Until the mid-1990s I spent an embarrassing amount of my childhood playing video games. That changed when a few friends began linking their computers together to play Doom and the other first person shooters which quickly followed. I have a sturdy constitution but the whipping “camera” work that followed the psychopaths through their underground mazes gave me vertigo and I wasn’t able to play them.
Within a year or two the video game world had advanced so quickly that I could no longer understand the “grammar” of the new offerings. I couldn’t understand what you were and weren’t allowed to do. In Zelda one could use a candle to burn down a bush, mildly damage an enemy or light a dark room. In these new games, it seemed that on any given screen you could use a tool in ten ways at any time but not in ten other equally plausible ways. The result was that I stopped playing video games or at least the ultra violent console games capable of absorbing a life a weekend at a time. That vertigo was probably the best thing that ever happened to me.
Since that point video games have emerged as an industry with Hollywood dwarfing revenues and an average player age, last time I checked, in the thirties. Despite its obvious cultural impact, being a gamer has never shed its associations of pimply adolescence. It is even less chic than pornography, an industry with which it has significant parallels. But while you could fill an anthology with the work of major magazine writers who’ve gone on safari in San Fernando Valley, few have attempted to make the case for video games to the ever shrinking non-gaming public.
Enter Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, in which the gifted writer and reporter Tom Bissell attempts to justify his gaming habit in the face of disapproving girlfriends and a disapproving world. Bissell spends much of the book meditating on the medium’s capacity for narrative and speaking to various luminaries in the field. In doing so he repeatedly comes back his Big Question: are video games art? With plenty of qualifications, he seems to conclude that they are or at least might be someday.
With so much of the writing on video games aimed solely at serious gamers, this tour of the game world is probably as thoughtful a book on a major cultural phenomenon as us outsiders are likely to get. But the question of their artistic merit strikes me as too narrow and detached from reality. No one who has seen a snippet of a new game would deny that they are crafted by supremely competent technicians and that game design, and perhaps even play, is a form of creative expression. But like Cheez-Its, video games are an industrial product whose inventors have short-circuited our capacity for resistance, our instinct for moderation. Even Bissell acknowledged his diminished ability to do anything but game.
I recently mentioned this book to a teacher friend and she said if there were one thing in the world she could wish out of existence it would be video games. Her gamer students are smart, she said, but also twitchy, hyperactive and asocial. I wish this book had asked whether the artistic aspirations of a few genius designers are worth the apparent social cost. Bissell has played video games for (tens of?) thousands of hours and has something to show for it. How many other people can say the same thing?
Bio: Alex Halperin is an editor at Guernica. Read his latest Guernica article “Charged Environment” here .