House of Games

A spirited defense of the “digital dollhouse”

Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter | By Tom Bissell | Pantheon | 240 pages, $22.95

Tom Bissell may be onto something when, near the beginning of Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, he compares his subject matter to religion. If, at the outset, you are not inclined to assign meaning to the pleasures and fulfillments of video games, hearing another guy’s rapturous interpretation of the gaming life probably won’t lead to conversion.

But Bissell is no reflexive proselytizer. He admits to ambivalence when it comes to spending hundreds of hours tapping away on his Xbox, GameCube and PlayStation controllers (the book deals with console games, which Bissell prefers to their PC counterparts.) Games, he writes, are “a digital dollhouse for adults,” and the compulsion to play them is “childish.” He is also brutally honest about their low cultural cred, at least in certain circles: “More than any other form of entertainment, video games tend to divide rooms into Us and Them. We are, in effect, admitting that we like to spend our time shooting monsters, and They are, not unreasonably, failing to find the value in that.”

So let’s first of all acknowledge that Bissell has chosen a fine subject for a book. If you’re going to argue on behalf of something, how much more fun when significant portions of the population—and, we might guess, a plurality of snobs—are convinced it is absolutely worthless.

For Bissell, the value of video games is self-evident and bolstered by copious experience: a kind of experience he believes to be, in its pleasures and potential, unique. Discussing the first time he played Resident Evil, he recalls a kind of breakthrough. Here was “the only instance in which I was acutely aware of being present at the birth of a genre (that of ‘survival horror’), and it was one of a handful of occasions that a medium I believed I understood felt objectively, qualitatively new—and not merely new to me.”

Resident Evil is a game where you shoot zombies. Bissell’s favorite games, and the ones to which he devotes the most time, are “shooters” like Resident Evil, Doom, and the popular GoldenEye 007, all of which allow for, and in some cases require, the player to do gratuitous violence to the world and its inhabitants.

So, how to humanize a medium that shows so little regard for life? Bissell interviews game designers and company founders, and his visits to their offices reveal a culture predominantly made up of young male engineers. The premises often carry what the author describes as “the aroma of lingering adolescence.” Like members of any profession, they discuss, quarrel over, champion and lament the direction the industry is taking. And they are careful to note that all is not, as they saying goes, fun and games. In one particularly funny moment, a designer fills Bissell in on his quasi-tragic plight. “I play a game that’s not as fun as it should be, that’s broken, until it’s no longer broken,” he sighs. “Then I give it to other people to have fun with.”

The book sags a bit during these journalistic chapters, since they largely sacrifice Bissell’s searching and occasionally boyish enthusiasm. But aside from providing glimpses into gaming culture, the interviews serve as a springboard for the author’s advocacy. Bissell wants better writing in video games. He concedes, with frustration, that the industry’s tech-centric minds generally do not treat it as a priority. Which is not to say that he is without hope. At one point, he describes the industry as “a bright millionaire turning toward poetry, [with] confident but uncertain aspirations toward art.”

Most people will grant video gaming certain merits. As a medium, it is capable of stunning visual beauty. And the popular “open world” games, in which players are untethered to traditional missions and free to wander, converse, create and destroy, are fictional laboratories of nearly limitless possibility. Yet Bissell, for all his caveats about the form’s lousy writing, takes the argument a step further. Indeed, his leap into the polemical void is worthy of a certain jovial and determined Italian plumber, who is unafraid of landing on a turtle covered in spikes.

Bissell argues that a player’s actions in the virtual world carry “fictional consequences” that one must live with even after the game ends. The convincing reality of the best games, he says, temporarily erases his ability to distinguish between the game world and the real world. To an extent, this is similar to other aesthetic experiences. We say, for example, that we cannot put down a novel, so believable is its world and so meaningful the fates of its characters. But in a novel, the reader is a passenger upon a set of narrative rails—a passive witness to a prescribed chronology of events. Video games, on the other hand, grant the player freedom to wander the world and determine his own fate.

To illustrate the consequences of a gamer’s actions in this realm, Bissell describes an experience with the multi-player Left 4 Dead. He and three friends take on a formidable team of zombies, controlled by another team of human players. Their goal is to avoid being pounced on, puked on, kicked, snared by elastic zombie tongues, and to generally keep the marrow in their bones.

After much carnage, Bissell reaches a point of safety, watching as zombies maul his teammates—who, it becomes clear, will die without the intervention of his female character. Confident that he too will die if he wades into the melee, and thereby lower his team’s score, he elects to stay put. “My downed friends failed to see it this way,” he concedes. “Over my headphones, they vigorously questioned my courage, my manhood, the ability of my lone female survivor to repopulate the human world on her own, and my understanding of deontological ethics.”

Meanwhile, one friend dies, and the other two are moments from death. “I looked within,” recounts Bissell, “did not like what I saw, steeled myself, and fired several shotgun rounds through the door….” And then, “at great personal risk, and out of real shame,” he charged outside to help his two friends to safety.

He adds: “The people I saved that night still talk about my heroic action—and, yes, it was, it did feel, heroic… All the emotions I felt during those few moments—fear, doubt, resolve, and finally courage—were as intensely vivid as any I have felt while reading a novel or watching a film or listening to a piece of music. For what more can one ask? What more could one want?”

Is this preposterous? Again, there is the analogy with religious experience: it would be as unfair and condescending to doubt Bissell’s description as it would be to challenge the emotional probity of a believer. The one hitch lies in his assertion about shame and risk. It is true that the game caused Bissell to feel shame. It is not true that he acted “at great personal risk.” When a child is afraid of a monster in the closet, you can’t deny that the child is afraid. But with all due respect to the trembling children of the world, that doesn’t mean there is a monster in the closet.

In past books Bissell has approached large, historical topics (the Vietnam War, Uzbekistan) with an appealing mix of modesty, swagger and eloquence. Extra Lives, for all its high-minded flourishes, is rooted in what might be called guy talk. The book is peppered with mildly misogynistic asides that feel at once crass and true to the basement-dwelling, virginal gaming culture of popular perception. (To be fair, Bissell admits that he’ll always choose a woman as his avatar if given the choice, so he has walked many a mile in their virtual shoes.)

Confiding that video games are today the most consistent source of pleasure in his life, Bissell adds, startlingly, sadly, that for him “the pleasures of literary connection seem leftover and familiar.” (This, from a guy with a forthcoming book about the tombs of the apostles.) In the context of Bissell’s impressive body of work, Extra Lives itself seems like an escape from the very adult complications and sorrows he has previously chronicled—and, we should hope, will continue to chronicle, between shame-fueled bouts of zombie-slaughtering heroics.

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Gregory Beyer is a journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.