Tom Bissell pens a defense of video games as art

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One thing’s for certain about Tom Bissell: He is passionate about video games. It’s blatantly obvious to anyone who hears him speak on the subject. Bissell — a lifetime gamer, journalist and fiction author — has combined his intense love of video games and writing skills to write “Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter,” a defense of video games as an art form.

The debate about whether video games can be considered works of art has gained steam as both the technical and creative aspects of video game production have been steadily advanced.

Bissell was inspired to write “Extra Lives” when he noticed, through his own gaming experience, that the quality of video games was improving.

“It was the sense that games were getting kind of good and sort of sophisticated, and yet they remained dumb and weird in other ways,” Bissell said. “It was the sense that they were becoming really terrific and at the same time were really held back by the same weird things that made them terrific.”

Although Bissell is a fan of many different video games, he sometimes considers “Grand Theft Auto IV” to be “the most colossal creative achievement of the last 25 years.”

“It’s a satire of American excess wrapped around a pretty complicated portrayal of a criminal who’s trying to make his way in America, while also repeatedly stumbling into his old criminal habits,” Bissell said. “By the end of the game, you realize you’ve built up an immense amount of sympathy and compassion for a criminal, and you’ve done this because the criminal is you.”

Bissell argues that there is more to the game than “driving around, hitting pedestrians, shooting people in the head and picking up hookers” and cites the deeper themes of “Grand Theft Auto IV” as vital to its artistic expression.

“The theme is trying to escape your nature, trying to escape the noise of whatever is surrounding you. If that’s not an artistic experience and a thoughtful experience, then I don’t know what is,” Bissell said. “There is a whole other layer of meaning you can dive into, but because it’s a game, it also allows you to just run around and wreak havoc.”

Bissell questions the existence of video-game addiction, even though in “Extra Lives” he admits that he plays video games every morning, afternoon and evening and typically does not spend more than three consecutive hours working. Currently, video-game addiction is not an officially recognized disorder by the American Medical Association, although the issue is still being debated and researched.

“There is certainly a compulsive aspect to video games, but nowadays when I feel myself playing a game compulsively, I get rid of it,” Bissell said.

“Games can have a joyless, compulsive aspect to them, and I’ve learned that when I find myself playing something without joy, I get rid of it. You shouldn’t do something if you’re not enjoying it. Period.”

Despite acknowledging the negative aspects of some games, Bissell maintains that most find a way to be artful, whether through a pleasure-inducing plot or visually entertaining story.

“The art of games is in game play,” he said. “Games that are artful are games that have figured out ways to tell you some kind of story, whether it’s an experiential story or a literal story. Or they allow you to move in some kind of world in a way that feels pleasurable, interesting and aesthetically pleasing, tense, scary or exciting. The real art of the video game is how it feels to interact with the world while you’re holding this controller.”

Bissell said even games that tend to lack a narrative plot, like those in Nintendo’s Mario series, can still be considered art.

“I think the Mario games are definitely pieces of popular art,” he said. “They’re beautiful, enchanting experiences that, by the end of it, you feel like your mind has sort of been widened by these spatial puzzles and the graphical sophistication of the world.”

Bissell explains that it is difficult to fully understand the artistic value of video games if you do not play them yourself.

“For people that don’t know how to play and don’t experience the act of game play, they’re never going to get it,” Bissell said. “It’s like looking at the lyrics of a rock song and saying, ‘That must not be a very good song because the lyrics are silly.’ Whether it’s Mario or a really dumb, violent action game, unless you’re playing it, you’re missing out on the experience of the game that makes you feel good.”

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WHAT: Discussion and signing of “Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter”
WHERE: Book People, 603 N. Lamar Blvd.
WHEN: Tonight at 7
HOW MUCH: Free