Book Review: Why Video Games Matter?

I recently read the book “Extra Lives: Why Video Games Mat­ter” by Tom Bis­sell (Chas­ing the Sea). I was really inter­ested in this book for some time. It has been touted by Publisher’s Weekly as a “scin­til­lat­ing med­i­ta­tion on the promise and dis­con­tents of video games” and the author is a famous jour­nal­ist and writer who was sup­posed to bring a whole new and inter­est­ing way of ana­lyz­ing the impor­tance of video games as a cul­tural form with increas­ing main­stream accep­tance. So what’s my opin­ion after read­ing the book?

It’s rub­bish. No, really, it’s absolutely rubbish.

The book fol­lows the author in var­i­ous moments of his life and the video games that sur­rounded him dur­ing these moments. There’s an inter­est­ing mix of video games fea­tured, rang­ing from some­thing family-orientated like Lit­tleBig­Planet to the con­tro­ver­sial Grand Theft Auto 4. So what’s the big prob­lem with the book?

The main prob­lem for me is the fact that there seems to be no con­sis­tency at all in the argu­ments of the author. Some­times he seems to be love video games, some­times he seems to hate them and in the end it just seems that he doesn’t know any bet­ter. Bis­sell is also very keen on mak­ing state­ments both igno­rant (“[PC gam­ing is] a famously per­snick­ety and piracy-plagued mar­ket that BioWare, unlike many devel­op­ers, has not aban­doned”) and plain insult­ing (“PC gamers always seemed an unlik­able fusion of tech geek and cult member–a kind of mad Scientologist”).

This is also one of the most dif­fi­cult books I’ve ever read. Ini­tially I thought that maybe, being a for­eigner, I just wasn’t used to some of the more archaic and uncom­mon expres­sions used, but read­ing the Ama­zon reviews I noticed that I wasn’t alone. What the hell is he try­ing to say when he writes: “Despite sci­ence fiction’s sui generis pre­sump­tions, most sci-fi worlds — imag­ined at the bal­ance point of the evo­lu­tion­ary and point-mutational, the cau­tion­ary and the aspi­ra­tional — imi­ta­tive”? What about “When the mind of the reader and writer per­fectly and inim­itably con­nect, objects, events, and emo­tions become dou­bly vivid–realer, some­how, than real things”?

In the end, the book does not answers the ques­tion that it poses on its title. There is some super­fi­cial dis­cus­sion about what kind of things we should expect on future video games and ten­den­cies on game design. But noth­ing that comes close to what I expected.

So why do video games mat­ter? For me, they mat­ter because of their unique­ness. Video games are unique in the way that they allow the player to have an active influ­ence in the world. They’re not rel­e­gated to a pas­sive role as in books, movies or any other cul­tural form really. Every­one plays games, even if they don’t know it and video games are a nat­ural exten­sion, being played right now by hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple in all kinds of forms, be it totally casual (Far­mVille) or hard­core (Dwarf Fortress). Because of this and more (and not because some­one plays too much video games and misses the accep­tance speech of Barack Obama, as Bis­sell very elo­quently points out in his book), I agree with Tom Chat­field when he says that games are the most seri­ous busi­ness of the 21st cen­tury.

There are some pretty good moments in “Extra Lives: Why Video Games Mat­ter”. The end­ing inter­view with Peter Molyneux is very good (just like most of Molyneux’s inter­views, actu­ally) and some inter­est­ing facts are revealed when the author speaks to game design­ers like Jonathan Blow (Braid) and Clint Hock­ing (Far Cry 2). In the end though, this is not the book that was adver­tised to me. These are the thoughts of an addict that doesn’t even know why he likes video games and what to think about it. Skip it.

P.S.: You can read the last chap­ter of the book online at the Guardian. In this chap­ter, Bis­sell men­tions his time play­ing GTA while high on cocaine. I rec­om­mend read­ing it if not because of its qual­ity, at least because of the fas­ci­nat­ing insight that it gives on the mind of some­one that just has no clue at all.

One Response to “ “Book Review: Why Video Games Matter?”

  1. Thiago says:

    For me, video games are a kind of art; Art that seduces us to try it.

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