Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter
Writer Tom Bissell shares his take on the best – and worst – aspects of video games.
Tom Bissell has written three widely praised books in addition to the one under review here: “Chasing the Sea,” a travelogue on Uzbekistan and ecological disaster; “God Lives in St. Petersburg,” a collection of highly literary short stories; and “The Father of All Things,” a meditation on not only father- and son-hood, but also the Vietnam War. He’s received prestigious awards and fellowships. He’s a contributing editor at both Harper’s and the Virginia Quarterly Review.Skip to next paragraph
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In other words, Bissell is a serious and seriously good writer – and this is worth noting since his new book is about video games. The video game industry now pockets more of our money than do its counterparts in music and movies, but you’d never know it from glancing at a newspaper or magazine, where Nashville and Hollywood still get far more profiles, business items, and, of course, reviews.
Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter is, among other things, a wonderful example of how and why this imbalance might be fixed. Rather than a history of video games or a consumer guide (buy this, rent that), Bissell aims to write criticism. “I wrote this book as a writer who plays a lot of games,” he explains, “and in these pages you will find one man’s opinions and thoughts on what playing games feels like, why he plays them, and the questions they make him think about.”
These opinions and thoughts are not always positive. In fact, Bissell sometimes seems to spend more time attacking video games than defending them. At their worst, video games become a “democracy of garbage,” populated with stale characters, redundant plots, and dialogue that makes “Stephanie Meyer look like Ibsen.” But Bissell’s frustrations rise from a desire to see video games live up to their potential – he’s the parent who, several weeks in, has gotten over the thrill of a wobbly child and just wants her to walk already.
One of main arguments in “Extra Lives” is that video games should stop trying to follow or even to improve on old aesthetic models. The goal shouldn’t be an interactive movie, but a genuinely new experience. Here’s how Bissell puts it in a passage that’s typical in its clarity and intelligence:
“For designers who want to change and startle gamers, they as authors must relinquish the impulse not only to declare meaning but also to suggest meaning. They have to think of themselves as shopkeepers of many possible meanings – some of which may be sick, nihilistic, and disturbing. Game designers will always have control over certain pivot points – they own the store, determine its hours, and stock its shelves – but once the gamer is inside, the designer cannot tell the gamer what to pursue or purchase.”
Big ideas like this should interest all kinds of readers. Less clear is why they’ll care about the video game community’s anxieties over Bethesda Studios taking control of the Fallout series, to which Bissell devotes several paragraphs. Gamers – and everyone, really, but especially gamers, to whom a sense of history means The Top 5 Characters of All Time – can benefit from a massaging of their institutional memory. After all, the sequel to Fallout 3, out this fall, is generating not anxiety but sweaty excitement.