by Justin Wolfe
1. Computer Space
When I was in second grade, my teacher sent a note home to my mother. I had recently been skipped ahead from first grade to second grade and the new teacher was worried about me. I was keeping up with the class fine, I was having no problem with that, she said in the note, but she was worried about me because all I would ever write or talk or draw about in class or in my journal or for homework were video games. They seemed to be the only thing that I thought about. She wondered whether maybe there might be something wrong with me for me to be so obsessed with games.
In the opening scene of the film, a boy is wandering along an empty stretch of highway, the frame filled with waves of desert heat. His face is blank and he carries a metal lunchbox in one hand, swinging it back and forth as he goes. He is no older than six or seven. The batteries of the sun are slowly dying; heat waves play with the orange light, bending it into shimmers. As the last credits fade into the skyline, a policeman in an SUV pulls up alongside the boy and asks him where he thinks he’s going. “California,” the boy says. His face is blank, his eyes ciphers. The policeman keeps talking to him, but all the boy will say in response is “California.”
“When [he] was born, in 1971, his steel blue eyes seemed crossed in an unusual way, drawing immediate concern from his parents. A local pediatrician…dismissed [their] worries, ensuring them that the boy had a lazy left eye that would improve with time…. Finally, an ophthalmologist diagnosed retinoblastoma, a dangerous cancer that strikes one in twenty thousand children…. Doctors removed the boy’s left eye, to prevent the tumor from spreading…. Before he turned two, [he] was fitted with a glass prosthesis. It was an approximation of his natural eye, the best they could produce at the time, but it had no movement, making it quite obvious.”
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I was born with a bad left eye. The eye was called “lazy,” as if it were a sign of poor moral character instead of a glitch in the coordination of one or more of the half-dozen muscles of each eye. My lazy eye limited my depth perception and made things hard for me during PE class and at recess. At softball, I always struck out, no matter how I swung: on the basketball court, chest-passed balls hit me full in the face and this was sometimes because of my poor vision and sometimes because they had been intended by others to hit me full in the face. Every day after school, I sat on the carpet in our living rooms and played video games on our Genesis. When I played video games, my lazy eye didn’t matter anymore because the screen I was playing the games on had no depth; it was flat. I could move through this sixteen-bit pixel world as well as someone with perfect vision. Maybe even better.
The next scene takes place in a psychiatric clinic, where the boy sits quietly playing with plastic blocks on the floor as his mother and stepfather talk with his psychiatrist about the boy running away, which we find out is a thing he does often. The boy arranges the colored blocks in interlocking patterns on the carpet; from them, he builds towers that rise up above his knees, as high as his chest, but he refuses to speak. He will not say anything to anyone, not a word, except “California.” His stepfather reminds the psychiatrist that it has been this way for two years, since the death of the boy’s twin sister in an accident, that in two years there has been no change.
“His depth perception was poor. Intense pain in the socket often forced him to leave the class to visit the school nurse. One day in second grade, older children gathered around, cheering him to ‘take it out, take it out.’ Reluctantly, he complied, drawing even more unwanted attention….’I never had more than one or two friends, if that,’ [he] recalls. ‘I was always a bit of an outsider.’”
When she read the note, my mother wasn’t too worried. She didn’t think the video game thing was a problem because boys will be boys and she had two of them to deal with, after all, but she told me that maybe for a while I should try writing and drawing and talking about some different things at school, because then my teacher would be less concerned and also because, of course, there were other things in the world besides video games. I nodded my way through her speech and said “yes” and “okay” and “I understand” and when she was finished I went back to the living room, where the game I had been playing was paused, waiting for me.
“Though [he] is a heavily traumatized boy, he has a certain fixation with building, stacking things,” the psychiatrist says. The camera cuts away to the boy, building the tower from blocks on the carpet. It rises skyward, one block on top of the other; the boy seems completely focused on the activity, oblivious to the fact that people are talking about him. “These little monuments he makes,” she says, her voice breaking, “I like to think that they mean something.”
The world’s first commercial electronic video game, Computer Space, was released in 1971. The world’s first electronic stock market, the National Association of Securities Dealers Automated Quotations (NASDAQ), opened in 1971. The world’s first scholarly journal devoted to the study of autism and autism spectrum disorders in children, The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, published its first issue in 1971.
The boy’s stepfather wears a black suit and has a black briefcase which he fingers as he talks to the psychiatrist. He drinks coffee and paces around the conference room; this is a waste of his time, he needs to get back to the office. He tells the psychiatrist that it’s been two years with no change and that they’ve decided it’s time to move the boy into an institution. In the next scene, which takes place in a dingy working class kitchen, we find out that the boy’s birth father thinks that this is wrong, that the boy should be at home with his family, but that he can’t really do anything about it because he can’t afford another mouth to feed or a custody battle to fight, because he’s just a blue collar guy dressed in a stained polo shirt, powerless against the power suit.
“[He] quickly became enamored with making money. Sometimes he’d wash dollar bills, drying them off with a towel and placing them between the pages of thick books on his shelf to make them look crisp and new. Working odd jobs on Sundays and holidays, including an $11-an-hour stint at a local IBM research lab, he built a small savings account that he began to invest in mutual funds.”
My favorite game when I was in second grade was called Kid Chameleon, which was a game in which your character, traveling through a dangerous virtual world, could take on different identities by collecting masks. The masks changed your character; they changed you and allowed you to do different things, to be different than the person you were normally. I wrote about the game and talked about it and drew about it every day at school because I thought it was important, more important than anything else in the world. You put on the masks and you were made different; you were yourself but you were also something else, someone else, different. I couldn’t understand why everyone else couldn’t see how important it was.
2. The Oregon Trail
The boy’s brother breaks him out of the psychiatric institution and they head for California from their home in Utah. The brother is only a few years older than the boy but he is confident and energetic; his eyes are filled with fire. The two of them make it out of town by sneaking into the back of a Wonderbread truck making a delivery to the institution, but, when they get out of the truck, dazed and tired, there is still a great distance for them to travel. At a dusty bus station, the brother finds out that it will cost 226 dollars for them to get to Los Angeles. He only has 27 dollars and 37 cents, all the money he had saved in his piggy bank at home. As his brother haggles with the driver, the boy plays an arcade game in the corner of the bus station. It’s a game made for two players, with two joysticks and two sets of buttons, but he plays it alone.
“Partly to please his father, [he] enrolled in premed courses at UCLA, like many of his classmates. But he couldn’t seem to blend in with other students, feeling out of place in sunny Southern California…. [He] seemed cocky and tactless to some, and he couldn’t figure out how to change this perception. It was as if he were missing some sensitivity chip.”
When I was in fifth grade, we were sometimes allowed to use the computers in our school computer lab to play games. We were allowed to play them not because of them being fun or exciting but because they were “educational,” because they were supposed to teach us things about the world, things that would help us in the future, as we grew up. Most of them weren’t really games, it didn’t feel like, even if that’s what they were technically called. Just because you called typing or doing math problems a “game” didn’t make it a game, I didn’t think.
