Thomas Barber Coberly died, without warning, on May 1st, 2016, at exactly 7:04 in the morning. A heart attack, or maybe an aneurysm. It really doesn’t matter, at this point. The ambulance came promptly, but he died shortly after arriving at the hospital.
Unexpected deaths leave behind a mess. Unfinished projects and obligations and all the detritus that life creates are all suddenly without the anchor that held them together or gave them meaning. At least with a lengthy illness, a person can try to set his life in order, but with a sudden death, everything is still unfinished and lived-in. So in between all the big questions, where is the funeral and who do we invite and did anyone tell Great Aunt Sally, you have all this stuff to deal with, stuff that’s taking up space on the kitchen table, stuff you can’t just ignore.
What do you do with the Post-it notes on his desk, reminding him to call so-and-so or pay the gas bill? What do you do with his glasses, which I found right where he left them, on his desk, just before he went to bed that last night? Then, later, once everyone has gone home and you’ve handled all the big problems, as you’re left alone to bask in the awful realization that he’s really gone, you have to deal with all the little things. What do we do with his books? Where should we send the remainder of his subscription to The Economist?
What do you do with all the video game save files on his computer?
It’s appropriate for me to write about him here. He supported my games-writing, and even wrote a short piece for my old website, the Ontological Geek, some years ago (wherein he wrote about Strat-O- Matic Baseball and called himself the “Gerontological Geek.”) He commented at length on OntoGeek pieces, and was particularly interested in any articles that touched on issues of ethics or theology.
See, Dad liked video games – not as much as I do, but more than most, and more than many people realized. Strategy games and RPGs were his favorite, though when I was growing up he played a little bit of everything that I played. His favorites when I was a kid were Starcraft, Final Fantasy Tactics, Baldur’s Gate and Pokemon Red, and he wound up playing most of these much more than I did. We used to play co-op missions in Starcraft, both of us controlling the same base, playing against AI. He would control the economy, and I controlled the “micro,” the quick maneuvers and rapid clicking that wins skirmishes. He hated what he called “fast-fingers” games, though he still played them with us anyway, particularly when we got Super Smash Brothers: Melee and I could think of nothing else for about a month straight.
But for all that he liked Starcraft and Strat-O- Matic, Dad’s real videogame love was Civilization IV, which he discovered in 2010 and played steadily until his death. Civ games hit all of Dad’s old war-gaming and history buttons, and although he enjoyed Civilization V, it was really Civ IV that won his heart. I checked his Steam account (OFSM, for “Old, Fat, Smelly Man,” his profile picture “two vast and trunkless legs of stone”) after he died: 4638 hours in Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword. That’s a lot of hours spent managing the affairs of digital empires. I knew he played a lot of Civ IV, but it wasn’t until I said that number aloud right before his funeral that I really thought about what it meant.
Dad worked from home as a transcriber, sitting in front of his computer all day, type-type- typing away, turning the disjointed ramblings of men in expensive suits into words on paper, neatly packaged. Their umhs and ahs and incomprehensible phrases are turned, by a good transcriber, into coherent sentences (if not coherent points). The high-paying work was in producing transcripts for investor relations calls: listening to CEOs and CFOs talk about how many gajillions of dollars they made last quarter, and fielding questions from analysts about how many gajillions more they expected to make the next quarter.
I sometimes wonder if the investors and analysts, all paid absurd amounts of money to move around other peoples’ absurd amounts of money, had any idea that they made their investment decisions based on transcripts produced by a college dropout who lived in a single-wide trailer for the last 30 years of his life. I transcribed for a living for a while, too, following in the family business, I suppose. So I understand how he had time and inclination to put so many hours into one game over the years. Transcription, at least the way we did it, is a terrible full-time job. The constant stream of words flowing into your ears and out through your fingers throws you into a sort of staticky trance, pounding out an awful, tedious rhythm broken only by typos you have to correct or by incoherent mumblings you have to replay a thousand times before you finally give up and mark them as [inaudible].
There’s never enough work, and what there is remains sporadic and hard to predict – conference calls get rescheduled, or are half as long as you expect them to be, so basing your household budget on transcription is like the world’s worst game of chance. During busy seasons, there’s plenty of work, but it’s all at once and all rush work, expected to be turned around a few hours after the conference call ends—indeed, the faster you must turn it around, the better you are paid. Transcription pay is based on a combination of length of the call and how quickly you need to turn around the work. Too little work and you’re bored, chained to your computer in case something comes in but left with nothing to do but browse the Internet and play video games while you wait. Too much work and your fingers hurt and your brain starts to fray around the edges. You end up exhausted, but unable to sleep, your brain still buzzing with paragraphs and paragraphs of garbage, mentally tired even though you didn’t leave your desk more than once every five hours.
I did it full time for about 2.5 years, and part time, off and on, for another 4. It left me tired, depressed, irritable and nocturnal – terrified I couldn’t support myself and my wife, and bored during the days when there wasn’t any work. I look back on the time I spent transcribing, sitting in front of my computer all day, as some of the lowest points of my life. Dad transcribed full-time for almost 20 years.
He only said it once or twice, but I know it bothered him to be reduced to a stenographer for wealthy men with Harvard MBAs who nevertheless couldn’t speak in complete sentences. My father was a brilliant man, an exceptional orator, a sometimes poet, an autodidactic man of letters, and yet here he was, living in a trailer, only writing down the drivel of other men who made millions of dollars a year. His lack of education and his eternal struggles with depression and bipolar disorder kept him where he was, when he felt he should have been so much more.
