Hall of Mirrors: A Conversation with Andrew Ervin

Andrew Ervin is the author of  Burning Down George Orwell’s House and  Extraordinary Renditions. He has written essays and reviews for the  New York Times Book ReviewWashington PostSan Francisco ChronicleSalon, and others. He writes the Geek Reads column for Electric Literature and teaches part time at Temple University, and lives with his wife Elivi Varga in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

A former philosophy major out of Goucher College, Andrew Ervin “wanted to draw from a different well” from my other writing friends. He “didn’t want to read the same boring books.” I had the pleasure of reviewing his new book, Bit by Bit: How Video Games Changed the World, for Electric Literature and I can affirm, it is not one of the same boring books.

In fact, it was so not-boring that I asked to interview him for Cartridge Lit. And, kind soul that he is, he agreed.

What can you tell us about the origins of your book Bit by Bit?

I wanted to do a monograph, either a long Harper’s essay or a Boss Fight Books entry about Adventure by Warren Robinett. If you remember Adventure, there were dragons that looked like ducks that would chase you around a maze. It was the first graphic adventure game, the first time there was movement on the screen instead of just text. Previous games had crude graphics—even Pong and Spacewar!—but they weren’t in the adventure-games genre. It came out of Zork and games like that. Adventure was the first one to use pixels.

A weird thing came out of the game that I remember so well. There was a little icon of a square on the screen. And I was the square. And it was the first sense of existing as a multiplicity (obviously, I didn’t think of it in those terms at that age). But I was sitting there on the living room rug in my Star Wars underoos, holding a joystick, and I also existed as this square on the screen. That was also me.

We take this multiplicity for granted so much since every game since has avatars. We’re Link, we’re Pac-Man, we’re men or orcs in World of Warcraft. It’s so mundane now but it was revolutionary to me. And it’s a fundamental change in what it means to be human.

It’s gone further now. You, Mike, you exist as physical presence, as a Twitter feed, Facebook profile, avatars in whatever games you’re playing. You are a multiplicity. All combine and form who Mike is now.

We used to think of Walt Whitman; we contain multitudes. It’s a metaphor for America. We are leaves of grass, part of a lawn made of beautiful individual components. We must exist as individuals in order to contribute to the whole.

The digital age has turned this on its head. Nation states might not be as important anymore. We don’t contain multitudes, we are multitudes. I’m me, a physical white dude in Philadelphia. I am The Man, as Robinette calls [the square] in Adventure. I’m Bootzilla in World of Warcraft.

We have outgrown our physical bodies. For me, this experience started with Adventure. I went there first, when I decided I wanted to write about Adventure. Then there was this experience of pulling a thread on a sweater and I had a pile of yarn at my feet. It was my gateway drug into everything that happened, up to playing MMOs.

The video games we have now start with Adventure. How video games have contributed to this fundamental change into what it means to be human.

This change is so profound that we can’t even fully get our heads around it. At the same time, it’s so mundane that we take it for granted. It’s so obvious.

Adventure and World of Warcraft, which you write about in your book, are pretty ubiquitous, popular games. Did you attempt to choose more-or-less universal video games to feature?

First of all, they were games that I happened to like. There are as many bad video games as there are bad books, or movies. I wanted to use games that I thought did something new, that pushed the conversation further from Adventure. I wanted to use games that showed me something I hadn’t seen before. The Ezra Pound, “Make it New” mentality.

Most of the games I wrote about pushed the limits of the newly available technology (from floppy discs, to CD ROMs, to huge downloads). There’s no way it could be comprehensive. I’m keenly aware of how many great games I left out. How many games I spend time with now that I couldn’t fit into the narrative of the story or didn’t work at the time.

Shadow of the Colossus is, to my mind, the perfect video game. But I didn’t have a way to work that into the book. It was difficult to make that call on what gets in and what doesn’t. There are a lot of great games that I wish I could have written about and didn’t.

Has writing the book changed how you approach video games? Does it make you want to play them more, less, differently?

