Image by Courtney Nicholas
“I am a video game nerd and I love it.” That’s what Tom Bissell admits in his excellent confession and analysis of his descent (ascent?) into video game addiction, Extra Lives: Video Games Matter. He seems like me (I say that humbly), in that he once had a love of literature and spent much of his intellectual and professional life engaged with literature: reading literature, writing about literature, and teaching literature. But at some point in his late 20s, video games took over.
Tom seems to have mixed feelings about his video game addiction. His book makes excellent arguments about video games being the newest popular art form that can do a variety of things that other art forms can’t. They can engage the audience as players and thus as creators of the narrative. They also allow players to create their own avatars to navigate imaginary worlds. And they can make narrative engagement active and open-ended because each player can experience his or her own unique version of the journey. This last point is even more evident in free-roaming games such as Grand Theft Auto IV, where one can just wander.
But Tom also seems to be confessing or defending (to himself?) his tight tether to video games. He plays morning, noon, and night. He ends his book (spoiler alert!) with a moving comparison of his addiction to Grand Theft Auto IV with his concomitant addiction to cocaine. He travels the world on various assignments or grants, fully intending to rid himself of both addictions—I think these trips are called “geographics” in addiction parlance—but he always gets sucked back in. Ultimately it sounds as if his cocaine addiction has been kicked, but the existence of this book shows that video games are still a huge part of his life. They are his life.
Over the years I have dipped into various video games. I was a Nintendo Legend of Zelda fanatic. The later incarnations of Zelda—I think one was called Ocarina of Time—helped me through difficult times in high school, while also making me feel like a loser because I was spending hours playing a children's game when I could have been out socializing with the cool kids. Much later, I played Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and its sequel Grand Theft Auto IV, and then the same company’s Red Dead Redemption and LA Noir. I wanted to get in on the zeitgeist, and these games engaged so many subjects that I loved, but normally found in books and film. San Andreas embraced the 80s and 90s Los Angeles hip-hop culture that I discovered during high school, when I immersed myself in Dr. Dre and Death Row records and LAbrynth, the stunning book about the Tupac and Biggie murders. GTA IV captured the immigrant underworlds of New York City that seemed like something out of The Wire or a film by Scorsese or Tarantino. Red Dead Redemption seemed to reference Cormac McCarthy’s opus Blood Meridian, which is about the dark side of Manifest Destiny and the embrace of the western antihero, a perfect influence for a video game in which incessant killing is built into its form. And LA Noir was the activation of my love for James Elroy’s sordid take on the LA crime world of the midcentury.
But what has kept me from plunging headlong into video games is that they take so much damn time. It’s the same with television. How can I watch all the great shows and still live a life and pursue goals in the real world? If I indulge myself too much in the world of video games, I'll feel as I did in high school—a sad boy who was running from the scary social world, comforting himself by inhabiting the controlled otherworld of Link, a little elf who shoots arrows and fights dragons. But Tom Bissell, while aware of the detriment video game absorption has had on his real life, claims that his experiences within games have the same value as real experiences. I suppose if you take game play as seriously as he does, the moral questions some games pose, the emotional engagement fostered for some of the characters could create deeper responses than just the excitement of problem solving.
Maybe it’s obvious, but what is so impressive about video games today is the world building. In fact, that’s where most of the design time and energy is spent, rather than on the writing. Just as porn can get away with bad acting as long as the sex is good, video games can get away with bad writing and bad characterizations as long as the game play is exciting and engaging.
Extra Lives is a search for what is so attractive about video games, but it is also a kind of modernist investigation into the essence of the medium and what video games can do better than other mediums. If we tried to translate the agency given to the player in video games to other mediums, you’d get something like elaborate coloring books or extensive choose your own adventure books. But to the nth degree, because videogames are now able to contain random interactions, unplanned occurrences between the player avatar and the unscripted independently programmed characters and elements of the game world. This means that the video games are approaching the open-ended dynamic of life.
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