Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter – Book Review

For my birthday (Sept. 25, mark your calendars) I asked for and received an Amazon Kindle. This was sort of a one-off gift and it’s sort of strange since I haven’t read anything in years and I buy CDs instead of MP3s whenever the option presents itself. But something about the Kindle intrigued me. Maybe it was the hope that the lure of technology would entice me into reading again. I’m not sure, but regardless, the first book I picked up for it was Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter by Tom Bissell. I had heard about it on NPR, and it sounded very much in line with my feelings on games lately.

You see, the title is very misleading. It’s called Why Video Games Matter, but it’s as much about why they do matter as it is about how they’re capable of mattering so much more. It’s hard not to agree. I spend a lot of time with games, but there’s always this background notion, even with the best games, that they could be so much better.

The core of Bissell’s argument is that games need better writers. I’ve had an issue with this statement when I’ve heard it in the past, because when I hear that I imagine a game where the cutscenes and dialogue boxes take center stage to the action. Bissell thankfully makes it clear that more writing does not equate to better writing. What I believe he wants is a game that captures the emotions that the best books and movies give us. As much as we ding games for trying so hard to emulate movies, there persists an intangible, hard to describe feeling that you get from watching movies and reading books that rarely, if ever, is captured by games. Games have no problem making you think about things logically and feel immersed in their worlds, but they haven’t quite figured out how to make us consider the human condition, or even feel empathy for their characters. Action movies have love stories added in simply because the smallest amount of humanity goes a long way toward endearing a work, but games still have only scratched the surface of attempting even something this shallow, let alone more complex emotions.

The book isn’t entirely critical, as a majority of it consists of highlighting games that move the medium in the right direction. Bissell points out that these games are a stepping stone toward where games need to be in the future. According to Bissell, games “began in a place of minus efficacy in all of the above, and anyone who says otherwise has probably never done anything but play games.” This is hard to disagree with, and I like how straightforward it is.

For the most part Bissell successfully straddles the line between celebrating games and damning them. The nature of that mixed message means that the book is missing a concise message. The first three chapters and the ninth and final one are all superb, but the fourth through eighth chapters – those highlighting specific games – feel overly apologetic and a bit insincere. It doesn’t help that the fourth chapter is a copy and paste of this article Bissell wrote for the New Yorker.  Still, the excellent half of this book makes it well worth it, and the rest is full of enough worthwhile observations to make them worth reading.

Overall I would recommend this book to anyone who cares about games enough to read a Kindle file about them that has 2820 locations (Kindle text can be any size, so they don’t display page numbers, but Amazon claims it has 240 pages). It’s a brisk read, and even if you don’t agree with everything, it will at least get you thinking. More importantly though, it turns out my instincts with the Kindle were correct. It got me reading!


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