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.