"Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter" fails to live up to it's own name. The surtitle seems to imply that the book is going to analyze the (anti)social phenomenon of video gaming from a broad sociological standpoint and explain it's role in the lives of adult gamers. The truth however, is that Extra Lives reads like a collection of video game reviews, blog posts, and Rolling Stone-style essays based on interviews and encounters with some of the video game industry's most influential members. On this level, the book is a personal journey for the author and reads almost as a writer's defense mechanism trying to rationalize his own love/hate relationship with the medium. It's a very interesting read, but feels a bit unfocused and excessively personal in scope considering how pervasive and controversial gaming is as an entertainment medium. A better title would have been "Extra Life: Why Gaming Matters to Me".
Author Tom Bissell has a problem. He's a published writer with a girlfriend and a good life who reads poetry, loves books and intellectually-stimulating cinema, and travels the world. Yet he pours hours and hours and hours into playing video games. He even missed out on the election of the first black president because he couldn't tear himself away from Fallout 3. This seems to be a source of massive anxiety for him. How could he miss out on a watershed moment in the history of his country so he could battle post-apocalyptic raiders all by himself in a virtual pretend world? A good portion of Extra Lives is spent expressing embarrassment over his addiction and haphazardly attempting to justify it even has he makes broad statements about how intrinsically stupid games are. In the very first chapter he does a great job of explaining why games and film are not comparable since they represent entirely different experiences and entertainment goals, and yet he still persists in comparing the two mediums throughout. The infinitesimal flaws he seeks out in each game he covers in this book are almost laughably inconsequential to the point where it actually appears he hold games to a HIGHER standard than film and literature. You see, my friends, a video game has one goal and only one goal: to be fun. Carrying on about the lack of character development and narrative in Donkey Kong or the fact that the people in GTA aren't exactly like real life is beside the point. It's called "playing" a game for a reason. You WATCH a film. You READ a book. You PLAY a game. It's an active experience meant to engage the player. THAT is how you judge them. Great writing, graphics, technical and artistic innovation, and the like are just window dressing.
Bissell's long-winded intellectual assessments of the gaming medium are well-written and often laugh-out-loud funny. The author's wit goes a long way to making this a great read for gamers, but one thing that keeps it from being essential is the way most of the chapters are spent explaining the ins and outs of some of the best titles of the past decade. Having played nearly all of them, having each of their their premises and gameplay explained to me for pages did not make for the most scintillating read in the world. However, this will probably be handy to any non-gamers who pick the book up. But what impression will non-gamers get from Extra Lives? Reading extensively about the quality of the cocaine the writer snorted prior to his first session with GTA4 and then seeing him compare said drug to his gaming addiction is not a good look. On the other hand, given Bissell's apparent disgust with the "stupidity" of the storytelling in games, it was pretty satisfying to see him admit that at one point in Mass Effect (which is without a doubt a sc-fi story worthy of classic status regardless of medium) he was so rattled by a decision he had to make in the game that he had to go call his girlfriend for advice on what to do. He spent a great deal of that chapter "getting back" at the game by harping on petty details like it's unsatisfactory inventory system. Riiiiight. Because that's what gaming is REALLY about.
As interesting and revealing as watching the author struggle with his inner critics over why he devotes more time to what he sees as a waste of time is and reading about his encounters with some of gaming's modern heroes like Cliffy B and (my favorite) the sagely Peter Molyneux -which is included as an addendum- I really wish Bissell had spent some time examining why a medium that is enjoyed by the majority of individuals (97% of teens, 81% of young adults, 53% overall) and actually sees a higher percentage of educated people playing across the board is still derided as something for children, pale overweight virgins, and mass murderers by the "mainstream" media. Funny; gaming is actually more mainstream than the supposed mainstream media itself. So why the perceived bad rap? Same reason a guy who dresses as a jedi to see Star Wars will be viewed with contempt by a white collar suburbanite who dresses up as a cowboy to go to a country music concert. The ignorant and the hypocritical are simply louder than most of us because they've got nothing better to occupy their time. Might I suggest they pull the stick out of their rear end and pick up a Wii sometime? Personally, I find the more time I spend doing thing I enjoy, the less likely I ma to worry about what other people do to occupy their time.
So why do games matter? They really don't. They are here to entertain us and they do so better than any other medium that seeks to do so. Film will always be more dramatic, novels will always be more cerebral, art will always be more organically beautiful, and poetry will always be more...well poetic, but only games can give you all of these things and make them interactive so that they can engage you and leave you nearly physically comatose for hours and hours on end without you even realizing the time going by. This engrossing escapism is the real reason we play games. Nothing sucks you into another world as effectively as a great game. I was a little disappointed that Extra Lives was unable to arrive at this same conclusions after all of the work and pontification that went into creating it. In the end, it is an entertaining read, but it seems incomplete as a work considering it's shying away from the broad social issues that define the argument for games as a respectable medium. But if you are looking for a light read that combines essays, game reviews, interviews, and personal introspection regarding video games in an intellectual manner than this may be worth a look.