Notes from Underground

I have moved around a lot in the last few years, and two Christmases ago I found myself living in a small town in Illinois. Beyond my shelving job at the library, I didn’t have a lot to do; the midwest was an unfamiliar country to me, its horizontal, wide-open-spaces suggesting, through size alone, how little place I had there. But I did have a car, and so I passed a lot of my free time driving into what my mid-Atlantic temperament understood to be ‘the countryside.’ On one of these night drives, I was drawn in by the blood-red electric glow of the word “M O O S E,” which revealed a small Moose Lodge at the end of the street. As I approached, though, I saw a more inviting statement across the road, filling a window surrounded by four familiar, color-coded ghosts: “Game Room”.

I don’t have much history with going to arcades. Once, when I was 9, I went to a roller rink and wound up playing a Tekken machine on one token for two hours, but that was an anomaly. The idea of strangers watching me while I tried, and failed, to learn the rules of something new made me too nervous; I prefered the isolation of playing games at home, and I gravitated to slower, more methodical experiences. So, when I walked into this game room, there was a sense of the undiscovered.

Like a lot of Americans born in the 80s, the imagery of Donkey Kong and Pac-Man were burned into my cultural awareness. But, standing in this small place filled with old machines competing for attention, I realized I had not spent a lot of time actually playing these things. Something about the logo, or maybe just the color scheme, of a machine named Dig Dug rang a bell for me, so I put my coin in.

In the game, you control an exterminator-looking guy as he digs around in several layers of dirt. Some monsters live down there, and the round ends when you eliminate them. You get more points for killing the monsters ‘creatively’ (tricking them into walking under a rock, which then crushes them) or by luring them deeper underground before doing the deed. Your method of killing is grim: you inflate the creatures with an air pump until they explode, a quality enhanced by the simplicity of the game’s graphics. The aesthetic is something like ‘psychoactive Arizona.’

I died a few times, and tried some other games. But Dig Dug kept calling me back. Despite not being too good at the game, there was something about its rhythm, its specific thingness, that just felt correct. I was struck by how compulsively playable I found it to be, in the face of any sort of clarifying context or goal for the player. The “reason” for the game is never given. It just sort of happens, and you’re there. There’s no story, no endgame, no princess to save. There was nothing, it seemed, to gain from your character’s experience, outside of a repetitive toil and slog. The longer I sat with it, and the more tokens I dropped into it, Dig Dug seemed to be, intentionally or not, a rejection of the typical goal-progress-reward structure within most videogames—maybe even, I considered, situation-based art in general.

I spent all my tokens and made the drive home. But I couldn’t shake the game; my imagination was still back there, down in the dirt.


I downloaded Dig Dug to my computer so I could scratch the itch, but it just wasn’t right. The aspect ratio was off, and the heft of the controller was gone, making the journey underground seem more trivial, somehow. I started making the semi-weekly journey out to DeKalb to get a taste of the real stuff. I’d always make an obligatory tour of the machines, but generally camped out at what had become my game.

I’d look around to see who else was there, and what games they were drawn to. People who played Donkey Kong seemed to understand the spatial effort of climbing, in and of itself, as a kind of victory. Galaga people sought to launch missiles into the heavens, declaring themselves, on the bottom, greater. My girlfriend, meanwhile, was lost in the consumptive nightmare of BurgerTime.

All of these titles use a shape particular to arcade games: the portrait-length screen. It is a shape that travels upward, not horizontal. But just as the vertical monitor suggests a journey toward grace (climbing up, shooting up, etc.), back at home in Dig Dug, toiling away through sand and shale, hunting monsters toward no purpose but the repetitive joy of clearing a screen, I saw that it also offers its opposite. It encourages an experience that is narrow, that journeys inward. It suggests we can also go underground.

Just keep digging, more digging, over and over

Token by token, I developed empathy for my character. He seemed so damn uncomfortable down there. The monsters know the terrain much better than him, to the extent that they even know how to pass invisibly through the dirt itself, unconstrained by his relatively vanilla human physics. Seen in this way, maybe the game is asking you to be the villain. The trouble doesn’t start until you decide that underground is the place to be, until you instigate conflict. You are the aggressor of an indigenous population, in a land you don’t understand, and for what? Who put him up to this anyway? Just keep digging, more digging, over and over.

I stayed in Illinois longer than I expected, and continued driving out to the arcade on weekends. As my visits piled up, I began to see it as something like a repertory house for games. Playing Dig Dug at home on a console is a decent facsimile of the idea of what that game is, but handling the machine itself—dealing with the size of the thing, controlling it the way that it was originally meant to be controlled (malfunctions and all)—was what I really wanted. It was all part of the text of Dig Dug: reckoning with an object older than I am, larger than I am. Like seeing a Renoir film projected in a theater on 35mm, it illuminated the context of its creation.

Dig Dug is a “game” the same way that Tic Tac Toe is a game; it is more or less just a set of rules. To get anything from it requires conscious action on the part of the player. Otherwise, it’s just a form sitting passively until acted on. Its imprecision is what gives it power. It’s an unfinished work, impossible to end, or even exist, until approached.

I enjoy this particular set of rules, and became better at navigating them, but never went especially far in the game. Before moving away, curiosity got the best of me, and I looked up whether or not Dig Dug had an ending. I knew the game had no ‘story,’ but I needed to know if this digging went somewhere, or just kept going forever, maybe right through Earth itself.

So, in a grainy video, I watched the game’s final screen: before your character can even make a move, a monster appears in the air above him. It falls through the ground and lands right on your head, killing you instantly. Eliminated.

All of that work, and for what?


Head Image from Gabe Bullard

Photo from Hugo Clément