Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter (Review)

January 13, 2011

Book cover for "Extra Lives" by Tom Bissell.Title: Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter

Author & Narrator: Tom Bissell

Publication Year: 2010

Pages: 240 (audio length: 5 hours 33 minutes)

Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir, Audiobook

Source: Purchased from Audible.com

From the cover:

Tom Bissell is a prizewinning writer who published three widely acclaimed books before the age of thirty-four. He is also an obsessive gamer who has spent untold hours in front of his various video game consoles, playing titles such as Far Cry 2, Left 4 Dead, BioShock, and Oblivion for, literally, days. If you are reading this flap copy, the same thing can probably be said of you, or of someone you know.

Until recently, Bissell was somewhat reluctant to admit to his passion for games. In this, he is not alone. Millions of adults spend hours every week playing video games, and the industry itself now reliably outearns Hollywood. But the wider culture seems to regard video games as, at best, well designed if mindless entertainment.

Extra Lives is an impassioned defense of this assailed and misunderstood art form. Bissell argues that we are in a golden age of gaming — but he also believes games could be even better. He offers a fascinating and often hilarious critique of the ways video games dazzle and, just as often, frustrate. Along the way, we get firsthand portraits of some of the best minds (Jonathan Blow, Clint Hocking, Cliff Bleszinski, Peter Molyneux) at work in video game design today, as well as a shattering and deeply moving final chapter that describes, in searing detail, Bissell’s descent into the world of Grand Theft Auto IV, a game whose themes mirror his own increasingly self-destructive compulsions.

Blending memoir, criticism, and first-rate reportage, Extra Lives is like no other book on the subject ever published. Whether you love video games, loathe video games, or are merely curious about why they are becoming the dominant popular art form of our time, Extra Lives is required reading.

I grew up in the generation of video games, even though we didn’t really have them much in my house until I was older. I remember playing Super Mario at a friend’s house when I was less than ten years old, on an old Sega system. When I was a teenager, we had a PlayStation 2 in our house, and now they (my parents and the siblings left living there) have a PlayStation 3 and a Wii, while my brother has an X-Box up in his room. Or maybe something more recent. I’m not quite sure.

In my house now, the only gaming console we have is a Wii, and we really only own fitness games for it. (I’ve also recently started using it to stream NetFlix.) Gaming was interesting for me when I was younger, but I didn’t really keep up with it. I know lots of people who have, though – particularly of the male persuasion. When I read the synopsis for Extra Lives, I thought that it might help me to understand what the attraction is for so many people who spend so many hours playing video games, even now in their adulthood.

While the book was an interesting read, I didn’t really find what I was looking for in Extra Lives. There were interesting points and commentary, and I was never bored or uninterested throughout the time I was listening to it, but I was never really fully following Bissell’s argument, either. I’m not even entirely sure that he had one.

I’m also, unlike the cover text claims, unsure that Extra Lives really explains why video games are “becoming the dominant popular art form of our time”. It kind of hints around this, giving a few examples of why or how this might be, but I didn’t feel like the argument was really all that coherent or convincing.

Despite this, I still found Extra Lives to be an interesting read (or should I say “listen”?). Bissell made some really great observations about the video game industry, the playing experience, and the ways that games can affect or be affected by what is going on in the world around them. I enjoyed learning about the connection he has experienced between various games and aspects of his life, and also learning a bit about games that I’ve never played – or even heard of.

If you’re into video games, this might be an interesting book for you. If you’re looking for an explanation of why, exactly, video gaming has become so mainstream and compulsive, though, you might be disappointed.

Rating:

One Comment

  • smellincoffee January 13, 2011 at 2:22 pm

    I had a similar experience with a book on nerds. It was about nerds, but said little of consequence. The author’s own experience seemed only distantly related to the subject in its modern form.

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