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High-brow meets joystick in author Tom Bissell's Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter

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Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter

Tom Bissell

(Pantheon Books/Random House, 218 pages, $22.95)

In the fifth chapter of his essay collection Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, author Tom Bissell meets "Al," a staffer at the 2009 DICE convention, an annual game industry event held in Las Vegas. "By 2020," gushes Al, "there is a very good chance that the president will be someone who played Super Mario Bros. on the NES."

There exists an entire generation who grew up alongside video games, and while it might well include a future president or two, it also contains a handful of talented writers eager to vivisect their childhood obsessions. Bissell is a model for this new breed of video game journo — schooled in the discourse of academic criticism, tempered in the crucible of high-stakes, highbrow publishing, and possessed of an unapologetic love for the medium — and Extra Lives is an important, relentlessly perceptive book.

Bissell began as a travel writer, and his background gives him a gift for evocative descriptions of video game vignettes that sketch the aesthetic and technical particulars in deft, efficient strokes. Each of the nine essays in the collection is roughly centered around a single game; the limited corpus, chosen with conviction and care, skews toward recent games like Bethesda's Fallout 3 and Bioware's Mass Effect.

This modern focus is a reaction to a game design sea change, one that privileges story and artistic ambition over technical achievement and mindless action. But games have a long way to go, and Bissell is determined to unpack their puerility, along with his unblinking acceptance of it: "If I were reading a book or watching a film that, every 10 minutes, had me gulping a gallon of aesthetic Pepto, I would stop reading or watching," he opines. "Games, for some reason, do not have this problem. Or rather, their problem is not having this problem. I routinely tolerate in games crudities I would never tolerate in any other form of art or entertainment."

Veering constantly from the personal to the theoretical, Bissell proves that it's possible to ruminate on the past, present, and future of video games in a way that is both intellectually rigorous and consistently entertaining. The book's only flaw is its relative brevity, especially considering that two essays ("The Grammar of Fun" and "Grand Thefts") already have appeared in print in an abridged form. Nevertheless, games and gamers should count themselves lucky to have Extra Lives on their side.

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