Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter


Tom Bissell
183 pages | Buy this book

Tom Bissell has spent thousands of hours playing videogames (and once spent several years with addictions to both Grand Theft Auto IV and cocaine), and he's desperate to prove his time with the controller wasn't wasted. As a literary author and critic, he's slightly embarrassed, but he makes a good (albeit reluctant) case that for a still-young medium, videogames are steadily feeling their way toward the vaunted status of "art."

What's the Big Deal?

Videogames are a $30 billion-a-year industry, and have moved well beyond Mario bouncing off the heads of Goombas. But is it art? Is it enriching? Is it making us stupid? Film critic Roger Ebert recently argued that videogames can never be art. Bissell begs to differ and breaks down his argument.

Buzz Rating: Between a Whisper and a Hum

The book received a glowing review from Slate's Farhad Manjoo and a generally favorable treatment from the Los Angeles Times. And Bissell has given interviews to newsweek, The Oregonian and Reuters. One chapter of the book is loosely based on an article Bissell wrote for The New Yorker.

One-Breath Author Bio

Bissell teaches fiction writing at Portland State University in Oregon and has written a travel book, a collection of short stories about Central Asia, and a memoir about his dad's time in Vietnam. He's no dummy: he won a Guggenheim Fellowship this year.

The Book, in His Words

"It may be years before anyone arrives at a true understanding of what games are, what they have done to popular entertainment, and how they have shaped the wider expectations of their many and increasingly divergent audiences . . . I nevertheless believe that we are in a golden age of gaming and hope this book will allow future gamers a sense of connection to this glorious, frustrating time, whatever path games ultimately take and whatever cultural fate awaits them" (page xiv).

Judging by the Cover

Videogames are fun—Bissell clearly thinks so. So why does the spritelike videogame character on the front cover seem to be angry?

Don't Miss These Bits

1. People who make videogames have feelings, too. Cliff Bleszinski, who helped create Gears of War, has an intensely personal relationship with games and leaves intimate touches throughout his work. He was playing the tank-blasting Blaster Master when he found out his father had died. It resonated. CliffyB (as he is known to the gaming community) built what he calls a "going home" narrative into the second Gears. Turns out, the tanks in Bleszinski's game look a whole lot like those from Blaster Master. Actually, Bleszinski didn't consciously make them look that way, and only realized it when a fan pointed it out.

2. About that cocaine problem . . . Bissell spent a year in Tallinn, Estonia, where he doubled down on videogames and massive amounts of cocaine. His descriptions of this time are arresting and depressing. After a page-long account of his deteriorating state, he writes: "Soon my biweekly phone call to my cocaine dealer was a weekly phone call . . . I began to wonder why the only thing I seemed to like to do while on cocaine was play video games. And soon I realized what video games have in common with cocaine: Video games, you see, have no edge. You have to appreciate them. They do not come to you" (pages 177–178). Here, Bissell, who is haunted by his fear that videogames are nothing but a meaningless addiction, overcomes his worries and is finally able to fully embrace gaming.

Swipe This Critique

Bissell never engages with what, to him, would be a scary possibility for the future: games lacking any kind of narrative whatsoever (like Wii Sports) are actually on the rise. An attempt to explain "why video games matter" should acknowledge these pick-up-and-play experiences, even if hard-core gamers like Tom Bissell find them to be mere distractions from the zombie killing and dragon slaying that define the traditional videogame experience.


Prose: While he occasionally uses some curious metaphors, Bissell's pen is steady and his meaning is clear.

Jargon: If you don't know gaming, some of the references and terminology will escape you.

Bottom Line: 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.