Book Review: “EXTRA LIVES: Why Video Games Matter”

Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter
Tom Bissell (Pantheon Books; June, 2010)
Review by Adam Perry for

For most children of the ’80s, it’s impossible to forget the sound of Super Mario’s head boinging off of coin-manifesting bricks, the “ooouugh” sound of Tecmo Bowl players running into each other, or any of the innumerable early lo-fi Nintendo effects permanently stamped on our brains.

Many of us spent hundreds of hours competing against the computer, and our parents’ patience, in epic action-adventure games—and against friends and siblings in aggressive sports and fighting games; at this point, presumably none among us understands exactly what that incredible amount of time and energy did to our minds and bodies. Still, I presume you, too, can feel pretty good knowing that your childhood video-game habit didn’t progress into playing Grand Theft Auto for 30 hours straight while binging on cocaine as an adult.

Tom Bissell, a Guggenheim Fellow and award-winning author of Chasing the Sea and The Father of All Things, wasn’t so lucky.

Bissell is a writing professor at Portland State University and has written for Harper’s and The New Yorker; his curious rise to literary prominence has seen him traverse penning fake DVD commentaries to detailing his experience as the son of a Vietnam veteran. All the while, Bissell has never beaten his virtually life-long addiction to video games, which has been so feverish in the past few years that Bissell missed then-President-elect Obama’s November, 2008 acceptance speech because he couldn’t stop playing Fallout 3. He’s eagerly fallen in love with every gaming system from the original Nintendo to the Xbox 360, and believes that video games represent modern culture’s creative evolution from the novel form.  In short, he’s hooked.

In the just-released Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, his fifth book, Bissell describes the “unprecedented inventiveness” of early games such as Super Mario Bros, noting that “in film and literature, such surrealistic fantasy typically occurs at the outer edge of experimentalism.” Enthusiastically walking us through every inch of his favorite recent titles, he passionately delineates the video game’s startling and, for gamers like Bissell, endlessly fascinating and engaging evolution from staring-contests like Pong to the all-consuming (and morally reprehensible) “open world” mayhem of Grand Theft Auto.

For Bissell, the real mark of “absolutely brilliant” modern games such as Grand Theft Auto and the horror-filled Resident Evil series is that they are ontological exercises in which, as the human participant, “you get control and are controlled.”

“Games are patently aware of you and have a physical dimension unlike any other form of entertainment,” Bissell writes. “Even though you may be granted lunar influence over a game’s narrative tides, the fact that there is any narrative at all reminds you that a presiding intelligence exists within the game along with you, and it is this sensation that invites the otherwise unworkable comparisons between games and other forms of narrative art.”

That’s an intricate and interesting realization, but there aren’t a lot of people, especially in America, with time and savings enough to literally play video games from dusk till dawn every day of the week in order to come to it. Sadly, there are millions of people who would join Bissell in relishing the time when, while playing Grand Theft Auto IV, he joyfully “sniped the pilot of a zooming-by news chopper while standing on [a] building and watched it whirlingly plunge down into the street and explode.” He sincerely called this one of his “fondest memories,” along with running over a man repeatedly with a truck while playing the same game.

Obviously Bissell wouldn’t be boasting about these things if he’d done them in real life—he’d probably be on death row—but the zeal and humor with which he mentions these high-points are disturbing, particularly as the passages they were included in came directly after Bissell’s moral defense of Grand Theft Auto and his lauding of the video game’s recent “turn toward message.”

Sure, “the shock of the new”—a tangible sensory experience Bissell says can “knock loose the familiar critical vocabularies”—has been a profound part of modern culture since there was modern culture. And, sadly, the Western turn away from remaining creative or talking openly about philosophical and spiritual issues after childhood has made experiences such as killing zombies in Resident Evil or wandering curiously through Zelda unmistakable rites of passage. However, as with the internet, the astounding (and regularly exponential) technological expansion of video games does not necessarily imply the advancement of the human mind or experience. And definitely not human connection.

In Santa Fe last weekend, an old San Francisco friend named Matt Dillon—who is now a religious studies PhD candidate at Rice—stayed with my family and I. On the subject of games such as World of Warcraft, in which participants create a character and sustain an ongoing battle-filled life inside the video game as that character, my friend claimed that there is little difference between playing these bloody new games and past generations reading about carnage in books by Homer and Tolkein. In these spiritually empty times, we must derive meaningful excitement and emotional progress from anything at our disposal, he said; and that’s an argument I can understand but not accept.

Consciously choosing to engage destructive behavior, even under the assumption that it’s OK to do zoom in with a sniper rifle and blow the head off a helicopter pilot if it’s only a video-game helicopter pilot, is a far cry from reading about Perseus’ beheading of Medusa.

The legendary characters of classic literature did not always behave in manners that would be acceptable in real life: They often murdered and betrayed, and they systematically abused women. But to witness such behavior from fictional characters, readers don’t make the poor choices for them. In games like the hugely popular Grand Theft Auto series and many others, players are given often-horrid missions—which invariably involve killing—but, in most cases, end up taking advantage of the off-the-clock “open world” modes that allow one to spend idle hours shooting pedestrians in the head, driving drunk and/or picking up prostitutes.

In Extra Lives, Tom Bissell hails the video game as the first medium in which consumers of a narrative are alive inside that narrative, able to control a character inside a story that controls that character’s ultimate possibilities. It can be astoundingly fun to spend an idle hour inside these make-believe spaces, where there are no real-world consequences beyond, say, unemployment and obesity. But it’s hard not to wonder: If the modern make-believe world we choose to inhabit is simply detritus, and life may well be no more than a narrative we tell ourselves, which is the world where our actions don’t count?

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