Fear and Gaming: The Child in the Tower

Jonathan Gourlay’s daughter has locked herself away, hidden from the dangers of the world, in Minecraft.


My daughter’s Minecraft building style depends on a combination of Howard Hughes-level of paranoia and Brutalist aesthetics: it keeps the mobs out and the player cocooned in a stone-block cell. She gets angry if I knock a window in her fortress or unbarricade the door. For her, the game is little more than sitting in a gray box and listening to the chicken clucks and zombie groans outside her gray walls.

My daughter is engrossed in a game and sitting at the computer. My daughter is in a windowless tower of childhood, unreachable and mysterious, even to herself. I try to ask questions. I try to knock windows in the facade but she is quiet like me. Even “How was school?” causes her panic. I want to know everything, but she’s getting cagey these days and has rote answers that stack like stone blocks in front of her.

“Fine,” she answers. Or “Good.” Or “Stuff.”

My own father used to try to knock down a wall with some uncomfortable early-morning conundrum like: “Jonathan, do you hate yourself?” or “Jonathan, are you hanging around with the homosexual crowd?” I grunted and looked at my feet. To speak is to venture outside of oneself. Some simply do not care to go outside. So I leave my daughter alone in her stone house until she calls to me to vanquish monsters. Someday she will slice her own zombies. For now, I’m always there with a diamond sword to save her. [i.]

When she was two years old my daughter and I lived in a swamp house on the island of Pohnpei. The house was a square box made of cinder block and press-board with too many windows and a few half-hearted strokes of yellow paint, from which I couldn’t keep the creepers out.

So we ran away. As we split, I only had time to grab what I thought was important which turned out to be a handful of dirty forks and a machete. I guess I was in a sharp mood.

I left my books, music, and games behind. Everything I had accumulated since college: System Shock, feminist interpretations of fairy tales, a new and interesting translation of the Pentateuch, Half-Life, a series of bootlegged Kinks concerts from the ’80s on audio cassette… when I returned to the swamp house weeks later, my collection of Dickens novels was being used to hold up various pieces of decrepit furniture and to balance wobbly plastic chairs. So that’s one thing an English major is good for.

The loss of my stuff was freeing. I sloughed off my media like a snake sheds its skin. But unlike a snake I had no discernible shape underneath. Who was I now? I defined myself based upon my media purchases, which is a tenuous thing to build a personality upon. Who am I? I am a copy of Alien vs. Predator resting against a copy of Middlemarch. Snatch the books and games away and what is left? [ii.]

What was left of me was a strong need to protect and an abundance of love. My daughter and I moved to a solid, concrete house on a hill on the other side of the island. From there, you could see the night crawlers approach and be ready for them. I kept forks and machete at the ready. I was scared someone would snatch her in the night, but the monsters stayed away. We were safe.

Eventually we started to collect things again. I made my daughter a rubber tire out of an old flip-flop and she pushed it around with two sticks. We got ourselves a box of toy bricks and invited the neighbors over to make forts and houses with us.

Now it is years later and my daughter is plugging up holes in her massive, intimidating Minecraft stronghold. Perhaps she is reluctant to punch a hole in the wall because when she was two years old I built walls around her mortared with fear.

In the fairy tale version of this, I am both the evil wizard who locks her away and the knight in white-iron armor who saves her. Or perhaps I’m just the peasant who tends the fields around the castle, grunts to himself, and lets the princess find her own damn way out of her tower.

When I was the age my daughter is now, ten years old, I made forts out of the couch pillows in the basement of my house. I covered the distance from the television to the Intellivision with heavy blankets propped up with the pillows. I sat enraptured, by this new technology, conducting abstract space battles on a monstrous old Zenith that I had to smack every once in a while or the picture would fade. I was happy alone, quiet, and safe in my pillow fort.

In the early ’80s, most game lives were nasty, pixelated, and short. Intellivision’s space games were particularly dire. Star Strike encouraged you to lose so you could see the “awesome destruction of an entire planet.” I enacted the Battle of Thermopylae in my thermal undies in Space Spartans. Space Spartans had “Intellivoice.” A lady who sounded like she was in a cave three blocks away speaking through a Campbell’s soup can on a string counted aliens “three aliens, two aliens, one alien…” This was cool. I spent many hours saving the planet from from the Space Armada (the Intellivision version of Space Invaders). I was so good at Space Armada that I could make it to level 99 where the Armada of Invaders from Space were both invisible and fast. Like many early video games, Space Armada was nihilistic in the extreme. No matter your skill, the armada always landed. The end. Reset.

What I learned from my Intellivision games is best summed up in the Astrosmash instruction booklet: “You’re all alone in a hostile universe of tumbling asteroids and homicidal aliens.”

I occasionally had to leave the pillow fort for Lutheran confirmation class with a reverend whose name I don’t remember. He had two fused fingers on his right hand that I used to contemplate while I was supposed to be learning Luther’s Small Catechism. Rev. Claw explained all of the things that were “most certainly true”: endless extra lives, resurrection, and a poorly realized vision of paradise. I knew better – the game always ends. Defenders can only defend for so long. The missile command cannot stop all of the missiles. If you save the princess from one tower, the bad guy will swoop in and grab her and take her to another and say something like “WAKA WAKA WAKA!” We are all alone in a hostile universe of tumbling asteroids and overly certain clergy and little girls trapped in tall towers and our own crazy synapses struggling to make something of our short lives.

