Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter

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In Extra Lives, acclaimed writer and life-long video game enthusiast Tom Bissell takes the reader on an insightful and entertaining tour of the art and meaning of video games.
In just a few decades, video games have grown increasingly complex and sophisticated, and the companies that produce them are now among the most profitable in the entertainment industry. Yet few outside this world have thought deeply about how these games work, why...

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In Extra Lives, acclaimed writer and life-long video game enthusiast Tom Bissell takes the reader on an insightful and entertaining tour of the art and meaning of video games.
In just a few decades, video games have grown increasingly complex and sophisticated, and the companies that produce them are now among the most profitable in the entertainment industry. Yet few outside this world have thought deeply about how these games work, why they are so appealing, and what they are capable of artistically. Blending memoir, criticism, and first-rate reportage, Extra Lives is a milestone work about what might be the dominant popular art form of our time.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Winning. . . . The most fun you’ll ever have reading about videogames.”
The Wall Street Journal

“Bissell has written the finest account yet of what it feels like to be a video game player at ‘this glorious, frustrating time,’ a rare moment when humanity encounters, as he writes, ‘a form of storytelling that is, in many ways, completely unprecedented.’”
New York Times Book Review

“Even if Extra Lives wasn’t the only book to deal with the future of videogames in a serious manner, it would probably still be the best one.”

“This journalistic memoir is not only about the meaning of video games; it’s about the heat and hesitation of love.”
Los Angeles Times

“Bissell is a Renaissance Man for our out-of-joint time. . . . His descriptions of simulated gore and mayhem manage to be clinical, gripping, and hilarious all at once. He transmits to the reader the primitive, visceral excitements that make video games so enticing, even addictive, to their legions of devotees.”
The New Republic
“What should videogame criticism look like? Bissell’s book offers plenty of tantalizing possibilities. . . . A deeply personal work, as entertaining as the video games it profiles. . . . It’s also the first book about videogames that non-gamers can actually enjoy.”
Entertainment Weekly
“A master prose stylist, the erudite Bissell is frequently insightful.”
The Boston Globe
“For anyone who has spent a weekend thrilled by the prospect of beating a game, Extra Lives will cast the addiction in a new, cerebral light.”
The Washington Post
“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.”
Time Out New York
“A fascinating book. . . . Extra Lives is like taking a private tour at a very exclusive museum, filled with lost masterpieces you never knew existed. You may not find yourself becoming a collector, but you won’t soon forget the experience.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“Fantastic . . . I wish, someday, to play a game that will stay with me as long as this book about games.”
—Farhad Manjoo, Slate
Extra Lives is the first truly indispensable work of literary nonfiction about society’s most lucrative entertainment medium. Bissell’s commentary is marvelously astute and his enthusiasm for videogames beams through every inch of text.”
“An important, relentlessly perceptive book. . . . Bissell proves that it’s possible to ruminate on the past, present, and future of video games in a way that is both intellectually rigorous and consistently entertaining.”
San Francisco Bay Guardian
“Full of surprisingly penetrating analysis of the real-life skills video games actually test and develop. . . . Bissell moves analysis of video games to the next level. . . . [Extra Lives] should help usher in a widespread, much more serious consideration of how video games have taken up permanent residence in our increasingly screen-based world.”
The Plain Dealer
“Bissell is a serious and seriously good writer. . . . The video game industry now pockets more of our money than do its counterparts in music and movies, but you’d never know it from glancing at a newspaper or magazine, where Nashville and Hollywood still get far more profiles, business items, and, of course, reviews. Extra Lives is, among other things, a wonderful example of how and why this imbalance might be fixed.”
The Christian Science Monitor
“For gamers . . . Extra Lives offers some much-needed smart talk about a medium ripe for a paradigm shift.”
Richmond Times-Dispatch
“Bissell’s style has been compared to that of a young Hemingway. So had Hemingway spent way too much time playing World of Warcraft and Fallout 3 on Xbox . . . he might’ve come up with something like Extra Lives. Ostensibly a work of criticism and attempt to answer what a video game is, the book is also an ode to Bissell’s love-hate relationship with a maddening, invigorating new art form.”
The Village Voice

