Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter

A whip-smart writer gets hooked on cocaine and video games.

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

“Video games are worth taking seriously”: This statement will be familiar to almost anyone who’s been a child in the last three decades. Usually, it’s uttered in a living room, as part of an extended bedtime negotiation. But now Tom Bissell—a fanatical gamer and a grown-up—is making the argument, in a book, no less. And he’s persuasive: Extra Lives, a collection of nine gaming-themed essays, sketches out a critical vocabulary and a case for the merits of an art form he loves.

First, though, he has to persuade his readers that video games actually are an art form. Bissell is one of very few people to direct serious video-game criticism toward a non-gaming audience, and sometimes he’s at pains to acknowledge shortcomings: “Fallout” spends equal time applauding and criticizing the game that gives the essay its title, and “The Unbearable Lightness of Games” devotes itself to games’ narrative failings. This relentless honesty is there to win over doubters, yes, but also to remind gaming’s cheerleaders of where the medium falls short. It’s an important move, but the author sometimes becomes tiresome as he dwells extensively on mediocre games.

Bissell’s writing is far more interesting—and much more rewarding—when he focuses on how his subject fascinates him, particularly in “Grand Thefts,” which explores the nature of two addictions: cocaine and Grand Theft Auto IV (the former once helped the author engage in marathon sessions of the latter). Bissell, a whip-smart writer, is engrossed by the new artistic and narratological possibilities that video gaming opens up to us, and his prose is never dry or academic—rather, it’s sweetly personal, and always engaging, even as it pushes its readers to reconsider gaming’s lowbrow status. One book alone can only scratch the surface of what substantive video-game criticism could offer. But Extra Lives is certainly capable of changing the tenor of those living-room arguments.

Bissell reads Jun 14 at McNally Jackson.

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By Tom Bissell (Penguin, $22.95)