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Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter Hardcover – Deckle Edge, June 8, 2010

3.8 out of 5 stars 102 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Grand Theft Auto IV is both a waste of time and the most colossal creative achievement of the last 25 years, according to this scintillating meditation on the promise and discontents of video games. Journalist Bissell (Chasing the Sea) should know; the ultraviolent car-chase-and-hookers game was his constant pastime during a months-long intercontinental cocaine binge. He's ashamed of his video habit, but also ashamed of being ashamed of the dominant art form of our time; by turning the eye of a literary critic on the gory, seemingly puerile genre of ultraviolent, open-ended shooter games, he finds unexpected riches. Bissell bemoans the uncompromising stupidity of their story lines, wafer-thin characters, and the moronic dialogue, but celebrates the button-pushing, mesmeric qualities and the subtle, profound depths these conceal—the catharses of teamwork and heroism in the zombie-fest Left for Dead, the squirmy moral dilemmas of Mass Effect, the mood of wistful savagery suffusing the rifles-and-chainsaws-bedecked denizens of Gears of War. Bissell excels both at intellectual commentary and evocative reportage on the experience of playing games, while serving up engrossing mise-en-scène narratives of the mayhem. If anyone can bridge the aesthetic chasm between readers and gamers, he can. (June 8)
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From Booklist

Might as well get this out of the way: Bissell is addicted to video games. So much so that he pretty much missed the last presidential election because he was playing a new and highly anticipated game. Here he explores not just his own affection for video games but also the games themselves. What separates good games from bad? Where do video games fit on the sliding scale of art? A video game, Bissell tells us, is a form a self-surrender, but a different form than, say, a movie. We have no influence over what happens in a movie, but we do in a video game. In playing a video game, we are, in a sense, the authors of the stories we’re acting out. Bissell explores the key elements of video games: dialogue, character design, voice performance, visual appearance. Do the best games approach something akin to virtual (or perhaps alternate) reality? Not just for gamers, the book should also appeal to readers who have some serious questions about the nature and impact of video games and their increasing popularity. --David Pitt
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon; First Edition edition (June 8, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307378705
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307378705
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 1 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.5 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (102 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #956,423 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Aaron C. Brown TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on April 28, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This is a book that tries to be four different things and, surprisingly, manages to succeed at all of them. Bart Motes took it as a series of essays to be read for enjoyment and insight into the experience and meaning of video games. I agree with what he wrote from that perspective.

My interest is broader and shallower. I am interested in games and play in general, and also in the technology used to create deeply interactive computer software. I only dabble at games at low difficulty levels and short attention span, more to satisfy curiosity than for enjoyment. I have never been stirred by in-game events, it's all pixels to me. Nevertheless, I see their great power, and respect that they are an important part of our evolving culture. You don't understand the world today unless you have at least nodding acquaintance with these games, and this book offers considerably more than a nodding acquaintance. The less you know about video games, the more you need this book.

The ostensible topic of the book is critical analysis of video games. It is an exploration, not a conclusion, and as such it is tentative and dialectical at many points, but can suddenly switch to positive certainty, backed by the authority of the native speaker. I disagree with Bart Motes that the author is apologetic, he is a rigorous advocate for both the games and traditional standards of criticism. The two often conflict, and the book makes only suggestions about potential resolutions. You won't find the answer here, but you will find the question poked hard from a lot of non-obvious angles.

Finally this book is a fascinating piece of autobiographical fiction.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
The subtitle for "Extra Lives" is "Why Video Games Matter." I feel like I never really got a clear answer for that statement.

Tom Bissell is a pretty good writer, but his approach is entirely too academic in order to establish any flow in the reading process. Consider this sentence from page 112:

"Despite science fiction's sui generis presumptions, most sci-fi worlds -- imagined at the balance point of the evolutionary and point-mutational, the cautionary and the aspirational -- imitative."

It's sentences like the above, even if I know the meaning behind a majority of the words here, that make me have to reread them again and again, stifling any momentum. Bissell seems to be afraid that games aren't urbane enough for the academic crowd. But he also feels that he's in danger of being too sophisticated for the gaming community. Thus, his persona goes back and forth between I'm-a-very-learned-fellow-and-know-of-what-I-speak versus I-like-to-digitally-shoot-people-in-the-head-while-I-do-cocaine-with-my-friend.

"Extra Lives" is largely unconnected theories on why people enjoy video games so much. Specifically, video games made within the past ten or fifteen years. There is no sociological umbrella theory at work here, just Tom Bissell's own experiences. I was interested in reading a book about video games and why they matter, but Bissell just seems to come up with a lot of armchair theories on why he likes them, phrased about as fancily as possible.

Here's another nugget of clarity from page 122:

"RPGs that lack Mass Effect's ear for dialogue are often written too broadly for any sense of potential gamer agency to take hold, in which cases interactivity becomes a synonym for 'cudgel.'"

Until Bissell makes his points a little more clearly, I'm waiting to hear some real explanations on why games matter.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I really enjoyed Tom Bissell's Observer article about his video game addiction, specifically about his love of and obsession with Grand Theft Auto. He was honest, winning, and thoughtful in that piece, and the piece has been reproduced in its entirety as the final essay in a collection of essays about video games in "Extra Lives."

While it is fairly easy to describe the subject and nature of Tom Bissell's Observer article (a writer becomes addicted to video games, and analyzes why he became so) the subject and nature of "Extra Lives" are much harder to pin down. It is essentially video game criticism -- an analysis of its gameplay mechanics -- but it is also attempts to explore if video games can become great pieces of art and literature. As someone who both likes to read and who likes to play video games with literary pretensions (Final Fantasy VII, Warcraft, Starcraft, etc.) I was intrigued by the book at first, but soon found it too mired down by its own literary pretensions.

Part of the problem for me -- and to be perfectly fair to the author -- is that Tom Bissell is almost completely focused on first-person shooter games (I prefer role-playing games or real-time strategy), and I've never played any shooter games. That said, I found it disappointing that there wasn't a much eclectic mix of video game genres in this book. While Tom Bissell introduces us to some great video games I was surprised that he didn't mention Blizzard at all -- a great video game company whose products are just as memorable and exciting as Grand Theft Auto and Bioshock.
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