Tom Bissell + Video Games + Just Read It

by Weston Cutter

Tom Bissell‘s one of those writers I presume I’ll always be more-than-moderately interested in: he’s midwestern, which carries significant weight, but he also comes off as very real, very like someone who, if I knew him, I’d relate to and/or be friends with (his first book, Chasing the Sea, covers the time he spent in the Peace Corps in Uzbekistan, which period was prematurely terminated by Bissell because of all sorts of tolerable-only-in-hindsight factors, all of which factors he lets the reader in which [of course] does plenty to generate an electric tendon of trust from the reader to him). Plus Bissell’s like five years older than I and is probably the most overtly DFW-influenced young writer presently going, which is not at all a criticism: it’s at least partly from Wallace that Bissell’s picked up some of the here-I-am-in-full-warty-glory moves, plus Bissell’s damn, damn, damn funny (from [on p. 28] sincerely hoping a certain group of programmers would go to hell to [can’t find the page–it’s in the second-half] creating a binary metric to measure a video game’s terminal dorkiness, which metric is simply whether he’ll turn the game off if a woman he may conceivably see naked in the future walks into the room while he’s playing the game). All of which is long and cumbersome, but I hope it merely establishes that Tom Bissell fundamentally Matters, which most contemporary readers know anyway, but there it is (even if, like me, you cringe at titles which defend something’s existence or purport to explain why something matters).

Yes: Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives features a subtitle which claims the book will address Why Video Games Matter. Let’s excuse this subtitle blunder and let’s get into the other big thing Bissell’s writing shares with Wallace’s, which is a focus on those things which are compellingly overwhelming, those things which tempt us to give ourselves over fully, completely, massively (again, Bissell was doing this in Chasing the Sea—dude attempted to give himself, at various times, to the Peace Corps, a woman, and various other assortments; I haven’t read The Father of All Things, only read the piece from Harper’s or the New Yorker or whichever that ended up being part of the whole, but I’d guess it attempts to emotionally work a similar seam). In Extra Lives, Bissell documents the (to this reader) seemingly just catatonically satisfying aspects of slipping into the world of a video game.

That’s actually not fair to Bissell and what he’s doing, and here I’ve got to come clean on my own video game past: I played Super Mario Bros and still find myself irregularly humming the theme song, can still remember that in world 2-2 you can warp to 4-1, then from 4-2 to 8-2; I played Contra and, sure, did the up-up-down-down and 30’d my way to winning the game. Thereafter (aside from the month a roommate purchased an XBox and Star Wars: Obi Wan and we spent the next two weeks playing and beating [over and over] the game), I haven’t played games. I’ve watched friends get very sucked into Halo and a host of other first-person shooters whose names I’ve forgotten. More than all that, though, I can still very distinctly recall driving home from college one weekend, a weekend which capped some week during which hallmates and I played (not seriously: just goof played, like kids) Grand Theft Auto II, and I remember coming to a red stoplight and idling and then, looking around, thinking I could totally take that guy in the next car. As anyone who’s played GTA knows, you can rip folks clean from their vehicles and drive felonly away, swerving to yr heart’s content. At that stoplight, at that moment, I was taking video game thinking into my day-to-day life. I remember thinking that, and remember thinking that I didn’t want to go much further into that rabbit hole.

Bissell doesn’t cover that aspect of games, necessarily, the ways and times in which they begin to infect and color regular supra-televisual existence (though through a sort of emotional association, he talks of the period in which he was simultaneously addicted to cocaine and Grand Theft Auto IV, which double addiction seems not the least bit coincidental), but good lord is he the guide you’ve been looking for if you want more understanding of the world of video games. To this outsider, games seem potentially satisfying in a variety of ways: as platforms of storytelling/narrative, as venue for the massive joy of motor control and synchronously mashed buttons (I’m not being ironic: anyone who has repeatedly failed and then finally succeeded in passing a difficult level in any game can attest to this thrill), as gloriously immoral realms into which we’re allowed to dump socially unacceptable aspects of self. Bissell’s good on 3/3 of these aspects (the physical stuff’s touched lightly, but, if only for arguing that mashing one specific button to launch a certain ordnance is as counterintuitive as using the volume button on a car’s radio to roll down the window, he gets a solid 10/10).

Extra Lives is so good because of how deeply into the sort of esoterica of video game design Bissell goes. In chapter after chapter (each chapter mostly covers a single game, or, at least, a single video game developer, and, because at least one of these chapters was first published in a high-brow-ish magazine, that/those chapter[s] are tonally at significant variance with, say, the chapter written in second-person about taking skull-shots at zombies in the first Resident Evil, and that’s the only book-as-book criticism anyone could conceivably lob), Bissell sketches, without ever being explicit, that the pleasure in most games, as they’re presently created and played, has to do with the tension the gamer can possibly exploit between the confines of the game’s design (i.e. the locked-in nature of certain narrative aspects) and the open-endedness the games must now, 25 years after, for instance, Contra, offer gamers. This is, roughly, de Botton territory—in the amazing The Architecture of Happiness, he talked about architectural beauty as being the tension between chaos and order, and, given that video games are constructed things, it’s fair to think of them necessarily having to work through the same tension (let’s also note that de Botton, who seems like a significant dick, is hardly the first to sketch such a delineation).

The cool part? There is no answer to this tension, at least in video games: there is no right or wrong. It seems clear that, given that Bissell ends with a consideration of Grand Theft Auto IV (a game which was not as large [or the internal world of the game was not as large, geographically] as earlier iterations of the game), that the question of whether or not the worlds of video games can just keep getting bigger and bigger—giving way to more and more inherent chaos, more and more entropy—is already settled: they can’t. They fail. That said, in GTAIV, there’s a scene (apparently) in which the character’s interaction with his enemies is too simple, too easy to parse (and therefore beat), so there’s a lower limit, a clear amount of control the game has to offer the gamer.

What happens as Bissell considers the interior philosophical contours of this issue is that, fundamentally, he ends up shining several flashlights not toward the question Do Video Games Matter but What Are Video Games For? It is, of course, an unanswerable question: there is, for Bissell, no ur-game, nothing so perfect that all other ideas should be scrapped and everything tailored from some Davidic line of games. Still, it’s impossible to read this book and not 1) really, really want to play video games, and 2) understand some of the most critical aspects of successful video games (if you’re willing to believe Bissell’s a reliable narrator/player, which is your decision, of course, but the dude’s bona fides, spelled out in the intro, are pretty damn smell-test proof). Shockingly (or not), at least for someone pretty uppity about how vital and rad and critical books are (especially nerdishly tough books, like poetry and postmodern fiction), the necessary ingredients for successful games are the same as those for, really, any other art: like the best novels or poems or movies, they’ve got to offer some aspect of meeting expectations/control (an enemy has to be consistent, can’t suddenly double in size or become immume) while offering us surprise/chaos (the enemy could be joined halfway through a fight). The question, of course, that Bissell brings up more than once but which he can’t possibly answer, is not even necessarily articulable, but it’s got to do with actual real-life living vs. video-game living, and the values of each, the attendant differences. If you’re human, and you’ve got a brain, you’re looking for books which, like the best video games, give you the pleasure and nutrients you expect while offering a whole quanta of stuff you may not’ve previously guessed would be dosed to you; unless you’ve got your reading list planned out books and books in advance, you now know what to read next. And, if you haven’t read any Bissell before, start anywhere: dude’s taking big swings through all sorts of fields.