extra-lives-155Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter
by Tom Bissell (Uzbekistan 1996–97)
Random House/Pantheon
$22.95
201 pages
June 2010

Reviewed by Bruce Schlein (Papua New Guinea 1990–92; Bosnia 1996; PC/Staff/DC 2003–05)

EXTRA LIVES OR LIVES WASTED? My inclination upon thinking about the topic of Extra Lives (video games) and delving into the first chapter was to think the latter (hours wasted, many hours).

Admittedly this point of view is part predisposition I had recently read an article citing research that shows youth are more disconnected from nature than ever before. The culprits? Electronic media and the perception that society is less safe. It isn’t hard to see how video games, especially ones with names like Crime Life: Gang Wars and Killer 7, could contribute to this phenomenon. But Tom Bissell talks through these issues, and actually relegates them un- or less important as the reader is drawn in by eloquent descriptions of the video game as a genre; an art form that has its own unique aesthetic, storytelling ability and power to evoke emotion.

I counted back, as I started reading the book, the number of years it had been since spending more than a few minutes on a video game. It was about twenty years ago when I would commit hours upon hours attempting to perfect Asteroids; the disintegration of rocks — two dimensional and in black and white. Bissell shares his obsession with games, his questioning of it as a worthy way to spend time, and the impact it has on his relationships in a way that helps the reader consider and be honest about their own diversions (mine — watching the same episode of Housewives of New York innumerable times); diversions that upon reflection seem a complete waste of time, especially when tallied over months or years.

But the further I got into the book, the greater appreciation I had for the sophistication and cultural nuances of video games; the worlds created and the worlds experienced virtually. Video games were a realm of cross-culturalism I had never considered. Take for instance the town “Megaton” from Fallout 3, a community built around an unexploded warhead worshiped by a native cult. Or the ability to repeat sequences over and over, not only to refine or perfect a skill but also an experience, as Bill Murray does in Groundhog Day (a notion suggested in the book title). Some passages in the book present an even clearer reference to Bissell’s Peace Corps background. He recounts an exchange (a request for guidance) with a game creator while they are both playing a test run. The creator replies, “Basically kill anyone who doesn’t look like you — our foreign policy.”

What I enjoyed most about the book is the juxtaposition of serious analysis with game names that seem anything but serious. It was hard for me not to laugh out loud when I read the phrase “most sophisticated artists within every genre . . .” followed by an example from a specific game called Left 4 Dead. The depth with which Bissell goes into analyzing a particular sequence for its perspective or a camera angle plays well to those with architectural sensibilities, and the same can be said for all of the other characteristics he teases out of this art form.

Will every reader or every video game aficionado relate to and enjoy Extra Lives? Definitely not, nor would we expect that to be the case. Bissell himself admits as much in the book as he compares his views with those of a group of teenagers about a game for shooting zombies, “it is moments like this that can make it so dispiritingly difficult to care about video games.” But may others will care including most anyone who enjoys critiquing art, and especially those looking for a refreshingly untouched/un-critiqued art form. As for me it’s a beautiful day outside and my son is beckoning me to play. I think I’ll take him out to the fresh breezes and sunshine of the Coney Island boardwalk, and play a few rounds of Shoot the Freak.

To order Extra Lives from Amazon, click on the book cover or the bold book title — and Peace Corps Worldwide, an Amazon Associate, will receive a small remittance that helps support our awards.

Bruce Schlein joined Citi in 2006 as Vice President of Corporate Sustainability after having worked as a sustainability specialist for Bechtel on oil and gas and civil projects in China and Romania. Previously, he worked for international development agencies including Save the Children, Catholic Relief Services in Bosnia Herzegovina, and as a PCV in Papua New Guinea. Bruce is a graduate of Cornell University and holds a Masters in International Affairs from Johns Hopkins Nitze School of Advanced International Studies where he currently serves as an adjunct professor.