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

Extra Lives by Tom Bissell
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's review
Apr 01, 2012

it was ok
bookshelves: non-fiction

One of the most consistent criticisms I see in other negative reviews of this book is that Tom Bissell's tone is puzzlingly ambivalent. I have to unfortunately agree with this criticism, as after I finished the book the only take away I had from his argument was that games have (apparently) a myriad of structural problems that seem (to him) almost impossible to surmount. I find this really strange, as although I tend to favour arguments that don't neglect the weakspots/blindspots of their subject, Bissell's subtitle to the book is "why games matter." I didn't come out of this feeling as though I was convinced of this thesis statement, as it felt as though the author didn't have much faith in his own argument. In fact, more than a month after having listened to the audiobook, I don't feel that his argument was very enlightening at all. If anything, it made me feel rather pessimistic and uninspired about the next generation of games, and I don't think that was the intended aim of the book.

I really wanted to like this book. I love the idea of discussing how we could improve games and particularly narrative-driven games. Yet the only sections of the book that I found worthwhile, were the parts that focused on veteran game designers' POVs and not the author's. His interviews with Cliff Bleszinski (Gears of War), Johnathan Blow (Braid), and Peter Molyneux (Fable) to name a few were the most informative on the attitudes and trends of the current video game industry towards designing narrative-driven games, and what designing games is like today vs. during the inception of the games industry.

Another problem I had with this book had to do with the author's strange tone of voice. At numerous points of the audiobook I felt as if the author was talking to a predominately male audience. I found this alienating, as it felt as if I was overhearing his argument from an exclusive group huddle. Weird seeing as he started out the book targeting an audience of critics who may not have much experience with videogames. Even weirder seeing as over 40% of the gamer crowd is female. That's not to say I was expecting to read a book that absolutely represented every single gamer (that would be a little unrealistic and unfair), but I at least expected to read a book with a bit more of a neutral voice. Some quotes I actually had to write down or make mental notes of to insert into this review because they struck me as not only awkward, but sometimes offensive in a "too-much-information" way. Such as Bissell's musing over how he "liked the corporate diligence the upper-tier prostitutes worked the casino bars" in Las Vegas (why do I care?) and how he saw so many attractive women working at Ubisoft Montreal he wondered if Ubisoft ran an escort service on the side (the logic of that one escapes me). Despite dedicating the book to his two nieces, who he often plays games with, I found Bissell's tone odd and often disconcerting.

I also found it strange that almost every game he chose to talk about, was a game that was not very story-driven at all, or games that were influential, but not very useful to his argument. For instance, that he spends almost a quarter of the book talking about Farcry and footnotes Shadow of the Colossus and Metal Gear Solid seemed a very odd choice for his arguments that games can tell meaningful stories and have successful game mechanics as well. It's true that you can't include everything in a survey of the video games industry for critics, but I felt as if he'd missed out on some opportunities to discuss games like Metal Gear Solid, that work with many different forms of media for game design inspiration.

Perhaps what took up the space he could've used to discuss some of the games he footnoted, was his sudden switch into autobiography at the tail-end of the book, when he details a cocaine addiction that he suffered while playing GTA and how this epitomized what modern games are like. Not only did I feel as though the rug was pulled from beneath me at this point of the book, I also felt as if this was a book you would not want to give someone who was skeptical about games and gamer culture. I understand Bissell prefaced the book with a statement about how much of the views expressed in the book would be personal, but I felt this last story of his addiction should've been saved for another book that was focusing more on his life being a critic that wrote on games and not for a book where he's trying to prove that games are worth people's time.

I guess the bottom line of this review is, I didn't retain much of my experience of listening to this audiobook. I feel as though I could have looked up gamasutra articles on the creators interviewed in the book and garnered about the same amount of useful information as I did from reading Extra Lives. I'm glad more varied books on games are coming out on the market, but I'm disappointed I couldn't have enjoyed this book (or learned from it) more.
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Reading Progress

April 1, 2012 – Shelved
May 5, 2013 – Started Reading
May 6, 2013 –
0.0% "I'm listening to the audiobook so page count isn't really discernible. But I'm on chapter 6. Ehhh. I'll have to write a more in-depth review when I'm done, but so far I find this rather pessimistic and dispiriting in tone."
May 10, 2013 –
80.0% "Thankfully I'm on the fourth part of this audiobook. The first part of the work was promising but the rest of it feels very repetitious and his arguments for "why games matter" not broad enough. I do not appreciate the seemingly sexist comments he makes or quotes throughout the book. I do realize that the video game industry is still struggling a lot with gender issues, but it's always an unpleasant wake up call."
May 11, 2013 – Finished Reading
May 25, 2013 – Shelved as: non-fiction

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