Get A(n Extra) Life

Later this year, I’ll be presenting a paper on the ethical/theological/moral implications of video games.  As luck would have it, a public discussion over whether or not video games qualify as art broke out in on-line and print media over the past few months.  Film critic Roger Ebert oppossed this notion while arguments for it appeared in readers’ comments to his posts and in video game publications like and Game Informer.  Writer, professor, video game addict Tom Bissell‘s latest book, Extra Lives:  Why Video Games Matter, is less concerned with arguing over whether or not video games can be classified as art and is more concerned with what/how they make us feel and think.  While Bissell doesn’t list out a series of specific explanations of just why they matter, after reading his book, it is impossible to ignore the fact that they are increasingly one of the more important elements of our popular culture.

Bissell’s response to the “are they/are they not art” debate is crystal clear:  “It seems to me that anyone passionate about video games has better things to do than walk chin-first into sucker-punch arguments about whether they qualify as art.  Those who do not believe video games are or ever will be art deserve nothing more goading or indulgent than a smile” (34).  Though Bissell loves (some might argue too much) video games, his love for them does not blind him to the medium’s inherent difficulties with narrative/storytelling, lingering frustrating gameplay, and other aesthetic shortcomings.  Bissell is concerned, however, with a much deeper conversation.  He writes, “I am uninterested in whether games are better or worse than movies or novels or any other form of entertainment.  More interesting to me is what games can do and how they make me feel while they are doing it” (13).

Braid: beautiful, yes, but too frustrating?

We can discuss to no end the differences between and the importance of “framed narratives” and “ludonarratives,” but this is about as interesting and entertaining as an academic conference on sex.  The brilliance of his book, and the joy of reading it, lies in his critiques of the medium, its games, and his own behavior while playing them.  His self-awareness reveals the many ways that video games, given a fervent devotion to them, can having lingering effects on their players.  Moreover, he is also aware that these effects carry with them the potential for ethical/moral reflection and dialogue.  For example, what is our culpability of killing within a first-person-shooter like Modern Warfare 2?  Are these types of video games, and the deaths and injuries within them, realistically violent enough?  What are the relationships between freedom and power in both the narrative and the gameplay of BioShock?  What type of morality governs the world of Grand Theft Auto IV and the behavior of its lead character within it?   Moreover, the evolution in gameplay itself has implications for how we can think about morality and faith in the real world.  Bissell writes, “Anyone who plays modern games such as Gears [of War] does not so much learn the rules as develop a kind of intuition for how the game operates.  Often, there is no single way to accomplish a given task; improvisation is rewarded.  Older games, like Super Mario, punish improvisation:  You live or die according to their algebra alone” (55).  In his latest edited work, Halos and Avatars:  Playing Video Games with God, Craig Detweiller takes a more specific, theological approach to Bissell’s argument and claims that a teenager’s limited use of a video game’s instruction manual might parallel the ways in which (s)he approaches Scripture.

Heavy Rain: the closest link between narrative and gameplay yet?

The key point that Bissell makes regarding the distinction between video games and other forms of entertainment involves what video games set out to do and how we can judge them.  Video games contain an element that novels and films do not:  gameplay.  Unlike novels and many films, story is not, nor does it have to be, at the center of a video game.  Bissell writes, “A game with an involving story and poor gameplay cannot be considered a successful game, whereas a game with superb gameplay and a laughable story can see its spine bend from the weight of many accolades–and those who praise the latter game will not be wrong” (81).  Nevertheless, many of the best games still have a compelling narrative or, despite a weak narrative, create worlds as engrossing as their literary or cinematic counterparts. Resident Evil, the game, was just as adept at creating and sustaining horror or terror as any of its horror film counterparts.  It’s certainly more effective than the films based on it.

Bissell’s book further reveals that we are in a current Golden Age of video games as others, Detweiller, have suggested.  Nearly every game that Bissell writes about in any great detail has released in the last decade or so.  However, he is aware of those gaming highlights of years previous, like the first Resident Evil, for example.  The games that he highlights include Grand Theft Auto IV, Fallout 3, Far Cry 2, BioShock, and Braid.   Though the medium boasts such sophisticated examples, as a whole, it is still limited by both imagination and technology necessary to more effectively further and unite gameplay and narrative.  However, given the speed with which the medium has developed (Bissell argues that it has gone from cave drawings to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in only two and a half decades), the future is bright indeed.  As Bissell writes, “The generation of game designers currently at work is the first to have a comprehensive growth chart of the already accomplished” (71).

From this... this.

In the author’s note at the beginning of Extra Lives, Bissell writes, “It may be years before anyone arrives at a true understanding of what games are, what they have done to popular entertainment, and how they have shaped the wider expectations of their many and increasingly divergent audiences” (xiv).  Thanks to his work, Bissell has brought us a little closer to that understanding.  For hard-core gamers to anyone remotely interested in the medium, this will be a highly entertaining read.