I’m not playing as many as I was when writing. I’m back to reading a lot more. I’m more of a literature nerd than a video game nerd. Hopefully there’s more balance than how it was before. I certainly felt my thought patterns change when playing a great deal of games. I don’t mean a negative thing; my attention span changes; I was attentive to different things than when I spend time reading. I was able to reset a little bit and go back to a healthy amount of gaming.

I live with my wife in a row home in Philadelphia. We have a PS3 (which, for me, is the perfect console for what the games that I like) and a Wii U. The PS3 is loaded with weird art games: Thin Ribbon, Katamari Damacy. I keep the Wii U for when my friends come by or when my nephews are in town.

In addition to the living room, the guest room is converted to a game room. I have a N64, Gamecube, Commodore 64. It’s a fun place to hide to play Pikmin.

Right now, with the semester going on and teaching, I’m playing probably 2-3 hours of gaming for pleasure a week. But I’m also teaching an online class for Rutgers-Camden on Identity that meets in-world of WoW. I give them assignments in Azaroth and I hold conferences as my avatar. There’s a great deal of gaming there, but that’s curriculum.

The main reading is a book on Buddhism. We’re going to read You’re Not a Gadget next. We ask questions like, “What is the self in the digital age?” We meet as avatars and stress-test some of these questions like “what does it mean to be human.”

You’re really interested in experience and philosophy and art. How does that impact your writing?

I’m interested in the experience of art, what it means to engage in a work of art. Most of my life I’ve focused on literature and in reading great books, and terrible books. I missed out on video games. I wasn’t a serious gamer. A lot of people are in the same boat because video games are looked down on. But I came out of a different discipline so I was able to hold video games to a different standard.

I really like MMOs. What makes multi-player games great is this interactivity. With reading, you take the author’s ideas and meet them halfway with your own experience, ideas. You bring your own interactivity. Video games do that, too. There’s a creator or creators and they create a work of art, a situation, a story, whatever we want to call it. And then I interact with that, in much the same way as I interact with a book. There is a huge difference in interaction, but some of the concepts are similar.

What happens with a multiplayer game is something that changes the subjectivity entirely. I’m interacting with this text, but also with other players who are bringing their own agencies and subjectivities to bear on the text. It turns into this hall of mirrors, this multiplicity of desire and skill levels. These motivations that I find fascinating. You add into this the competitiveness of video games and it’s exciting. Something new.

And there’s also this illusion of freedom in modern games, [in MMOs and other new games]. There’s an idea that it’s an open world. It’s an exciting idea, this idea that we’re free. But we’re free in an artificial, carefully constructed world that a corporation has constructed for us.

Now, I’m glad that there’s a place where we can feel free. The way that video games can give us the illusion of freedom is wonderful, even if it’s temporary. What a great thing we have! The only other place where we have that kind of freedom is the imagination.

It’s not escapism because it’s still ourselves. We’re ourselves writ large, unshackled. That’s a really cool experience.

What are you working on now?

I’m writing my third novel. I’m not at a place yet where I want to talk about it, but it will be super geeky. I’m going to indulge in utter and complete geekery. I’ve got about two chapters down.

I’ve described it to my agent as Stranger Things meets Ready Player One. I’m going back and reading the old AD&D modules. I’ve been teaching myself cartography.

I published a story, “Roll for Initiative,” in Conjunctions about a bunch of friends who get back together twenty years after college and restart their Dungeons & Dragons team. I’m using that a jumping off point. There’s a lot of Tolkien and William Gaddis as inspiration.

What are you reading right now? What’s next on the docket?

This book Compass by Matthias Enard that won the Prix Goncourt. When my previous novel Burning Down George Orwell’s House was translated to French, I was in Paris and everyone was telling me to read this book. It finally got translated and it’s as great as everyone said.

Dorothy: A Publishing Project has a book coming out soon, The Complete Stories of Lenore Carrington, and I want to get that when it comes out.