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Author Archive: "Tom Bissell"

Of Fans and Fanboys

At my reading the other night at Powell's, the question I had been anticipating during my promotional efforts on behalf of Extra Lives was finally asked. It happened not during the formal Q&A but while I was signing books, and the young man who put the question to me was obviously slightly embarrassed to be asking it. But he wanted to know. The question was this: "What system do you like better? The Xbox 360 or the PlayStation 3?"

The ongoing debate among the systems' partisan fanboys is fascinating, fiercely argued, and profoundly stupid. Everyone concedes that it's a pointless debate, and yet everyone has an opinion. This feature, at Gamespot, which offered a game-by-game graphical comparison of several non-exclusive marquee titles, managed to rack up close to 5,000 comments. To read through them all is to risk losing one's sanity. As far as I can tell, the debate breaks down as follows: "The plastic box I spent $300 on is better than the plastic box you spent $300 on OMG ROLFLMAO." Why only technological products — and Appalachian culture — seem able to generate such uniquely intractable debates is beyond my meager powers of reckoning. Coke v. Pepsi, Dave v. Jay, Jif v. Skippy, Beatles v. Stones, Ginger v. Mary-Ann: these debates, while not known for the quality of their reasoning, rarely descend into the mucky, infantile name-calling that marks the 360 v. PS3 contretemps. I suspect it's largely a matter of personal microeconomics. These systems are expensive, and if you don't have enough money to buy both, you want to be sure you made the right decision. Okay. I get that. But when that desire for surety becomes this, you've lost me.

Happily, I'm liquid enough to have purchased both systems. Because I'm sane, I don't really think too much about which one is "better." But even among my more thoughtful game-playing friends, the question still comes up. Meekly, quietly, ashamedly, but it comes up. And I always answer. My answer is this: I want to like the PlayStation 3 more, but I don't. It's indisputably a more powerful system (this amazing sequence, from Uncharted 2, would not have been possible on the 360, and in fact nearly derailed the processing power of the PS3 itself), and though the PS3's exclusive titles are frequently better looking than the 360's exclusives, closely comparing the graphical quality of titles available on both platforms does not settle much. Indeed, the 360 versions usually look a little better. (The big unspoken assumption here is that superior graphics and processing candlepower make for better games. Obviously, they don't.)


The Man Who Didn’t Blog

"Tom," no one recently said to me, "it looks like you're really enjoying blogging! Why don't you have your own blog?" Thanks for not actually asking, no one. I have been enjoying blogging here at Powell's, except during the writing of two blog posts I threw out because they stank like fish hidden under a burned truck tire. So why don't I have a blog, as any sensible young writer should? It's a long story. Also, I'm no longer that young.

One of the things that's frequently come up during the process of publishing and promoting Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter concerns the assumption, floated by those who don't know me well, that, because I'm interested in video games, I'm also interested in technology. Indeed, I wound up on a (thankfully, really interesting) panel in Chicago that addressed the troublous matter of technology. My panel cohorts were Jack Fuller, author of What Is Happening to News: The Information Explosion and the Crisis in Journalism, and Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, both deeply intelligent inquiries into what, exactly, the Internet is doing to our culture and our minds. I think I was there in order to provide a "Yay, Technology!" counterpoint to Jack and Nicholas's more somber concerns.

As our audience and my fellow panel members quickly discovered, I have little enthusiasm for technology in and of itself. I like games not because they're technological but because I'm old-fashionedly excited by their storytelling potential and moved by their aesthetic possibilities. I use a Mac because they're easy. My cell phone is Paleozoic. My girlfriend has standing orders to smother me in my sleep if I ever begin Twittering. I know nothing about computers, or, really, about how anything mechanical works, and I've often thought about writing a comical short story about a man like me cast backward in time — to the seventeenth century, say — who finds himself utterly incapable of explaining how the marvelous devices of the twenty-first century function; his only meaningful contribution is to sing a few Beatles songs for everyone. The only reason I'd ever want a Kindle would be to test its Frisbee readiness. I don't have a website. And I don't blog.


Good Sons and Bad Sons

Last night, Trisha and I hosted our friends B. and J., who were passing through Portland with their son, Cameron, a little boy whose off-the-charts cuteness puts him squarely in Lipnicki territory. Earlier in the day they had just purchased for Cameron an age-appropriate Star Wars book from Powell's. "Nothing too violent," J. said. After dinner, we returned to Trisha's and my apartment, whereupon Cameron made a beeline for the kingdom of plastic that is my frankly ridiculous number of video-game consoles and assorted peripherals. While they lack a system at home, and have no plans to buy one, J. and B. don't believe in shielding their son from games entirely. "Moderation" was the word they kept using, and wisely so.

