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

Extra Lives by Tom Bissell
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's review
Aug 05, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: american-lit, popculture
Read in August, 2010

Here's the whole of my experience with video games: when I was growing up in the '90s and almost every other kid I knew was getting a Nintendo or a Sega or a PlayStation, my parents bought me a console called Socrates. Socrates was a robot who looked kind of like the one from Short Circuit, and all of the (preloaded, unexpandable) games in his system were designed to teach you about math and spelling and other such crunchy, educational things. This was the only gaming system I was ever allowed to have—just like Reader Rabbit was the first, and for a long time the only, computer game permitted me.

Which is not to say I was omg horribly deprived or anything. Just: I never developed an interest in video games, and I still don't have one—the only modern game I think I've played is Rock Band, and when I play that at parties I always try to position myself as the singer because I lack the hand-eye coordination to succeed at any of the instruments. That's the price of a childhood without video games, right there. I can, however, shout my way through a mean “Ballroom Blitz.” (“All right, fellas, let's goooooooooo!”)

So: my interest in video games = nil. Nevertheless, I was enthralled by Bissell's treatise on their cultural importance. Like an extended version of Chuck Klosterman's fabulous essay on Saved By the Bell (which I also wasn't allowed to watch—no cartoons, either) from Sex Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, Bissell combines examples of what video games have meant to him with an exploration of what larger significance they have or might one day hope to achieve. I may have even been at an advantage, having no idea what Bissell was talking about: I've seen some other reviewers complain that, for example, the long section where he takes the reader step-by-step, moment-by-moment through the opening of the first Resident Evil game is too much of a rehash if you've played it. I haven't, and therefore I found it fascinating to experience this paradigm-shifting game along with Bissell's younger self.

Reading Extra Lives didn't make me want to rush out and buy a [insert name of cool new video game console here:], just like that essay in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs didn't make me want to track down old episodes of Saved By the Bell. (And thank god. Do I really need more ways to waste time? No. I have the internet, thanks.) But I always love thoughtful explorations of how/why dumb stuff can matter to people. I know this sounds like circular logic, but: the stuff that matters matters. I can has my sociology degree nao?

Speaking of dumb stuff that matters to me: I had one of the best book/music fusion experiences while reading this. My copy came in at the library the same day I got the new Arcade Fire album, The Suburbs, and the two go beautifully together, both evoking this sense of isolation among sprawl and summoning up images of post-apocalyptic landscapes. (A theme in many video games—maybe I am missing out?) “Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains”—yum. I haven't had two disparate works work so well together since the Christmas I was given both Neil Gaiman's Stardust and Sarah McLachlan's Touch. You just try reading that book and listening to the song “Vox”—it's better than The Wizard of Oz coupled with Dark Side of the Moon, I swear.
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Trin Yeah, I love me some Neil Gaiman, but Stardust is one of those rare beasts where the movie is better than the book. Except, of course, that it doesn't have "Vox" in it.

I played lots of video games as a kid.

Maybe I am missing out!

Trin I like the book, too, but it's one of Gaiman's colder works. I prefer him in a warmer mode (Neverwhere and Good Omens and even Anansi Boys over American Gods and Stardust and the like). The movie fed some warmth and fun back into it.

Trin Haha. Clearly we make up opposing halves of his audience, then!

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