Chris Suellentrop
Bissell sees video games with open eyes. His book is about the profoundly ambivalent experience of playing them—close readings (close playings?) mostly of big-budget action and science fiction titles for consoles like the Xbox and PlayStation. These are the games most likely to draw a disparaging remark from a United States senator or a newspaper film critic. Extra Lives is a celebration of why they matter, but it is also a jeremiad about "why they do not matter more"…Bissell has written the finest account yet of what it feels like to be a ­video game player at "this glorious, frustrating time," a rare moment when humanity encounters, as he writes, "a form of storytelling that is, in many ways, completely unprecedented."
—The New York Times
Kirkus Reviews
Harper's contributor Bissell (Fiction Writing/Portland State Univ.; The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam, 2007, etc.) considers the importance of video games. Parts of this uneven investigation into the aesthetics of the gaming experience are as thrilling and fresh as the best writing on any subject-particularly his confessional chapter on Grand Theft Auto IV-but most of the chapters fall short of that high standard. The questions Bissell raises and seeks to answer via interviews with leading game designers like Sir Peter Molyneux, Jonathan Blow and Cliff Bleszinski are not without general interest-what role does story play in a game's aesthetic experience? how do games (and the gamers who play them) create meaning? how can something that never plays out the same way twice even have meaning?-but too much of the book is surprisingly amateur, as awkwardly expressed as a bright but underachieving fan-boy's private journals. Often affecting the fussy grandiloquence of a doddering classics professor, Bissell promises substance but mostly delivers only empty style. Perhaps this is the author's way of reifying for the reader the central paradox of his thesis: that his favorite video games (Resident Evil, Left 4 Dead, Far Cry 2) come so close to providing him with his ideal aesthetic experience, sometimes even more than works of literature or film-yet in the end, most of them are "just" toy worlds populated by elves, zombies, soldiers and little green men. More a collection of profiles and game reviews than a focused thesis, this little book never answers the question implicit in its subtitle-best appreciated by serious game junkies.
Publishers Weekly
Grand Theft Auto IV is both a waste of time and “the most colossal creative achievement of the last 25 years,” according to this scintillating meditation on the promise and discontents of video games. Journalist Bissell (Chasing the Sea) should know; the ultraviolent car-chase-and-hookers game was his constant pastime during a months-long intercontinental cocaine binge. He's ashamed of his video habit, but also ashamed of being ashamed of the “dominant art form of our time”; by turning the eye of a literary critic on the gory, seemingly puerile genre of ultraviolent, open-ended “shooter” games, he finds unexpected riches. Bissell bemoans the “uncompromising stupidity” of their story lines, wafer-thin characters, and the moronic dialogue, but celebrates the button-pushing, mesmeric qualities and the subtle, profound depths these conceal—the catharses of teamwork and heroism in the zombie-fest Left for Dead, the squirmy moral dilemmas of Mass Effect, the “mood of wistful savagery” suffusing the rifles-and-chainsaws-bedecked denizens of Gears of War. Bissell excels both at intellectual commentary and evocative reportage on the experience of playing games, while serving up engrossing mise-en-scène narratives of the mayhem. If anyone can bridge the aesthetic chasm between readers and gamers, he can. (June 8)
The Barnes & Noble Review

When Valve recently updated its shiny Steam client -- that flashy desktop app permitting the user to waste numerous hours on video games and to spend precious dollars on special weekend sales -- I received the soul-shattering news that I'd clocked in an alarming 131 hours of Team Fortress 2. I had not asked for this statistic, yet this seemingly benevolent software company had given it to me in the game launch window. And the size of this embarrassing timesink felt incommensurate with my daily duties as a books enthusiast. It was enough to make me wonder if I needed to register for some national time-offender database.

But why should playing video games afford us the same shame generally reserved for a trenchcoat-clad saunter into a video store's dusty back room? According to a recent games industry study, an estimated 183.5 million Americans spent $25.3 billion on video games in 2009. And this young yet financially robust medium isn't going away anytime soon. With Junot Diaz writing about Grand Theft Auto IV in the Wall Street Journal, and another Pulitzer Prize winner stirring up online controversy with the bold (and fallacious) claim that "video games can never be art," Tom Bissell's brave book, occupying a niche somewhere between journalism and an extended personal essay, couldn't come at a better time.

It isn't too much of a surprise to see Bissell, who once constructed an imaginary tableau from a solitary photo in his moving memoir The Father of All Things, very keen on exploring every nook and cranny of a virtual world. He notes that he is "frequently startled by how well I remember certain gameworlds" and registers his mirth at discovering a profane tag in "an isolated, hard-to-find corner of Fallout 3's Wasteland." He attends conferences, talking with the industry's graying progenitors when not parrying publicists who keep game details more tightly lidded than classified military intelligence.

