Gamers are typically no sufferers of hardship. They are neither starving nor homeless nor prevented from participating in civic activities. To game, you need a couple hundred bucks and copious free time. Yet, to be a gamer among art lovers is to be the blackest sheep in a platinum pack, one that finds themselves defending that which feels indefensible. Tom Bissell, author of Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, lives life in the same helix, where one strand is a devoted curiosity and the other a raging insecurity. He’s in his late 30s, with four other books under his belt (one a highly-praised exploration of the intergenerational social impacts of the Vietnam War), and keeps both a Rome Prize and Guggenheim Fellowship in his proverbial trophy cabinet. I’m telling you this because I, too, am a gamer and I want you to take both Bissell and I seriously.
In the nine short meditations that comprise Extra Lives, Bissell investigates the hobby with a discomforting honesty and self-deprecating eloquence that is equal parts Rodney Dangerfield, James Tipton, and Hunter S. Thompson. He loves games, no question, but his explorations offer few answers. In fact, Bissell is not even sure what the questions are half of the time.
Despite this, Extra Lives is full of discovery, particularly because Bissell is a deft literary scholar and seasoned journalist. He understands how each zombie in Left 4 Dead taps into a particular form of human fear (those being shock, helplessness, panic, and flight) or how Epic Games design director Cliff Bleszinski buried autobiographical elements into Gears of War. Bissell points out the absurdity of in-game tutorials (Imagine if every book told you how to read it?) and how games with good play can get away with awful plot but not vice-versa. Bissell also plays Grand Theft Auto IV on coke and that’s when shit gets real.
The great theme of Extra Lives becomes video game writing, which ironically never evolves despite not being constrained by technology (most of the time). The active nature of gameplay can create narrative dissonance, which Bissell reveals often. But game writing is almost always putrid and Bissell doesn’t understand why. Interspersed among his ruminations are asides about Super Mario Bros. being two-dimensional poetry and how Las Vegas is a whore awaiting collapse. Bissell does much in this short, thought-provoking book. Above all, he gives a mouth and voice to a collective still trying figure out what it wants to say.
By Tom Bissell
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