Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter – A Book Review

I haven’t done video game reviews on this site. I also don’t intend to. I have only done video game critiques or criticism. The name in the top banner should be enough of a clue. So it is interesting that the first review I do for a blog about video games is really about a book.

I finished Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives over a week ago, before E3 started. I wanted to finish those posts on inFamous before I got around to writing on the book. Now having settled down and let the pages stew in my mind for a time, I find there is not much to say.

The book is very well written. I finished it in two days and didn’t take any self-discipline on my part to get through it, which is saying something. In this tech saturated, attention deficit age, actually sitting down and doing one thing is both a miracle and reprieve. Bissell’s words flow like nectar down one’s throat, unsweetened and unpreserved. They are the raw and natural words of a man speaking from his, if not heart, than his truth, his center, his being. Extra Lives is a deeply personal book and as much about Tom Bissell as it is about video games. But then if you are going to explain why they matter, why they culturally matter, then you can’t stick to billion dollar figures and hundred million player headcounts forever. Those numbers get people’s attention and nothing else.

I’ve read quite a bit of the material previously. The first half of the Resident Evil chapter appeared in the inaugural edition of Kill Screen. Most of the GTA4 chapter had made the rounds around the internet a few months back. But I didn’t skip any parts of the book. It was a pleasure to read again and actually much easier. One thing I notice in the transition of his words from screen to page is the ease to read them. On my laptop I found the GTA4 story intolerable and I couldn’t get through it. In the book I devoured every word.

He goes through a number of contemporary games and explains their personal significance as well as gamer cultural significance. To someone as initiated as myself the explanations of the games were a little extraneous, but they were short and I realize their necessity. Actually, while reading them I was surprised how succinctly and eloquently Bissell was able to explain Gears of War as something more than the completely horrible and void of worth violence porn as it would seem to any outsider. He is able, in the same breath, to explain Resident Evil’s horridly painful camp and distressingly evocative horror. But probably his best assertion in the whole book is found in the author’s note at the beginning. “In this book I risk…to explain why I believe video game matter – and why they do not matter more.” He can’t get away with not addressing it, no one would believe him, and he navigates head on through the swamp. (“You were almost a Jill sandwich” anyone?)

What is especially wonderful is that the book constructs a compelling argument that video games are art (Ebert is wrong etc. etc.) without ever dealing with that particular question head one, like so many of us had. He circumvents the question entirely and starts his book from a position that they are and anyone reading it is on board with it, whether or not they actually are. From this position he is able to explain and discuss games with their creators, other critics and the reader the ideas, themes and emotions behind these games. He headed the argument off at the pass, as it were.

“It seems to me that anyone passionate about video games has better things to do than walk chin-first into a sucker-punch argument about whether they qualify as art. Those who do not believe video games are not or ever will be art deserve nothing more goading or indulgent than a smile. (p.34)”

I had meant to get down my own words on paper with no influence from any other sources, to see what my thoughts were as pure as they could be with only the book in my head. They were too jumbled, so I dumped the plan and listened to his interview on the Brainy Gamer podcast. (One of the best episodes yet.) Afterwords a question loomed out of my head: Who was this book for?

While reading it I was struck with the notion that while it was superbly written and was mind opening to the idea of video game criticism and of it being an artistic medium. At the same time he wasn’t going far enough for me. I’ve read most of his assertions and revelations on , and elsewhere and they were more extensively than what Tom did in his book. As much as I enjoyed it, I was not the target audience. It was a rehash of the 101 for me.

Then I saw him explaining the individual games calmly, detailed and concisely before moving on to the deeper explanations. But as quick and well done these descriptions were, I cannot see them a grand enough argument to convince or even hold the attention of anyone not already game literate. He seemed to deliver more on the why not than the why in the middle if you were coming into this tabula rasa. While reading it I realized I could not hand this book to either of my parents and expect them to get what I get or see what I see. He also diverges this audience away from him further when he recalls as his fondest memories of Grand Theft Auto IV to be I “sniped the pilot of a zooming-by news chopper while standing on the GetaLife (read: MetLife) building and watched it whirlingly plunge down into the street and explode. (p.179)” Who not inundated with at least an ounce of the “hardcore” culture is going to read that and not have the argument undermined for them? Hell even I cringed at the implications of these moments. They weren’t and cannot be explained in any decent manner to anyone who doesn’t already get that the chaos has no meaning beyond the visceral thrill of it, even within the game’s universe.

The only answer I can reach is that the book is for the game literate, but not the critical literate. There is not enough here for the “hardcore” critics and/or thinkers of video games and at the same time there may be too sparse on too many subjects to hold the minds of the uninitiated. The book focuses, and rightly so, on the middle ground. The gaming literate that might not have realized there was a critical community-like Tom didn’t realize a few years ago-and have an internal inkling or desire to go beyond enjoying the spectacle and the “just a game” aphorism. Those with the curious, however brief, question mark appearing over their heads.

If I had to call Bissell’s book anything, it would be a well polished stepping stone for the community as a whole. If nothing else he got it published and that is enough to keep hope alive for a brighter future for the gaming community and superb games on the horizon.

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