Some of his intrepid encounters at these geek-populated industry events allow him to raise questions about the emotional and ethical realities of games, revealing the savvy strategies which secure such visceral reactions from players. He interviews Ubisoft's Clint Hocking about BioShock's "ludonarrative dissonance" -- a design shortcoming in which the game's moral choice is more of a binary opposition without genuine consequence -- and observes that Hocking's Far Cry 2 is just as guilty in neglecting to populate its ravaged universe with innocent civilians. But if the video game has floundered on the narrative question, it's atoned for these inadequacies with more open-ended innovations, such as Left 4 Dead's AI Director, an in-game engine that computes the number of zombies to generate based on live player performance, and Mass Effect's Paraphrase System, which permits the gamer from being exposed to the same vocalized inflection twice.

Much of the book's appeal originates from Bissell's reserved eccentricities, which provides some heft to the staid duty of describing the act of playing video games. He's willing to go out on a limb, confessing that the emotions he experienced during a heroic rescue in Left 4 Dead were "as intensely vivid as any I have felt while reading a novel or watching a film or listening to a piece of music." He describes the "tremendous guilt of preemptive loss and anxiety" after a round of Mass Effect, telephoning his girlfriend for advice, who tells him he's crazy.

But Bissell's jocular obsessions eventually exact a terrible price. Holed up in Estonia, Bissell loses himself in Fallout 3's postapocalyptic perdition and forgets about the 2008 presidential election. And in the book's harrowing final chapter, describing Bissell's near total surrender to GTA IV, he's saddled with a coke addiction, an inability to read or write, and the distressing news that a game mission can give an experience "that nothing else can."

Even life? While Bissell is courageous in flaunting his flaws, it's nearly impossible to exit this volume without being overcome with pity. Iain Banks and Alex Garland are two writers who famously blew deadlines because of video game addiction, but they both eventually returned to the desk. Now here is one of our more underrated writers, a man in his mid-thirties squandering his talents for puerile investigations of Liberty City. If his gaming experiences are "as important to [him] as any real memories," then the real question isn't whether or not video games can be art, but whether they are becoming dangerous barriers to great artists -- or writers -- in the making.

--Edward Champion

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307474315
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/14/2011
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 312,594
  • Product dimensions: 5.02 (w) x 7.98 (h) x 0.76 (d)

Meet the Author

Tom Bissell (Xbox Live gamertag: T C Bissell; PlayStation Network gamertag: TCBissell) is the author of Chasing the Sea, God Lives in St. Petersburg, and The Father of All Things. A recipient of the Rome Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Bay de Noc Community College Alumnus of the Year Award, he teaches fiction writing at Portland State University and lives in Portland, Oregon.

