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EXTRA LIVES by Tom Bissell


Why Video Games Matter

by Tom Bissell

Pub Date: June 8th, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-307-37870-5
Publisher: Pantheon

Harper’s contributor Bissell (Fiction Writing/Portland State Univ.; The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam, 2007, etc.) considers the importance of video games.

Parts of this uneven investigation into the aesthetics of the gaming experience are as thrilling and fresh as the best writing on any subject—particularly his confessional chapter on Grand Theft Auto IV—but most of the chapters fall short of that high standard. The questions Bissell raises and seeks to answer via interviews with leading game designers like Sir Peter Molyneux, Jonathan Blow and Cliff Bleszinski are not without general interest—what role does story play in a game’s aesthetic experience? how do games (and the gamers who play them) create meaning? how can something that never plays out the same way twice even have meaning?—but too much of the book is surprisingly amateur, as awkwardly expressed as a bright but underachieving fan-boy’s private journals. Often affecting the fussy grandiloquence of a doddering classics professor, Bissell promises substance but mostly delivers only empty style. Perhaps this is the author’s way of reifying for the reader the central paradox of his thesis: that his favorite video games (Resident Evil, Left 4 Dead, Far Cry 2) come so close to providing him with his ideal aesthetic experience, sometimes even more than works of literature or film—yet in the end, most of them are “just” toy worlds populated by elves, zombies, soldiers and little green men.

More a collection of profiles and game reviews than a focused thesis, this little book never answers the question implicit in its subtitle—best appreciated by serious game junkies.