Make your fortress and hide and wait until the end, or spin your Breakout paddle, throw a blip at the blocks and break out. [iii.]

I know my daughter is stuck on Minecraft these days because before she goes to sleep she asks me questions like: “Daddy, how do I make paper?”

“I don’t know. Sugar cane? Look it up,” I say.

“I want you to show me. I’m scared of going out of the house,” she says.

I’m not generally one for bedtime stories – I’ve got stuff and things to do! – but I give it a whirl every once in a while, when I feel like imparting some wise lesson.

There once was a scrawny little princess who lived in a windowless tower of childhood. On this tower grew many vines that crawled all over the kingdom and hung from the trees. Adventurers used these vines to swing over snapping crocodiles and avoid falling in pits. There was a duck who wandered the forest believing it was a dragon. Leave the duck alone. Why burst its bubble? There was a little man in a white suit who used to burrow in the ground and inflate the crocodiles until they exploded. In many parts of the forest there was a mailbox and the mailbox was always west of a house, no matter what direction you were looking. It was a strange forest.

Oh, and there were of course many dolphins roaming the forest. (There always has to be dolphins.) Forest dolphins. They chewed gum and danced to music that was annoying to the entire kingdom. This music was sung by an evil witch named Demilovato.

The scrawny little princess was locked in the windowless tower by a yellow-robed wizard, her father.

The princess’s yellow-robed father was a demiurge, a craftsman of the material world. And the princess was young, so she was just a semi-demiurge. One day, her father the demiurge was called away on demi-urgent business. He was on a quest to go tell the evil Demilovato to that darn noise down!

With her father gone, the princess sat alone in her tower and listened to the duck-dragon outside and thought longingly of the dolphins far below in the forest. The princess began to sing and because she was a semi-demiurge her singing created little hemi-blocks of a new reality.

My daughter mumbles, half-asleep. I am getting too abstract.

What I mean is, her singing made the world, made life, made everything – really created it. She was a powerful princess but she didn’t know it yet. She was just learning about that because her father was away on business and she was trying out her voice. She tried to create the perfect note but she couldn’t yet sing a perfect note. She tried just to produce a quaver, one eighth of a perfect note. She couldn’t quite get that note perfect, either. She tried one sixteenth of perfect note, a hemiquaver. Then she tried a demisemiquaver. That wasn’t quite perfect. Finally, she produced the beautiful, small hemidemisemiquaver. And that was enough to create a small, princess-sized diamond pickaxe that the princess used to break out of the tower, dance with the dolphins, swing over the snapping crocodiles on a vine, check the mail west of the house, and generally have a great time outside of her windowless fortress.

The yellow-robed wizard returned, having defeated the evil Demilovato with an acne-causing spell, and found the tower empty. He was happy about this. He sat in the tower all day and listened to the tiny, perfect notes of his daughter’s life rising up above the tall trees of the strange forest.

She is asleep.

Sleeping children are such a relief.

Sartre said that we love to watch other people sleeping because we imagine we can own them completely. But Sartre didn’t have kids. My daughter appears more mysterious asleep than awake. Who knows what’s locked away in there?

I tip-toe down to my study and play Limbo, a new game that looks like a mash-up of Mummenshanz, South Park, and Balinese shadow puppets. It’s relaxing to die horribly in Limbo, start again, and learn from the experience. I’m not sure, but I think this game is telling me something important about letting go.

My daughter will find her own way out of the fortress. Her games will show her how to chip away at the walls.

i. On a Saturday afternoon, a man and his daughter spend equal amounts of time playing Minecraft and wandering alone in a nearby wood. Which activity was more spiritual? Why? Really? Why?

ii. There is a great sequence in Brazil where Robert DeNiro is eaten alive by paperwork. He struggles mightily as the forms-in-triplicate attack him but paperwork always wins. Mine has been a life lived playing, listening, watching, and reading. My torso is a series of whirling hard drive discs. Encoded on those rapidly spinning magnetized metal discs are all the games I ever played from AaAaAA!!! to Zork. Flapping pages of literature are my head. I walk upon legs made of Intellivision cartridges. The entire song catalog of the Kinks forms the spine of my being. La-la-la-la-Lola. If you rummage through this body and soul of digested media, from the hardened arteries of science fiction to the poems on my wrists, you will find nothing essentially me. My essential self was lost between the jewel cases for the essential Leonard Cohen and essential Al Green. I imagine my body like DeNiro’s at the end of the scene in Brazil: dissipating and the pages, discs, records, and cartridges that created my life blowing away, leaving nothing. The essence of who I was populating landfills, second-hand stores, and yard sales.

iii. Suppose some Faustian devil whispered in your ear that he would take away all the video games you have ever played, and the memory of them, and in return would give you back the time and money you spent on them. “Imagine!” says the devil, “What else you might have done if you hadn’t devoted so much time to video games? The people unmet. The novels unwritten. The exercise undone. Just imagine. All that disposable income that wasn’t really disposable; imagine if you could get it back…”

Keep in mind that 1) you have spent a lot of money on video games and 2) you are a poor person whose cat hasn’t peed in two days. The cat probably needs to be taken to the vet (which you can’t afford). Would you do make this deal with the devil? If so, would your life be better or worse?

Image by Kevblog

Jonathan Gourlay is an editor at The Bygone Bureau and author of the ebook Nowhere Slow: Eleven Years on a Micronesian Island. He lives in the quiet corner of Connecticut where he is a vicarious goat herder. Follow him on Twitter.