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Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter [Paperback]

Tom Bissell
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

June 14 2011

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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Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter + Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World
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“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

About 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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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Customer Reviews

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Most helpful customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Jamie K Dec 26 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Tom's passion for video games is evident and his writing skill provides deeply insightful writing on several meaningful games as well as the history of games. My favourite part was the excerpt essay on Demon's Souls which is almost prelude for his genius synopsis of the spiritual sequel Dark Souls (not included).

While each chapter focuses on a key game, a few are spun throughout, one of which "Bioshock" is my favourite game of all time and its inclusion was of significant impact.

As a devoted "gamer" myself, (while cliched) this book feels like it was written for me. This is made evident by his use of Cromulent and that it made it past the editors
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Amazon.com: 3.8 out of 5 stars  97 reviews
103 of 133 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars So...why DO video games matter? June 11 2010
By J. GARRATT - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
The subtitle for "Extra Lives" is "Why Video Games Matter." I feel like I never really got a clear answer for that statement.

Tom Bissell is a pretty good writer, but his approach is entirely too academic in order to establish any flow in the reading process. Consider this sentence from page 112:

"Despite science fiction's sui generis presumptions, most sci-fi worlds -- imagined at the balance point of the evolutionary and point-mutational, the cautionary and the aspirational -- imitative."

It's sentences like the above, even if I know the meaning behind a majority of the words here, that make me have to reread them again and again, stifling any momentum. Bissell seems to be afraid that games aren't urbane enough for the academic crowd. But he also feels that he's in danger of being too sophisticated for the gaming community. Thus, his persona goes back and forth between I'm-a-very-learned-fellow-and-know-of-what-I-speak versus I-like-to-digitally-shoot-people-in-the-head-while-I-do-cocaine-with-my-friend.

"Extra Lives" is largely unconnected theories on why people enjoy video games so much. Specifically, video games made within the past ten or fifteen years. There is no sociological umbrella theory at work here, just Tom Bissell's own experiences. I was interested in reading a book about video games and why they matter, but Bissell just seems to come up with a lot of armchair theories on why he likes them, phrased about as fancily as possible.

Here's another nugget of clarity from page 122:

"RPGs that lack Mass Effect's ear for dialogue are often written too broadly for any sense of potential gamer agency to take hold, in which cases interactivity becomes a synonym for 'cudgel.'"

Until Bissell makes his points a little more clearly, I'm waiting to hear some real explanations on why games matter.
37 of 47 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A book for all seasons April 28 2010
By Aaron C. Brown - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
This is a book that tries to be four different things and, surprisingly, manages to succeed at all of them. Bart Motes took it as a series of essays to be read for enjoyment and insight into the experience and meaning of video games. I agree with what he wrote from that perspective.

My interest is broader and shallower. I am interested in games and play in general, and also in the technology used to create deeply interactive computer software. I only dabble at games at low difficulty levels and short attention span, more to satisfy curiosity than for enjoyment. I have never been stirred by in-game events, it's all pixels to me. Nevertheless, I see their great power, and respect that they are an important part of our evolving culture. You don't understand the world today unless you have at least nodding acquaintance with these games, and this book offers considerably more than a nodding acquaintance. The less you know about video games, the more you need this book.

The ostensible topic of the book is critical analysis of video games. It is an exploration, not a conclusion, and as such it is tentative and dialectical at many points, but can suddenly switch to positive certainty, backed by the authority of the native speaker. I disagree with Bart Motes that the author is apologetic, he is a rigorous advocate for both the games and traditional standards of criticism. The two often conflict, and the book makes only suggestions about potential resolutions. You won't find the answer here, but you will find the question poked hard from a lot of non-obvious angles.

Finally this book is a fascinating piece of autobiographical fiction. I don't mean that I disbelieve the personal anecdotes, only that they are clearly chosen for dramatic effect rather than illumination of the author's personality or career. I was strongly reminded of one of my favorite works, A Drifting Life. The parallel is not obvious, as Yoshihiro Tatsumi wrote his explanation of what fascinated him with manga and how it fit into the world as a whole after a 60-year career of extraordinary achievement in what is now universally acknowledged as a serious art form. At one third the age, with zero achievement in creating video games, which are still more often classified as silly or dangerous commercial toys for kids and slackers than culturally important art; Bissell is no grandmaster. But the Bissell-point-of-view that narrates this book gripped me in the same way that the young Tatsumi did. Tatsumi draws a cherry blossom to describe how he felt trashing his university entrance exams, and goes brilliantly outside panel to evoke the facial expression of the older waitress who tries to seduce the drunk and inexperienced teenager. Bissell uses his exceptional writing talents to make running a virtual semi truck over a helpless virtual derelict or diving into a virtual pool in a desperate search for a virtual sword (inadvertently virtually dropped) convey both personal and general meaning. I remain more impressed by the former than the latter, but Bissell is young yet. There are also echoes of the disruptive cultural analysis of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

I won't argue with anyone who gives four stars from any of the individual perspectives, but I think it takes a five-star book to do this many things, this well.
20 of 26 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not worth reading Aug. 13 2011
By mistermrp - Published on Amazon.com
I'm surprised that this book is rated (relatively) highly by reviewers. In my opinion, the writing is slapdash, the research non-existent, and valuable insights few.

