The first member of the gamer camp that I’m featuring in the Games & Books & Q&A series is Carly Kocurek. Carly is Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities and Media Studies at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, where she teaches courses in game studies and game design. Her first book, a cultural history of the video game arcade in the 1970s and 1980s, is forthcoming from University of Minnesota Press. She is also co-author and co-developer with Allyson Whipple of Choice: Texas, a web-based interactive fiction game about reproductive healthcare access in the state of Texas.
CB: What do you remember about the first video game you ever played?
CK: When I was a kid — really young, like 4 or 5 — my family used to go to a local pizza place, now long closed, called Ken’s. I was completely fascinated by the arcade games near the doors, and I’d always beg for quarters for them. I think this worked maybe once, and I can’t even remember the game. I do, however, remember the way that the buttons and the plastic on the cabinet felt. Later, we got a hand-me-down Atari 2600 from some family friends, so I played Pong and Frogger and a few other things. The first game that really resonated with me, though, was Tetris. I got a GameBoy for Christmas in 1989, and I played Tetris for years and years. I’ve talked about this before, but that game is and was incredibly important to me. I’d play when I couldn’t sleep or when I was worried. I found it fun, obviously, but I also found it soothing. My mom and I had a back-and-forth high score ware that lasted about 10 years. I’d wake up and she’d have beaten my high score in the night, so I’d work all day to beat hers.
CB: What did you like to read when you were a kid? What did you love about it?
CK: I really loved Roald Dahl’s books. He’s a really problematic author, in a lot of ways, particularly when it comes to anything even remotely having to do with race. But, for his flaws, there are other things he does so well. He has all these stories about brilliant, interesting, kind, adventurous kids who are basically being tortured by brutish adults who don’t understand them or who are actually just monsters. That was so powerful for me, then. I read Matilda and James and the Giant Peach over and over. The American Girl books were also a serious fixation, and I think they’re part of why I wound up studying American cultural history.
CB: What book that you read while growing up had the most influence on who you became as an adult? How did it shape you?
CK: There’s a book called Winter of Fire by Sherryl Jordan that I have to mention. I think I might have read that book more times than any other book from my childhood. I could say a lot about it, but at a basic level it’s about a girl who changes the world. I want more stories like that. I want every kid to grow up reading books about girls who change the world. I had to read so many books about boys on adventures and boys becoming heroes when I was at school, and that’s fine, but it should have been more diverse. We expect girls to be able to relate to stories about boys, but we train boys they don’t have to deal with stories about girls. That seems dangerous.
I have a really battered paperback copy of this book around somewhere. And, it’s one of those I know I’ll never get rid of. It’s beloved. If it was a velveteen rabbit, it would 100% be real by now. The book has a pretty clear narrative about a young girl — and a girl who is part of a social class that’s devalued and dehumanized — fighting against sexism. I grew up around a lot of really amazing, strong women, but reading a book that was so explicitly about a system that’s unfair and having a character really fighting that, and often suffering for being willing to fight, was really inspiring for me then. It still is now, but now I know all kinds of true stories about those kinds of fights.
I expect to continue this series through the October publication of my book Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! A Gamer’s Alphabet. If there’s anyone in the gamer or kidlit camp that you’d love to see me feature in upcoming posts in this series, please drop me a line or tweet at me or just leave a message in the comments.