Tom Bissell and Why Video Games Matter

I have a slight man-crush. I've previously drooled, at length, on the prowess of men such as Greg Proops and Stephen Fry. Every so often a thinker or writer comes into your life at just the right time, holding within them the power to create a substantial shift in your thinking and writing. For me, that man for 2014 has been Tom Bissell.

Tom's a journalist, critic and writer who falls into the elite literary class that I usually steer away from. His long list of contributions frequently involve The New YorkerThe New York Times and Harper's Magazine. I didn't find Tom through one of my usual half-hearted flicks through these publications (I keep meaning to get excited about capital L literature but I never quite get round to it). I found Tom on the podcast The Indoor Kids, being interviewed by gaming and comedy couple Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon on the subject of video games

Since that interview, Tom's opened up a gateway for me on video games journalism that tackles the medium in the grounded, academic, intelligent fashion it's long-deserved. Bissell's writing is personal and bright, and his prose manages to capture the love/hate relationship between gamers and their games that is so ephemeral. 

I am uninterested in whether games are better or worse than movies or novels or any other form of entertainment. More interesting to me is what games can do and how they make me feel while they are doing it. Comparing games to other forms of entertainment only serves as a reminder of what games are not. Story-telling, however, does not belong to film any more than it belongs to the novel. Films, novels, and video games are separate economies in which storytelling is the currency. The problem is that video-game storytelling, across a wide spectrum of games, too often feels counterfeit, and it is easy to tire of laundering the bills.

from Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, Chapter 1

While Tom's arguments are often academic and could easily hold the water of a PhD peer review, his writing never lacks a personal touch. His final essay in the collection Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter is a devastating and hypnotic account of his addiction to playing Grand Theft Auto IV while on cocaine. Years later, his 'review' of Grand Theft Auto V, published on Grantland, is less of a review as a personal confession. He constructs the entire piece as a letter to Niko, the hero of Grand Theft Auto IV, and reads as a sad an intimate lament on the series growth, and his own. It allows him to make devastatingly personal points with relative ease:

Almost everyone I know who loves video games — myself included — is broken in some fundamental way. With their ceaseless activity and risk-reward compulsion loops, games also soothe broken people. This is not a criticism. Fanatical readers tend to be broken people. The type of person who goes to see four movies a week alone is a broken person. Anymedium that allows someone to spend monastic amounts of time by him- or herself, wandering the gloaming of imagination and reality, is doomed to be adored by lost, lonely people. But let’s be honest: Spending the weekend in bed reading the collected works of Joan Didion is doing different things to your mind than spending the weekend on the couch racing cars around Los Santos. Again, not a criticism. The human mind contains enough room for both types of experience. Unfortunately, the mental activity generated by playing games is not much valued by non-gamers; in fact, play is hardly ever valued within American culture, unless it involves a $13 million signing bonus. Solitary play can feel especially shameful, and we gamers have internalized that vaguely masturbatory shame, even those of us who’ve decided that solitary play can be profoundly meaningful. Niko, I’ve thought about this a lot, and internalized residual shame is the best explanation I have to account for the cesspool of negativity that sits stagnating at the center of video-game culture, which right now seems worse than it’s ever been.

from Poison Tree, Bissell's article on Grand Theft Auto V

Tom is a versatile writer, but his other writing has gone under appreciated. I seem to have discovered his video game writing at the worst possible time. In his interview on The Indoor Kids, he said he was unlikely to ever write about video games again. This makes his final piece, the above letter to Niko, all the more tragic. It's the subject for which he's received the most attention, but he's a wonderfully competent writer on politics and history. I've read his other collection of essays titled Magic Hours: On Creators and Creation, and found it just as much a compelling read as Extra Lives

Tom's opened a door for me to a world I'm grateful to find. Other writers like Simon Perkins over on The New Yorker regularly writes about the world of video games in an intelligent manner. Same also for Tevis Thompson. For me, though, Tom's work holds the most potency, as his bravery and honesty make his work sparkle. Every game, after all, is a hopelessly solitary and intimate experience. The only way to truly review them or commentate on them, especially when considering narrative, is to place your own role within them front and centre. In doing this, Tom's writing feels the most accurate and exciting of most other game journos. I understand his decision to leave video game writing behind, but if he falls off the wagon, I think the industry will be better off for his continued contribution.