The game the boy is playing is an early arcade fighting game called Double Dragon in which two brothers kick and punch and grapple their way through hordes of anonymous enemies. When buying the bus ticket doesn’t work out, the brother pulls the boy away from the game to go but then, glancing back at the screen, he notices that in the short time he’s been playing, the boy has scored 50,000 points, an almost impossible amount. “How did you do that?” he asks. The boy is silent; he stares at the screen as it flashes his score. A young girl sitting nearby watches them, her face hidden behind an advertisement for sunscreen in Cosmopolitan.
“He didn’t regard himself as a tragedy; he thought, among other things, that his unusual personality enabled him to concentrate better than other people. All of it followed, in his mind, from the warping effects of his fake eye.”
The Oregon Trail was the one game I liked to play at school. It was the one game everybody liked. It was an adventure game simulation of a nineteenth-century American pioneer’s journey to the West Coast. The Oregon Trail was supposed to be educational; it was a game that involved making decisions and using strategy and managing money and it had an important historical context and nobody cared about any of that stuff, not at all. There was this one part of the game where you got to hunt for your own food: rabbit and squirrels, deer and elk and bison, even big black bears pawing through the scrub brush on the side of the trail. In this part of the game, your mouse cursor became a crosshair and when you clicked on moving things with it at the right time, the things died. That was the part everybody liked, the fun part.
“Around this time, [he] rediscovered a passion for the stock market, drawn by what he considered to be the meritocracy of investing. It didn’t matter if a mutual-fund manager was perceived as arrogant or was socially awkward, [he] figured, just as long as he produced good returns. Making a lot of money seemed among the most concrete and objective signs of success.”
The boys meet the girl in the back room of the bus station, where they’ve gone to hide from a private detective hired by the stepfather who is tracking them and trying to bring the boy back to the institution. The man leaves, the danger passes, and the brother, smitten with the girl’s red hair and blue eyes, brags to her about the boy’s skill with Double Dragon, how he just got 50,000 points on the machine by the counter. She says that’s impossible, that there’s no way he could get that many points. To settle things, she and the boy decide to play against each other, one on one.
“Pretty quickly he saw that there was no logic at all in the charts and graphs and waves and the endless chatter of many self-advertised market pros…. Having read everything there was to read about investing, he decided to learn a bit more about ‘investing in the real world’… Investing was something you had to learn had to do on your own, in your own particular way….”
We were supposed to learn about money management from The Oregon Trail. We were supposed to learn about planning for the future, about strategy and responsibility. We were supposed to learn about the horrors and privations of pioneer life, about the sacrifices that our ancestors made in order to tame the wilderness and manifest their destiny. What we learned about instead was how to hit an elk hiding in tall prairie grass from the back of a covered wagon. What we learned was the fun of shooting stuff for no reason, the joy of killing things we didn’t need.
The girl is a talented adversary, but the boy beats her easily, no problem, his fingers clicking the plastic buttons, his eyes blank. When it’s over, she can’t believe what’s happened. “The kid’s a natural, a genius, a pro,” she says, staring at the screen, awestruck. “He’s a wizard.” She calls him a wizard because his skill at the game seems virtuosic, inexplicable, like magic.
“On his blog, he posted his stock market trades and his arguments for making the trades. People found him. As a money manager at a big Philadelphia value fund said, ‘…He’s buying value stocks, which is what we’re doing. But we’re losing money. We’re losing clients. All of a sudden he goes on this tear. He’s up fifty percent. It’s uncanny. He’s uncanny.’”
The school raised money to buy more computers for us to play Oregon Trail on. They made space in the budget to build new computer labs, to buy new computers to put in them. This was a pattern that all the schools that I would attend would follow; every few years, they had to find the money to provide us with more and newer and better computers because computers were important and we had to have them. It didn’t matter that all we did was play video games on them; to buy computers for us to play games on was an investment in our future, in the future of America.
3. Mega Man
The film’s plot develops when the characters find their ultimate goal: money. In the girl’s issue of Cosmopolitan, which they read in a diner at the bus stop, they find an ad for a video game competition taking place in a few days in Los Angeles, at Universal Studios. The sponsors of the competition are offering a grand prize of $50,000 cash for the best video game player in the country. The three of them could go to California together, they realize, and the boy could win the money, all of it, the grand prize.
“A broker at Bank of America… sat with him on a living-room couch, near an imposing drum set, as she described what her bank could offer his new firm…. A worn, yellowing chart on a nearby closet door tracked the progressive heights of [he] and his brothers in their youth rather than any commodity or stock price…. [W]earing jeans and a t-shirt, [he] asked [the broker] if she could recommend a good book about how to run a hedge fund, betraying his obvious ignorance.”
In 1987, Mega Man, a highly influential and highly difficult action platform game, was released for the Nintendo Entertainment System in the United States. In 1987, the largest one day decline in the history of the American stock market was recorded; it was called Black Monday and the exact causes of the crash are not known to this day, though many blame program trading, a system in which computer programs executed large numbers of trades at split second intervals without direct human control. In 1987, a psychiatrist named Simon Baron-Cohen published an article called “Autism and Symbolic Play,” in which he argued that autistic children had a particular difficulty with “pretend” play (as opposed to the more mechanical or mathematical “sensorimotor, ordering, or functional” play) and suggested that there may be a link between this deficit in pretending and the social impairments which afflict autistic children.
The boy and his brother and the girl sit at the table at the diner, dreaming about success. The money, if they won it, could change all of their lives. The girl could buy a real house for her father to replace the small trailer that they live in now. The brother could prove, based on the boy’s skill at the game, that he shouldn’t be institutionalized. The boy says, when asked whether he wants to go, says, “California,” and it is clear that he needs to make it there somehow, for some reason that he can’t or won’t express. Slumped into their seats, they stare at the ad for the competition in the magazine. They have to go there and they have to win it; it’s the treasure chest at the end of their quest, filled to the brim with gold.
“’We’d like to give you a million dollars.’
‘We want to buy a quarter of your new hedge fund. For a million dollars.’
‘Yes. We’re offering a million dollars.’”
In Mega Man, the title character fights his way through a massive metropolitan city called Monsteropolis, defeating a series of bosses in order to gain special weapons and powers. The game is a platform game; you run, jump, and shoot your way across the platforms that make up the stage; at the end of each stage, you eventually reach a boss who is keeping you from the next stage. When your character defeats this boss, he gains the boss’s power and you can then use this resource, this power, to beat the next boss. In this way, the game progresses, boss after boss, your character consuming resources and becoming more and more powerful.
