12 January 2011

Post 291: Kyle B. (guest blogger)

Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter by Tom Bissell. ISBN: 978030737870.

So this Bissell guy is kind of a goof. I was hoping he would really get into some of the reasons that video games are important, but I was pretty disappointed. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to let the moment go to waste. Let’s take a moment and talk video games in a sort of academic sense, yes?

I’m going to leave aside the economic/sociological issue of the necessity of a healthy gaming culture in a technological society, because that is an Important Thing deserving of its own book. Instead, I’m focusing a bit on what video games have done for us mentally.

Our days are full of decisions, from when to get out of bed to what to eat, to whether or not to send nuclear missiles against Norway. Not all of these decisions are that ponderous, but some change lives. When it comes down to it, we get stressed out by all the choices we have. One of the things that video games (and other diversions) do is provide us with an imaginary escape from that stress.

Most forms of entertainment are strictly guided. A book can only be picked up and put down; a movie really can only be watched one way. The thing that gaming gives us that other recreation can’t is the ability to choose within the experience itself what will happen.

This guided experience, whether in narrative or non-narrative games, is more or less a vicarious life (and probably what Bissell meant by the title Extra Lives). Here, the choices you make are almost always life-changing in one way or another, meaning survival or ruin for the respective avatar, but aside from finding that last great power up or getting a new ending, these choices don’t make a lasting difference in your own life (or, generally a positive one – who continues playing a game that isn’t rewarding to them?). A gamer gets all of the catharsis of making big decisions without the crushing stress of knowing it could destroy everything she’s worked for her whole life. Even in games where a different choice means another playthrough, the only cost is time, if the player is willing to pay that for another catharsis.

When the experience does affect the gamer, it becomes a shared experience with other gamers who have covered the same ground. Maybe different choices were made, different styles of gameplay attempted. The comparison should lead to an even richer discussion between those gamers.

I’m not saying games are the only compelling way to experience entertainment and enrichment (first, I am a writer/reader, so no; second, there are still plenty of games out there that refuse to entertain or enrich), and I’m not even saying that there isn’t a serious danger of allowing directors to corral and restrain our imaginations to the confines of that event. I’m just saying that video games, as art and experience, are important.

Kyle B. is some guy you've never heard of, but he's okay with that. He's a writer and journalist (also both a lover and fighter) that graduated from Kent State University a few years ago, with some slight gainful employment since. He loves to read but pretty much puts a new book back on the shelf if a couple of the first words on the jacket are "murder mystery" or "romance."

GuestNote: I guess Super Smash Bros. Brawl or Pokemon are some I use for stress relief, but there are lots of games out there to choose from. Animal Crossing is a better "relaxing" game, but I used to jam out to Meteos.
LibsNote: In case you were wondering, my favorite stress relief video games consist of Katamari Damacy and variants of Tetris.  Meteos is also pretty awesome. What about you readers?

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