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Read an Excerpt

from Chapter 9
Once upon a time, I wrote in the morning, jogged in the late afternoon, and spent most of my evenings reading. Once upon a time, I wrote off as unproductive those days in which I had managed to put down “only” a thousand words. Once upon a time, I played video games almost exclusively with friends. Once upon a time, I did occasionally binge on games, but these binges rarely had less than fortnight between them. Once upon a time, I was, more or less, content.
“Once upon a time” refers to relatively recent years (2001-2006) during which I wrote several books and published more than fifty pieces of magazine journalism and criticism—a total output of, give or take, 4,500 manuscript pages. I rarely felt very disciplined during this half decade, though I realize this admission invites accusations of disingenuousness or, failing that, a savage and justified beating. Obviously, I was disciplined. 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.
For a while I hoped that my inability to concentrate on writing and reading was the result of a charred and overworked thalamus. I knew the pace I was on was not sustainable and figured my discipline was treating itself to a Rumspringa. I waited patiently for it to stroll back onto the farm, apologetic but invigorated. When this did not happen, I wondered if my intensified attraction to games, and my desensitized attraction to literature, was a reasonable response to how formally compelling games had quite suddenly become. Three years into my predicament, my discipline remains AWOL. Games, meanwhile, are even more formally compelling.
It has not helped that during the last three years I have, for what seemed like compelling reasons at the time, frequently upended my life, moving from New York City to Rome to Las Vegas to Tallinn, Estonia, and back, finally, to the United States. With every move, I resolved to leave behind my video game consoles, counting on new surroundings, unfamiliar people, and different cultures to enable a rediscovery of the joy I once took in my work. Shortly after arriving in Rome, Las Vegas, and Tallinn, however, the lines of gameless resolve I had chalked across my mind were wiped clean. In Rome this took two months; in Vegas, two weeks; in Tallinn, two days. Thus I enjoy the spendthrift distinction of having purchased four Xbox 360 consoles in three years, having abandoned the first to the care of a friend in Brooklyn, left another floating around Europe with parties unknown, and stranded another with a pal in Tallinn (to the irritation of his girlfriend). The last Xbox 360 I bought has plenty of companions: a Gamecube, a PlayStation 2, and a PlayStation 3.
Writing and reading allow one consciousness to find and take shelter in another. When the mind of the reader and writer perfectly and inimitably connect, objects, events, and emotions become doubly vivid—realer, somehow, than real things. I have spent most of my life seeking out these connections and attempting to create my own. Today, however, the pleasures of literary connection seem leftover and familiar. Today, the most consistently pleasurable pursuit in my life is playing video games. Unfortunately, the least useful and financially solvent pursuit in my life is also playing video games. For instance, I woke up this morning at 8 A.M. fully intending to write this chapter. Instead, I played Left 4 Dead until 5 P.M. The rest of the day went up in a blaze of intermittent catnaps. It is now 10 P.M. and I have only started to work. I know how I will spend the late, frayed moments before I go to sleep tonight, because they are how I spent last night, and the night before that: walking the perimeter of my empty bed and carpet-bombing the equally empty bedroom with promises that tomorrow will not be squandered. I will fall asleep in a futureless, strangely peaceful panic, not really knowing what I will do the next morning and having no firm memory of who, or what, I once was.
The first video game I can recall having to force myself to stop playing was Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, which was released in 2002 (though I did not play it until the following year). I managed to miss Vice City’s storied predecessor, Grand Theft Auto III, so I had only oblique notions of what I was getting into. A friend had lobbied me to buy Vice City, so I knew its basic premise: you are a cold-blooded jailbird looking to ascend the bloody social ladder of the fictional Vice City’s criminal under- and overworld. (I also knew that Vice City’s violent subject matter was said to have inspired crime sprees by a few of the game’s least stable fans. Other such sprees would horribly follow. Seven years later, Rockstar has spent more time in court than a playground-abutting pesticide manufactory.) I might have taken better note of the fact that my friend, when speaking of Vice City, admitted he had not slept more than four hours a night since purchasing it and had the ocular spasms and fuse-blown motor reflexes to prove it. Just what, I wanted to know, was so specifically compelling about Vice City? “Just get it and play it,” he answered. “You can do anything you want in the game. Anything.”
Before I played Vice City, the open-world games with which I was familiar had predictable restrictions. Ninety percent of most open gameworlds’ characters and objects were interactively off limits and most game maps simply stopped. When, like a digital Columbus, you attempted to journey beyond the edge of these flat earths, onscreen text popped up: YOU CAN’T GO THAT WAY! There were a few exceptions to this, such as the (still) impressively open-ended gameworld of Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which was released in 1998. As great as Ocarina was, however, it appealed to the most hairlessly innocent parts of my imagination. Ingenious, fun, and beautiful, Ocarina provided all I then expected from video games. (Its mini-game of rounding up a brood of fugitive chickens remains my all time favorite.) Yet the biggest game of its time was still, for me, somehow too small. As a navigated experience, the currents that bore you along were suspiciously obliging. Whatever I did, and wherever I moved, I never felt as though I had escaped the game. When the game stopped, so did the world.
