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‘I played video games with a voracious appetite’: writer Carmen Maria Machado on being a lifelong gamer | Games

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In my first memory of the medium, I am standing behind Eric and he has black hair. His mother couldn’t have watched me more than a handful of times in my childhood, but I can visualise the living room vestibule where we are standing as clearly as if it’s my own house. I’m probably seven. It must be around 1993. I remember that Eric is playing Super Mario Bros, but only because my little brother’s name is Mario and I make the connection with confusion. Eric offers to let me play, once, and I hold the controller like the alien object it is. I try to move Mario and somehow die immediately. Eric takes the controller back and keeps going. I watch. I am always watching. I was not allowed to play video games as a kid. My mother was scornful of them, talked about them the way she talked about all television that wasn’t PBS. (Only bad parents, she said, allowed their kids’ brains to rot that way.) It would never be allowed in our house. In her house, she clarified. By the time my brother came along – and got old enough to want, and ask for, such things – she had relaxed on this point, for reasons unknown. For him, anyway. My bad parents gifted him a Game Boy for some holiday; later, a PS2. Sometimes I borrowed the Game Boy and took it to the bathroom and played Pokémon all night. And sometimes he let me play alongside him. But it never lasted very long. I wasn’t any good. I didn’t feel a rhythm when I played; I had no intuitive sense of the process. It did not feel like reading or writing. It felt like being asked to perform a dance I’d never heard of.

But I still enjoyed it. I enjoyed the sense of being lost; the clarity of solving a puzzle; the pleasure of turning a corner into some new wonder. (It also cannot be denied that the fact that it was being discouraged – at all, and along gendered lines – made it that much more appealing.) I enjoyed it so much that when we eventually got a computer – I was 12, almost 13 – I took my babysitting and birthday money to Electronics Boutique in the Lehigh Valley Mall. Drunk with power – my parents didn’t quite understand that computer games were simply video games on the computer, and had not had the foresight to discourage it – I bought 3-D Dinosaur Adventure (came with its own 3D glasses!); Myst (iconic); Theme Park (when you went bankrupt, a cutscene showed your businessman protagonist jumping off a ledge in the reflection of a family photo on his desk); a series called Eagle Eye Mysteries (Encyclopedia Brown by way of the Boxcar Children); a historical mystery called Titanic: Adventure Out of Time; Oregon Trail (needs no introduction; I always started the game as a doctor and packed a harmonica and was notorious for misfiring my gun and injuring someone in my wagon party). In the college dorms, I lived next to a room of seasoned gamers, who played so much Halo 2 that I am certain the sound of its gunfire would put me to sleep at this very moment. The gamers, who became dear friends, patiently tried to help me play several times, but I found myself utterly unable to aim or shoot and would stand in a corner and fire maniacally at the walls until the scrimmage mercifully ended. Later, when a few of us moved into a house together, I got hooked on the Elder Scrolls game Oblivion and played as a fistfighting cat-person; I spent so much time on it I began to dream that I was my Khajiit self, running around the Cyrodiil landscape coldcocking every random character who crossed my path.

Super Mario Bros, released in 1985 on the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES. Photograph: Nintendo

When I dated my first and worst boyfriend, I was completely enamoured with his copy of Fable II, an open-world fantasy RPG with a series of charming features I adored, including a companion dog and the ability – as a buff female melee fighter – to have sex with and father children with other women. I liked the game so much I put off a necessary breakup until I’d finished the main plot.

Another boyfriend – the second and best – could not believe I’d never played Portal. In his bedroom, he sat me at his elaborate PC setup, slipped huge headphones over my ears. “What are you going to do while I play this?” I asked, and he smiled. “Just watch,” he said. I shrugged and started playing, and shrieking with delight, and marvelling over the physics of the thing. Every so often I’d turn around and he’d be watching me; he seemed genuinely pleased.

Years later, in grad school and on the heels of the end of a horrific relationship, I returned to Elder Scrolls – this time, Skyrim – and played on my friend EJ’s couch. He gently ribbed me about my obsessive collecting of in-game foodstuffs; I explained that it felt insane to walk past anything and not pick it. “See?” I said as I raided a garden full of cabbages, feeling serotonin cascade through my brain. Eventually EJ sweetly fell asleep on the futon next to me; I played until the sun came up and walked home through the streets of Iowa City feeling calmer than I had in a year. When I eventually slept, I dreamed of the collecting by Ralston Creek: the banks littered with plates and bowls, books and armour, herbs and dried goods, all to be added to an inventory with infinite space.

