Quick Review: Extra Lives, by Tom Bissell

Experiential writing and anecdotal evidence can be worthwhile additions to discussions of meaning. However, I remain unsure if either stands all that well on its own. Personal perspective can help others come to see how we view something, but if we desire to convince others of why that something matters, we need to do more. This might be my main issue with Extra Lives, by Tom Bissell. Rather than doing more, Bissell does more of the same. He engages in revelry, not revelation. As this is a book intended for a mainstream audience, perhaps this is okay, but I found significant portions of the text lacking.

Bissell's account is personal, but not unique. Anyone reading this review has had comparable gaming experiences, perhaps even attempted to relate them to friends and colleagues who just don't understand. Countless blogs and forums are further testaments to a certain commonality of experiences in videogames. No one can say Bissell doesn't like, or even love, what games like Fallout 3 and Grand Theft Auto IV provide, but if it was the author’s intention to go beyond that and support the “why videogames matter” subtitle, success is questionable. 

If it had been “why videogames matter to me,” I would have had different expectations as a reader. I wouldn’t have been disappointed about the missing definitions of “character,” “narrative” and “story,” terms that Bissell throws about in an irresponsible manner. Bissell does refer to others who play and/or make videogames, like Cliff Bleszinski, Jonathan Blow, Clint Hocking and John Hight, but these references most often regard problems of the medium. Given how many words and paragraphs given to these problems, a better subtitle might have been “why videogames don’t matter” or “why videogames don’t matter yet.” 

The main title, “Extra Lives,” fits well with the content of the book. The idea/argument that part of videogames’ appeal involves exciting escapism, the opportunity to experience additional lives is one that Bissell makes accessible and appealing. What gets in the way of this argument, though, is Bissell’s writing, which I don’t think is very strong. It reminded me of something Marci told me about Julie & Julia, how distracting the book was because the author thought she was so self-aware, self-referential and funny and that the movie was much better because all those attempts at humor weren’t present. In other words, Extra Lives reads like a series of blog posts; some good and/or interesting ideas are present, but none get fleshed out because there isn’t a comment section. 

Related to this is how Extra Lives just kind of stops. The last couple lines of the last chapter resonate well, but I wanted to turn the page to something more conclusive. After all the personal accounts of various gaming experiences and conversations with assorted industry insiders, I hoped Bissell would perform some kind of a wrap up. It isn’t that I wanted everything together in a neat, little package; I just had an interest in Bissell returning to the introductory “Author’s Note” in which he states that we are in a “golden age of gaming.” That Bissell never revisits this statement is unfortunate and, for me, supports the idea that many of his ideas are unsupported and/or incomplete.

I don’t think Extra Lives can or should be the text to validate videogames to the masses or to, as Entertainment Weekly put it, “make you feel better about spending 50 hours on Call of Duty."