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Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter

Writer Tom Bissell shares his take on the best – and worst – aspects of video games.

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Still, Bissell’s focus on this episode is both odd and indicative of a larger problem with “Extra Lives.” While anyone can find pleasure in its individual sentences (“The art direction in a good number of contemporary big-budget video games has the cheerful parasitism of a tribute band”), the book will feel too vague to some and too detailed to others. At times, Bissell seems to swap out ideal readers mid-thought.

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It’s also disappointing that a book so worried about narratives doesn’t offer one of its own. The nine chapters of “Extra Lives” feel more like essays, and while they manage to survey the contemporary video game canon – Bioshock, Mass Effect, Gears of War, Far Cry 2, Call of Duty 4, Left 4 Dead, Braid, and many more – they don’t really build on or relate to one another.

The book’s second half, which profiles some of the video game industry’s stars, is weaker than the first, even if it does underscore how intelligent and intentional many designers are. Bissell is better when he just talks about video games – and he’s at his best in a chapter on the first Resident Evil, where, in a playful second person, he describes his own conversion point (“For the first time in your life, a video game has done something more than entertain or distract you”) and squeezes details out of the game that I never noticed, or never noticed myself noticing.

How much of this depends on having fond memories of Resident Evil, as Bissell (and I) do? Or, to get at the bigger question: has Bissell written the “Axel’s Castle” of video gaming? “Extra Lives,” if you’ll allow me a moment of consumerism, has four potential audiences: hard-core readers, casual readers, hard-core gamers, and casual gamers. These will, in some cases, overlap and intensify, but Bissell (and, based on the promotional materials, his publisher) seems to be targeting everyone at once. And while you don’t need to know what a “ludonarrative” is to enjoy this book, my guess is that nongamers (and especially video game skeptics) will find it hit-or-miss.

But gamers will revere it. The easiest way to secure a big audience would have been to include some Bug Zapper of a statement about “video games as art,” but Bissell resists that temptation. (He’s actually clearer on that topic here than in the book.) Much better than an argument for video games as the new novel is an analysis of video games by Bissell (who probably has a couple of killer novels of his own yet to write). Not all of the ideas in “Extra Lives” are new, but that’s not the point. Here we have a professional-grade writer and thinker wrestling with video games in a mainstream medium. Now we need more.

Craig Fehrman is working on a PhD in English at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.


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