Tom Bissell, a contributing editor for Harper's Magazine and the Virginia Quarterly Review, begins his new book with an admission of guilt. He apologizes for missing "the moment America changed forever." Instead of watching the election of Barack Obama, he played Fallout 3 on his computer.
Video game players, or "gamers" as they are known, are often said to have no life. According to Bissell, they have too many lives, taking on added identities with each game they play—and multiple "lives" within each game as they attempt to accumulate points, pass to higher levels, and triumph. But this plural existence comes at a very steep price, and has taken its toll on him, which he recounts in Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter.
Equal parts memoir, travelogue, and industry exposé, the book deftly delivers all three. Being a writer by day and gamer by night hasn't hurt Bissell's ability to turn a phrase or write clear, entertaining prose. It's when he starts to defend video games as high art that he stumbles.
The best part is the exposé. For readers seeking to explore the video game industry—which now outsells Hollywood—he gives a detailed tour, taking us to far-flung game development studios in North Carolina, Montreal, and Edmonton, Canada. (Not for nothing has his work been anthologized in The Best American Travel Writing.) He describes a game developer as slender, "not out of any desire or design but rather because his days were spent being consumed rather than consuming." These aregraying artists—and Bissell insists they are artists—who "strip-min[e]" their childhood only to find that, "like every natural resource," it, too, is "exhaustible." They seek to create worlds where players don't merely play, but live. So far, they've failed. Game developers have run out of ideas.
Perhaps they're suffering from a mid-life crisis. Games just aren't as fun as they once were. The studio Epic was so named because, as CEO Tim Sweeney notes, "When you're this one single person in your parents' garage trying to start a company, you want to look like you're really big." But like rock stars to whom fame has come too quickly, some long for the days when "we were just a bunch of kids who had some cool ideas and were doing neat things." Armed with their sports cars, bad fashion, and divorces from high-school sweethearts and game-loving groupies, the creators find that their real lives have no reset button and that they've come too far to turn back. Perhaps this explains why most video games are dystopian, often set in a zombie apocalypse, nuked post-America, underwater paradise torn asunder, or a fantasy adventure to rescue the princess. The player seeks to restore balance to his world. Bissell, his politics showing a bit too much, finds these save-the-world games passé. With a "kind of resentful Republicanism" he wonders, "Can't these f---ing people take care of themselves?
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"Spending one's entire life elsewhere can be a kind of intoxication, as dangerous as some drugs and just as personally destructive. Bissell admits as much, telling us that "Oblivion [a fantasy game] is less a game than a world that best rewards full citizenship, and for a while I lived there and claimed it." In the real world, Bissell lived in Rome on a prestigious literary award, where he succumbed to his depression and inadequacy, retreating into games. Only later does the reader discover that he also retreated into cocaine. "Today, the most consistently pleasurable pursuit in my life is playing video games," he confesses, while "the pleasures of literary connection seem leftover and familiar"—and this from a man who makes his living reviewing books!
There's much to learn on Bissell's voyage and certainly a lot to appreciate now that games have gone mainstream. We learn, for instance, that the first video games
may have grown out of the apparatus of war and defense.... Battlezone [aptly described as "declaring war on geometry"] was modded [modified] by the U.S Army as a Bradley armored fighting vehicle trainer; Doom was modded by the U.S. Marine Corps to attract new recruits; Valve's Counter-Strike was used by the Chinese government to test the antiterrorist tactics of the People's Armed Police.
Bissell, who was embedded with the Marine Corps in 2005, asks in all seriousness if the Marines enthralled with first-person shooter games are "spiritually akin to World War I-era soldiers keeping cop[ies] of Homer or Tennyson at the ready." To be sure, Halo, a cartoonish game of Marines fighting off aliens, isn't "The Charge of the Light Brigade." But Call of Duty, the most popular series, celebrates military virtue. Activision, the company that makes Call of Duty gave over 3,000 copies of Call of Duty 2 to the U.S. Navy, and through their charity, Call of Duty Endowment, pledged $1 million to help veterans find work out of the service.
Yet Bissell is actually bored by the very games these soldiers love, which launder "their carnage for god and glory." He calls Call of Duty, a "war-porn story of good and evil." Unfortunately, he never examines just what makes them popular, a glaring omission considering his subtitle, which promises to tell us why video games matter. If video games matter, how do they matter? And what about the habits that such games encourage in their players? Do they matter in good ways?
Bissell doesn't say, but then he doesn't really have to. A friend encourages him to pick up a copy of the much-maligned Grand Theft Auto, saying "You can do anything you want in the game. Anything." Sure, you can steal cars, as the name suggests, but you can also kill police officers, murder unsuspecting citizens, and sleep with prostitutes. Bissell notes that the game doesn't force you to behave this way, but it's troubling that so many gamers do. Earlier in the book, he finds the idea of a potential U.S. president being a gamer "pretty generationally stirring," but he neglects to consider the kind of habits the president would develop if he were reared on Grand Theft Auto. Nearly every video game features some kind of invincibility, in which temporarily the player is impervious to harm. Video games have not proved invincible to criticism, and until they become able properly to instruct the soul—as all good art does—they shouldn't be immune. Video games often rewrite the rules of physics, but they have yet to attain the maturity to grapple with the rules of morality.