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September 2015 Issue [Readings]

Where Numbers Become Flesh


From Gamelife, by Michael Clune, out this month from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Clune is also the author of White Out, an account of his heroin addiction.

I — we — were on a grassy field of breathtaking beauty. A forest surrounded us.

“W” moved us forward. “A” turned us left. “D” turned us right.

We turned around on the field. Our view occupied the upper left quarter of the screen. The bottom half was filled with the statistics of the party — hit points, armor points, spell points, current weapons. The upper right quarter was currently blank but would soon be filled with the statistics of the enemy forces we faced, the scrolling numeric readout of the battles, and various verbal messages the game had for us.

The upper left corner was what I saw. The upper right corner was what I knew. The bottom half was what I was made of.

It took me a few hours to get used to this new body. But after that, my soul never chafed in it. All you really need for a good body is something that sees, something that knows, and some numbers underneath.

As we stared in wonder at the pure green of the grass, a group of five goblins made out of giant gray pixels approached and attacked us. Battle! First it was their turn.

 — Goblin strikes Eric and misses.

 — Goblin strikes Eric and misses.

 — Goblin strikes Eric and hits for 7 points of damage, leather shield blocks 4.

 — Goblin fires an arrow at Jenny and misses.

Then it was our turn. Eric’s name was blinking. I looked at the game manual. I pressed [space] to make Eric attack with his current weapon.

 — Eric strikes goblin and hits for 8 points of damage. One goblin dies.

A small quantity of VICTORY dripped into my bloodstream. I jerked in my chair, grinning nervously. It was a new feeling for me. At age eleven you haven’t had many opportunities to triumph over your enemies. After the next goblin went down, I felt it again. Wow.

After a couple hours I learned that my new body was capable of three feelings: VICTORY, DEFEAT, and FRUSTRATION. This might seem like too few to you who can also feel ENVY, BOREDOM, FEAR, and LOVE. But if you have seen black-and-white movies, you know that two colors can make a pretty decent world. Similarly, if you’re having three feelings hard and often, you don’t really miss the other four.

We wandered around killing a few giant wolves, a few more goblins, and a party of dark elves. VICTORY ticked in my heart. I found a helmet on one of the dark elves and put it on Eric and his armor points went up. Now Eric had a 75 percent chance of blocking 6 points of damage. VICTORY is not just fun. It actually makes you stronger. We headed east through the forest. Beyond the forest rose the walls of a city. Just outside the city, we encountered the long, green, shapeless mass of a troll. It attacked.

 — Troll strikes Eric and hits for 490 damage. Eric dies.

 — Troll strikes James and hits for 462 damage. James dies.

 — Troll strikes Jenny and hits for 512 damage. Jenny dies.

My veins ran black with DEFEAT.

DEFEAT enters the bloodstream in a fine black dust of pulverized numbers. It is unpleasant. It is in fact more toxic than death, which is after all temporary and can be immediately erased by pressing the [enter] key upon dying, thus loading the game from the last time you saved your progress. Multiple deaths in rapid succession, however, bring the real risk of FRUSTRATION.

FRUSTRATION is the slow expansion of a zero in the artery of the computer role-playing-game body. Zero — the empty number, round gate leading from the fantasy of numbers to the world of numberless people. Further deaths will cause the zero to swell and swell until it gets large enough for the rhythms of a human body to be felt inside the game body.

The stiffness of my spine in the hard wooden chair. The pressure in my bladder.

When the zero gets large enough, swollen with dozens and dozens of deaths, you can actually see your human hands on the keyboard. You can see the thick late-December sun pushing through the slats of the blinds. And now an alien feeling, BOREDOM, beats in the very numbers of the game.

The true death is almost here, and now through the zero of FRUSTRATION you experience the FEAR of the true death.

If, however, at its widest point, the zero of FRUSTRATION is lanced by VICTORY, then the spiky rune of VICTORY gets pushed up your veins through the pleasure-giving membranes of a collapsed zero. It enters the heart like a comet.

Why does fantasy with numbers work and last and move when fantasy without numbers sits and dribbles and whines? Think about ordinary, numberless fantasy. There is nothing more natural and human than fantasy. The baby sits in its diaper fantasizing a breast. The phantom breast is the baby’s first experience of its natural ability to create something that is not there. Human flesh is the quarry of worlds. The baby already has enough flesh to create a fantasy mother. Look! There it is. The baby’s natural response to its act of creation is to cry. So much for unaided fantasy.

But what does it take for the baby to drink from the fantasy breast?

What does it take for the human to take up residence in the world of fantasy? To breathe unreal air? Walk on unreal ground? Eat unreal apples?

We find clues in the way the human being breathes real air, walks on real ground, eats real apples. The human depends on the inhuman. The human depends on the inhuman for its grip on the world. Inside every human face that crumples in sudden sorrow is a skull that grins. Unfeeling bone supports every hug. The ancient, primitive-mollusk suction-and-release of our orifices gives our words breath and makes our thoughts go. Human feeling leans on the inhuman. Human feeling advances into the world leaning on the stick of inhumanity.

So if you want to move into the world of fantasy, you need the support of the inhuman. Something in or under your fantasy that is not you, that is not like you, that does not like you. The addition and subtraction of numbers. The multiplication and division of numbers. Put the rule of numbers in your fantasy like a spine of bone and you will walk out into what is not there. Let addition and subtraction be the suction-and-release of your fantasy body and you will breathe unreality and speak magic. Lean on the rule of numbers like a cane of bone and you will shuffle out of space and time.

I will tell you what it feels like to be immortal.

The past is full of VICTORY. The present is full of numbers. The future is full of VICTORY.

Some people might say that this game immortality isn’t real immortality. They might say game immortality is just mortality’s weak fantasy. You die and live again in the game, okay, they might say. But then you get up from your chair, the power goes out, the phone rings, morning comes, you fall asleep and fall out of the game and you’re the same mortal human as everyone else. You don’t stay in the game. You can’t stay in the game. You can’t die forever in the game, but because you can’t stay in the game forever you can die forever. Game immortality isn’t genuine immortality.

Except it is. You can be immortal for a little while. Every religion and myth system and folklore tradition contains examples of beings who were immortal and became mortal, or who were mortal and became immortal. Think of Jesus or Arwen. Religion proves that the idea of temporary immortality isn’t nonsensical. The Bard’s Tale II proves that it’s possible.

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