“Over a period in which the broad stock market index had fallen by 6.84 percent, [his] fund was up 242 percent and he was turning away investors…. He used no leverage and avoided shorting stocks. He was doing nothing more promising than buying common stocks and nothing more complicated than sitting in a room reading financial statements.”
My brother and I played Mega Man all night every night for a week one summer when we were kids. We were staying at a condo at the beach with our parents for vacation and the game was there, plugged up to a small TV in the corner of the bedroom we shared. We sat on the carpet between the bed and the wall, a foot away from the screen. Mega Man was an old game at that point, on a system that had been released the year I was born, but we played it anyway because we loved video games; we were very different and that was one of the only things we had in common. We loved the way they made other worlds where all sorts of impossible things could happen. We loved playing them and watching other people play them and, most of all, we loved beating them, to feel what it felt like to win.
Until the Black Monday stock market crash of 1987, most NASDAQ trades took place by telephone and were processed by human beings. During the crash, however, the phones used for trading went unanswered by harried market makers (the officials who processed “buy” and “sell” orders) and panic and chaos resulted. The new computerized trading system that was created for the NASDAQ in response to the crash was called the Small Order Execution Service, or SOES, which made possible the automatic order execution of trades below a certain number of shares. The SOES laid the groundwork for the more widespread computerized trading which would emerge in the 1990s. In time, traders would be able to buy and sell stocks and securities on the same home computers their children used to play video games.
“It’s a business deal,” the girl says as the sun sets outside the diner. She’s offered to cash in her bus ticket home in order to provide the three of them with travelling cash, but she has conditions. “If I can get you to California, if he wins, we split the money.” The brother accepts; he has no choice but to accept.
No matter how hard my brother and I tried, we couldn’t get through the fifth level of Mega Man, the level where you had to fight the Fire Man boss. He would send these walls of flame across the floor towards our character and they were too hard to avoid; unless you jumped at just the right time, they would burn you to death. We practiced and practiced, but we just weren’t good enough at dodging the flames and even if we could pull off the jumps, he still killed us before we could kill him with the weapons we’d collected from the other bosses. It drove us crazy. Once my brother got mad and yanked the controller out of the system, the cord flying toward us, breaking our connection to the game.
Dr. Baron-Cohen, in a later paper, expanded on his work with autism and pretend play in children by creating what is called empathizing-systemizing (or E-S) theory. He had previously coined the term “mind-blindness” to describe how the lack of ability to empathize that was found in some people with autistic spectrum disorders might be based on their deficits in pretend play; that their inability to imaginatively inhabit the lives of other human beings kept them from empathy and from “normative” social interaction.
“His mind had no temperate zone: he was either possessed by a subject or not interested in it at all. There was an obvious downside to this quality — he had more trouble than most faking interest in other people’s concerns and hobbies, for instance — but an upside, too. Even as a small child he had a fantastic ability to focus and learn…. He attributed his unusual powers of concentration to his lack of interest in human interaction and his lack of interest in human interaction… well, he was able to argue that basically everything that happened was caused, one way or the other, by his fake left eye.”
On the bookshelf in the living room in the condo at the beach, shoved next to some coffee table books about great battles in World War 2, there were a stack of tattered video game magazines. In the back of one of them, which was called GamePro, we found a way to make Mega Man easier, a glitch in the programming of the weapons system game that you could take advantage of to be more powerful. You pressed the Select button at a certain time as you attacked and if you pressed it at the right time, while using the right weapon, it made your attack do more damage than it should have, than it was really supposed to. It made a superweapon.
“Leafing through the finance section of a local bookstore, [he] found a particularly dense tome, Credit Derivatives & Synthetic Structures: A Guide to Instruments and Applications, that explained the knotty world of credit-default swaps, or CDS…. it was like stumbling into an alternative world he never knew existed, one rife with possibility.”
In Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe’s novel about Wall Street traders in the 1980s, the main character describes himself as a “Master of the Universe,” a term he’s taken from his daughter’s plastic He-Man action figure. “One fine day in a fit of euphoria,” the third person narrator tells us, “after he had picked up the telephone and taken an order for zero coupon bonds that had brought him a $50,000 commission, just like that, this very phrase had bubbled up into his brain. On Wall Street he and a few others — how many? — three hundred, four hundred, five hundred? — had become precisely that… Masters of the Universe. There was… no limit whatsoever.”
We pressed the Select button at the right time and our weapons hit the boss and we became stronger and we beat the boss and the one that came after and eventually, way past our bedtime, we beat the final bosses that came after him, we beat all of them. We pressed the Select button over and over again and we earned thousands and thousands of points, we beat them, we won.
“By 2003, [he] was managing $250 million of client money, making $5 million a year. He and his wife, with two children in tow, found a six-bedroom home in the nearby upscale community of Saratoga. It had sat on the market for more than two years, as the dot-com collapse weighed on local housing. The owners had asked $5.4 million for the home. [He] offered $3.8 million, and his bid was accepted. [He] had a growing sense that other parts of the country might have their own housing problems….”
Baron-Cohen’s E-S theory built on the idea of mind-blindness and the related empathy deficits while also attempting to deal with one of the core symptoms of autism which critics said wasn’t adequately addressed by the earlier concept: namely, the intensely focused interests that are common in people with autistic spectrum disorders and the highly repetitive and systematic patterns through which they explore those interests.
In the PlayStation 2 game He-Man: Masters of the Universe, if you open the options menu and press Circle, Right, X, Up, X, all of your attacks will do double the damage they normally do. This button combination is what is called a cheat code. In the options menu, if you press Right, Circle, Up, Left, X, you will become invulnerable and no one can touch you, no one can hurt you, no one can stop you from doing whatever you want. This is one of the most common video game cheat codes, which was popularized by the video game Doom; it’s called God Mode.
Quake is a first person shooter with multiplayer gameplay which was considered to be revolutionary at the time of its release. A first person shooter is a game in which you see out of the eyes of the avatar that you control and move through a “three-dimensional” game world shooting and/or killing people while trying to avoid being shot and/or killed by other people. Quake was one of the first video games to be played competitively in formal tournaments for prize money and, owing to technological advances by its programming team and in the world at large, was one of the first video games that could be played over the global Internet instead of in a “hotseat” at the same computer with another player or on a hardware local area network in a single location. Before Quake, you had to know and to be able to physically see the people you were killing; afterward, you could be killing almost anyone anywhere in the world at any hour of the day or night; you killed hordes of strangers, faceless, nameless people you would never meet, who disappeared forever when they died and disconnected from the servers. One of the most popular types of Quake games is the deathmatch, a common multiplayer contest that involves players in the game attempting to kill as many of the other players in the game as many times as possible, over and over again, until a time or death limit is reached (say, 10 minutes or 500 deaths). In a deathmatch, there are no teams or alliances; it’s kill or be killed, every man for himself.
