For decades, Martin Amis’s Invasion of the Space Invaders: An Addict’s Guide to Battle Tactics, Big Scores and the Best Machines – part anthropological survey of New York’s arcade scene in the early 80s, part video game tips book – has remained one of the great literary curios of the 20th century. First published in 1982, it has long been out of print; even frayed and spent copies command stratospheric prices on the second-hand market.
Despite accusations to the contrary, Amis maintains that he has never disowned the book, which stands awkwardly apart from his novels, screenplays, memoirs and other non-fiction. Still, while preparing this week’s unexpected reissue, the publishers Jonathan Cape discovered that the original files of Invasion of the Space Invaders had been unlovingly lost; the book had to be scanned in and rebuilt, pixel-by-pixel. In doing so, a picture of a lost era emerges, along with a valuable snapshot of early critical thinking about video games.
Like Updike on golf, or Foster Wallace on tennis, Amis approaches video games with an enthusiast’s glee, deploying pleading prose that seeks to illuminate the subject’s hold on the writer. “Cinematic melodrama blazing on screen, infinite firing capacity, beautiful responsiveness, the background pulse of the quickening heartbeat” – Amis’s fascination is clear, his enthusiasm infectious. So too is that of Steven Spielberg who, bewilderingly, cameos as the book’s foreword writer, thanking “young Martin” (who was actually 33 at the time) for undertaking a “horrific odyssey around the world’s arcades” to warn readers of the risks of game playing before they, too, become “video junkies”.
On that (ironic) point, Amis instinctively feels that video game playing is a morally ambiguous pursuit. He aligns it with “pornography and its solitary pleasures”. This is a book peppered with cautionary musings about the effects video games might have on young minds – and, in the case of one young actor Amis refers to, whose obsession with Pac-Man left her with an index finger that “looked like a piece of liver”, their hands too. He references parliamentary debates on the risk posed to young people by amusement arcades, which, even in 1982, had gained indelible associations with truancy and iniquity.
Amis is simultaneously aware, however, that there is more going on here than mere onanism. “Perhaps the foul-mouthed arcade youths aren’t just improving geometrical and spatial awareness: they’re searching for the meaning of life,” he ambitiously wonders. Certainly, he believes that the video game’s challenge invites self-improvement, while the emergent plots that play out on the screen crown a player as a storyteller.
To contextualise and perhaps justify his new infatuation, Amis invokes the greats of his old infatuation: “As Kurt Vonnegut said of Cape Kennedy, there is a supercharged, erotic atmosphere in the funfairs of new technology,” he writes. Then: “As Forster said of the novel, the thing that impels is the desire to know what happens next. Dear me yes: the video game tells me a story.” Amis even goes so far as to liken the “gamer” (one of the first recorded uses of the word) to the philosopher. Both, he writes, “peak at puberty”.
The strangest component of Invasion of the Space Invaders is its second half, where Amis assumes the role of an acerbic/effusive video game critic. The arcade game Frogger is a “dogger”, Donkey Kong a “poodle”, Centipede “lousy”, Tempest a “breakthrough”, Defender a “masterpiece”). Weirder still, he becomes a game tipster too, dispensing high-score chasing advice. Here, Amis memorably urges players, when shooting down the shuffling rows of iridescent alien invaders, to “narrow that phalanx”. The writing occasionally shows its age (or perhaps the age of its writer at the time). Amis urges restraint when shooting apart Asteroids, lest we find ourselves “stoned to death like an Iranian rapist”.
For the contemporary reader, however, the book provides a vivid snapshot of the nascent arcade scene in New York, where Amis was living at the time. The “vidkid’s” uniform is “woolly hat, earphones, windbreaker, jeans, moonboots and a Rubik’s Cube keyring”. Arcades are filled with “zonked glueys, swearing skinheads… seven-foot black kids on rollerskates… 10-year-old trogs (knowing little vandals)… queasy spivs… hip Madison Avenue ad execs and MIT whiz-kids, enjoying their coked-up coffee break.” We see “a tubby 10-year-old saunter down the street while zapping a fistful of Space Invaders” on one of the new handheld devices, and learn that the two best Defender cabinets Amis has ever played (“beautifully exact and responsive”) are to be found at Playland in the Times Square area. Battlezone, a tank-based shooter, a variation of which was used for training by the US Army, he describes with a sociologist’s twinkle as attracting a “relatively middle-class and elderly audience… intense, thin-lipped characters”.
These snapshots are valuable. In the console era, video game players don’t get out as much as they used to. As such, this is a vanished world, one that, in being dismissed at the time as faddish low culture, was poorly recorded.
For Amis, too, video games disappeared. Invasion of the Space Invaders was written concurrently to Money, one of the defining novels of the yuppie era. Video games, with their unflinching rules and reassuring strictures provided, seemingly, an escape for the young Amis from the rigours of experimental novel writing. But when the work was finished, so too, apparently, was the infatuation. He never again wrote about games, and today turns down interviews about the book. Amis’s hopeful sense, however – that the best video games had still to come – has proven timeless. “One simply hangs around waiting for the games to get better,” he wrote, a feeling that video gaming’s multitudes of apologists will surely recognise.
• Invasion of the Space Invaders: An Addict’s Guide to Battle Tactics, Big Scores and the Best Machines by Martin Amis is published by Jonathan Cape (£14.99). To order a copy for £12.48 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
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