Given the rapid pace at which technology has evolved in recent years—as well as our ability to digitally depict humans engaging in violent and sexually-explicit activity—video games have become quite controversial. So controversial, in fact, that just a few months ago a California ban against the sale of violent video games to minors traveled all the way to the Supreme Court.
The result? The New York Times puts it best: “It is now the law of the United States that video games are art.”
Most arguments in the wake of this landmark decision revolve around whether video games can truly be considered an art form. In his book “Extra Lives,” Tom Bissell works off the assumption that the answer to that question is “yes.” However, Bissell does not argue why this is the case; rather, he takes on the arguably more formidable task of investigating how video games function as an artistic story-telling medium. His interest lies not in how video games measure up to other art forms, but in how video games’ strengths and limitations coalesce to form an experience wholly unique from those provided by films or novels.
As Bissell puts it, “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.”
Don’t pick up this book expecting a rigorous, thoroughly-researched scholarly work on video game aesthetics. To be sure, Bissell does his share of high-profile interviews with video game designers, such as Cliff Bleszinski (“Gears of War”) and Clint Hocking (“Far Cry”). And the book even has an index, one that gets away with listing “da Vinci, Leonardo,” “Donkey Kong,” “Chewbacca,” and “Chomsky, Noam,” all on the same page.
Bissell draws largely from his own personal experiences playing video games in order to explore the emotional power of video game narratives. The effect of this decision is a book that does not read like a comprehensive treatise on video game narratives. Rather, the book reads more like a series of personal essays concerning the glorious highs and terrible lows of Bissell’s addiction to video games, along with discoveries about video-game storytelling—and himself—that he happens to make in the middle of a 30-hour-long session of Grand Theft Auto.
That wasn’t an exaggeration. In Bissell’s final chapter, entitled “Grand Thefts,” he describes snorting cocaine in Las Vegas before playing Grand Theft Auto IV for 30 continuous hours. The chapter is cleverly titled, for it is as much about Bissell’s thoughts on the game as it is on the cocaine addiction he develops from playing it—the way in which the video game enacted “Grand Thefts” on Bissell’s life.
But this tangent isn’t meant in any way to demean Bissell’s analytical project. On the contrary, Bissell does a masterful job of employing his personal experiences not solely for the sake of sensationalism, but for the very productive work of defining what exactly it means to play a video game, to hone in on why video games matter through an accessible, humbling narrative of a man’s struggle with addiction.
We, as readers of this book, are privy to all of the emotions elicited by video games, such as elation and despair, pride and shame, as well as the strengths and limitations of the video game as a narrative form. These two aspects of the text are interwoven. Indeed, Bissell’s passion for evaluating the narrative capability of video games (the book’s analytical aim) is not—in fact, cannot be—separated from Bissell’s deeply personal, emotional relationship with the games he plays.
Such a dichotomous perspective is not easy to convey, but Bissell achieves his goal gracefully, albeit without providing concrete answers to his questions about video games. He does a good job parsing out both the failures and successes of video-game narrative while gesturing towards what could be possible for video games in the future.
If you despise video games and believe they should not be considered an art form, then this book will likely not change your mind. But if you are at all curious about the potential narrative depths of video-game storytelling or already believe strongly in the artistic capacity of the video game, do yourself the favor of buying a copy of “Extra Lives.”