternates like “fulfill,” “pleasure,” “satisfy,” “thrill,” “engage,” and “enthrall,” bringing the count exponentially higher. Never do we see more reflexive happies than in her discussion of addiction, a word she uses with surprising ease. She calls Warcraft an IV drip of productivity, saying “almost nothing makes us happier than good, hard work.” Just after an anecdote where she – unplanned – takes one first taste of Warcraft and proceeds to drop an entire weekend leveling up. She calls it, “blissful productivity.” A phrase that’s always made me grin, because it’s so very close to Tom Bissell’s term for his cocaine-fueled days-long binges of the game Grand Theft Auto IV: “blissful self-destruction.”

Anyway, I didn't need to hear that shit. Running away from games was what I needed. Away from the expectant people, the insane self-inflicted excess. Not even writing a goddamned book could help me understand those. Tea and Western Classics. They were better. Robert Frost, Kurosawa, Adams, Gaiman. But for the nagging boredom. And the rapid deflation of my liver.

In part, Jane was right. Something in my skull recognized it, more or less immediately. Modern videogames do offer individuals, people across the face of the world, something tangible. Something real. Games let us experience anything, within or without the human experience. Like any other dysfunctional geographical subsection of the planet Earth, they can drag adults and children into frenetic compulsion, and loneliness. Sometimes, these beautiful landscapes with impossible physics, they teach us profound lessons.

It’s where this book started, wanting to tell some stories and make that plain.

Not necessarily to broadcast everything I've seen in twenty years as a slobbering addict, hardcore raider, dungeon master, researcher, and games professor, because I think games are the work of cult fetishists, perverts and devil-worshipers (not that they wouldn't make good stuff). Games are cool. At the edge of a knife – and during all the other merry antics of battle – games brought me together with people who leapt into my real life. Probably even saved it a couple of times.

I started this book just wanting to spin those stories, about those friends I’d made and psychopaths I’d escaped, the high-body-count weddings and curious smells one encounters during a life in gaming’s back alleys. But how do you romanticize sitting on your ass for sixteen hours in a day? I put it away, and switched to some nonfiction about games. I thought it possible to take smart game developers, overlooked architects, venerated psychologists – basically the foundational scholars of experience – and find a better way to talk about the experiences games make. It had to be better, at least, than gaming’s present hallowed criteria, which usually boils down to whether or not something is “fun” (whatever that means).

I couldn't finish that book either.

But the two projects, surprise, fit together. As much as I hate to share this with someone first cracking open a new book, putting them together let me ignore whether it would entertain the casual reader. Mixing stories with a semi-formal “Experience Language” – I could write this for me – and start to see how my life in games started with fun, slid into compulsivity, but righted itself along the way. I saw the people who dragged me down, online, and the ones who’d helped me climb out of the mire. Such people did eventually even show me how to “de-pickle,” learning to pick the good experiences, and avoid the bad.

That’s my lengthy excuse for mixing high scholarship, triggery anecdotes and a frequently filthy mouth. For a book that became simultaneously an answer for Hilarie, a response to Jane, and a high-five to my gaming buddies.

Games aren’t singlehandedly driving children to bloody massacres, but nor will they magically heal the world’s poverty, hunger, ignorance, and/or loneliness. They neither break nor fix reality. They’re a part of it. A part which has a lot to teach, if we can learn to listen. A part which included some damn delightful characters, in my case. In the end, that’s what matters: the places you visited and the people you were with. They’re what brought me in as a kid. After everything, they’re what keep me coming back.


Next: Chapter 1: Games >>

In Play: Tales of the Gaming Netherworld is available in paperback and kindle.


This is happening

Why, hello!

I'm Neils.

Over the last three or so years, I have been quietly writing a second book. It's about videogames: weird adventures inside, and little conversations about what those taught me. I'm calling it In Play: Tales of the Gaming Netherworld. 

I am going to give most of it away, for free.

I sort of wish that I could just write blogs, and articles, and sell those like a normal games journalist. That's hard for me. Like, my brain literally doesn't function that way. I need to see the whole system. Writing one part of this book fundamentally changed other parts, for instance taking a few months to study oppression, or having studied compulsive gaming for the last decade.

This ultimately became a sort of letter, to my younger self. Things I wish I'd known, and stories that I hope will resonate and entertain.

I've had an interesting time trying to sell it. While I'd love to find an agent, for The Future, right now my plan is to release most of it on my blog over the coming months. This also lets me offer a print version, maybe with a few exclusive choice bits, for the price of inexpensive (something Game Addiction's publisher would never even dialogue about). But for whatever reason, I'm really excited about putting most of it up for free, at least for a good while.

I'm also semi-tempted to - at some point soon - make a pdf available for a few hours. Mostly for the friends who've snuck me into expensive conferences, given me places to stay, and generally make this book worth writing.

So, yeah!

Dear God I need some kind of elevator pitch!


Let's Talk Balance

(here's the slides PDF: Tools to Keep Play Balanced!)

At this last PAX I got to sit next to a clinician who I have tremendous respect for, (the very soon-to-be-Dr.) Anna DiNoto, and we got to tell a room of gamers some of our tools for balancing play. I thought that I would share that talk with you here.

