Back when he was reviewing video games for Salon in the 1990s, writer Tom Bissell saw the medium as "the ugly, red-headed stepchild of contemporary culture."
But in the last few years, a few sophisticated game titles changed his mind – from the moral dilemmas and inherent satire of Grand Theft Auto IV to the mesmerizing scenery and violent, unpredictable mercenary scenarios in Far Cry 2.
The result is Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, an enthusiastic, quirky and intelligent collection of essays examining the good and bad sides of gaming, with a frame of reference that spans everything from Stephenie Meyer to Henrik Ibsen, Veronica Lake to Fallujah follow-cams.
The Portland, Ore.-based journalist and author recently talked to CBC News about video games as a new storytelling medium, about refusing to settleTom for dumb games and about why criticism of gaming culture is in its dying days.
Q: Video games are a major cultural influence and a hugely profitable enterprise, but a stigma remains. Why the lack of respect?
A: Games begin as toys, marketed directly to children. That word "game" really mucks everything up. The idea that you could find something mind-altering or thought-expanding or spiritually enlarging in something called a video game is kind of a suspect notion, too. The final part is that games have the subject matter that they do. It’s hard for someone who is not into games to look at one in which there might not look to be a lot going on, other than just ridiculous violence or silly things jumping around on the screen.
Someone who doesn’t really know or understand games very well would have a hard time looking at a typical video game screen and seeing anything there that recommends itself. Whereas someone who does understand the form a little bit better could play what looks – to civilian eyes – like a dumb game, but actually understand what’s going on and what’s being contributed.
Q: What prompted your book?
A: [In the last few years], a few games came out and really got into my head and really affected me — games that made me stop and think to myself, "These are actually really compelling, aesthetically and artistically."
Playing a lot with these games — often to the detriment of my own work — I got more interested in what was going on with this medium than I was in my own medium, literary writing. I recognized this was a new form of storytelling that I was seeing come into its own, right before my eyes. It was storytelling that didn’t have a lot in common with other forms of storytelling that I was familiar with. I tried to write the book that I didn’t think existed yet.
Q: If the games are evolving, why isn’t there more intelligent, analytical exploration of it in traditional media?
A: The idea that a contemplative person would find a video game interesting — that’s still a relatively new notion. Most of the people who control the gates of our culture – the newspaper editors, the magazine editors, the book editors – would not be the type of people who view Halo as an interesting way to spend time.
Also, a lot of the traditional media outlets that probably would have had a home for more serious video game writing have spent the last 10 to 15 years collapsing. There wasn’t really a place for this writing to go, suddenly, [so] really good, thoughtful writing is done by passionate amateurs on blogs for which they’re not getting paid much.
Q: What does it mean that players are now discussing story, or a game’s aesthetic tradition, or its historical significance?
A: It says that we’re all getting older. People like me, who in the past were content with a game if it felt good and fun to play – if it felt crunchy, the interface was good, the combat was good, the world was richly imagined – if you did any of that really well, the fact that the characters were shitty Xeroxes of bad action-film characters and the plot was ridiculous and everything else felt really stupid, all that stuff was fine as long as they did a couple of things well. People like me are no longer satisfied with that.
These games cost millions of dollar to create, they can take years to make and they can attract some of the most talented people literally in the whole world, in terms of production design or art. I’m no longer content for games to be dumb. What remains to be seen is if there are enough people in the industry who are willing to let that stuff continue being dumb.
Q: What about the "art" debate? Films, books, music, theatre — all are considered art, but video games seem to be another story.
A: Anything that is created by human beings for the express purpose of another human being to enjoy, and somehow come out differently at the other end of the experience, is something that creates a space for an artistic experience to happen. Not all games are designed to be works of high art. But some of them are definitely designed by their makers to give the person who is playing an experience intended to change them somehow, emotionally. To me, that’s the definition, right there, of a work of art.
The only reason people would say games are not art are a) a lack of familiarity or b) just stupidity.
Q: Is the refusal to acknowledge video games as a valid pursuit a generational thing?
A: Absolutely generational — 90 per cent of this is generational. The fact that a literary writer like Nicholson Baker was able to write an essay in The New Yorker [about video games], that my book was published, that it was reviewed, that you are doing this piece … Right now, we are trying to convince a bunch of sclerotic old troglodytes who are unconvincible that this medium has merit. They’re not convincible; they’re just not. Pretty soon, they’ll all be dead and even for people who don’t play games, it will be obvious that this medium has something to recommend it. They might not respect it as much as, say, filmmaking or fiction writing, but that’s OK.
I grew up listening to really awful gangster rap. I remember the early responses to rap music: "Who could think that this is real music?" I was sitting in a family restaurant a couple of months ago and there was this shitty version of a Public Enemy song playing. It was the equivalent of a Muzak version of a Public Enemy song. I thought that this was crazy, that in my lifetime this music has gone from edgy, hip, controversial, to what we’re sitting down to with our families in a public place.
Antagonists towards [video games] have had their last flowering … The standard bearer-type of people, who want to keep games out of the halls of culture, I think recognize that they’re doomed, and they’re fighting back harder than ever right now, because they know there’s no one behind them.
Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matters is in stores now.
Jessica Wong writes about the arts for CBC News.