“[S]ome borrowers were taking out loans that were bigger than the purchase price of the homes they were buying…. [He] holed up in his office, hour after hour, wearing a T-shirt, surfer shorts, and Birkenstocks, reading abstruse mortgage documents. Then he’d turn off the lights, close his eyes, and think.”
The film’s antagonist is introduced soon after the discovery of the boy’s wizardry, as the kids slowly make their way along the highway through the desert. There are a number of antagonists in the film, just as there are a number of antagonists in life, a number of evil people doing evil things filling the world, but because this is, above all else, a film about games, the evil game player is the most important evil person in the film, the central enemy to be vanquished, the final boss. He is a thirteen-year-old boy who is also entering the video game competition in California; he wears black sunglasses and a black jacket and he has a secret weapon.
The Game Genie wasn’t really a game at all, it was a tool. My brother and I got it for Christmas one year, along with a few other new games for our Genesis. It was a plastic cartridge like all the other games we got, but, unlike them, it had a hole in the top, a slot into which other cartridges could be stuck. You stuck the cartridge into the system and then you stuck the cartridge of the game you wanted to play in the slot on top. When you booted the system, before your game started up, the Game Genie intervened, allowing you to enter special codes that would help you unlock levels, strengthen your avatar’s attributes, be invincible and otherwise cheat.
In a polished steel attaché case, the antagonist has what he calls the Power Glove, a special plastic and rubber glove which allows him to control video games simply by moving his arm through space. It’s like magic. The brother and the girl gape, they’ve never seen anything like it; the boy is silent, as always. The three of them watch in awe as the antagonist plays a racing game, weaving his high-powered sports car through heavy traffic at a hundred miles per hour without even breaking a sweat, just twitching the muscles of his arm inside the glove, rotating it in the air to steer. Synthesizers on the soundtrack play majestic sawtooth melodies; on another television in the room, a disembodied announcer voice says the phrase “like fire from the gods.”
“Maybe there was a way to bet against mortgages themselves. He called a trader, asking if he could buy CDS protection for pools of risky mortgages, rather than on companies in the mortgage business, as he had done so far.”
Though the physics which control the movement of bodies through space in Quake are modeled on the way the real world works, there are some liberties taken in the system, imaginative stretches of reality which are exploited by players in order to increase their advantages against others in the deathmatches. One of these imaginative exploits is a tactic called rocket jumping. To rocket jump, a player jumps into the air and then fires a rocket launcher at the space directly beneath his feet. The rocket explodes and the force of the shockwave propels his character into the air. Because of the quirks in the game’s physics system, the shockwave is strong enough, in most cases, to severely wound the player but not strong enough to kill him. By rocket jumping, an expert player can quickly escape danger, find new angles of attack, and reach hidden, higher level areas where caches of weapons, ammunition and other special bonuses are stored.
“He bought $60 million in credit default swaps from Deutsche Bank — $10 million each on six difference bonds… He set out to cherry-pick the absolute worst ones, and was a bit worried that the investment banks would catch on to just how much he knew….”
Before the Game Genie, my brother and I always tried our best to beat hard games, but sometimes we just couldn’t get through them; we got stuck and weren’t good enough to go forward and there weren’t always cheats in the magazines to use. The Game Genie had codes for everything, though; it seemed like it could modify any game and do anything to it within the realm of possibility. We looked up extra codes on AOL and wrote down long lists of them in pencil on construction paper. Sometimes the codes played with the architecture of the game in such extreme and dangerous ways that they made it glitch or crash, freezing the screen or filling it with digital garbage, but for the most part, they worked well enough. The Game Genie unlocked doors that we were too lazy or too weak to unlock ourselves; it was a skeleton key, our secret weapon.
“[He] felt like a kid in a half-priced candy store, trying to gobble up as much of the merchandise as possible before the other children found out about the markdown.”
The film treats the Power Glove in a strange, conflicted way. It’s associated with the antagonist of the film, the evil game player that the audience is supposed to hate for his privilege and his arrogance and his black sunglasses, who we are rooting against, and yet, simultaneously, it’s being marketed to that audience as a desirable consumer product, as something they should want to buy when the film is over so that they can have its great power too (it was released at toy and game stores at the same time as the film). The audience is being encouraged by Nintendo to spend their money (or their parents’ money) not so they can be heroes, not so they can be honest, hard-working players like the boy, but instead so that they can be just like the villain, so that they can be free to cheat the neat, easy way he does, so they can have the power without the work.
“The market made no sense, but that didn’t stop other Wall Street firms from jumping into it, in part because [he] was pestering them…. He wasn’t wasting a lot of time worrying about why these supposedly shrewd investment bankers were willing to sell him insurance so cheaply. He was worried that others would catch on and the opportunity would vanish…. It was one of the fringe benefits of living for so many years essentially alienated from the world around him: he could easily believe that he was right and the world was wrong.”
Expert players of Quake and its various sequels are masters of rocket jumping and their skill with this tactic grants them a number of advantages. Often, players of the game who are not experts also attempt to rocket jump, although when a player without much skill attempts to rocket jump, it often results in him blowing himself up, and, when multiple players attempt to rocket jump at the same time in one place, the resultant shock wave is usually large enough to kill them all. This is, of course, what happens in real life if you shoot a rocket filled with high explosives directly at your feet; you blow up, you die. It doesn’t matter if you jump first or how good your timing is; you blow up, you die. The game, when you rocket jump correctly, when you can hit the buttons in the right way at the right time, allows you to forget this fact, to believe, as you shoot into the sky, that you are a master of the universe, existing beyond reality, with no limits whatsoever.
“’Derivatives are like guns,’ [another trader] still likes to say. ‘The problem isn’t the tools. It’s who’s using the tools.’”
My brother and I became addicted to cheating. After a certain point, to us, cheating was synonymous with playing; there was no separation between the two. At first we took out the Game Genie after every time we used it, only inserting it into the system again when we wanted to cheat on a particular game. After a few weeks, though, we just left it in there and didn’t take it out anymore. It stayed plugged into the system forever, its codes changing all our games and the way we played them. Once it was in the system, ultimately, there was no point in taking it out.
5. Grand Theft Auto III: San Andreas
After conquering various obstacles, the three kids make it to the girl’s home city, Reno, Nevada, which is painted as a paradise of glittering light, a Zion of easy commerce and free-flowing capital. Upon arrival, the girl enlists a family friend to play roulette for her as a proxy and, because of the girl’s skill at gambling games, he quickly wins four hundred dollars, which the kids use to rent a hotel room at a casino. Before they move on to California, they have three days in which the boy has to learn everything about all the games that will be played in the competition, in which he has to practice and practice, to hone his skills as sharp as ninja swords.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is the one of the best-selling video games of all time. It takes place in the fictional state of San Andreas, a composite of Nevada, California, and Arizona. San Andreas is a third-person perspective game, which means you watch the character you control from an angle behind and slight above him as you move through the world; there is a certain detachment granted by this perspective, just as in literature, the closeness and connection between reader and character in the third-person perspective, the he or she, is never quite as close as that of the first person, the I. There’s a story of sorts to San Andreas: you’re playing as a low level gang member named C.J. Johnson who’s returned to San Andreas from Liberty City (a fictionalized New York) after his mother’s murder in order to advance through the gang and avenge her death.
