Tom Bissell’s “Extra Lives”

I know what you’re thinking — a book about video games? Unless you’re into video games, and then you’re thinking, O.K. cool. But, who would read that? Because if you find yourself in the latter category, you might just play video games instead of reading about them. Whichever category you find yourself in (and it seems to be an awfully divided topic, from those who love them to those who think they’re trashy and violent), Extra Lives is unique in that it attempts to bridge that divide. And perhaps solidifies a whole new category: people who treat video games like art. This is most directly a result of Bissell himself, who, as an author of both fiction and nonfiction books, brings a writerly perspective to this often-ignored hobby.

Bissell is right — video games are the newest art form, so new that many don’t consider it worth consideration. Bissell confesses feeling ashamed by his habit; it’s the young generations’ dirty little secret. Video games are a unique category from other forms of art in that they simultaneously contain narrative, drawn art and, significantly, interactivity. No other form of art consistently provides the viewer the opportunity to feel a) a part of something and b) in control. It’s no coincidence, then, that video games have become popular in an age where we are increasingly disconnected from people around us. Also, our reality seems not of our own choosing. Sometimes our parents seem to make our choices (especially for those kiddos addicted to gaming), or the government seems (especially lately) to make arbitrary decisions (pizza is a vegetable?) that no one cares about while ignoring things that actually matter. “Uncertainty” sums up our reality right now, so why not choose something that is certain, something with clear, achievable goals. 

As a writer, Bissell focuses on the story of the game, the reality the designers want to convince us is real, much in the same way a writer would design a place and time for a novel. Do video game designers succeed or fail in their storytelling? Yes, they can make realistic explosions and create worlds that seem unending, but can they engage the player? Many times, gamers are distracted by the tricks and effects of the game and oh, yeah they’re being shot at right now too. On closer examination, many of the narratives lack good flow, and the dialogue is often terrible. It shows, however, our need to tells stories, to frame what is happening into some sort of cohesive narrative with a past, present and future. These same sorts of narratives have been with us since stories were passed down orally, in myths and legends.

I have to admit, Bissell’s delving into a game and its narrative qualities sometimes goes over my head, almost like a scholarly article –you get it but there are some big words in there. This is definitely an intelligent look at how the pieces and parts of a video game function to make the whole so addictive. My favorite essay details his downward spiral into the world of Grand Theft Auto IV, somehow making even the subject of a video game-cocaine addiction combo seem as smart as his dissection of narrative sequencing and dialogue in Fallout 3.

I’ve been curious about video games for some time now, mostly because my teenage sister plays them constantly and it seems her main source of friends. I am not an avid gamer; I get sick of games quickly. Video games inherently seem like a disconnect from society, a way to check out of reality, but it’s heartening to see groups form in this solo activity, hopeful to see that our human need to connect with others remains necessary. Technology does present opportunities for new types of connection. And at least video games involve our imagination and our problem-solving skills, more so than half-sleeping in front of the TV, so I’ll give them credit for that.

Video games are the newest way will fill our need for engagement and fellow human contact in our disconnected, or only technologically connected, world. They are not going away, but will only get more sophisticated (and hopefully with better dialogue).

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