Thursday, August 12, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 190 (8/12) -- Extra Lives by Tom Bissell

Tom Bissell certainly didn't mean it that way, but his new book Extra Lives functions as one giant "does too!" to Roger Ebert's recent declaration that video games aren't and can't be art. Personally, I'm torn -- I disagree with Ebert's argument (mostly for Scott McCloudish definitions-of-art reasons) entirely, but I generally like Ebert's critical writings better than what Bissell presents here. But that's a loaded comparison -- pitting one of the very best movie critics of our time (and possibly the best writer among the current lot) against a man who's trying to form a canon of videogame criticism out of scattered blog posts and intellectual enthusiasm. Of course, there's no reason any of us have to fall down on one side or the other -- maybe some videogames are art, but not others, or maybe "are they art" isn't the right question in the first place.

Bissell is a respected writer of fiction and nonfiction -- there's a list of awards and honors nearly as long as my arm included in his biography at the end of the book -- who also, as so many literary writers do these days, seems to make his actual living teaching fiction writing -- in his case, at Portland State University. He's also, as he makes clear in this book, a near-addict when it comes to XBox games, having logged collectively hundreds of hours over the last decade or so on dozens of games that he played (at times) obsessively. So he has both important qualifications to write a book like this: he can think and write deeply on a topic, and he's played a lot of videogames. Not surprisingly, he thinks that anything that so clearly a smart guy as himself spent so much time on must, ipso facto, be worth that time.

So, to prove that videogames can be art -- can move people as deeply as any other form of modern entertainment, really, since Bissell isn't really grappling with any specific definitions of art here, just looking at the worth and uses of videogames -- he both travels to interview and talk with some of the best designers of today (Jonathan Blow, Peter Molyneux, Cliff Bleszinski, Clint Hocking) and writes about his own experiences playing a variety of games. It's a short book, which helps Bissell's cause: he's not trying to overwhelm with volume, but to spotlight a few interesting games and write about what's special and enticing about them.

Now, I'm something of a gamer myself, though not at all in Bissell's class. (I've held full-time jobs for most of the past two decades, and I'm a good half-decade older than he is as well, both of which create vast gulfs between gamers.) In addition, our gaming history diverged somewhere around the NES -- I came in on the original Atari, knew kids who had Intellivisions (that's what the rich boys had, around 1981), played a lot of Colecovision in college, and had my own NES and Game Boy for a while, but then wandered away from console games for nearly a decade starting in the early '90s. [1] I did come back, eventually, when my kids were very young, to the GameCube (chosen specifically because it was the most kid-friendly console of that generation), and then to the Wii. But I'm, by my own lights, a dilettante there, playing only four or five games seriously every year -- and most of those are the LEGO adventure games from Traveler's Tales.

Bissell started later that I did -- on the NES, I believe, and then moved on the more typical path to PlayStations and XBoxes. And so the games he writes about in Extra Lives are the hyper-violent sandboxes of the male twentysomething audiences of those consoles: Fallout 3, Resident Evil, Left 4 Dead, Gears of War, Braid, Mass Effect, the Grand Theft Auto games. I've played, if I remember correctly, exactly none of the games he writes about here, so I can't agree or disagree with any of the things he says about any of them: I simply have no individual frame of reference, though I can say that he makes some of them sound like things I want to play. (And others sound like deliberate exercises in annoying the player, which would drive me into a frenzy.)

But Bissell is closer to the heart of the industry than I am: he's played the same games as millions of others of young men (and some young women, and a fewer men and women of other ages) over the past fifteen years, and he pulls out the best and most interesting among them, to explain what's good about those games, and how they can make their players think and feel more deeply than they expected -- which is as close to an explicit definition of art as he comes. And it's as close as he needs to come; his implied definition is plenty good enough for his purposes.

Extra Lives is subtitled "Why Video Games Matter," which is a bit more expansive than Bissell really gets. This is really a book about "What Video Games Can Do," or "How Video Games Achieve Greatness" -- he's not interested in what "matters" to the wider culture, just the experience of one gamer in a room, holding a heavily-engineered piece of plastic and staring intently at a screen. And he does a damn good job of articulating why someone would want to do that, and what those gamers get out of it when they play the best games. If you think that video games do matter, or wonder how they could, Extra Lives is a great guide to the modern territory. But Bissell might have been a bit happier, and less frenzied, if he'd made some time for Mario along the way....

[1] I wandered over to shareware Macintosh games, a weird sidebar of the gamer world that was never very large and that no one cares about. But I played hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of a turn-based strategy came called Strategic Conquest (and would still be playing it today, if it ran on OS X Macs), almost as much on the space-adventure game Escape Velocity (which had amazing customizations and add-ins), and countless hours on dozens of other games. So I certainly do get the obsessiveness of gaming, even if I'm not as familiar with the specifics of Bissell's obsessions.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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