Extra Lives: Tom Bissell on Why Video Games Matter
“Are video games a worthy way to spend my time?”
Tom Bissell’s journalistic, slightly nerdish quest to discover what is great and not-so-great about videogames and videogame culture, is a fascinating book in many respects. Bissell, who is in his mid-30s, is what you would call a “serious gamer.” Despite all the time he’s spent with a controller in hand—and despite the fact that Extra Lives carries the subtitle “Why Video Games Matter”—Bissell admits to being “routinely torn about whether video games are a worthy way to spend my time,” and is pained that games “crash any cocktail-party rationale you attempt to formulate as to why, exactly, you love them.”
This is one of the most suspect things about the game form: A game with an involving story and poor gameplay cannot be considered a successful game, whereas a game with superb gameplay and a laughable story can see its spine bend from the weight of many accolades—and those who praise the latter game will not be wrong.”
Bissell is concerned mainly with the lack of narrative structure–and meaning–in games. From the start he makes the insightful point that games ask us to save the princess, save the country, save the world, save ourselves—but no one plays games to achieve those ends. We play for the puzzle, the physics, the sense of being embedded in a fully realized world. Part of what makes this insight so useful is that it strips it of the latent guilt we attribute to kids “shooting things up.”
Many shooters ask the gamer to use violence against pure unambiguous evil: monsters, Nazis, corporate goons, aliens of Ottoman territorial ambition. Yet these shooters typically have nothing to say about evil and violence.
Even in games like Grand Theft Auto, whose stories are smarter than the rest of the video-game pack, the story seems like filler. In fact, of the GTA series, Bissell notes that it is “particularly afflicted with this mouse-coaxed-through-a-maze problem.” This problem of game and narrative interactivity has been explored ever since basically the advent of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Books, which happen to have arrived on the scene about the time people were getting their first taste of the in-home Atari consoles.
Final Fantasy VII awoke American gaming to the possibilities of narrative dynamism and the importance of relatively developed characters—no small inspiration to take from a series whose beautifully androgynous male characters often appear to be some kind of heterosexual stress test.”
Should games invest more in story, in an attempt to bring us narratives that are on the level of those of the other popular arts? Are games like The Walking Dead coming closer to where technology, narrative, and games intersect, with its focus generally on making a shorter series of moral choices? Should they engage more with story simply so they’ll be taken more seriously as “art”? Or should games abandon story—is the videogame, as a form, simply incompatible with traditional concepts of narrative, and must game designers instead find other ways to invest their creations with lasting meaning?
Bissell seems more bent on asking questions than posing solutions, but the questions are important, and answers are developing, whether with Jane McGonigal’s examinations of the positive nature of games and gaming, or through solutions posed in books about media, such as Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media and concepts related to engagist media, the latest term used for creating games to solve real-world problems.