I love, love, LOVE Tom Bissell. If there was a nonfiction author who was going to come close to challenging my allegiance to William Langewiesche, Bissell would be that author. Remember our Book Menage about his travel/history/memoir The Father of All Things? The guy is a super-talent.
So when I saw he had a new book coming out, of course I had to put myself on hold for it, even though I knew that its subject matter was video games. This was optimistic on my part, because if there's one subject that bores me, it's video games. Not only have I never understood the appeal (although I do remember playing some sort of "shoot aliens" game on my brother's first Apple computer when I was little), but I am one of those tiresome people who won't even give them a try. Sometimes Mr. CR goes to a friend's and plays Wii, but the very thought of playing Wii games or any other video game is so boring I can't stand it. Again: it's not that I need to be intellectually stimulated every minute. I am perfectly capable of re-watching movies more than twenty times (so sad, but I know it's been at least that many viewings for Broadcast News and the BBC version of North and South). I think I tried to play something once and was literally so bored while people tried to explain to me what buttons did what that I gave up before the game even started.
BUT...I wanted to give Bissell's Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter a try anyhow. And, although I made it fifty pages in, I wasn't able to stick with it. Once again, his writing is stellar.* The man can make even his first time playing the game Evil Dead compelling. And I do get the feeling he's got a lot of interesting things to say about why people play video games so obsessively, and what these games mean to our culture, and how their narrative structures and the experience of playing them leads to their players' other experiences of entertainment, art, and culture. Or, in his own words, "I wrote this book as a writer who plays lots of games, and in these pages you will find one man's opinions and thoughts on what playing games feels like, why he plays them, and the questions they make him think about." (p. xiv.)
But in the end...I couldn't do it.** And, for the record, I still can't get myself to believe that video games matter. But, if you have an interest in gaming, or in youth culture, I would still recommend this one. I'd actually love to see who is buying and reading it, because for the life of me I can't see it appealing to the vast majority of those who play these games. But I wish him luck with it anyway. In the meantime I'll probably just go re-read bits of The Father of All Things.
*I love this quote: "I have somehow spent more than two hundred hours playing Oblivion. I know this because the game keeps a running tally of the total time one has spent with it. I can think of only one personal activity I would be less eager to see audited in this way, and it, too, is a single-player experience." (p. 5.)
**Although I did cheat and read the last chapter, which is a dual tour-de-force about what makes the Grand Theft Auto games so compelling, and how the author played them while frequently doing cocaine. For some reason this surprised me, and I actually have to give Bissell kudos--he puts it all out there. I realize I don't know him at all, but he makes you feel like you do, and that's part of his charm. Even when I can't finish his books I find him, and his writing, fascinating.