Bloodborne.
The ‘famously punishing’ Bloodborne. Photograph: Sony

After school, when I moved to Philadelphia, I would often take a bus into New York and stay with my friend Tony, who had a PS4. It was next to Tony – who, like my old boyfriend, seemed content to watch me play, and genuinely happy to be sharing something that also gave him pleasure – that I played The Last of Us, PT, Until Dawn, and the beginning of what has become one of my favourite franchises, Life Is Strange. On his couch, I decided to buy a PlayStation of my own, and after that played video games the way a hungry woman sits at a table full of food – hardly knowing where to start; grinning wildly at the satisfaction of her voracious appetite. I played RPGs, puzzle games, first-person shooters. Indie games that played like ergodic novels; games with obscure and impossible-to-parse lore. Horror games that made me scream and throw the controller in terror. Games that made me sob. Games I played without really understanding them. Games hard enough that I had to watch play-throughs on YouTube and cheese specific bosses to advance. Games so buggy I had to delete them. Games I didn’t finish. Games I got stupidly good at. Games I’ve replayed many times since. There was Horizon Zero Dawn and its sequel. Hollow Knight. Resident Evil: Biohazard; Resident Evil: Village. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice and Assassin’s Creed (Odyssey and Valhalla). Ghost of Tsushima, Death Stranding, The Last of Us (again), The Last of Us Part II. Control, Far Cry, Fallout. Alien: Isolation. Red Dead Redemption 2. We Happy Few, Vampyr, Prey, The Last Guardian. All of the BioShock games. Life Is Strange, Life Is Strange: Before the Storm, Life Is Strange 2, Life Is Strange: True Colours. Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture. Stardew Valley. Witcher 3. Needing more – and wanting to be able to play at a residency or travelling, if the mood struck me – I downloaded Steam on my computer and played Amnesia: The Dark Descent, The Beginner’s Guide, Broken Age, Dear Esther, Don’t Starve, Firewatch, Gone Home, Her Story, Inside, Kentucky Route Zero, Limbo, The Long Dark, The Novelist, Oxenfree, Return of the Obra Dinn, Soma, The Stanley Parable, Tacoma, That Dragon Cancer, Undertale, The Walking Dead, The Witness, The Wolf Among Us.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Photograph: Nintendo

I began to play games with friends so inexperienced they could not use the controllers on their own; unused to the mechanics, the camera on the screen would vacillate dizzyingly, wildly, exactly the way I used to shoot – read: not shoot – in Halo 2. So we started to play together. They told me where to go and I took them there and they told me what to click and I did it and in that way we moved through the story together; inch by inch. In an early draft of this essay, I focused a lot on the gendered nature of these experiences; how often I was receiving (literacy of, access to, skills for, experience with) games from men. I mentioned my anxieties about identifying as a gamer. I talked about Gamergate.

But as I keep writing I am struck far more forcefully by the intimacy of the form; the way the experience of it is specific, even erotic. What did it mean to receive someone’s tutelage? To let yourself be watched? To open yourself up to new ways of understanding? To die over and over again? To experience pleasure vicariously, a kind of compersion. Knowing only what you do not know, being in awe of the form’s avenues of pleasure. Letting yourself want, play for days, cheat, give up. Letting yourself try again. Sharing games that aren’t even really designed to be shared.


In 2018, when I was touring my first book, I mentioned during a Q&A after a reading that I’d tried to start playing Bloodborne – the newest entry in a famously punishing franchise made by From Software – but given up because I found the game too annoyingly, relentlessly difficult. I’d hardly been able to make any progress at all.

In my signing line, a very nervous-looking guy came up to me. After pre-apologising – clearly aware of the optics of a man explaining how a video game works to a woman – he began to stammer out a defence of the game. Not as a way of shaming, but explaining that yes, it had a steep learning curve, but once you figure out the mechanics, it was like magic. As he talked, he got more animated; his hands swooping around describing how it becomes like a dance, like a perfect dance. “You will love it,” he kept saying. “You will love it.” He was so impassioned that I went home, redownloaded the game, and began to play. And he was right. Once I found the rhythm, I found myself able to slaughter my way through the blighted and horrifying landscape; lean into the insanity of the lore; appreciate the game’s commitment to its bit.

Elden Ring.
Elden Ring. Photograph: Bandai Namco

After that, I played the next game in the franchise, Sekiro; now, I continue to pour much of my free time into the high fantasy horror open world of Elden Ring. Recently, after giving a talk at a fundraiser, I was encircled by several beautiful high femmes who gave me advice about how to access a particularly rune-lucrative level. We talked loudly, excitedly, far too long. There was such joy in the conversation; a peculiar investment in a stranger’s success at some obscure shared task. I wrote their advice down on my hand. (As of the time of writing this, I cannot defeat Commander Niall to save my life and I need the left half of the Haligtree Secret Medallion; please send help.) Who knows what horrors will arise between my typing this and your taking it in? I can hardly imagine it. The levels I haven’t reached. The chapters I haven’t unlocked.

Before the book tour for my (sad, difficult, hard-to-talk-about) memoir, I bought a Nintendo Switch. At the end of almost every event, I went back to my hotel room and played The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. One of the only ways I knew how to come back into my body – because I was always gone after those readings and Q&As, always completely dissociated and vacated and empty empty empty – was that stupid little tune that played when you cooked a meal. The crackle of fire, a grunt and then a humming, the clatter of metal striking metal, the rhythmic sizzle and bubble of ingredients. The flourish of horns at completion. Link’s delighted laugh. Sometimes I didn’t even do side quests or paraglide over the landscape or fight monsters; I just cooked digital food until I fell asleep. It always got me to the next morning. And then I’d get on a plane and do it all over again. In the sky, the actual sky, on my way to the next sad place. Cooking this thing and that. That little song at the end! The ascending chime. In that memory, I am good at something, and it is a bridge. I can hold it in my hands, move myself through space. It is real and not real. It carries me away, for a little while. It will carry me into a pandemic. The memory of the game bears me through the memory of the time. But most importantly: I play. That’s the best part. In the memory, I am always playing.

  • This is an edited extract from Critical Hits: Writers on Gaming and the Alternate Worlds We Inhabit, edited by Carmen Maria Machado and J Robert Lennon (Serpent’s Tail, £14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply. In the US, the book is published by Graywolf Press ($18)


In my first memory of the medium, I am standing behind Eric and he has black hair. His mother couldn’t have watched me more than a handful of times in my childhood, but I can visualise the living room vestibule where we are standing as clearly as if it’s my own house. I’m probably seven. It must be around 1993. I remember that Eric is playing Super Mario Bros, but only because my little brother’s name is Mario and I make the connection with confusion. Eric offers to let me play, once, and I hold the controller like the alien object it is. I try to move Mario and somehow die immediately. Eric takes the controller back and keeps going. I watch. I am always watching. I was not allowed to play video games as a kid. My mother was scornful of them, talked about them the way she talked about all television that wasn’t PBS. (Only bad parents, she said, allowed their kids’ brains to rot that way.) It would never be allowed in our house. In her house, she clarified. By the time my brother came along – and got old enough to want, and ask for, such things – she had relaxed on this point, for reasons unknown. For him, anyway. My bad parents gifted him a Game Boy for some holiday; later, a PS2. Sometimes I borrowed the Game Boy and took it to the bathroom and played Pokémon all night. And sometimes he let me play alongside him. But it never lasted very long. I wasn’t any good. I didn’t feel a rhythm when I played; I had no intuitive sense of the process. It did not feel like reading or writing. It felt like being asked to perform a dance I’d never heard of.

But I still enjoyed it. I enjoyed the sense of being lost; the clarity of solving a puzzle; the pleasure of turning a corner into some new wonder. (It also cannot be denied that the fact that it was being discouraged – at all, and along gendered lines – made it that much more appealing.) I enjoyed it so much that when we eventually got a computer – I was 12, almost 13 – I took my babysitting and birthday money to Electronics Boutique in the Lehigh Valley Mall. Drunk with power – my parents didn’t quite understand that computer games were simply video games on the computer, and had not had the foresight to discourage it – I bought 3-D Dinosaur Adventure (came with its own 3D glasses!); Myst (iconic); Theme Park (when you went bankrupt, a cutscene showed your businessman protagonist jumping off a ledge in the reflection of a family photo on his desk); a series called Eagle Eye Mysteries (Encyclopedia Brown by way of the Boxcar Children); a historical mystery called Titanic: Adventure Out of Time; Oregon Trail (needs no introduction; I always started the game as a doctor and packed a harmonica and was notorious for misfiring my gun and injuring someone in my wagon party). In the college dorms, I lived next to a room of seasoned gamers, who played so much Halo 2 that I am certain the sound of its gunfire would put me to sleep at this very moment. The gamers, who became dear friends, patiently tried to help me play several times, but I found myself utterly unable to aim or shoot and would stand in a corner and fire maniacally at the walls until the scrimmage mercifully ended. Later, when a few of us moved into a house together, I got hooked on the Elder Scrolls game Oblivion and played as a fistfighting cat-person; I spent so much time on it I began to dream that I was my Khajiit self, running around the Cyrodiil landscape coldcocking every random character who crossed my path.

