Earlier this year, film critic Roger Ebert ignited a minor internet firestorm by suggesting that video games can never be art (in a Sun-Times piece titled, appropriately, “Video Games Can Never Be Art”). Eventually he backed off, but this isn't the first time Ebert has made this claim and he's got plenty of company in his opinion. Ever since the first Pac-Man slithered his way out of the primordial pixel soup, critics have argued about the cultural significance of video games, usually with both sides agreeing to disagree. Enter journalist and author Tom Bissell, whose book Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter provides another look at the love/hate relationship we have with games. Based on a series of essays and interviews that appeared in the Guardian, Kill Screen, The New Yorker and others, Extra Lives is both a passionate defense and a sharp critique of video game culture.
One of the strengths of Extra Lives is the way it calls out the shortcomings of popular games while at the same time celebrating the parts that make them so rewarding. Bissell’s descriptions of the making of Resident Evil, a monumentally stupid and yet utterly thrilling game, are some of the best of the book. Bissell also examines what makes storytelling so difficult in a medium like video games, and why we’re unlikely to see a video game with a first-class storyline (and why that may not be a bad thing). Moreover, he does all of this with passion and humor that rises above the often dopey subject matter. This frequently involves personal narratives that help reinforce his point: one of the most engrossing essays focuses on Bissell’s time spent living in Estonia and playing Grand Theft Auto IV while simultaneously becoming addicted to cocaine. Bissell doesn’t shy away from the gory details, and the comparisons between the repetitive nature of the game and the eternal quest for the bigger high are horrifying.
While this collection of essays could probably be more accurately subtitled “Why Video Games Matter to Tom Bissell”, he nevertheless provides a thoughtful look at why video games are so fascinating and infuriating to so many others. Even if you have no interest in games, Extra Lives is worth a read for Bissell’s unique insights on the medium.
Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter