Saturday, July 31, 2010

Review and Confession: Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter by Tom Bissell

My name is Chelle, and I’m a gamer. I’ve been known to scream out loud in panic and jam my fingers on all available buttons when caught off guard. Those of you who know what I’m talking about will sympathize (or laugh), those of you who do not… you’re missing out!

If you want to get to the review and skip my nostalgia, scroll down to the asterisks.

There is a secret I’ve kept hidden from you, my book blogging friends. I play video games. It all started at an early age with the Atari – with Frogger, River Raid and the most primitive version of Donkey Kong I’ve ever seen. I progressed to PC games and grew fond of Wolfenstein (it was years before I realized those were swastikas on the walls and that I was killing Nazis!), Duke Nukem, Keen and a little known game called Colonize. Doom I and II scared me to death but I still loved it. Myst was very difficult for me but I enjoyed spending hours each evening with my Dad trying to solve the puzzles in its beautiful yet creepy world. I’ve built skyscrapers and entire cities as well as managed huge farms all brought to me by SIM. I’ve wandered fantastic worlds wielding huge weapons in Fantasy Star on my Dream Cast as well as mastered the bow and arrow and “sneak” in Oblivion for my PS3. I’ve eaten numerous eggs as Yoshi. I’m working on my kill-death ration in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. My Donkey Kong Country skills on the Super Nintendo are off the charts. My favorite game ever is Grandia II. I even own the soundtrack. I’m in love with Sackboy from Little Big Planet, enjoy creating my own levels (5 I’ve published), and will be first among those who buys LBP2.

In Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, Tom Bissell explores how video game narrative structure differs from that of movies and literature. He broaches the subject of video games as art and discusses the obstacles they face in the artistic community (i.e. most game developers are NOT writers so their stories are often on the lame side). All throughout, Bissell discusses what video games mean to him and why he spends hours of his life playing them.

Ultimately, this book left me unsatisfied. It started out well but the bigger concepts were not followed up on. For instance, I wanted to know more about this “shock of the new” and why new things are so attractive in video games (nay, addictive when you first buy a game) (Bissell 26). Also, there were way too many spoilers! He mentions several times how these games takes 40 hours or more to finish the story-line but several times he reveals how certain scenes go down at critical game play moments! A spoiler alert would have been nice.

The beginning was intriguing, the middle boring and the end felt way off course as Bissell describes his addiction to cocaine. I suspect that he fell victim to this addiction after he began writing and needed to simply end the book so he could deal with real life. He has my sympathy and best wishes towards staying clean… but his personal addiction to drugs had little to do with this book’s initial subject: why video games matter.

I’m going to leave you with my favorite quotes from the text. Despite its many detractors, this book makes some interesting arguments that any gamer will appreciate. Non-gamers? I fear you’ll get lost in long game descriptions.

“…video games favor a form of storytelling that is, in many ways, completely unprecedented” (13).

“More than any other form of entertainment, video games tend to divide rooms into Us and Them. We are, in effect, admitting that we like to spend our time shooting monsters, and They are, not unreasonably, failing to find the value in that” (35).

“…no one is sure what purpose 'story' actually servers in video games” (36).

Unlike books or movies which largely control you, in video games… “You get control and are controlled” (39). I think this is a huge part of video games’ appeal.

“…modern game design is too complex and collaborative for any individual to feel propriety about his or her own ideas” (62). How different from writers who are highly territorial about their work!

“…the industry, which began as an engineering culture, transformed into a business, and now, like a bright millionaire turning to poetry, had confident but uncertain aspirations toward art” (87).

“So what have games given me? Experiences. Not surrogate experiences, but actual experiences, many of which are as important to me as any real memories” (182). I don’t doubt that he’s had a certain type of experience. But there is no replacement for real life adventures spent with real life, ever unpredictable, people. How can memories in real life be equal to those made with make-believe characters? This is a question for book fiends as well.

I love video games. I’ve clocked what might seem like an outrageous amount of time playing them – up to 12 hours a day on Christmas break when I got Oblivion. But while the world of Oblivion is incredible with its colors and people (truly it’s remarkable), there’s no replacement for the real Sun and Moon outside my window. We gamers (and book lovers!) must make time for people and the real world lest we lose touch with things that are important. Now, I can’t wait to get home to play some Call of Duty.
Publisher: Pantheon, 2010     Pages: 218 (183 to additional information)
Rating: 2.5 Stars     Source: U of Iowa Libraries


  1. +JMJ+

    The last time I played video games for hours at a stretch was the summer of 1996, when I had nothing to do on some days but play Sonic the Hedgehog and Power Rangers. (LOL!) But I never graduated to the more complex video games that involve real storytelling. Still, I know I'd be very interested to read about how this new medium affects the traditional narrative form. The quotes you share here are great! Thanks for the review, Chelle. =)

  2. It's nice to find out that another blogger is also a fellow gamer - although I tend to play PC games - Guild Wars is my game of choice. Nice review.

  3. Chelle, please pardon me if this is a duplicate comment. I don't know what happened to the first one. Congratulations! I have nominated you for the Versatile Blogger Award. Please access it at your convenience and be sure to pass it on to other deserving bloggers. Enjoy!

  4. Aw memories! Do you remember full size Donkey Kong game in the Golly's basement?

  5. LLM - Yay! Gamers rule!

    Donna - Thanks! Versdatile does sound like my blog since I read so many genres. I'll head over and check out your post!

    Patty - I have fuzzy memories of being in their house. But I don't remember playing anything which just means that video games have been in my subconscious since before I could remember. lol

  6. I've been a gamer since the early 80s...Atari, Arcade, Commodore, Sega, NES, and so much more. I even worked in the video game industry for ~6 years helping to make video games.

    So when I first heard about this book, I immediately added it to my TBR list. Sadly, I haven't gotten around to it yet.

    Thanks for the review. One of these days I'll actually read it. :)