Book Review: In Print
Reviewed by James Renovitch, Fri., June 11, 2010
Extra Lives: Why Video Games matterby Tom Bissell
240 pp., $22.95
This past April Roger Ebert wrote a blog titled "Video Games Can Never Be Art." More than 4,000 responses later, shockingly, nothing is resolved. What surprised me more than the fact that Ebert – a man who could say something more insightful about cinema in his sleep than most lucid folks – decided to address an issue he (by his own admission) knows little about is that game-lovers felt the need to convince him of gaming's place on art's pedestal. Would the man-with-the-magic-thumb's approval alone make Super Mario Bros. art? The debate played out like a child blabbering to an unlistening parent in the hopes of winning approval.
The video-game industry is at a crossroads. Having financially eclipsed the film biz, interactive media appear to be at a loss as to what to do next. The lifespan of the current generation of gaming systems is abnormally long compared to its predecessors, raising questions about what comes next. We can create unnervingly lifelike worlds that dive deep into the so-called uncanny valley, but that only leaves critics wondering if re-creating reality should be the goal.
Well-read game-nuts recommend this keynote speech or that collection of essays, but there is no agreed-upon textbook akin to, say, David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson's Film Art. Tom Bissell's latest book is far from a textbook, but it is an intelligent one-stop read that introduces modern gaming's big questions: Should games strive to look more like movies? Can a game be great art with both a static author (the gamemakers) and an active author (the player) who often have different ideas of how things should be? How does one reconcile play and plot? What the heck is "ludonarrative dissonance"?
Talking to the industry's major players from indie developer Jonathan Blow to Microsoft's golden boy Peter Molyneux, Bissell gleans some answers but more often than not just furthers the debate. That isn't to imply that advancing the dialogue is a lesser success, because Extra Lives condenses and clarifies problematic issues that have evolved over decades of gaming. Bissell deserves credit for that feat.
At times, the book has a bit of an identity crisis, switching between a textbook's density and a memoir's personality. For example, Bissell spends the final chapter comparing Grand Theft Auto IV's charms to his own cocaine addiction and ends up convoluting the point. However, many of the personal anecdotes manage to take the author out of the realm of game-nerd and put him in the everyman category. The world of gaming could use a little less jargon and a few more everymen writing about its merits. Perhaps a teenage gamer will pick up Extra Lives and go on to create something that Ebert will recognize as art. Or maybe gamers will stop caring what other people think and start defining art on their own terms.
Tom Bissell will read at Book People on Thursday, July 1.