Review: Tom Bissell - Extra Lives

If you’re someone who plays videogames, have you ever tried to explain why you like videogames to a non-gamer? Horrible, right? Conversely, if you don’t play videogames, have you ever had a videogame nerd try to explain why he or she likes videogames? Horrible, right? The problem is that videogames are a tough ‘sell’. Let’s face it, for the most part, videogames are antisocial things that seem to bring out the worst habits in peopleI guess I should point out that it’s not just videogames that bring out the worst qualities in people, some board games do too. I remember playing Trivial Pursuit with my wife who wouldn’t give me a wedge because I had said “Rock and Roll Music” when the answer was “Rock Music” - this will never be forgotten in my house. I scream and shout and swear at the TV all the time when I’m playing games. Even a seemingly ‘quiet’ and slow-paced game like Risk: Factions has me trying to break my controller with my bare hands (something I haven’t actually done since the days of the SNES). My wife often complains about how I remain ’twitchy’ for hours after playing certain games. In fact, she uses this as a sort of litmus test to see if I’m lying and, instead of working or studying, I’ve actually been shooting fools in Modern Warfare 2.

For someone who has never played videogames before, watching someone behave like a petulant child is hardly going to make them want to see what all the fuss is about.

I think that the best way to ‘sell’ videogames to a non-gamer is by talking about them from an experiential point of view, talking frankly and openly about the experiences a game has provided, rather than trying to describe the whole game in 500 words. This is something that has caught on in the last few years, the idea of New Games Journalism, where dispassionate cookie-cutter descriptions of videogames with a meaningless score tacked on the end (7/10) were replaced with first-person accounts of play, focusing on the emotions evoked by certain experiences within the game. In effect, rather than trying to provide a description of the elephant as a whole, we are shifting our focus to each of the blind men’s experiences because they have experienced this elephant in a closer, more intimate way than any simple overview could provide. In fact, I’m going to say that videogames are one of the few mediums where we can consistently focus on individual experiences. For example, how many people have come across the suicide man in Red Dead Redemption? How many people experienced the exact same story in Mass Effect or Dragon Age?

Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives: Why Videogames Matter is one of the first books that attempt to present a first-person, emotional account of someone’s experiences playing videogames. As I mentioned before, Paste Magazine described it as “the first truly indispensable work of literary nonfiction about society‚Äôs most lucrative entertainment medium”. Now, having read it, does it live up to this hype?

I’m sad to say: not really. I found it to be a wildly uneven book. It swings erratically between a genuinely entertaining account of the author’s video gaming experiences, and a boring, dime-a-dozen primer on video games. For example, the chapter providing a blow-by-blow account of the opening minutes of Resident Evil might be interesting to someone who has never played the game before, but as someone who has played that game (and especially that section of that game) more times than he cares to admit, I found that there were very few actual insights in this chapter. I understand the desire to want your book to be as accessible to as many people as possible, but really, it just gets out of hand sometimes. Imagine writing a cookbook and explaining what a ‘pot’ was, or the etymology of ‘recipe’. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. Except with videogames.

To make things worse, the author’s literary background (because he’s a real, legitimate, literary author, dontchaknow?) causes the whole thing to occasionally tumble over into the ridiculous. Like Roland Barthes reviewing Pac-Man.

Which is not to say it’s all bad. There are moments of real genius in the book, but he rarely gives us more than just moments. Frequently, Bissell will touch on a topic or offer a profound observation only to drop it in favour of a more casual-friendly read that will appeal to a broader audience. And this is the real shame of the book. There’s a terrific interview with Bissell on the Brainy Gamer podcast. I suppose the pre-defined audience of this podcast allowed him to go into a lot of detail regarding his experience with cocaine and GTA IV and the relationship between the two, why cocaine is the perfect drug to play GTA IV to. It was genuinely interesting and so I was left wondering why he couldn’t have included these thoughts in the actual book he was promoting? It would have made the book a lot more enjoyable for both gamers and non-gamers alike.

(Also, since this is the internet - the perfect place to pick nits - I was a little dismayed by the inconsistency in the book. At the beginning, Bissell talks about the confusion caused by the variety of names people use to talk about videogames: “videogames”, “video games” and “video-games”, and announces that he has settled on “video games”, yet he uses all three throughout the book. Would a little search-and-replace have killed him? I probably wouldn’t have noticed if he hadn’t explicitly addressed the issue of nomenclature himself.)

Although the book is definitely a great start, I feel as if Bissell failed to show us ‘why video games matter’, but instead tried to explain why video games matter to him. Even then, I don’t think he did a great job. For a more engaging and coherent argument on why video games matter, check out the chapter in Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You.

Some things to check out if you want some really great examples of the kind of “New Games Journalism” that I felt Bissell was going for:

  • Bow Nigger. Arguably the first example of “New Games Journalism”
  • The Idle Thumbs Podcast, who spend much of their time talking about the ridiculous and fun things they get up to in games. They make it sound so appealing, it’s hard not to want to join in and see what the fuss is about.
  • Ben Abraham’s Permanent Death in Far Cry 2 is everything I think Bissell’s FC2 chapter wishes it was.
  • Alice and Kev - a hilarious and touching exploration of homelessness in The Sims 3
  • The Gamer’s Quarter - a terrific series of ‘zines. I’m genuinely sad that they’ve stopped publishing.