Ed Wagemann's Reviews > Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter

Extra Lives by Tom Bissell
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Sep 30, 2010

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Read in September, 2010

Extra Lives

My soon to be five year old son wants a Star Wars light saber something or other video game for Christmas this year. The first problem with that is that this game is for the Wii game system and I only have a PlayStation 2. The second problem is that I have not yet been sold on this notion that video games aren’t just a waste of time and they are turning the youth of America into dumb, fat and happy drains on the purse strings of their hard working parents. Just like most every other parent today, I too once played video games—as a 12, 13 year old in the 1980s it was Atari home systems and darkly lit, sticky-carpeted Arcades—but I can’t honestly think of a single thing from the time spent in front of a video game monitor that has contributed much to my adult life. Tom Bissell’s book Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter however promised to straighten me out on that and clue me in.

Over the last 5 years or so I have pretty much exclusively read nothing but non-fiction and over the course of this time I’ve noticed that there is a formula that many non-fiction books being released into the world nowadays take. At first, Extra Lives as a non-fiction book, or more specifically a non-fiction books that deal with a subject matter that involves one aspect or another of pop culture (for instance baseball in the 1970s—see Dan Epstein’s Big Hair and Plastic Grass) and/or hobbyism (record collecting—see Brad Millano’s Vinyl Junkies), seemed to be cut from that formula. The formula goes like this: First of all you start off with a well-written (perhaps inspired even) first chapter that reveals the subject matter in an incredibly interesting light. In Millano’s Vinyl Junkies for example, we start off with Milano at a record listening party of sorts. In Big Hair and Plastic Grass the reader is drenched in a hipsterly-worded general overview plus teases of highlights and events that made the decade of the 70s so unique and interesting. This well-done first chapter, along with an eye-catching front cover and some gushing praise from other authors on the back cover, seems to be enough for the publishers to believe that as a reader you have gotten your money’s worth. Because more times than not, the remaining chapters of these Pop-centric non-fiction books are paint-by-numbers assimilations of historical accounts of the subject matter and/or journalistic episodes and interviews that may marginally shed some light on the subject matter, but in general seem random or without direction. Somewhere halfway through these books it becomes obvious that it is best just to start skimming or even just jump the to end and see if the ending has anything worth smelling.

As I sat down to begin reading Bissell’s Extra Lives I wasn’t expecting anything more than another in this long line of formulaic non-fiction works. I did notice right off the bat however that Bissell writes in a style that is very enjoyable to read. He writes from personal experience, revealing his inner thoughts. He’s also likable and funny. For instance:

“Was I apologizing to some imaginary cultural arbiter for finding value in a form of creative expression [video games] whose considerable deficits I recognize but which I nevertheless believe is important? Or is this evidence of authentic scruple? On one hand, I love Bioshock [a videogame] which is frequently saluted as one of the first games to tackle what might be considered intellectual subject matter—namely a gameworld exploration of the social consequences inherent within Ayn Rand’s Objectivism (long story)…If I really wanted to explore the implications and consequences of Objectivism, there were better, more sophisticated places to look, even if few of them would be as much fun (although getting shot in the knee would be more fun than rereading Atlas Shrugged). When I think about games, here is where I bottom out. Is it okay that they are mostly fun? Am I a philistine or simply a coward [to admit that a video game can be a work of art]? Are games the problem or am I?”

After 25 pages or so it was obvious that Bissell had succeeded with the first part of the formula (well-written first chapter that places the subject matter in an incredibly interesting light). Author Keith Gesson, on the back cover of Extra Lives, accurately describes Bissell’s description of killing zombies in the first iteration of Resident Evil as “simply a tour de force.”

