How I Play: 'Silicon Valley' Stars Thomas Middleditch and Kumail Nanjiani on Growing Up as Gamers

As they prepped for an on-stage 'Titanfall 2' showdown, the pair talked computer envy, classic games and Twitch streaming

Thomas Middleditch (left) and Kumail Nanjiani (right) Credit: Getty/FilmMagic

With three seasons of nailing every Bay Area trope to the wall – from Google's reality distortion field of a campus to Apple's smug phone reveals – HBO's Silicon Valley is essential viewing for anyone with even a passing interest in having a laugh at the expense of venture-capital-fueled tech culture that thrives there. Created by Mike Judge, the show has catapulted its ensemble cast to star status. Two of the leads – Thomas Middleditch and Kumail Nanjiani – also happen to be huge gamers.

Middleditch, who plays the hapless CEO of the fictional startup Pied Piper has been gaming since he was a kid and started streaming weekend play sessions on Twitch in 2015. Nanjiani – programmer Dinesh in the show – started gaming on the Commodore 64 in his home country of Pakistan in the Eighties and suspended the much-loved games-and-movies podcast he produced with his wife Emily V. Gordon, The Indoor Kids, in 2015 after four years and hundreds of episodes to focus on his acting commitments. Both Thomas and Kumail spoke to us about their gaming habits while preparing to duke it out on stage in a multiplayer Titanfall 2 match to be streamed later that evening by YouTubers the Game Grumps (spoiler: Kumail won – sadly the stream isn't archived on Twitch).

Both you guys have been gaming forever. What are your earliest and most formative game-related memories?
Thomas Middleditch:
The first home system we had was an Apple II and I remember playing a game called Conan. It should have been called Tarzan because you were essentially Conan running around a forest with a boomerang but it was obviously Tarzan. But for me what really cemented my love for gaming was when I got an Amiga – there were so many games that I loved and I had a couple of friends on my same street that also had the Amiga and we just swapped games. It was the best.

Kumail Nanjiani: I remember talking to Thomas about this because I had a Commodore 64 and they would have screenshots from Amiga games – there was this game called Shadow of the Beast and I'd be looking at it and going "there's so many colors and the graphics are amazing!" On the Amiga...

Middleditch: Oooh! Ouch. Yeah, you could have exactly the same games but on the Amiga they'd look and sound infinitely better.

Nanjiani: Come on, dude. It still hurts. I never got an Amiga but I did have this game called Paper Boy which I loved. But the game I played the most was the "I've got a Commodore 64 and I wish I had an Amiga" game. I played that every second of my life. Also, school sucked.

Anyway there was another game called Impossible Mission, not Mission Impossible but Impossible Mission. That was a really cool game.

It had that really cool running man animation that was pretty advanced for the time.
Kumail: Yeah, it was sort of Prince of Persia or something like that in terms of the animation of the character, right?

Middleditch: You know it's really funny, if you'd had an Amiga you probably would have played Speedball 2.

Kumail: (sarcastically) Fantastic game! They're probably going to make it into a movie, I bet. But then I got a console. I got a Genesis.

Middleditch: Yes! That's where we bonded.

Nanjiani: Then the whole world was much better.

Middleditch: I'm a PC guy. You see, Kumail went down the console road while I was the teen that would bring my [nerd voice] brand new Pentium II processor over to my friend's LAN party just to play like, Joint Strike Fighter.

Nanjiani: When you weren't having sex with ladies, obviously.

Middleditch: Right. Which happened all the time between those high school LAN parties.

Thomas, there's a clip of you on Seth Myers' show talking about a really old pen and paper RPG, GURPS by Steve Jackson. Were you into that too back then?
Middleditch:
My choice growing up was the Star Wars role playing game. At that time in Nineties they had a pretty robust pen and paper system. I got into D&D later. I had a hiatus but then managed to find my pen and paper crew but, Kumail, I know it hasn't really spoken to you yet.

Nanjiani: No, it's right up my alley – I just never really did it. I play a little D&D now, but growing up it was mainly video games and movies. I didn't play any role-playing games. The problem was that growing up I didn't know any other nerds – it was just me and my brother and we would play video games but none of my friends played video games and so it was just sort of me on my own trying to save Hyrule, you know?

Middleditch: Well, Kumail, all you need is the willingness to imagine and... about six hours of your day.

