The stats panel on Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar’s enthralling new video game set in the old West, tells me I’ve spent about 16 hours planted at my Xbox over the last two weeks. It also says that I’ve finished just 60 percent of the game, so I can expect to be plugging away for two more weeks at my current pace. All told, Red Dead Redemption will consume at least a month of my leisure time, and—unless I get bored of it, which is unlikely—probably a lot more.
By some measures, this is not a lot of time; the average American spends many more hours worshipping his television, and I personally squander an obscene number of hours a day on the Web. What’s more, I circumscribe my game-playing to odd, otherwise unproductive moments during the day. Red Dead Redemption hasn’t adversely affected my work or my social life. It is also—and this is no small thing—absorbingly fun; playing the game has been the most consistently entertaining thing I’ve done in many months, and if you subscribe to the theory that pleasure is the purpose of life (a theory of which I’m enormously fond), you might argue I should be playing RDR more often.
So why do I feel so guilty about all the time I’ve been spending with Red Dead Redemption? Why does it embarrass me? One reason is that, despite RDR’s relative sophistication next to other video games I’ve played, it still feels woefully stilted compared with other forms of popular art. I can’t recall a single moment in which RDR (nor any other game) has moved me, emotionally and lastingly, in the way I’ve been moved by the best music, movies, and TV shows. And yet I keep playing anyway. Why? How can I explain and defend—both to myself and to others—my affection for and continued investment of time in a form of entertainment that ultimately seems empty and ephemeral?
In his fantastic new book Extra Lives, writer and gamer Tom Bissell argues that these kinds of guilt and embarrassment are more or less inescapable hazards of playing video games. Bissell, who is in his mid-30s, is what you would call a “serious gamer.” An accomplished journalist and fiction writer, Bissell also carries an impressive gaming résumé. He describes at least a dozen games that he’s beaten on the highest difficulty level and can recall, in sometimes alarming detail, what happens where, and who says what, in many of the last decade’s most successful console games. Despite all the time he’s spent with a controller in hand—and despite the fact that Extra Lives carries the subtitle “Why Video Games Matter”— Bissell seems unsure that games do matter. He admits to being “routinely torn about whether video games are a worthy way to spend my time,” and is pained that games “crash any cocktail-party rationale you attempt to formulate as to why, exactly, you love them.”
Extra Lives is a meditation on whether games can offer anything deeper than narcotic thrill. For Bissell at least, devotion turned into something closer to addiction. “These days I play video games in the morning, play video games in the afternoon, and spend my evenings playing video games,” he writes. For some of this time, he was also addicted to cocaine. But Bissell is deliberately vague about what he thinks was worse for him; cocaine and Grand Theft Auto IV, his most recent polygon-based drug of choice, offered the same sense of timelessness, the same inability to escape, and each made him “feel good and bad in equal measure.”
When he looks at video games from a critical distance, Bissell is concerned mainly with their lack of narrative meaning. Games ask us to save the princess, save the country, save the world, save ourselves—but no one plays games to achieve those ends. We play for the puzzle, for the physics, for the sense of being embedded in a fully realized world. Indeed, for me, the “story” usually seems like filler, even in games like Grand Theft Auto and RDR, whose stories are smarter than the rest of the video-game pack. RDR begins and ends every mission with cleverly scripted movielike “cut scenes” that provide some explanation for why your character is doing what he’s doing—but the game also lets you skip the scenes, which I usually elect to do. Thus I can’t really explain why my character is doing what he’s doing. The real answer is he’s doing it because I am making him do it, and I am making him do it only because I am having fun.
“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.
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.