Book review: 'Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter,' by Tom Bissell

Sunday, July 11, 2010; B07


Why Video Games Matter

By Tom Bissell

Pantheon. 218 pp. $22.95

The video game industry, writes Tom Bissell in "Extra Lives," began "as an engineering culture, transformed into a business, and now, like a bright millionaire turning toward poetry, [has] confident but uncertain aspirations toward art." Bissell believes it's time that this art form, however nascent, answered some big questions: How do video games create a narrative, and what are the criteria for judging their value? Can the games offer profound aesthetic experiences? What compels a person (usually male) to spend hours engaged in shooting, bludgeoning, roadkilling and pretty much making a bloody mess of things onscreen?

If your last contact with a video game was, say, "Pong," then you'll be staggered by how far the medium has advanced both technically and in terms of storytelling ("Grand Theft Auto IV" has a plot, and it's richer than you might imagine). Yet this book won't get you to care enough to buy an Xbox. Passages explaining a particular game's characters and levels get tiresome, and Bissell's interesting ideas feel haphazardly arranged. Still, for anyone who has spent a weekend thrilled by the prospect of beating a game, "Extra Lives" will cast the addiction in a new, cerebral light. Bissell's reflections on how he has been affected by his play -- especially when it was paired with his once endless craving for cocaine -- add an unexpected poignancy. But like a player encountering the "Game Over" screen, the reader puts down this book sighing for more.

-- Stephen Lowman

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