Super Mario Bros, released in 1985 on the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES.
Super Mario Bros, released in 1985 on the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES. Photograph: Nintendo

When I dated my first and worst boyfriend, I was completely enamoured with his copy of Fable II, an open-world fantasy RPG with a series of charming features I adored, including a companion dog and the ability – as a buff female melee fighter – to have sex with and father children with other women. I liked the game so much I put off a necessary breakup until I’d finished the main plot.

Another boyfriend – the second and best – could not believe I’d never played Portal. In his bedroom, he sat me at his elaborate PC setup, slipped huge headphones over my ears. “What are you going to do while I play this?” I asked, and he smiled. “Just watch,” he said. I shrugged and started playing, and shrieking with delight, and marvelling over the physics of the thing. Every so often I’d turn around and he’d be watching me; he seemed genuinely pleased.

Years later, in grad school and on the heels of the end of a horrific relationship, I returned to Elder Scrolls – this time, Skyrim – and played on my friend EJ’s couch. He gently ribbed me about my obsessive collecting of in-game foodstuffs; I explained that it felt insane to walk past anything and not pick it. “See?” I said as I raided a garden full of cabbages, feeling serotonin cascade through my brain. Eventually EJ sweetly fell asleep on the futon next to me; I played until the sun came up and walked home through the streets of Iowa City feeling calmer than I had in a year. When I eventually slept, I dreamed of the collecting by Ralston Creek: the banks littered with plates and bowls, books and armour, herbs and dried goods, all to be added to an inventory with infinite space.

Bloodborne.
The ‘famously punishing’ Bloodborne. Photograph: Sony

After school, when I moved to Philadelphia, I would often take a bus into New York and stay with my friend Tony, who had a PS4. It was next to Tony – who, like my old boyfriend, seemed content to watch me play, and genuinely happy to be sharing something that also gave him pleasure – that I played The Last of Us, PT, Until Dawn, and the beginning of what has become one of my favourite franchises, Life Is Strange. On his couch, I decided to buy a PlayStation of my own, and after that played video games the way a hungry woman sits at a table full of food – hardly knowing where to start; grinning wildly at the satisfaction of her voracious appetite. I played RPGs, puzzle games, first-person shooters. Indie games that played like ergodic novels; games with obscure and impossible-to-parse lore. Horror games that made me scream and throw the controller in terror. Games that made me sob. Games I played without really understanding them. Games hard enough that I had to watch play-throughs on YouTube and cheese specific bosses to advance. Games so buggy I had to delete them. Games I didn’t finish. Games I got stupidly good at. Games I’ve replayed many times since. There was Horizon Zero Dawn and its sequel. Hollow Knight. Resident Evil: Biohazard; Resident Evil: Village. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice and Assassin’s Creed (Odyssey and Valhalla). Ghost of Tsushima, Death Stranding, The Last of Us (again), The Last of Us Part II. Control, Far Cry, Fallout. Alien: Isolation. Red Dead Redemption 2. We Happy Few, Vampyr, Prey, The Last Guardian. All of the BioShock games. Life Is Strange, Life Is Strange: Before the Storm, Life Is Strange 2, Life Is Strange: True Colours. Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture. Stardew Valley. Witcher 3. Needing more – and wanting to be able to play at a residency or travelling, if the mood struck me – I downloaded Steam on my computer and played Amnesia: The Dark Descent, The Beginner’s Guide, Broken Age, Dear Esther, Don’t Starve, Firewatch, Gone Home, Her Story, Inside, Kentucky Route Zero, Limbo, The Long Dark, The Novelist, Oxenfree, Return of the Obra Dinn, Soma, The Stanley Parable, Tacoma, That Dragon Cancer, Undertale, The Walking Dead, The Witness, The Wolf Among Us.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Photograph: Nintendo

