Bryan's Reviews > Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter

Extra Lives by Tom Bissell
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review
Aug 16, 2011

liked it
Read from August 16 to 21, 2011

I was expecting more from this book somehow, and it may have something to do with the subtitle. 'Why Video Games Matter', while being a worthy and attention-grabbing (and therefore probably book-selling) question, is not one which this book actually tries to answer. Instead, the author seems to be trying to figure out What Games Mean, sometimes to the culture at large, more often to gaming culture, and usually to himself.
This is not to say that these are questions not worth answering. Video games are one of the most dominating (certainly the fastest growing) aspects of our culture, and one about which very little non-hysterical criticism has been written. So it is somewhat of a relief to see Bissell ignore almost entirely the question of whether video games cause violent tendencies, and other favorite causal misinterpretations of the press. "Extra Lives" does not deign to tell us how video games have affected society, opting instead to tell us how they have affected the book's author, and this is what ultimately makes the book more affecting than most of its more sociologically-oriented counterparts, and also saves it from the rather preachy quality of those other books of either the decrying or the exalting mindset.
Bissell is, after all, not a sociologist but a successful writer of both fiction and nonfiction. He is much more adept at explaining emotion and meaning on the individual level than he would be explaining meaning on a larger scale. So "Extra Lives" can be seen as a sort of travelogue (a genre in which Bissell has achieved significant acclaim), though it describes movement not through space, but through the aesthetic experience of a medium. This does rather limit the book's scope, as its insights are highly personal, as opposed to the more universal view hinted to by its subtitle. We are, in effect, learning as much about Bissell as we are about the video games which he comments on, and any analysis he offers is necessarily colored by his own personality. A case could be made that this is true of all critical work, but most media at least have an accepted critical framework as a starting point, while Bissell, by virtue of being one of the pioneers of video game criticism, is left to figure out his own path to their meaning and merit.
The criticism provided by Bissell does appear to be sound and carefully considered. He, along with the game industry insiders he interviews, does bring up some interesting ideas about game design and the nature of the form, which, existing as they do in the near-vacuum of serious video game writing, struck me as at the least incredibly thoughtful, and at their best as a fairly revolutionary way to look at the medium. To return to the title, one point that is touched on (not nearly enough, in my opinion) is the idea that games endow their players with a sort of "extra life". The term, of course, is culled from early video games, in which a set number of "lives", or chances to complete the game, were granted to the player at the start of the game, and could be replenished by meeting various goals. But as Bissell hints at, games may also provide an extra life in the sense that they allow their audience to live an existence apart from their own, in a universe separate from the one which we all collectively inhabit.
Which leads, more or less directly, to my major problems with the book. Bissell regularly touches on aspects of video games with extreme metaphorical or philosophical significance (such as the idea of empathy for a character whose actions you control, the value of a virtual life, and the meaningfulness of in-game experiences vs. real-world experience, among others) but then lets these ideas fade away after only a cursory, or a noncommittal, or sometimes a maddeningly flippant analysis.
This last attitude is part of my most serious problem with the book, which is that Bissell seems to sense how shaky the ground he's standing on is, and sometimes treads too cautiously, knowing that if he makes too much of these silly games, he will be ridiculed and the book discredited. This is not a warrantless fear. Very few people outside of the game industry treat games with any sort of respect, and in fact even some within the industry seem to treat their work as somehow demeaning or dirty. Bissell himself is an artist of some distinction and must be aware that to be heard offering unqualified praise for what is seen as a lesser medium may tarnish him in some way. This tendency to treat his subject with somewhat less than full dignity would not necessarily be a problem, except that the reader must then look at his valid, thoughtful criticisms of video games and wonder how much of them is based on the merits of the games themselves, and how much on Bissell's reluctance to praise these merits too earnestly. Most of this wavering is constrained to the early sections of the book, but their presence there is enough to cast a doubt on the authenticity of the seemingly poignant and personally important experiences which Bissell discusses later on in the book.
As a last final and more shallow criticism, the book straddles a strange line between the gaming neophyte and the enthusiast. It is a book which will clearly appeal more to those who have played and enjoyed games and will therefore be able to best interpret Bissell's critiques (I fall into this category) but much of the book is spent explaining the basics of what games are and are not, clearly meant to bring up to speed those who have never or rarely played video games. These didactic asides, while maybe necessary, do nothing more for the initiated than to distract them from the often captivating insights which make up the rest of the work.

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read Extra Lives.
Sign In »

No comments have been added yet.