Sounds like you guys bonded over gaming in the Nineties. That was quite the transition point – the PlayStation gave shape to the modern gaming industry in many ways. Were you both fans?
Thomas:
A little bit for me, but for me my milestones are more like when Wolfenstein 3D came out and then when Quake came out or Half-Life. It always revolved around PC stuff and it was less about "bits" and more about polygons and all that stuff. When things kicked into overdrive for me it was really sitting huddled over a PC monitor.

Nanjiani: I was definitely more console. So I had a Sega Genesis, then I got a Super Nintendo and then on PlayStation I remember one of the first games I played was the first Resident Evil and that like totally changed gaming for me.

Middleditch: You know, if you like Resident Evil you'd probably like Alone in the Dark. It's a really good PC game.

It did seem like Resident Evil kind of bit Alone in the Dark. They were almost identical.
Thomas: I agree with you.

Nanjiani: Actually I read a whole article about how Resident Evil didn't evolve from Alone in the Dark, but from an NES game – a survival horror game that wasn't huge but the creator of Resident Evil said it was from that. So sorry, guys, you're both wrong.

Thomas, you're more of a PC guy and you're into sims and you recently streamed Ark: Survival on Twitch.
Middleditch: Yeah. I feel right now, especially when you stream multiplayer sandbox games they're always really successful just because you get a bunch of weirdos on a server and you kind of end up creating your own narratives and stuff. I'm addicted to this streamer guy, Mr Moon. He just goes on role-playing servers and they just roleplay in character sort of inside these bizarre holes of the Internet. Outside of that, for streaming I like – well, because of the limitations of the keyboard and mouse as opposed to a controller – I like the Total War games. I like my flight sims because I can set up a very robust joystick setup and my head tracking software.

Nanjiani: (laughing) What do you need head tracking software for?

Middleditch: So you can track your bogeys when you're in the air.

Nanjiani: It tracks the location of your head?

Middleditch: Yeah, you move your head and it looks around the screen, so you go, "Achtung! Achtung! Spitfire!" then you know exactly where it is.

Nanjiani: Does it talk to you?

Middleditch: Well, you can talk to your friends if you have any online.

Unlikely if you're playing a flight sim, perhaps?
Middleditch:
Oooh! Burn. You'd be surprised.

Nanjiani: Thomas, you're even too nerdy for the guy who writes a video game column.

Middleditch: Well, I'll say this – the benefit of playing flight sims in particular online is that you don't get called a "gay-ass" whatever by a 15-year-old because most of the people playing flight sims are like, 40-plus.

We recently interviewed Reggie Watts – who you know, Thomas – and he's really into VR. Are you?
Nanjiani:
I don't have a VR setup but I've played a bunch of Vive stuff and it's pretty amazing. The technology is now really where we wanted it to be in the Nineties when we were making movies about it, like The Lawnmower Man and what was the one with Denzel? Wasn't there one with Denzel? It's pretty amazing now, but for me, I can't really do it for more than 25, maybe 30 minutes at a time.

Middleditch: I'll also say that there are certain limitations, like it needing to be running at 120-frames per second otherwise your brain like freaks out and there are certain limitations for me that keep it in a casual 20 minute experience. I'm more excited about AR. It's super cool. It's just way more immersive.

Nanjiani: What about just R? R's pretty good. Like Reddit. Just going on Reddit.

You're about to play each other at Titanfall 2 live on Twitch. Did you finish the single-player game? What did you think?
Nanjiani:
I just finished it a couple of days ago. I thought a lot of times first person shooters are really made for multiplayer but I thought the single-player – like the time-jumping thing – was really cool and I thought your emotional connection with your robot was really cool.

Middleditch: And the platform stuff.

Nanjiani: Oh, yeah, the jumping around. The traversal and all that of that game was great. I don't normally like jumping around in first person. And also the weapons all felt really good, really solid.

It's like Half-Life in terms of the pace and level design.
Nanjiani:
That bit where you're in your Titan and you're storming this fortress, where there are a bunch of other Titans and you have a bunch of your Titans and it was just epic.

Middleditch: We have a crew member on our show called Gordon Freeman. His name is actually Gordon Freeman.

Nanjiani: He's nothing like Gordon Freeman. If saving the world is ever up to this guy, we're fucked.