Why video games matter

What do video games give us?

Posted Jun 17, 2010

Must video games remain mere entertainment. Could they provide narratives that books, movies, and other vehicles for story delivery can’t? Might they even aspire to art?

Tom Bissell's new book "Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter" (Pantheon, 240 pp., $22.95) aims a tentative mortar shot at these targets. It comes at the right time. These are potent days for video gamers. The baby steps taken by Pong, Space Invaders, and Doom have become the thundering footfalls of Halo, Gears of War, and Mass Effect. 

Production budgets for big games like Grand Theft Auto and World of Warcraft rival those of movies.The industry rakes in billions, turning formerly closeted code monkeys and hackers into minor, Lamborghini-driving celebrities. Popular game sequel release dates have become events unto themselves, inspiring fans to line up at midnight outside their local Game Stops. 

The problem is, no one knows how to talk about gaming — these Xbox and PlayStation binges that nervous parents worry could turn their kids into hollow-faced, emotionally-stunted, Dorito-eating dorks.

I'm sort of joking. But it's true: folks worry about the long term effects of kids --- and adults --- who increasingly play these sorts of elaborate, visually-rich and hypnotically immersive games, and not old-school games. Monopoly anyone?

As with any mass movement accelerating into the passing lane of pop culture, gaming requires its own discourse. Yet, the language we use to discuss, evaluate, and dissect this new medium is largely monosyllabic: good, bad, like, no like.

Frustrated by the lack of serious video game criticism, Tom Bissell wrote his own geek-centric inquiry. In “Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter,’’ Bissell sets out to establish his own aesthetics for the medium. 

Bissell, author of highbrow books like “God Lives in St. Petersburg and Other Stories’’ and “The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam,’’ makes two startling admissions. 1. He outs himself as a serious, addicted gamer. 2. He finds the pleasures of literature “leftover and familiar.’’ He’s bored with books. “I like fighting aliens and I like driving fast cars,’’ he writes.

His investigation is bedrocked upon personal experience, but “Extra Lives’’ mostly steers clear of memoir. We don’t learn much more about Bissell’s life, other than a few personal details (including a troublesome cocaine habit). But the author’s reflections infuse everything. He doesn’t tell a story; rather, he maps how his favorite games make him feel.

In his quest to elevate video game criticism, Bissell borrows terms from literary and film analysis. He grapples with ideas like “authored drama,’’ “formal constraints,’’ and “narrative progression.’’ Along the way, we also meet game developers at such megaliths as Epic Games, Bio Ware, and Ubisoft.

Thankfully, the book isn’t pure fanboy boosterism. It’s love/hate. Video games can be great, he says, but they can be “big, dumb, loud.’’ Some (like Bissell’s beloved Left 4 Dead) refuse to challenge their players; they merely “restore an unearned, vaguely loathsome form of innocence — an innocence derived of not knowing anything.’’ He calls Call of Duty 4 “war-porn.’’

A master prose stylist, the erudite Bissell is frequently insightful, if only occasionally too clever. (He’s mined needlessly dark corners of his thesaurus for words like “saurian’’ and “dipsomaniacally.’’) “Extra Lives’’ can also be funny. Bissell mockingly laments that he’s “saved’’ so many fictional worlds that he’s “felt a resentful Republicanism creep into my game-playing mind: Can’t these [expletive] people take care of themselves?’’

The aesthetics-in-progress of “Extra Lives’’ reveal a proclivity for games such as Fable II, which present players with tricky moral choices and tempt them to be bad. What’s more, Bissell deplores games that don’t make him feel anything. He even wonders whether first-person shooters “are not violent enough.’’

By book’s end, we’re left with this question for game developers: Now what? The industry has mastered gee-whiz realism, tasty eye-candy, and uber-believable game play. Gamers could demand the deeper emotional pleasures supplied by novels and movies. Or they might not. As indie game developer Jonathan Blow (of Braid fame) says, “We’re not really trying to have important things to say right now.’’

So don’t hold your breath. In the meantime, lock and load. We have plenty of zombies and aliens to blow away.

Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms. More info at www.ethangilsdorf.com.  

About the Author

Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist, teacher, poet, geek, and the author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks.

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