“The more Wall Street firms jumped into the new business, the easier it became for him to place his bets. For the first few months he was able to short, at most, $10 million at a time. Then, in late June 2005, he had a call from someone at Goldman Sachs asking him if he’d like to increase his trade size to $100 million a pop.”
For a moment, the money they make gambling changes the brother. There is a scene of him walking through an arcade wearing black sunglasses even though it’s dark inside, the only light coming from the screens of the game machines. On his way to check on the boy, he meets a prepubescent version of a casino cigarette girl and buys a pack of gum from her, rolling off a bill from a fat wad in his pocket and telling her to keep the change.
“A preschool teacher had noticed certain worrying behaviors in their four year old son…. [T]ests administered by a child psychologist proved that their child had Asperger’s syndrome…[He] was dumbstruck…His wife now handed him the stack of books she had accumulated on autism and related disorders. On top were The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome by a clinical psychiatrist named Tony Attwood, and Attwood’s Asperger’s Syndrome: A Guide for Parents and Professionals.”
In 2001, Simon Baron-Cohen and a team of scientists from the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge released a questionnaire called the Autism Spectrum Quotient. The questionnaire was designed to test the extent to which autistic traits were present in normal adults. Autistic spectrum disorders like Asperger’s can’t be objectively identified by a blood test; instead, they’re diagnosed by doctors who assess the presence and intensity of a certain collection of behaviors and feelings which are present, to varying degrees, in the population at large. Everyone is located somewhere on the spectrum between autistic and “normal” and the test is an attempt at locating people on it. The test is made up of fifty statements, each of which can be responded to in one of four ways: Definitely Agree, Slightly Agree, Slightly Disagree, Definitely Disagree. The Wikipedia entry for the quotient links to a website which has converted the test into an HTML form with radio buttons that visually register the choices you’ve made and which automatically tabulates your points for you. It’s like a video game; you click some buttons in a certain sequence and, at the end, you are given a score based on your input. The first statement on the test is: “1. I prefer to do things with others rather than on my own.”
There’s a story in GTA: San Andreas, but the story isn’t really important because San Andreas is what’s called a sandbox game. That means that the player is basically free to do whatever he or she wants, the way that a child in a sandbox can do any number of things with the sand and the box and his or her imagination. It’s even easier in San Andreas than in a sandbox, though, because you don’t actually have to imagine the world, it’s been imagined for you by the game designers, down to the cracks in the sidewalk. You don’t have to imagine anything; all you have to do is manipulate the various variables and models you’re presented with in the game world in order to see what happens when. You can follow the story in San Andreas if you want to, but you don’t have to because you have this sandbox where you can do anything that you want, even things that are wrong or bad or illegal in the real world. Especially those things, in fact.
“4. I frequently get so strongly absorbed in one thing that I lose sight of other things.” “10. In a social group, I can easily keep track of several different people’s conversations.” “12. I tend to notice details that others do not.”
“After a few pages, [he] realized he was no longer reading about his son but about himself. ‘How many people can pick up a book and find an instruction manual for their life?’ he said. ‘I hated reading a book telling me who I was. I thought I was different, but this was saying I was the same as other people…All of a sudden I’ve become this caricature,’ [he said]…Now it’s like, ‘Oh, a lot of Asperger’s people can do that.’ Now I was explained by a disorder.’”
In a parallel narrative thread, the boy’s father and his other older brother are driving through the desert trying to find the kids and clashing with the private detective hired by the stepfather. The detective is always one step ahead of them and to lose to him over and over drives them crazy and makes them fight with each other. They stop at a motel for the night, dirty and exhausted and so angry that they can’t even really communicate. The older brother brings his Nintendo system inside as a distraction from the father. “You really play this thing, huh?” the father asks. “That’s right,” the older brother says, turning away from him and changing the channel to start the game.
“20. When I’m reading a story, I find it difficult to work out the characters’ intentions.” “21. I don’t particularly enjoy reading fiction.” “23. I notice patterns in things all the time.”
The things that you can do in San Andreas include, but are by no means limited to: stealing cars, money, and various other items, violating the traffic code, hurting, maiming and killing people using a number of legal and illegal weapons, gambling, drinking, smoking, and having sex with your girlfriend (the last via a special cheat code). I only played the game once, right after it was released, and I spent most of my time then trying to run over screaming pedestrians and marveling at how good the graphics looked, how real the game world seemed.
“Now, at the age of thirty-five, he’d been handed this new piece of information about himself — and his first reaction to it was to wish he hadn’t been given it. ‘My first thought was that a lot of people must have this and don’t know it,’ he said. ‘And I wondered, is this really a good thing for me to know at this point? Why is it good for me to know this about myself?’”
When the older brother wakes up in the morning, he finds the father on the floor in front of the television, frantically playing the Nintendo, his eyes locked on the screen. He’s been converted, he’s addicted, he’s in the game. “I don’t believe this,” the father says, breathless. “I got the scroll weapon and I almost beat Mega Turtle at the end of level three.” “You… got the scroll weapon?” his son says, incredulous. The father, too busy playing, doesn’t hear him. “He’s losing his mind,” the son says.
“37. If there is an interruption, I can switch back to what I was doing very quickly.” “41. I like to collect information about categories of things (e.g., types of cars, birds, trains, plants).” “42. I find it difficult to imagine what it would be like to be someone else.”
The major popular criticisms of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and other games in the series have to do with ideas about the effect of gameplay on the morals of the players, on what having free rein to commit carnage does to their decision making, on how committing immoral and illegal actions in the virtual world of the game might desensitize them to the prospect of committing such acts in the real world. People wonder if playing as a character who does bad things makes the player more likely to do bad things in the real world, whether the effects of the game cross over.
“Most days, he sat alone in his office for hours at a time, shutting his door and playing heavy-metal music on a stereo system so loudly that it worried his employees. Soon, they became afraid to approach him…. Heavy-metal bands like Megadeth and Disturbed blasted out of his office, the bass shaking the entire floor. Metallica’s ‘Kill ’Em All’ and Pantera’s ‘Cowboys from Hell’ topped [his] playlist.”
Later that day, the father and the older brother, driving through town, see the private detective driving in his red sedan. The father, out of nowhere, guns the engine and rams into the side of the sedan. He yells at the detective through the window, hits the car again, from behind, and then, screaming “You want some more?” out the open window, speeds across a dirt road and slams head on into it. When the engine of his truck dies after this final collision and the private detective escapes in a cloud of dust, the father looks confused, surprised. It’s as if he doesn’t understand what’s happened, as if it doesn’t make sense to him why he can’t hit the man with his car over and over again without it breaking down, why the world won’t work like that.
The control group for the autism quotient test scored an average of 16.4 points, while 80% of those diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders scored 32 or more. When I did the test the first time, I scored a 26, which is what the report accompanying the test identified as the “threshold score” which has “good screening properties” and “discriminatory validity.” After I got a 26, I wanted to do better, to be better, so I refreshed the page and played again, changing some of my answers slightly to better suit what I thought they were supposed to be, what was normal. The second time, I scored a 20, which was an improvement, but not as low as I wanted it to be. I opened another tab and found a key that had a list of the statements you were supposed to agree and disagree with in order to be normal. I tabbed back to the previous page and started to key them into the form, but after a while I quit because even with the cheat it just wasn’t that much fun of a game.
As the boy sleeps, resting up for the contest, the brother and the girl sit on lawn chairs on top of her family’s trailer, which is covered in patchy Astroturf. The girl is ashamed of where she comes from, that her family doesn’t have a real home because they can’t afford one, because her dad is a trucker and her mother, before she left, was a gambling addict. They don’t even own the trailer; this is why they need to get to California and win the prize money, she says. “I thought maybe when my dad got home tomorrow night from work, we’d have won,” she says. “Call him up from L.A. and say, ‘Dad, guess what, we can buy a house now.’” The brother compares her plight to a video game, The Legend of Zelda, in which the hero, Link, searches for lost princess Zelda. “He has to find Zelda, you have to find a house,” the brother says, “same difference.”
“[He] opened the Wall Street Journal to find an article explaining how the new wave of adjustable-rate mortgages were defaulting, in their first nine months, at rates never before seen. Lower middle class America was tapped out. There was even a little chart to show readers who didn’t have time to read the article. He thought, the cat’s out of the bag. The world’s about to change.”
6. System Shock 2
Through a miraculous correspondence of luck and strategy, the three kids make it to Los Angeles just in time for the boy to enter the game competition. It takes place in an auditorium inside Universal Studios and is called Video Armageddon. The world inside the auditorium is like a Nineties preteen version of the gladiator arena in the Roman coliseum, the air filled with smoke and heat, massive sweating crowds all around watching the games flash across screens.
In System Shock 2, the hardest game I’ve ever played, you’re a soldier on this spaceship millions of miles from Earth and your enemy is not a human or an alien but a system, this malevolent artificial intelligence system called SHODAN. You spend the game fighting your way through the treacherous decks of the ship, trying to reach the root of the system so you can shut it down and save humanity. In the final battle at the very end of the game, your goal is to shock the system, to destroy SHODAN’s connections and memory before it attempts to merge the virtual world and the real world using the power of a light speed hyper drive, to, as it says, “assimilate reality” into its system.
“On Friday, June 15, [his Goldman Sachs saleswoman] vanished. He called and e-mailed her, but she didn’t respond until late the following Monday, to tell him that she was out for the day. ‘This is a recurrent theme whenever the market moves our way,’ [he wrote]. ‘People get sick, people are off for unspecified reasons.’ On June 20, [the saleswoman] returned to tell him that Goldman Sachs had experienced ‘systems failure.’ This was funny, [he] replied, because Morgan Stanley had said more or less the same thing. And his salesman at Bank of America claimed they’d had a ‘power outage.’”
The boy easily plays his way through the preliminaries of Video Armageddon and advances to the final round. In the end, it comes down to three players on the stage in the center of the auditorium; the boy, silent as always, the sunglasses-wearing antagonist, who has the Power Glove but is not allowed to use it in the contest, and a girl who, because of her gender and late introduction to the plot, will obviously not really figure into the true final battle. The announcer tells them they’re going to play a brand new game, one that nobody has ever played before: Super Mario Brothers 3.
It sounds so stupid to describe System Shock 2 by the story, though. The game, as a narrative, is completely absurd like all of these games, but when you’re playing, when you’re inside of it and have been in there for hours, for days, it doesn’t matter, you can’t see that. You can however see the decaying hallways of the station, the shadows that are cast by catwalks and broken electrical panels. You feel the vibrations as your rifle kicks and the rounds eject from the chamber and clink onto the floor in smoking piles. You hear a moaning sound down the end of a dark hallway, a horror that you have no choice but to move forward towards, since this is the only path you know, the only way to go. You’re in the world, no matter how absurd it is, you’re all in, fighting for your life.
Giant screens appear in the walls above the auditorium and the three game gladiators begin to play. The amount of points each of them has scored is measured by an animated bar chart filled with charging cartoon knights, the knights moving forward faster the more points are scored. Everything is even for a while as the three of them explore the new world of the game. They race across platforms and jump on enemies to kill them, they collect power-ups, they reach for stars above their heads.
“One trillion dollars in losses had been created by American financiers, out of whole cloth, and embedded in the American financial system…It was as if bombs of differing sizes had been placed in virtually every major Western financial institution. The fuses had been lit and could not be extinguished. All that remained was to observe the speed of the spark, and the size of the explosions.”
Then, unexpectedly, the boy dies. An enemy attacks his character and he loses a life and has to start over. The boy dies and starts over, at the beginning level, far behind the others. Soon after, he dies again. He can’t get back into the rhythm, the zone. The other players keep going, their knights charging ahead of his on the bar chart as they accumulate thousands and thousands of points. The boy jams his fingers against the buttons, pushing and pushing to try to get somewhere, to catch up with them, but he can’t catch up, he’s too far behind. There’s no way he can earn enough points in time to catch them again, he’s barely staying alive. All seems lost.
“Most nights, [he] came home glum, frustrating his wife….’Look how far you’ve come! Try to enjoy it,’ [she] said. All [he] could do was shrug. She urged him to splurge on a present for himself, but he couldn’t think of anything he wanted.”
You’ve spent countless hours playing and you’re inside the game, fighting the system, your eyes glued to the screen, sweat collecting on your palms. In the final room of the station, the last level, the end, the system has turned off the lights, so that the space around you is only visible when the muzzle of your gun flashes, when lasers dissolve your enemies into showers of sparks. You’re at the absolute apex of your skill, your ability to control the energy at your disposal, you have the most powerful weapons available, but still, the enemy is so strong that it seems unimaginable to beat. You click and you shoot, you launch every attack you have, you do everything you know how to do, and it doesn’t work, you can’t stop the system, you can’t.
“[He] felt chest pains and went to an emergency room. His blood pressure had spiked…. On October 27, [he] wrote to one of his two e-mail friends: ‘I’m selling off the positions tonight. I think I hit a breaking point. I haven’t eaten today, I’m not sleeping, I’m not talking with my kids, not talking with my wife….”