After this successful—yet formulaic—start, Bissell moves us into chapter three (titled the Unbearable Lightness of Games) by moving away from framing the central issue of the book (that which is conjured up in the subtitle of the book “Why video games matter”) from a personal context into a video game industry context instead. This is where the book starts to falter and I started getting the urge to start skimming. Bissell’s next two chapters in fact basically feed into my worse fears. In these chapters Bissell interviews some video game gurus and he visits some video game convention, and the result is that the reader gets some vague understanding of the issues facing modern game designers, but nothing of much interest really comes out of these two chapters. In fact the only interesting thing to come from these chapters for me was that they caused to continually be thinking: “Jesus Christ, our society has way too much leisure time on our hands.” Personally I have gotten off on video games before, but also I have some pressing, ticking clock in the back of my head that starts to go off whenever I feel like I’m wasting time—which is really my biggest complaint against video games. Logically, we only get so much time on this earth, 80 years maybe, so of course wasting that time scares me. I’ve played enough video games in my life to realize that they can be a huge waste of time. But on the other hand, if your time is spent on an enjoyable activity, then who is to say that that is not time well spent? In fact, if you think about it what more could the average person hope to accomplish than finding an enjoyable way to spend their time?

However, other than recognizing this nugget of wisdom, reading chapters 4 and 5 in Extra Lives was starting to feel like a waste of time. And when chapter 6 started off with another encounter with a video game industry personality, my fingers starting twitching at the edge of the pages, preparing for “skim” mode. Fortunately though chapter 6 introduces Jonathon Blow, the designer of a game called Braided, and the conversation hits upon some fascinating ideas that are outside the video game industry mainstream. Just in the nick of time, this short interesting chapter momentarily rescues the book from Mediocre-ville. The most interesting idea here is the idea that a video game can actually be art. Jonathon Blow criticizes video games for not touching people emotionally—like other forms of mass media can do; films, poetry, art, music, etc—and Bissell goes into detail how Blow’s game Braid not only attempts to touch people emotionally but also aspires to be thought of in the realm of art.

The final three chapters of Extra Lives are not too bad, as Bissell takes the narrative back toward the more personal context. By the end of the book thought I was left pondering where Extra Lives rates in terms of the pop-centric non–fiction genre that it belongs to. The pop-centric non-fiction genre has become my favorite genre over the last few years, and there are two works that I have read during this period that stand head and shoulders above anything else: Kevin Chong’s Neil Young Nation and Josh Wilkers Cardboard Gods. Both of these books are obviously labors of love and thoughtfully written, but perhaps more importantly each one is written with a three dimensional narrative. By this I simply mean that there are at least 3 threads being wove throughout the narrative from start to finish. The first dimension in both Neil Young Nation and Cardboard Gods is the basic subject matter that each book is dealing with, Neil Young in Neil Young Nation and baseball cards in Cardboard Gods. The second dimension then is each author’s unique personal story and relationship to the subject matter. Many pop-centric non-fictions have these two dimensions, and Extra Lives is no exception. But what allows Neil Young Nation and Cardboard Gods to really explode is that each of these works go beyond the two formulaic dimensions by introducing a “device of continuity” that not only helps keep the narrative grounded but to also help move the narrative along and build it into something greater than the sum of its parts. In Neil Young Nation the devise of continuity is a road trip Kevin Chong takes in which “…I decided to follow the same route Young took from Winnipeg to Fort William (now Thunder Bay), and then from Toronto to Los Angeles. With three pot-smoking buddies and a hatbox’s worth of space cakes, I crossed North America in one triangular swoop…I visited the places that were important to Neil and a few people associated (albeit tangentially) with Neil, and stopped in Auburn, Washington, to see Young play at Farm Aid 2004.” And in Cardboard Gods the devise of continuity is reproductions of actually baseball cards that Wilkers coveted as a youth.

In Extra Lives Bissell has only two dimensions, the first being video games and the second being his personal relationship with video games and art, etc. But Bissell never fully commits to a 3rd dimension. Perhaps he just didn’t think of a device of continuity (or some other hook) to give the narrative more depth. And in the end, this is what prevents this book from being truly a great book. A hook of some sort could have possibly rescued the two boring chapters involving the ins and outs of the video game industry. One possibility of a third dimension could have involved Bissell’s cocaine use while playing video games. But Bissell doesn’t introduce this aspect until the very end of the book. So in the end, Extra Lives was better than most pop-centric non-fictions, but not great. It had two boring chapters in the middle that almost sank it. Therefore it receives 3 out of 5 Wagemann Heads.


***True or False: Parents who played video games in their youth insouciantly dismiss the notion that video games lower our moral standards and promote violence.

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