Aside from a short trip down the rabbit hole with Sid Meier's world-building sim Civilization III back in the late '90s (see below), I've largely let the last two decades of video game culture pass me by. Not really out of distaste or even disinterest--I think in part I was (and still am) afraid of what would happen if I let myself get swallowed by the machine. Would I still be a functioning member of society? Would I ever read a book again? Nevertheless, I could tell from a distance that things were developing there in a way that went beyond the arcade games and fat-pixel consoles of my youth. I remember meeting Austin Grossman after his first novel, Soon I Will Be Invincible, came out to great acclaim and being surprised to hear that he considered video-game writing his real art form.
So I immediately perked up when I noticed Tom Bissell's new book, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter on the horizon. Bissell's is one of my favorite bylines to see: he's a superb reader and critic, but equally driven to get out and engage directly with the world, which has made his books Chasing the Sea and The Father of All Things compelling amalgams of reporting, history, and memoir. No matter what he's writing about (even Tommy Wiseau's The Room in the current Harper's), you always get the feeling that something is at stake for him in the outcome: he's putting himself on the line. And though you might not expect it from a book on the narrative aesthetics of video games, that's the sense you get from Extra Lives too: he's found himself drawn hungrily into the worlds the games create, and it matters to him deeply to understand why (and to imagine how those worlds could be made even more compelling).
He came by our offices a few weeks ago to talk about the book, and it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable discussions I've had in some time. The book had me convinced of the potential value of this form of storytelling, but talking to him made me even more so. If it was even conceivable to bring an Xbox into my house, I'd probably be playing GTA IV right now instead of typing this... (I also got to take his picture in front of one our office ornaments: a blown-up copy of his NYTBR cover review of Rory Stewart's The Places in Between, a book that's one of my favorite discoveries of my time here. In my memory I had always given myself credit for sussing it out alone, but it may well have been Bissell's excellent review that first turned me on to it, as it did for so many other readers.)
You can listen to our interview in three parts below, or read the full transcript after the jump:
Amazon.com: When we say "value," we're not talking about the sort of increases-your-eye-hand-coordination argument that's often made in favor of video games. This is really an aesthetic claim that you're making.
Bissell: Yeah, I think there's a number of games, maybe not many, certainly not as many as I would like, but there are a number of games that have really given me a first-class aesthetic experience. Sometimes that experience is very kinetic and intense, sometimes that experience has been flummoxing and troubling, and sometimes the experience has been mainlined joy. Games can enchant, they can disturb. There's just some really first-rate storytelling experiences out there for people.
The problem that games have is that you have this rather large stumbling block of the interface. It's a tough thing for people that are conceptually inclined to think that maybe there's something interesting going on here, but to give them a controller and ask them to figure out what is essentially a foreign language is tough. It's a hard thing for people to overcome.