I like video games; I just don’t play them much. I was the kid who went to the arcade in the mall and watched other kids feed quarters into the slots, mashing the buttons on Street Fighter or trying to time their moves on Dragon’s Lair. I didn’t have the money, which meant I didn’t get the practice and never really got the skills. When a lot of my friends had moved on to the Sega Genesis or Super Nintendo, we were still borrowing old NES cartridges. Even now, I’m behind the curve: I have an Xbox (which I bought used, years ago) but again the next generation has passed me by. In fact, I’m pretty close to being two generations behind.
This explains why, of all the video games Tom Bissell writes about in his recent book, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, I’ve only played two or three, and none of those to completion. Despite that, I found myself completely drawn in to the world Bissell described, and I can only imagine how much greater the impact of his stories would be for somebody who knows their video games.
Extra Lives is sort of a memoir, sort of a collection of essays. Bissell is not intending the book to be video game criticism, or a history of the gaming industry, or a technical assessment of anything. Rather, as he puts it:
I wrote this book as a writer who plays a lot of games, 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.
Bissell covers a lot of the topics common to video game writing: violence in games, whether video games should be considered art (a debate which raged long before Roger Ebert’s comments and will likely continue long after he’s gone), why games can be so addictive. But what makes Extra Lives really worth reading is that Bissell is (1) very insightful and (2) an excellent writer. I seldom come across writing about video games that I want to read aloud to somebody (anybody!) but that’s how I felt about many passages in this book. I often found myself nodding in agreement with his observations, and relishing the words he chose to describe them. He treats video games as a serious topic, but isn’t above injecting humor into the conversation:
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.
When talking about video games as art, he doesn’t simplify the debate, but gives a more nuanced reading than what I typically came across on the Internet following Ebert’s “video games aren’t art” comment. He lists the amazing advances video games have made — both graphically and narratively — but then acknowledges their shortcomings as well: “The part of me that loves video games wants to forgive; the part of me that values art cannot.”
Many of the games Bissell describes in the book are the big ones that many gamers are probably familiar with: Gears of War, BioShock, Braid, Little Big Planet, Mass Effect, and more. He covers first-person shooters and the increasingly realistic violence; he ponders the implications of games that allow the player nearly free reign in making moral (or immoral) choices. Reading Extra Lives made me want to play video games again — to see them through Bissell’s eyes. In some cases, he even describes the experience of playing portions of a game, so well that I feel as if I’ve played it myself.
The one startling bit was in the last chapter: Bissell frankly discusses his own drug use while living in Las Vegas and playing Grand Theft Auto IV. He uses it to draw some interesting parallels between cocaine and video games (which I’m sure will eventually be twisted into a news story that video games will lead your kids to drug use) but I really wasn’t expecting it. Because of that, it’s not a book I’d recommend to younger video gamers—you definitely want to preview it first. Also, many of the games he plays are rated M so if your kids aren’t old enough to be playing them, they probably aren’t old enough for this book yet.
One other complaint, not about the writing itself: the cover. As you can see from the image, there’s this weird block-headed figure on it, with smaller glossy versions of it repeated across the entire cover. What is that? I’m sorry, Chip Kidd, I love a lot of your work but any 8-bit pixel art would have been a better fit. Of course, that’s judging the book by the cover, and I still highly recommend what’s on the inside.
If you love video games, take a look at Extra Lives. Even for somebody like me, video games do matter, and Bissell does a fine job of capturing why.
Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter was released in June this year and retails for $22.95.
Wired: Bissell’s sharp observations and evocative prose make Extra Lives a book about video games that really matters.
Tired: Because of the drug use in the final chapter, I really can’t recommend this book for teenage gamers.
Disclosure: Pantheon Books provided a copy of the book for review.