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.