It’s more complicated than that, of course (it always is) and maybe I’m just projecting: reading Dad’s actions through my own guilt that I got out of that trailer and graduated from college. I don’t transcribe any more, after all. I’m going to a swanky law school, and I’ve developed a taste for sushi and scotch.
So perhaps Dad’s love for Civ has nothing to do with the circumstances of his life – perhaps it was just a fun game he played on his computer between transcripts, and I shouldn’t read anything into it. But I can’t help but feel that he liked the control of Civilization, liked that he was leaving a mark on the history of a world, even if it was only a digital one.
And here I am, now, and on his computer are all the save files from his thousands of hours of electronic conquest–4600 hours of time stored in little pockets of electronic information on a hard drive. I have spreadsheets where he tracked his scores, playing through every leader and comparing the results. I have all these things, and I don’t know what to do with them.
I don’t even know what to do with my own save files. They just sit around taking up space on hard drives and memory cards until those drives fail or get lost. I rarely load them back up. There’s no reason to go back and look at old playthroughs of Mass Effect or half-completed playthroughs of XCOM. But I have a hard time deleting them even as I know they’re essentially useless. When, some years ago, my sister told me that my old copy of Pokemon Gold had corrupted and I’d lost all the data thereon, I felt a palpable sense of loss even as I laughed at my silliness.
I think this is because old save files serve as a sort of memorial for the amount of time we spend playing the game. Some kind of proof that I didn’t just waste all that time spent fiddling with plastic in front of a monitor. Even if I can’t point to some physical thing I built as a result of those hundred hours, the save file exists. I could go back and look at the empire I built in Civ or the memorial wall in XCOM, or see the ramifications of choices I made in Dragon Age. Their mere existence is a comfort–some way to mark the passage of time–a monument to hours spent staring at a screen.
But none of Dad’s save files holds any particular meaning for me, in and of themselves. I don’t have any games we played together that I’d particularly want to memorialize, or any personal connection to any of his empires. I don’t even know yet how many save files there are. Did he keep only the games he was particularly proud of? Did he keep everything? Or is it just the games from the last few months, games he hadn’t quite finished yet and was meaning to get back to?
According to Steam, he last logged on to Civ IV on April 29th, two days before he died. Is that save file still on his computer? Did he finish that game? My sister said she might go in and finish one, one of these days–log in and load up whatever game he was playing that week and play it to the end. I like that idea. I like the symbolism of picking up where he left off and resolving all the projects he left unfinished. The King is dead, long live the Queen. But that doesn’t actually solve the issue of what to do with all the data.
It doesn’t feel reasonable to just store all of it somewhere and never look at it. He’s gone, and anyway, he was probably going to delete them himself at some point. If he didn’t think they were important enough to save, there’s no reason we should keep them. Even so, I can’t bring myself to just erase it all. I don’t want to just annihilate all trace of those 4600 hours of hard work. If your dad built model planes or fixed old cars or painted, you would keep at least some of the objects he created, right? Even if they weren’t very good, or only lived in boxes for the rest of your life, you would want to keep them and look at them every once in a while, or maybe just think of them, slowly rusting in the attic, and allow them to remind you that, yes, he really did exist, you didn’t just make him up. You might show them to your children, to give them some sense of connection to the grandfather they never met.
(That’s some of the worst of it, you see. My wife’s father died five years ago in a surprisingly similar fashion. Our children, whenever they’re born, will have no grandfathers. We joke with our sisters that this makes us members of the World’s Shittiest Club.)
But somehow I don’t think I can load up a game of Civ IV for my kids and show it to them as something Grandpa made. They can’t hold the Civ empire in their hands and know he touched it, or wonder what it looked like before the paint peeled off. And it’s not like I don’t have any other mementos of Dad. I have plenty: his gavel, his old wargames, old D&D character sheets, and oh-so- many books. I have the Bible he gave me when I was 8, with 2 Timothy 2:15 inscribed on the cover, written in his careful penmanship, so unlike my own chicken scratches. (“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed...”)
But I don’t want to just get rid of the save files, either. 4600 hours over 6 years is about 15 hours a week, same as a part-time job. It’s too much time, really. A clear symptom of Dad’s manic-depressive mind. So maybe I should just destroy all of it, treat it all as proof of how unhappy he sometimes was. People who live fulfilling lives don’t rack up those kinds of numbers, as a rule.
And I don’t have to–shouldn’t–make all the decisions yet. Not now, only a few months later, when I still catch myself wondering what he’ll think about something in the news, or wanting him to look over a draft of an article before I post it.
My wife is a digital media artist – maybe I can commission her to do something clever with all the data – turn it into a visualization of something. Maybe I can look at each of them and write some cheeky article about the many empires he built. Or maybe not – he would probably think that was a waste of time and chide me to spend more time on my schoolwork or other projects.
But now he’s gone, so he doesn’t get a vote. He left us behind to pick up the pieces of his life, to throw out his post-it notes and turn off his Facebook account. We have to decide what to do with all the bits and bobs of him taking up space on our hard drives, because our lives move on, even if his doesn’t, and we can’t haul everything around with us forever. And in the grand scheme of things, the fate of his video games saves isn’t very important. He left behind legacy in other ways, and I have plenty of things to remember him by.
But, trite as it is, it’s the mundane stuff that means he’s really gone. Deleting those save files just proves that he’s not ever coming back for them.
Bill Coberly is a law student and occasional writer, who lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two small dogs. He can be found on Twitter at @BillCoberly.