As other reviewers have noted, the title was a problem for me. "Why video games matter" implied to me a thoughtful discussion of video games as an art form, instead I found the book to be a disconnected, meandering series of personal observations about specific titles. It's like titling a book "why film matters" and then filling it with essays about how you really, really liked "back to the future" and "titanic." Yes, it felt that random.

The writing quality seemed contrived to me as well. The second chapter (about "Resident Evil" (aka "Biohazard")) switches to second person for no particularly good reason. It feels forced- like a precocious junior high school student showing off in an essay contest. I also made the mistake of reading the comments on the dust jacket of the hard cover edition. Bisell is described as an "award winning" author. While I read, I was haunted by the question "what awards? Can you take them back?"

There's much better writing out there about games- see the New Yorker magazine's 2011 profile on Shigeru Miyamoto for an example of good writing. That single article contains more insight and research than this entire book.
34 of 48 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Why Bissell Matters? June 11 2010
By Michael J. Tresca - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
Bissell is ashamed that he's a gamer.

That's the first impression I received from the author, who seems to have written much of the first part of the book as an apology: "I know I wrote that gaming wasn't art, but I was wrong."

Bissell's self-flagellation seems to be largely driven by his ego. Writing a book-length apology for castigating video games as low art assumes we cared about his opinion in the first place. Bissell is an accomplished author, but his gaming credentials are few - he seems to have decided to write this book because he can. I don't recall anyone clamoring for Bissell's head for turning up his nose at video games.

The picture Bissell paints of himself: of his knowledge of videogames (passable), of his approach to multiplayer (he's not much of a team player), of his drug-fueled binges (he's a coke addict), all paint an unflattering portrait of the author. His profile seems to be that of a solo player largely disconnected from his fellow gamers - as evidenced by his belief that an amazing experience in a player vs. player match of Left4Dead cannot be replicated by World of Warcraft.

I've played nearly all the games Bissell has played. He takes pains to introduce each of them with a chapter cleverly named after the game he's discussing. The problem is that this isn't really a book for gamers, because anyone who enjoys games doesn't need to be told "why videogames matter" or an introduction to each one. Bissell's prose is exhausting in its literary references - he's obviously an accomplished author, but he's writing at a level far beyond your casual gamer's capacity for patience.

Bissell is an accomplished journalist - his access to gaming gurus of all stripes is impressive - but he writes his introductory pieces as if he's a fashion reporter. We're repeatedly told that every gamer he interviews "doesn't look like your typical gamer" - a group, we get the sense, that Bissell secretly believes is far too uncool for him to be a part of. Bissell seems to be trying to elevate the gaming subculture -- that'd be you and me, the uncool kids who aren't as worldly as he is - so that being associated with us isn't so...embarrassing.

And that's a shame. Bissell flirts with some compelling arguments, like the fact that there are no writers on the staff of many gaming companies, or that his ability to personally connect with characters has an almost accidental, magical quality. But then he ties it all back to himself and we're reminded that this is Bissell's equivalent of a Dear Diary - he's annoyed that there are no writers on staff because, ya know, HE'S a writer! He's annoyed that there's no real sense of art in gaming, cause, ya know, HE knows art! Bissell's book is less an unbiased perspective on games as it is a counterargument to the hype machine that treats games like movies, all special effects and big budgets. He wants to experience an interactive world that makes him think - that is art, in other words - but he doesn't really have any answer as how to the rest of us gaming rubes will get there.

And so we come to what Extra Lives is really about: Bissell. We get glimpses of his weirdly disconnected but exciting life, from the formidable list of publications under his belt to his globetrotting adventures to his aforementioned drug addiction. Bissell never addresses these issues head on, which unfortunately means we get them filtered through his engagement of video games instead. Considering Bissell ends with the conclusion that a video game experience is in the eye of the beholder, the book would have benefited from a lot more about him.
11 of 15 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars So video games matter why, now? June 15 2010
By trashcanman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
"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.
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