All seems lost and then something happens, something that seems impossible, something that shouldn’t be able to happen. The boy’s character flies off the top edge of the screen, a place where a character shouldn’t be able to go, according to the rules of the game, and he emerges in a secret room where there’s a magic flute, like the one in the opera. He blows the flute and magically warps out of the dungeon and into another world, far ahead of the other players. It’s a cheat, but is it cheating if the cheat is built into the system? No one cares, the game is moving forward, the screen is opening onto a new level. The boy has found an impossible shortcut, a loophole, and his points accrete exponentially, his white knight charging back into the competition at hyperspeed. This is our hero, the one we love, the wizard, back in the game. He mashes the buttons hard, moving his character forward, clicking toward victory. At the last possible second, he grabs a star from the sky above him and pulls into the lead, his animated knight rocketing off the edge of the screen, an impossible score, an impossible ending. A foghorn blows and the crowd erupts, volcanic with feeling. There are explosions of noise and pixels and light, the video screens flash dollar signs epileptically and scream “GAME OVER” in giant type.
“There was no triumph in it,’ he said. ‘Making money was nothing like I thought it would be.’”
You keep trying to throw the switches, to shut down the connections between the system and the world, but you can’t break them all, it’s too intertwined, and in the end you die. The end of the game is a video sequence that’s not interactive; all you can do is sit and watch it as it happens. It’s always the same; no matter how well you play, the system always beats you, it assimilates reality. Even when you think you’ve “won” the game, even when you’ve made it through the last level and thought you’d done it, that you’d won, there’s this video sequence, this coda, and it turns out that it’s not really a happy ending, there’s no triumph, no success, only horror, sadness, suffering, death, emptiness. You haven’t really won; the system has won, like it always does, and you die, everyone dies.
The explosions, the flashing dollar signs, the message that says game over.
7. Fallout: New Vegas
After the gold rush, the film keeps going for some reason. When the game is over, when the screens flash and explode, you want the film to be over, it feels over, that whatever else happens is beside the point, but then there is still the problem of the little boy who doesn’t speak, the problem introduced at the very beginning of the film. Beating the game hasn’t cured his problem, it’s only distracted him and us from it for a little while, surrounded it with money and success and plot progression. Why does the boy keep saying “California”? Why will he say nothing else, why is he locked inside himself and unable or unwilling to escape? The question is still unanswered even after the game has been beaten. The families drive in silence through the desert, the sun high above the highway beating down on the roofs of their cars.
The last video game I played was called Fallout: New Vegas. At the time, it retailed for $59.99 MSRP but I didn’t pay for it, I downloaded it for free off the Internet. I don’t play as many games as I did when I was a kid because I have a job now, but I’ve played a few games in the last few years. I haven’t paid for any of them, though, because I can get them off the Internet for free without any risk of punishment. When you can get something for free without any risk of punishment, it’s hard to make yourself pay for it even though you know it’s technically wrong, that it’s stealing something that doesn’t belong to you and that you don’t have any real right to have. I know it’s wrong but I do it anyway because I want to play. I don’t make much money and I have to buy food and I have to pay my rent and I have to make it to work and back on time and in suitable clothing. I just don’t have money for games these days, but, still, I want to play them.
“Early on, long before others came around to his view of the world, [he] had noted how morbid it felt to turn his investment portfolio into what amounted to a bet on the collapse of the financial system.”
Fallout: New Vegas is a role playing game which takes place in a vast post-apocalyptic rendering of the Mojave Desert stretching out from a crumbling Las Vegas strip into California and Arizona, a land ravaged by manmade disasters. New Vegas is a sandbox game like San Andreas, though it’s played from a first person perspective, so that you are inside the character and, unlike in San Andreas, you, in a fundamental way, create your character through the choices you make, through your actions and conversations, through your allocation of experience points. When you accomplish tasks in the game, you are given experience points and you can use these points to upgrade your physical and mental abilities and assets; by using experience points on certain characteristics and not others, you shape who you are. You can decide who you are in the game because your character is an amnesiac who can’t remember his past and is walking through the desert under the beating sun trying to understand who he is and who he’s going to be, how to live. Even though New Vegas has a story to some extent, even though you have conversations and relationships and a number of other simulated vestiges of “real life,” the game, like most video games, is, ultimately about killing things. You kill vigilantes with bounties on their heads, you kill desert lizards to cook for food, you kill strange mutant creatures hiding in shadowy corners of abandoned government buildings stuffed with radioactive waste in order to raid their hideaways for treasure. You walk through the desert in the sun and the heat and you click and you kill and after you have clicked and killed, you hover over the corpses of the people and things you’ve clicked and killed and loot their bodies for the supplies you need to survive.
Off the side of the highway, in the distance, we see a dinosaur. It’s a Brontosaurus and as the car moves forward, we see another, maybe a Tyrannosaurus Rex, it’s hard to tell through the heat and the dust. The boy sees the dinosaurs and becomes suddenly animated, knocking at the car door, slapping the window as hard as he can. “California,” he moans, “California.” He seems to be in pain, like there’s something inside him that’s trying to escape. The stepfather doesn’t want to stop, he wants to get home, to work, but the boy is pressing against the glass so hard it looks like it might break. “Pull over. Would you pull over?” the mother says.
Though the game’s setting is a fictional composite, locations in New Vegas are closely modeled on actual locations in the real world: from well-known places like the Hoover Dam and the Las Vegas strip to small town general stores and windblown campgrounds. One of the locations in the game is called the Dino Dee-lite Motel, which has, as a tourist attraction, an enormous concrete dinosaur with a gift shop in a room inside its stomach. In the game, if you climb a set of stairs inside the gift shop, you emerge in the dinosaur’s mouth, which is being used as a sniper nest to protect the surrounding town from invaders. This location is modeled on the famous Cabazon dinosaurs, roadside attractions that sit in the desert off I-10 in Cabazon, California.
They pull over the car and the boy takes off running towards the dinosaurs, everyone else following after him, his brother in the lead. They run through this stretch of desert set with dinosaurs, their massive bodies frozen in the middle of the desert in order to attract tourists to spend money.
“What had happened was that he had been right, the world had been wrong, and the world hated him for it. And so [he] ended where he began — alone, and comforted by his solitude. He remained inside his office in Cupertino, California, big enough for a staff of twenty-five people, but the fund was shuttered and the office was empty.”
I cheated in New Vegas, of course. I cheat in every game, I’m a cheater. When it gets hard in a game, when I fail, I don’t keep hitting it head on, I don’t try my hardest and spend the time and the work it takes to do it right, I just find a way around the problem, a shortcut, a code or an expert strategy that will unlock the doors that I need to unlock. In New Vegas, when the game got hard and I failed and I couldn’t solve my problems, I would press the Windows key which would break the frame of the game and take me out into the world, to my web browser, where I would search for cheats and strategy guides to help me through the hard parts, to keep me going.
