Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Literature Review: Extra Lives

That I managed to finish three insightful books of videogame criticism in the last few weeks is not as remarkable as the fact that I managed to find three insightful books of videogame criticism in the last few weeks.

Because the market for writing about videogames is so small, and because we've only had rich enough material to write about for a short few decades, it's hard to tell what good game writing should look like. In an industry that both relies on and contributes to rapidly shrinking attention spans, it's even harder to tell what a good book about videogames should look like.

That's why, as he notes in a recent interview with Michael Abbott on the Brainy Gamer podcast, Tom Bissell had excellent timing with his recent release Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter. Despite its small size, the market for great games writing is hungry. Even on our favorite industry and consumer outlets, we're inundated with hourly "news" updates, often comprised of rumor, speculation, and/or trivialities unimportant to a thoughtful understanding of the medium.

Of course, this isn't unique to games journalism; analyze any newspaper article during a given election year, and guaranteed, 75-80% of its sentences will focus on the horse race, not the issues. Entire columns are devoted to how the color of a candidate's tie will play with a particular demographic. Because the 24-hour news cycle is always ravenous for content, no matter how inane, it's not surprising that idiotic, even fictional non-issues get magnified into platform-defining talking points.

But Extra Lives - which is more memoir or travelogue than criticism - is what game journalism should be. In a series of chapters that can (and, in fact, did, in various magazines) stand alone, Bissell dissects core elements of videogames such as narrative, AI, and tension in an engaging, if occasionally verbose, style. (Okay, maybe not as verbose as the previous sentence.) Recruiting industry heavy hitters like Cliff Bleszinski and Peter Molyneux to share their insights, Bissell presents a picture of the medium that's neither overly apologetic nor congratulatory, but is compellingly reflective. Throughout, his personal observations lead to a broader exploration of the reasons why videogames do matter: His account of a particularly intense session of Left 4 Dead, for example, has the descriptive richness of a great travel piece, yet eventually arrives at a sort of subtle argument for the validity of the form.

What's particularly interesting about this facet of Extra Lives is that, as Bissell revealed in a reading in Harvard Square a few weeks ago, his original subtitle was "Why Video Games Matter and Don't Matter." Bissell is pretty upfront on his misgivings about the effects videogames may have on us - their addictive qualities, how they can reflect or exacerbate our worst tendencies, their ability to suck us away from real life, etc. The last chapter, about how Bissell's simultaneous addictions to GTA IV and cocaine feed into each other, is particularly revelatory on this front.

What I like about the book, and why the original subtitle is somewhat more accurate (if not exactly marketing-friendly), is that it isn't stupidly political, like much of the game writing out there. It doesn't waste time on horse-race fluff, it doesn't take on overzealous anti-game legislators, it doesn't try to be some kind of gamer nerd screed out to vindicate our hobby once and for all. Its passion is of a more personal nature, about how this medium intersects with our habits and desires. It's more interested in raising questions than answering them - which I know sounds corny and pedantic, but really does make for much better reading. If you're interested enough in gaming to be reading a blog like this, you really ought to pick up a copy of Bissell's book - if only to be part of the conversation.

I want to give a brief mention to the other two books I've read recently: Ian Bogost's Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames and Jon Cogburn and Mark Silcox's Philosophy Through Video Games. Both of these are more academic texts that raise a number of issues I'm eager to discuss in future posts.


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