The world of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was also a fantasy—a filthy, brutal, hilarious, contemporary fantasy. My friend’s promise that you could do anything you wanted in Vice City proved to be an exaggeration, but not by very much. You control a young man named Tommy, who has been recently released from prison. He arrives in Vice City—an ocean-side metropolis obviously modeled on the Miami of 1986 or so—only to be double-crossed during a coke deal. A few minutes into the game, you watch a cut scene in which Tommy and his lawyer (an anti-Semitic parody of an anti-Semitic parody) decide that revenge must be taken and the coke recovered. Once the cut scene ends, you step outside your lawyer’s office. A car is waiting for you. You climb in and begin your drive to the mission destination (a clothing store) clearly marked on your map. The first thing you notice is that your car’s radio can be tuned to a number of different radio stations. What is playing on these stations is not a loop of caffeinatedly upbeat MIDI video-game songs or some bombastic score written for the game but Michael Jackson, Hall and Oates, Cutting Crew, and Luther Vandross. While you are wondering at this, you hop a curb, run over some pedestrians, and slam into a parked car, all of which a nearby police officer sees. He promptly gives chase. And for the first time you are off, speeding through Vice City’s various neighborhoods. You are still getting accustomed to the driving controls and come into frequent contact with jaywalkers, oncoming traffic, street lights, fire hydrants. Soon your pummeled car (you shed your driver’s-side door two blocks ago) is smoking. The police, meanwhile, are still in pursuit. You dump the dying car and start to run. How do you get another car? As it happens, a sleek little sporty number called the Stinger is idling beneath a stoplight right in front of you. This game is called Grand Theft Auto, is it not? You approach the car, hit the assigned button, and watch Tommy rip the owner from the vehicle, throw him to the street, and drive off. Wait—look there! A motorcycle. Can you drive motorcycles too? After another brutal vehicular jacking, you fly off an angled ramp in cinematic slow-motion while ELO’s “Four Little Diamonds” strains the limits of your television’s half-dollar-sized speakers. You have now lost the cops and swing around to head back to your mission, the purpose of which you have forgotten. It gradually dawns on you that this mission is waiting for you to reach it. You do not have to go if you do not want to. Feeling liberated, you drive around Vice City as day gives way to night. When you finally hop off the bike, the citizens of Vice City mumble and yell insults. You approach a man in a construction worker’s outfit. He stops, looks at you, and waits. The game does not give you any way to interact with this man other than through physical violence, so you take a swing. The fight ends with you stomping the last remaining vitality from the hapless construction worker’s blood-squirting body. When you finally decide to return to the mission point, the rhythm of the game is established. Exploration, mission, cut scene, driving, mayhem, success, exploration, mission, cut scene, driving, mayhem, success. Never has a game felt so open. Never has a game felt so generationally relevant. Never has a game felt so awesomely gratuitous. Never has a game felt so narcotic. When you stopped playing Vice City, its leash-snapped world somehow seemed to go on without you.
Vice City’s sequel, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, was several magnitudes larger—so large, in fact, I never finished the game. San Andreas gave gamers not one city to explore but three, all of them set in the hip-hop demimonde of California in the early 1990s (though one of the cities is a Vegas clone). It also added dozens of diversions, the most needless of which was the ability of your controlled character, a young man named C.J., to get fat from eating health-restoring pizza and burgers—fat that could be burned off only by hauling C.J.’s porky ass down to the gym to ride a stationary bike and lift weights. This resulted in a lot of soul-scouring questions as to why A) it even mattered to me that C.J. was fat and why B) C.J. was getting more physical exercise than I was. Because I could not answer either question satisfactorily, I stopped playing.
Grand Theft Auto IV was announced in early 2007, two years after the launch of the Xbox 360 and one year after the launch of the PlayStation 3, the “next-generation” platforms that have since pushed gaming into the cultural mainstream. When the first next-gen titles began to appear, it was clear that the previous Grand Theft Auto titles—much like Hideo Kojima’s similarly brilliant and similarly frustrated Metal Gear Solid titles—were games of next-gen vision and ambition without next-gen hardware to support them. The early word was that GTA IV would scale back the excesses of San Andreas and provide a rounder, more succinctly inhabited game experience. I was living in Las Vegas when GTA IV (after a heartbreaking six-month delay) was finally released.
In Vegas I had made a friend who shared my sacramental devotion to marijuana, my dilated obsession with gaming, and my ballistic impatience to play GTA IV. When I was walking home from my neighborhood game store with my reserved copy of GTA IV in hand, I called my friend to tell him. He let me know that, to celebrate the occasion, he was bringing over some “extra sweetener.” My friend’s taste in recreational drug abuse vastly exceeded my own, and this extra sweetener turned out to be an alarming quantity of cocaine, a substance with which I had one prior and unexpectedly amiable experience, though I had not seen a frangible white nugget of the stuff since.
While the GTA IV load screen appeared on my television screen, my friend chopped up a dozen lines, reminded me of basic snorting protocol, and handed me the straw. I hesitated before taking the tiny hollow scepter, but not for too long. Know this: I was not someone whose life had been marked by the meticulous collection of bad habits. I chewed tobacco, regularly drank about ten Diet Cokes a day, and liked marijuana. Beyond that, my greatest vice was probably reading poetry for pleasure. The coke sailed up my nasal passage, leaving behind the delicious smell of a hot leather car seat on the way back from the beach. My previous coke experience had made feeling good an emergency, but this was something else, softer, and almost relaxing. This coke, my friend told me, had not been “stepped on” with any amphetamine, and I pretended to know what that meant. I felt as intensely focused as a diamond-cutting laser; Grand Theft Auto IV was ready to go. My friend and I played it for the next thirty hours straight.

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    To the guy below me

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    Author conveys ideas in a way both gamers and non-gamers can understand. Allows for the appreciation of the medium.

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    Video game rp!

    If you are a gamer join video game rp! Be mario,link,or any one else! (Just not spyro wich is me) you will find the rp place at videogames all results!!!

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