His brother finds the boy inside the Tyrannosaurus, alone. He’s sitting in a small room in the belly, the framework of the dinosaur’s body naked around him, the wooden beams and concrete skin. He’s looking at a photograph and beside him is an open lunchbox, the lunchbox he’s been carrying since the beginning of the movie. The brother looks at the photograph, which is of their family all standing together by this same dinosaur on a road trip before the boy’s sister died, a time when they were all happy, when things were good. The boy says his sister’s name and his eyes fill with tears and suddenly, like magic, all is healed, all is fixed, he’s better, everything’s better, they’re a family again. The narrative resolves here and the film ends in this easy, heartwarming way, but like I said, it’s already been all over by then, none of it matters. The film is not really about the characters, it’s about the game. If there’s anything to take away from the film, it’s not the story of the boy, it’s the story of the game, what you will do to beat the game and what the game will do to beat you.
“’I’m broken,’ [he wrote in an e-mail]. ‘Asperger’s has given me some great gifts, but life’s been too hard for too long because of it as well.’”
The game got hard and I failed. I was doing this quest in which I had to find a man inside a tent city in the middle of the desert and kill him in order to advance. I couldn’t find the man, though, no matter how hard I looked. I didn’t know if the problem was that I had a stolen copy that didn’t work properly or if it was that I was using cheats and they had somehow interfered with the code of the game, breaking it and making the man disappear. I didn’t know what the problem was. I pressed the Windows key and searched for a strategy guide in my web browser, I searched for the words “fallout tent city strategy.” One of the pages that came up in my search results was something from the New York Times called “Inside California’s Tent Cities.” The link led to a photo slideshow. One of the images early on in the slideshow was a photograph of a woman crouched inside a low hanging tent, a small shelf of food against the tarp wall behind her, her clothes stuffed in a plastic garbage bag. I stopped on the image, I stayed there a second, for a few seconds, for I don’t how long really, a while, because almost as soon as the image appeared, I realized that the inside of the tent in the photo with the woman looked just like the inside of a tent in the game where, an hour or so earlier, I had murdered a sleeping man in order to steal his food and possessions and the things he had that I needed to move forward. That’s weird, I thought. I looked at the image which was like the other image and I thought it was weird and then I changed tabs and found what I needed in the strategy guide and pressed the Windows key to go back to the game. I pressed the Windows key and I went back to playing the game, to the virtual desert and the amnesia story and the monsters you could make go away with just a couple well-placed clicks. I kept playing and I didn’t think about it once, not until right now when I was writing this section. I didn’t think about him and I didn’t think about her, I didn’t think about anything at all, I just pressed the Windows key and kept playing, moving forward towards the game’s end, accomplishing goals and accruing experience points.
“This business kills a part of life that is pretty essential. The thing is, I haven’t identified what it kills. But it is something vital that is dead inside of me. I can feel it.’”
The Tetris effect is a perceptual phenomenon that occurs when people spend extended periods of time playing video games. The phenomenon is called the Tetris effect because it was first noticed by players of the game Tetris. After these players spent hours and hours playing Tetris, which involves moving different shaped configurations of blocks around so that they fit together into neat rows, they found that when they reemerged into the real world, the gameplay had restructured their thought processes, the way they saw and experienced their surroundings; the line between the game world and the real world had blurred. When they closed their eyes to go to sleep at night, the players would see hazy afterimages of the colored configurations falling slowly in interlocking patterns, building imaginary towers which rose into the sky higher and higher and then fell as they fit together and the rows of blocks cleared, the game going on and on against the black screen of their minds without their control, without them being able to quit.
“California,” the boy says, weeping in the belly of the beast.
A blogger for a financial website called Infectious Greed found in 2009 that the California counties with the highest mortgage foreclosure rates were located around the San Andreas Fault, the long, jagged crack under the shell of the earth which runs up and down the West Coast. From Sacramento (foreclosures up 1645% since 2006) to San Joaquin (up 3245%), the blogger made a list of the foreclosure data and an annotated map to display it and noted that if there were a major earthquake in California in the near future, the already high foreclosure rates there would skyrocket because of a lack of earthquake insurance on the properties. If you search on the Internet for “San Andreas,” though, you will not find this list or this map or this information because it is not considered important enough to be displayed in the early pages of results by the algorithms of the search engine or the user input data that these algorithms act upon. Instead, in those pages, you will find thousands and thousands of pictures and videos and broken fragments of text having to do with a video game about stealing.
The Wizard is a 1989 film about two brothers who run away to California and compete in a video game competition. It stars Fred Savage, Luke Edwards and Jenny Lewis. The film is most famous for the scene featuring the Power Glove and for its introduction, in its climactic Video Armageddon contest, of the video game Super Mario Brothers 3, which at the time of the film’s opening had not yet been released in the United States. In a contemporary review, Roger Ebert called The Wizard a “thinly disguised commercial for Nintendo video games” and “a cynical exploitation film.”
Michael Burry is the founder of the hedge fund Scion Capital LLC. As a child, he felt isolated from the rest of the world; he believed at the time this was a result of his having a glass eye, though later in his life, after his young son was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, he found that its symptoms matched his feelings exactly and he has since been diagnosed as having Asperger’s himself. Burry channeled his obsessive tendencies into his interests, first going to medical school at Stanford and then making a name for himself as a successful investor in undervalued stocks. He is most famous, however, not for medicine or value investing, but for earning hundreds of millions of dollars for his hedge fund as a result of presciently shorting the fraudulent subprime mortgage loans that were the catalyst for the financial crisis of 2008. After the crash, he became dissatisfied with investing and its negative effect on his personal life and mental health and closed his hedge fund. He currently lives in California with his family and is one of the subjects of Gregory Zuckerman’s The Greatest Trade Ever and Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, the books from which the quotations here were taken.
At present, computer and video game sales represent a larger financial share of the American entertainment market than music, film, or literature. In 2009, Americans spent more than $25 billion on electronic games.
A 2009 study of 400 players of the online role-playing game Asheron’s Call found that the most devoted players of the game exhibited a number of behavioral and emotional characteristics that are also closely associated with Asperger’s syndrome. The researcher in charge of the study made clear that none of the players had actually been diagnosed with Asperger’s, but that, like people with Asperger’s, they “found it easier to empathize with computer systems than other people.”
“Our research,” he said, “supports the idea that people who are heavily involved in game playing may be nearer to autistic spectrum disorders than people who have no interest in gaming.”
The NASDAQ has a higher trading volume than any other stock exchange and is the second largest securities trading market in the world. In 2010, it had a market value of $2.77 trillion.
Recent articles in The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders include “The Use and Understanding of Virtual Environments by Adolescents with Autistic Spectrum Disorders,” “Do High-Functioning People with Autism Spectrum Disorder Spontaneously Use Event Knowledge to Selectively Attend to and Remember Context-Relevant Aspects in Scenes?” and “Teaching Children with Autism to Read for Meaning: Challenges and Possibilities.”