Tom Bissell's Extra Lives asks whether video games are art or an addiction.

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June 10 2010 5:09 PM

Are Video Games a Massive Waste of Time?

Tom Bissell's Extra Lives asks whether games are art or an addiction.

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"This is one of the most suspect things about the game form," 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." What's the solution to this quandary? Should games invest more in story, in an attempt to bring us narratives that are on the level of those of the other popular arts? Or should games abandon story—is the video game, as a form, simply incompatible with traditional concepts of narrative, and must game designers instead find other ways to invest their creations with lasting meaning?

I've asked a lot of questions in this piece without offering many answers. That's Bissell's approach, too, though the omissions are understandable. The questions he's asking haven't really been answered by the game industry, either. Video games are a very young form—they're about where movies were 100 years ago. And more so than other art forms, their progress is also much more dependent on advances in technology and on the commercial factors underlying those technologies—for instance, whether Microsoft or Nintendo or Apple will dominate the game industry five years from now.

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Bissell does see some rays of hope for his quest for meaning in games. He is particularly moved by Braid, a beautiful platformer game made by the designer Jonathan Blow, which (according to Bissell) derives a strange kind of emotional significance for the player using subtle tricks of gameplay rather than an explicit storyline. When your character jumps on a creature in Braid, it makes "a disappointed, almost booing sound," Bissell writes, introducing a sense of melancholy and doubt to the player's actions.

But can such small touches add up to a form that won't leave you questioning how you're spending your time? Or are games destined to be pursued furtively, guiltily, and with tremendous frustration, under pretty much the same cultural rules that apply to what Bissell wryly describes as that other single-player personal activity enjoyed by young men? I don't know the answer to that question after reading Extra Lives, but I won't soon forget this book. Although it is about an ostensibly fun pastime, I found Extra Lives quite sad; I'll never play Grand Theft Auto again without thinking about his drug-fueled descent into the game. I wish, someday, to play a game that will stay with me as long as this book about games. Sadly, though, I doubt I will.

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Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.