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Extra Lives

Why Video Games Matter

Tom Bissell

Video games have created what must be the biggest generation gap since rock'n'roll. Sure, a generational rift of sorts emerged when the World Wide Web showed up near the end of the last century, but in the case of the Web, the older cohort admired and tried to emulate the younger crowd, rather than looking down on them with befuddlement or disdain. With games, a more traditional 'Get off my lawn' panic has reared its head.

Take Roger Ebert, one of the most outspoken voices on the fogy side of this divide. In April, Ebert enraged a good portion of the Internet with a post titled 'Video Games Can Never Be Art' on his Chicago Sun-Times blog. (To which one games blogger offered the rejoinder 'Art Can Never Be Video Games.') Acknowledging that 'never' is a "long, long time," Ebert wrote, "Let me just say that no video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form."

Ebert was restating a claim he made five years ago that "no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers." And he's right about that, for now. But I would happily accept a wager, and I imagine Tom Bissell would, too. Almost 30 years ago, Martin Amis wrote a book called 'Invasion of the Space Invaders,' now out of print, about the dawn of the arcade era of video games - which Bissell nods at in the very first sentence of his new book, "Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter." A mere blink of an eye later, video games (at least the kind Bissell is interested in) have evolved into ambitious works of narrative fiction. They are not yet, granted, what we would regard as literary fiction, but that's one reason Bissell wrote this book. (Of early game designers he writes, "These men's minds were typically scattered with the detritus of Tolkien, 'Star Wars,' Dungeons and Dragons,''Dune'- and that was if they had any taste.")

Bissell was born in 1974, which puts him on the cusp of gaming's generational divide. That transitional position affords him a perspective not unlike - if you'll indulge the grandiose analogy - that of Tocqueville or McLuhan, figures who stood on the bridges of two great ages, welcoming the horizon while also mourning what the world was leaving behind. Bissell sees video games with open eyes. His book is about the profoundly ambivalent experience of playing them - close readings (close playings?) mostly of big-budget action and science fiction titles for consoles like the Xbox and PlayStation. These are the games most likely to draw a disparaging remark from a United States senator or a newspaper film critic. 'Extra Lives' is a celebration of why they matter, but it is also a jeremiad about "why they do not matter more."

Bissel, a contributing editor at Harper's Magazine who teaches fiction writing at Portland State University, cops to spending more than 200 hours playing one game, some 80 hours another. "The pleasures of literary connection seem leftover and familiar," he writes. "Today, the most consistently pleasurable pursuit in my life is playing video games." He says this despite encountering "appalling" dialogue, despite hearing actors give line readings of "autistic miscalculation," despite despairing over the sense that gamers and game designers have embraced "an unnecessary hostility between the greatness of a game and the sophistication of things such as narrative, dialogue, dramatic motivation and characterization."

Despite all this, the interactive nature of video games enables moments that Bissell calls "as gripping as any fiction I have come across." In particular, he is smitten with Grand Theft Auto IV, a game he sometimes regards as "the most colossal creative achievement of the last 25 years" (while at other times regarding it as "misguided and a failure"). A scene in that game, in which the protagonist - controlled by the player - must dispose of two dead men by driving them across a fictional New York City with their bodies in the trunk of his car, illustrates how video games are "an engine of a far more intimate process of implication" than other works of fiction, Bissell writes. Inter activity "turns narrative into an active experience, which film is simply unable to do in the same way. And it is moments like this that remind me why I love video games and what they give me that nothing else can."

If photographs are "experience captured," in Susan Sontag's phrase, then video games are experience created. The medium can be so engaging, so addictive - Bissell compares playing games to his time using cocaine - that many game makers get away with fiction that makes Stephenie Meyer "look like Ibsen." A novel or a movie that is poorly written is relatively easy to abandon. Well-designed games that feature bad writing "do not have this problem," Bissell notes. "Or rather, their problem is not having this problem."

Roger Ebert and those who agree with him are unlikely to have their minds changed by a book. You can understand video games as a medium of communication, or as an emerging art form, only by playing them. (Ebert's most recent judgment was rendered after watching online videos of certain games, which is something like judging movies by listening to them.) But Bissell has written the finest account yet of what it feels like to be a video game player at "this glorious, frustrating time," a rare moment when humanity encounters, as he writes, "a form of storytelling that is, in many ways, completely unprecedented."

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