I began to play games with friends so inexperienced they could not use the controllers on their own; unused to the mechanics, the camera on the screen would vacillate dizzyingly, wildly, exactly the way I used to shoot – read: not shoot – in Halo 2. So we started to play together. They told me where to go and I took them there and they told me what to click and I did it and in that way we moved through the story together; inch by inch. In an early draft of this essay, I focused a lot on the gendered nature of these experiences; how often I was receiving (literacy of, access to, skills for, experience with) games from men. I mentioned my anxieties about identifying as a gamer. I talked about Gamergate.

But as I keep writing I am struck far more forcefully by the intimacy of the form; the way the experience of it is specific, even erotic. What did it mean to receive someone’s tutelage? To let yourself be watched? To open yourself up to new ways of understanding? To die over and over again? To experience pleasure vicariously, a kind of compersion. Knowing only what you do not know, being in awe of the form’s avenues of pleasure. Letting yourself want, play for days, cheat, give up. Letting yourself try again. Sharing games that aren’t even really designed to be shared.


In 2018, when I was touring my first book, I mentioned during a Q&A after a reading that I’d tried to start playing Bloodborne – the newest entry in a famously punishing franchise made by From Software – but given up because I found the game too annoyingly, relentlessly difficult. I’d hardly been able to make any progress at all.

In my signing line, a very nervous-looking guy came up to me. After pre-apologising – clearly aware of the optics of a man explaining how a video game works to a woman – he began to stammer out a defence of the game. Not as a way of shaming, but explaining that yes, it had a steep learning curve, but once you figure out the mechanics, it was like magic. As he talked, he got more animated; his hands swooping around describing how it becomes like a dance, like a perfect dance. “You will love it,” he kept saying. “You will love it.” He was so impassioned that I went home, redownloaded the game, and began to play. And he was right. Once I found the rhythm, I found myself able to slaughter my way through the blighted and horrifying landscape; lean into the insanity of the lore; appreciate the game’s commitment to its bit.

Elden Ring.
Elden Ring. Photograph: Bandai Namco

After that, I played the next game in the franchise, Sekiro; now, I continue to pour much of my free time into the high fantasy horror open world of Elden Ring. Recently, after giving a talk at a fundraiser, I was encircled by several beautiful high femmes who gave me advice about how to access a particularly rune-lucrative level. We talked loudly, excitedly, far too long. There was such joy in the conversation; a peculiar investment in a stranger’s success at some obscure shared task. I wrote their advice down on my hand. (As of the time of writing this, I cannot defeat Commander Niall to save my life and I need the left half of the Haligtree Secret Medallion; please send help.) Who knows what horrors will arise between my typing this and your taking it in? I can hardly imagine it. The levels I haven’t reached. The chapters I haven’t unlocked.

Before the book tour for my (sad, difficult, hard-to-talk-about) memoir, I bought a Nintendo Switch. At the end of almost every event, I went back to my hotel room and played The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. One of the only ways I knew how to come back into my body – because I was always gone after those readings and Q&As, always completely dissociated and vacated and empty empty empty – was that stupid little tune that played when you cooked a meal. The crackle of fire, a grunt and then a humming, the clatter of metal striking metal, the rhythmic sizzle and bubble of ingredients. The flourish of horns at completion. Link’s delighted laugh. Sometimes I didn’t even do side quests or paraglide over the landscape or fight monsters; I just cooked digital food until I fell asleep. It always got me to the next morning. And then I’d get on a plane and do it all over again. In the sky, the actual sky, on my way to the next sad place. Cooking this thing and that. That little song at the end! The ascending chime. In that memory, I am good at something, and it is a bridge. I can hold it in my hands, move myself through space. It is real and not real. It carries me away, for a little while. It will carry me into a pandemic. The memory of the game bears me through the memory of the time. But most importantly: I play. That’s the best part. In the memory, I am always playing.

  • This is an edited extract from Critical Hits: Writers on Gaming and the Alternate Worlds We Inhabit, edited by Carmen Maria Machado and J Robert Lennon (Serpent’s Tail, £14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply. In the US, the book is published by Graywolf Press ($18)

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