Arcade Games Saved My Life

City Paper

Just a few pages into Michael Kimball’s “Galaga” (Boss Fight Books), an exploration of the 1981 coin-op arcade game (it’s the one where you’re a space ship firing at insects) and the abuse he endured at the hands of his older brother and father, I had to put the book down for a bit. It sent me back to a time in my own occasionally fucked-up life when classic video games and personal trauma ran right into each other.

After the funeral for my best friend, who shot himself in the head in the closet of his crappy Timonium apartment in early 2007, my other best friend and I went to my house and played the 1988 Nintendo game “Contra.” Before my friend offed himself, this was something we all did together a whole bunch. We’d get super high—on pot, and for me, an almost-fatal combination of opiates—put in the infamous “30 lives code,” and bliss out blasting away robots and aliens as 8-bit, homoerotic John Rambo rip-offs.

For me, the post-funeral run through “Contra” was a way to take my mind off the obvious. My friend however, without telling me, turned it into a dopey tribute in which we would beat the game and “honor” dead friend’s memory or some sentimental nonsense. He kept losing lives because, in his mind, he made the whole thing a high-stakes mission in which losing meant letting a friend’s memory down. He cursed violently every time his character died. It freaked me out. It was the worst thing we could’ve done hours after putting our 22-year-old pal in the ground. Within a year, we wouldn’t be friends anymore.

Point is, that’s what some dumb video game did to me because just like all other arts, video games aren’t just video games, but expressive, loaded little things that provide windows into trauma, and might just enable some hindsight and even transcendence. Kimball’s “Galaga,” an abuse memoir masquerading as a video game nerd-out, does all of those things.

“As a boy, I did not want to live the life I had and playing almost any game allowed me to leave it. Video games were a new level of escape,” Kimball writes in “Stage 108” (each quasi-chapter is a “Stage,” corresponding to the 200-plus levels of “Galaga”). The arcade game arrived in young Kimball’s life when he needed it, when his life was out of control because he was too young to control it and the adults around him were shitty and cruel. Obsessively picking off pixellated bugs and butterflies seems like it saved Kimball’s life.

Other tangential chapters/stages discuss the basics of the game, strategies to beat it, and trivia (Stage One details Alec Baldwin using the game to come down off of coke), and take note of “Galaga” unexpectedly popping up in pop culture (Stage 68 is a terse celebration of rapper Gucci Mane’s use of “Galaga” as a slant rhyme for “spectacular”), but it’s the build-up of glimpses into a terrifying home life throughout that sticks with you and justifies the discursive fun stuff. The final pages (and Stages) detail a happy-enough ending involving a road trip, arcade games at rest stops, coping, and having a pretty cool-ass girlfriend. And so, “Galaga” rejects the Buzzfeeding of the immediate past, avoiding glib “Remember this thing?” obviousness and petulant “those were the days” nerd-culture nonsense for a literary experiment that takes aim at a classic arcade game and explodes it into 256 poignant pieces. 


Michael Kimball reads with Sarah Pinsker and Matthew Zingg at Artifact Coffee as part of the Starts Here Reading Series on August 25 at 7 p.m. For more information, please visit startsherereadingseries.blogspot.com.

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