I played a ton of games when I was a kid, certainly, but those games were of an entirely more limited magnitude of invention. Despite the enthusiasm of a youthful Jack Black, one can only run Pitfall Harry through the jungle so many times before skull-crushing boredom sets in. I often wonder how I would have turned out if the video games I play today were around when I was, say, seven. Would I have turned into the reader I am? I'd like to say yes, but I'm not sure I can. Given the contours of my obsessive personality, it's just as likely that I would have wound up like one of the characters in Infinite Jest or some South Korean Starcraft player, expiring from dehydration after a 50-hour bivouac on the couch.

I was a little reluctant to let Cameron play anything without B. and J. signing off. They did, and Trisha and I decided that the game we'd let him play would be Flower. Probably the greatest danger inherent to playing a lot of Flower is becoming an out-of-control hugging addict. It's a sweet, lovely little game in which one assumes control of a flower petal and floats around. That's about it — aside from its rather cudgelingly obvious ecological message that nature is beautiful, to which I say, tell that to these guys (and these guys). But Cameron loved Flower — he was also damned good at it — and his parents seemed relieved to discover that there are video games out there that were not organized around the putative pleasures of shooting people in the face.


Naughty, Naughty

Roger Ebert's movingly ambivalent reevaluation of the video game medium was not the only earth-crackingly significant thing to lately stir the committed gamer. On June 29, the video game Naughty Bear was released into the world. This is a game in which you assume control of a distinctly mischievous ursine avatar and run around tormenting and, finally, murdering your fellow bears. Softening the nightmarish aspects of this scenario, I guess, is the fact that the game's bears are stuffed toys rather than actual bears. (Vegan friendly!) The game is thus intended to come across as something like "Jason Vorhees Invades the Island of Misfit Toys," except Jason is a bear.

In my household, there has been a lot of anticipation to play Naughty Bear. The person with whom I share my household, the ethereally lovely Trisha, shared with me these sage words as to why she was so looking forward to the game: "If I'm going to be violent, I'd much rather do it as a teddy bear than some stupid military person." I'm on the record (and then some) for loving and appreciating many violent games, but the "stupid military person" violence-delivery-system embedded within the average shooter does indeed feel increasingly empty, tired, stale, boring, and done. Hacking a stuffed bear to death is, if nothing else, a novel approach to game mayhem. And there is much to be said for novel approaches to game mayhem. I'm a huge fan of the downloadable title Pain, for instance, which consists of catapulting celebrities into walls, roller coasters, explosive barrels, billboards, and restaurant patios. If that doesn't sound like fun, think again. Bring on some goddamned teddy bears.


Why Video Games Matter

[Editor's Note: Don't miss Tom Bissell reading tomorrow night (Tuesday, July 6) at Powell's City of Books on Burnside at 7:30 pm. Click here for more details.]

My book Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter has now been on the shelves for almost a month, and the response so far has been extremely positive (except for when it wasn't). However, the single most consistent knock against the book — and it so consistent that I reckon there is more than a little to it — is that I do not really make the case as to why video games matter beyond why they matter to me. Thus, for my first blog entry for Powell's, I thought I would try to make this case a little more explicitly.

I do not doubt that, on this point, my book could have used more elaboration (it is, for crying out loud, the subtitle), especially when every adult who plays a lot of video games, and makes no secret of that, is often asked — by parents, bosses, spouses, colleagues, and strangers — to explain what value he or she finds in a medium widely regarded by non-gamers as morally gangrenous . True, this question has lately had a kinder edge, and non-gamers seem increasingly willing to accept that the medium has something to recommend it. (My book's reception proves that, if nothing else.) Oddly enough, though, this has not made identifying what that something is any easier.

So, why do video games matter? There are a lot of possible answers to this question, depending on the gamer and what he or she seeks in games. My own answer starts with the fact that, not too long ago, video games drifted from being goal-oriented experiences with a vague storytelling overlay to storytelling experiences organized around goals. The transition from games that (sort of) told stories to stories endowed with gamelike elements was a choppy one, and a number of people serious about their video games regret that this transition happened at all. But it did. Suddenly, an entirely new form of storytelling was upon us, and almost no one understood how it worked.

To me, what makes games so astounding is the degree to which the medium's storytelling principals are still not completely understood. Think about that: the world's fastest growing and most profitable storytelling medium remains, in many ways, open territory. Filmmaking and fiction writing are comparatively closed territories; their inherent storytelling problems are, by now, familiar, if no less vexing. Not so with video games. Every year a few titles appear that expand the paradigms of video-game storytelling, and there is no sign this will stop anytime soon. The last time anything like this happened on a comparable scale was during the opening innings of the 20th century, when filmmakers began to explore another realm of equally vast storytelling potential.


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