We forward the whole thing by making it clear our talk isn’t about addiction, or “Internet Gaming Disorder,” as it’s labeled in an appendix of the DSM-V. We just wanted to cover tools, simple things people could do, if they were playing and/or internetting a little more than they’d like.

step one: assess

The first thing you’ll want to do is assess your play (or internet use, if that’s your deal) as accurately as possible. It’s not easy. In going back and forth about this, we talked about some tools we could use, and I made a handout which basically tracked the duration of your stay in these places. I think it’s slide 8/37. It lists maybe “facebook from 5:55 to 7pm,” then “Skyrim from 10pm to 1:13am,” and so on. Then we mark how intense it was on a scale of one to ten, one being that you were mostly focused on something else, cooking dinner, some paperwork, scintillating television drama. Ten would be that you were so focused that you left a pizza in the oven for roughly two hours.

I have some funny stories about burnt pizzas.

This is a good place to mention (again, I know) none of this piece is clinical advice. In person, Anna is extremely good, really professional about making that clear when she speaks. And I’m not a mental health professional; I’m just a gamer. I co-wrote a book on gaming addictions, but don't have treatment experience.

Back to tracking your play, and tracking that every day. Keyloggers might help, roommates might help (though some of us get defensive). You need to figure out where you’re at, so you have an accurate idea of what you’re trying to balance.

Next, before doing anything else, figure out where your stress is. If we notice that arguments with the husband usually lead to longer sessions of play, useful info. Sometimes games stress us out. The point here is to figure out what our “triggers” are. Figuring out what cues us off is essential to “hacking” those patterns, and being able to eventually redirect those to something we’d rather be doing.

(to jump ahead here: Post it notes are Anna’s go-to. If you interrupt your usual patterns with post-it notes, say one near the hook where you set your keys, or on the kitchen counter, you can stop your usual routines. Put one on your laptop, on your bedroom door.)

step two: plan

After assessing play, the second step is to make a plan. There are three kinds of plan, in general. Abstinence is breaking from games, temporarily or permanently. Harm reduction is switching to games or behaviors that might be less problematic. Play reduction is taking a favorite game – say League of Legends – and playing it less.

I actually do enjoy the occasional abstinence from games, altogether. Sometimes, when I have a big project or just need a break, I’ll drop games voluntarily for awhile. Hilarie Cash mentioned that at ReSTART, she typically sees even the worst withdrawal symptoms wash off of hardcore gamers after a few weeks. Abstinence can be useful, but Anna was quick to point out the number of times a parent would decide it was time to simply remove a game (without understanding why they’re playing it – it’s just a game after all). The graphic descriptions she’s given me of the consequences are startling even for me (she changed identifying patient details, exactingly, every time – she’s a pro). But we’re talking hundreds of thousands in dramatic property damage, and some pretty tragic self-damage. Just throwing that in there.

Harm reduction is pretty easy. If you like the vast landscapes of Warcraft, try playing Proteus, or maybe Dear Esther. If you’re a hardcore raider, try switching to anything else. Convince your raid friends to come with you, if you can. Raiding – in my research – held one of the few statistically significant connections to patterns we didn’t actually enjoy very much, the job loss, sleep loss, depression, etc. Addiction, in other words.

Some games have play reduction tools built in. Warcraft’s parental controls have it. The Xbox has it.

As you start to plan, make a boredom list. A list of things – besides just the games that make you stumble – you like doing. Creating nontoxic food and getting sleep were on mine, though Anna rightly reminded me that at that point I’m going past “simple balance.” Still, taking walks and cooking well, shopping for good food, that sort of thing, I’d say that they fit. When you do start to decrease how much you’re playing, there’ll be a void in your schedule. There are a lot of good basics to fill that time with, and there are some great ones.

Writing, drawing, and the myriad forms of making art. Getting involved in city government. Designing your own games. Taking college courses on topics that interest you, be they marine biology, architecture, or (yay!) games.

We can use timers – whether it’s an egg timer, alarm clocks that shower the room with puzzle pieces, or the color-coded Time Timers – to make ourselves more mindful of how much we’ve played. To become aware. In general, following the plan should help you get to be more aware of how you’re using your time. The point is to build a general mindfulness. I’ve learned a lot of good things in all this time gaming, but mindfulness was one of the most important.

step three: maintain

The third step is maintainance. To hold your progress in the long term, you need to reinforce your progress in the short term. In other words, don’t forget to treat yourself.

You want to give yourself “dings” for your real progress at keeping things balanced. Even better if you can apply meaningful fun and engagement, to keep yourself to the plan you want. You can also take cheat days. Like, with most successful diets, there’s usually a day out of the week where you can have pizza and beer with some good company.

I do, anyway. I’m still working on all this, but I still enjoy games for longer than three hours at a time. I just – far more often than I used to – get meaningful things done at work, at home, or for my bad self before those mini-binges. Those sometimes turn into missed bedtimes and some mild regret, especially when I’m not with my good gaming buddies, so I have to be careful. Still it’s been awhile since I’ve vanished for a month straight. So that’s good.

step four: revise

Finally, remember that you’re human. This shit is a challenge if you haven’t exactly been the balance king, in the past. If that’s the case, some professional help, with a solid local therapist? Highly recommended.

You’ll need to reassess your plan, as life changes, and having someone whose job is to help you, is sort of like having a professional gamer coaching your gamerly prowresses. Most clinicians just charge a lot less than, say, the pros at Curse Gaming.

Anyway, those were a few suggestions we threw out, to deal with keeping things sane to begin with. I’m not a therapist, and I don’t know what you’re going through, but I do want you to be able to keep play balanced with everything else. Hope it helps.