In 1972, Magnavox introduced Odyssey, the first home video gaming system. It spawned a medium that eventually dominated nearly every aspect of popular culture. Tom Bissell explores the esoteric universe of modern video games in the engrossing Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter.
From his real-world perch, Bissell reveals the often surreal aspects of the gaming world. He tackles game design, corporate machinations, gender politics, social interactions, convention etiquette, and yes, even player experiences. Culturally aware, Bissell crafts his portrayals and commentaries with style and panache.
In the opening chapter “Fallout,” Bissell offers the first of many accurate and amusing game descriptions:
Fallout 3 bravely takes as its aesthetic foundation a future that is from both six decades old and one of the least convincing ever conceptualized. The result is a fascination past-future never-never-land weirdness that infects the games every corner: George Jetson Beyond Thunderdome.
He concludes the initial chapter with this thought-provoking perspective on his goals for Extra Lives.
I am uninterested in whether games are better or worse than movies or novels or any other form of entertainment. More interesting to me is what games can do and how they make me feel while they are doing it. Comparing games to other forms of entertainment only serves as a reminder of what games are not. Storytelling, however, does not belong to film any more than it belongs to the novel. Film, novels, and video games are separate economies in which storytelling is the currency. The problem is that video-game storytelling, across a wide spectrum of games, too often feels counterfeit, and it is easy to tire of laundering the bills.
Bissell introduces the various complex video game play and design elements, waxing poetic from his roles of journalist, philosopher, and fan. For each of the nine chapters, he unfurls different components while centering on Bissel-guided, player perspective tours of popular video games. Filtered through his unique lens, Bissell interviews animators, writers, programmers, marketers, reviewers, and game players. In Chapter Five “Littlebigproblems,” we accompany him to DICE (Design Innovate Communicate Entertain), the annual summit for the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences held in Las Vegas, which affords Bissell another chance for observation.
Like any complicated thing, however, video games are “cool” only in sum. Again and again at DICE, I struck up a conversation with someone, learned what game they had done, told them I loved that game, asked what they had worked on, and been told something along the lines of, “I did the smoke for Call of Duty: World at War.” Statements such as this tended to freeze my conversational motor about as definitively as, “I was a concentration camp guard.”
As Bissell unveils the layers of his chronicle, each more seductive than the previous, the true meaning behind Extra Lives becomes apparent. Bissell ultimately compiles an insightful study on the nature of obsession in general and his own in particular.
These days, however, I am lucky if I finish reading one book every fortnight. These days, I have read from start to finish exactly two works of fiction—excepting those I was not also reviewing—in the last year. These days, I play video games in the morning, play video games in the afternoon, and spend my evenings playing video games. These days, I still manage to write, but the times I am able to do so for more than three sustained hours have the temporal periodicity of comets with near-Earth trajectories.
Bissell manages to produce an image of a popular but little understood media in an entertaining and intriguing manner. Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter offers far more than just a mere education on video games, but a treatise on creativity, business, and obsession that should appeal to everyone, regardless of personal interests.