Corinne Zilnicki's Reviews > Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter

Extra Lives by Tom Bissell
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's review
Jan 04, 2012

really liked it
Read from January 01 to 04, 2012

I'm a video game fan. I thought I should throw that out there before I proceed with this review, since it means I'm inevitably a bit biased toward the subject matter explored in Extra Lives. But I am not exactly the stereotypical epitome of a pale, basement-dwelling, socially crippled, obsessive Gamer (you have to write it in italics and with a capital "G"). I just enjoy playing, thinking about, and talking about video games. A lot.

And now, having finished Extra Lives, I've learned that I also enjoy reading books about them.

Tom Bissell assigned himself a incredibly daunting task when he chose "Why Video Games Matter" as his book's subtitle. And as intelligently researched and written as the book is, I don't think it ever directly answers that question. I'm not saying that I even think there is a clear-cut answer to that question! And Bissell does explore reasons why video games may or may not deserve to matter, which is just as interesting and important.

Bissell focuses on a different major game/company per chapter, investigating different facets of the industry and contrasting the different methods and personalities of the companies and games. Included in his exploration are Epic Games's Gears of War, Capcom's Resident Evil, and Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto series, among others. While I've played many of the games he discusses, I was just as engaged by his essays about games I've never touched, namely Mass Effect and Far Cry 2. It made me giddy to read about his first reaction to Resident Evil, which uncannily mirrored my own, but it fascinated me to read his descriptions of Mass Effect's brilliant voice acting and Far Cry 2's eeriness.

He explores different narrative approaches of different games, trying to illustrate why certain tactics are successful and why certain others are not. Also discussed are the "Uncanny Valley," (a phenomena that has always particularly interested me), the moral responsibilities of both game designers and gamers, the complexity (or simplicity, in some cases) of great storytelling, and the impact of video games on not only our specific subcultures, but on human beings as a whole. Bissell examines all these things in a wonderfully intelligent, thorough manner; his writing is both complex and clever. Sometimes you can tell when an author just loves words.

But the main problem with the book is that it is such an odd hybrid of Formal Essays and Personal Anecdotes. It doesn't quite seem to know which one to be, and as a result feels a bit disjointed. I would love to read another book strictly about Bissell's personal experiences as a gamer, I really would. He is a talented writer and has a great taste in games. (Though, since I have a ridiculous and immediate affinity for anyone who so much as mentions Metal Gear Solid, I may be biased). It's just that the mash-up of investigative essay and personal biography isn't totally harmonious here. The tales of cocaine addiction dumped suddenly into the last chapter were especially jarring. I have no idea why Bissell felt compelled to end his overall well-rounded and eloquent book in such a way.

Gamer or not, if you're looking for a thought-provoking venture into the world of video games - or at least one man's corner of that world - then I would give Extra Lives a go.


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Quotes Corinne Liked

Tom Bissell
“Hocking was slender in the way that writers and musicians are sometimes slender: not out of any desire or design but rather because his days were spent being consumed rather than consuming.”
Tom Bissell, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter

Reading Progress

01/03/2012 page 63

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