In Search of A Meaningful Video Game: A Review of Tom Bissell’s “Extra Lives”

Jonathan Blow's indie platformer, "Braid."

by Rio Liang

Had I known of Tom Bissell’s “Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter” back when I was cobbling together my very own “Video Game Manifesto” for the Ruelle, I probably would have just packed it in before I even got going. Bissell’s collection of essays on video games is so satisfyingly comprehensive and hugely engaging that I qualify it as a rare instance of a book that actually makes me want to play video games more.

Author and video game lover, Tom Bissell.

Written with an academic astuteness tempered by an unmistakable video gamer’s fervor, Bissell’s collection may seem to ramble in ambivalence, both berating the form for its shortcomings and lovingly spotlighting its successes. But there’s a rhyme and reason to his collection that perhaps only a gamer might pick up on (and which an old fogey like Dwight Garner, bless his heart, might not). Bissell gives the different video game genres (platformers, role-playing games, first-person shooters, et al.) equal treatment, bolstering some in surprising ways. And he tackles with such great insight some of the most relevant issues in the gaming world:  the importance of gameplay mechanics; the “foreclosure” of substance in the gaming world; the short shrift given writers in the industry (excepting with BioWare); video game violence (the elephant in the room); and video game “addiction” (which he rather poignantly parallels with, and distinguishes from, a personal struggle with cocaine). Altogether, these 240 pages worth of essays cohere into quite a panorama of the current state of video games. (I could have actually done with a more tome-length offering from Bissell).

The Bethesda RPG, "Fallout 3." (Imagine Inon Zur's atmospheric soundtrack playing in the background).

If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you’ll know of my video game activism, of my belief that a video game can provide an experience distinct from the other arts. I am (perhaps, sadly, in a Sysiphisean manner) deeply interested in the idea of actualizing video games as art. Bissell here doesn’t focus his lens so much on that very abstract quest but rather on something else less frustrating (and perhaps more worthwhile) to ponder: The idea of meaningfulness. Video games, he argues, matter when they can provide experiences imbued with some level of meaning. For example, when they can so immerse the player and elicit an emotional response distinct to video games and their interactive nature, and blur the line between the player’s life and her/his “extra lives.”  Perhaps this aspect elevates games to something even more important than art:  Life itself isn’t art; nevertheless, life can definitely be meaningful. Why then should art surpass life in import? Why then should the genre of video games limit itself to the boundaries of “art” and its many and probably meaningless definitions?

Hey, Prop 8 just got repealed. But Kaidan (center) is still off-limits to a male Shepard like me (left). Oh, "Mass Effect." *Sigh.

Bissell delighted me when I found myself surprisingly subscribing to his argument that non-narrative video games–games that are purely gameplay-oriented–actually have the potential to “matter” (I must admit to pooh-poohing those kinds of games as the lesser of its species). He goes so far as to say that narrative may at times be an unnecessary imposition, one that could actually be dismissed altogether–an argument that posed quite a challenge to my long-held bias toward authorial agency. But cognitive dissonance be damned, I was swayed by his argument in favor of narrative minimalism in his essay “The Unbearable Lightness of Games” (using as an example Michael Booth’s “Left 4 Dead”), and the convincing parallel he draws between the experience of playing Jonathan Blow’s challenging platform game “Braid” and a vigorous deconstruction of a particularly dense poem (for which a grand underlying narrative is not prerequisite, a lack that does not disqualify it as art). I will very doggedly not be letting go of my stranglehold on the importance of narrative anytime soon (and not that Bissell is endorsing something so radical as a full-blown relinquishment of it either; he is after all an author with a self-professed affection for narrative-oriented games), but what Bissell did impress upon me is the idea that there are many ways to go about making video games “matter,” that narrative is not the essential element superseding everything else that make up a game.

Niko from "Grand Theft Auto IV," the subject of Bissell's closing essay, "Grand Thefts."

I come away from this book with not just a string of video games added to my “to-play” list (somewhat problematic given my current lack of a television; donations welcome, haha), but also a great appreciation for those behind the making of them. Bissell interviewed a slew of game developers for this book, luminaries such as Cliff Bleszinski, Jonathan Blow (whom I’ve come to deeply admire for his reactionary and thoughtful approach to developing games), Drew Karpyshyn (whose “Mass Effect” I, as a “gaymer,” grudgingly admire; long story), and “Fable II” creator Peter Molyneux (who gets the Q&A treatment at the end of the book, a result of Bissell’s failure to incorporate the interview in essay form, coupled with his desire to somehow include Molyneux’s insights). This procession of brilliant game makers should mollify any who bemoan the lack of any intellect and substance in the gaming world.

Overall, this book is a must-read for gamers, and at the least a proper introduction for non-gamers to the world of video gaming. That someone so invested in video games like Tom Bissell actually exists out there is so reassuring; enough to rejuvenate my optimism for the form and make me just want to go on gaming. In fact, short of a television, I may just bust out my PSP once I submit this post. (Oh hell, I may just buy a television).

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  1. great article Rio and thanks for putting the spotlight on an interesting book. i’ll definitely pick this up in the near future! (and am glad you didn’t pick it up earlier as i really enjoyed your game manifesto). cheers

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