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Book asks why do video games matter?


An advertisement for the "Grand Theft Auto 4" video game sits on display at a store in New York in this April 28, 2008 file photo. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
An advertisement for the "Grand Theft Auto 4" video game sits on display at a store in New York in this April 28, 2008 file photo. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

By Mark Egan

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Video games almost took over Tom Bissell's life, thrusting him into an intoxicating months-long, cocaine-fueled binge playing Grand Theft Auto.

But like any good writer, he got a book out of it -- and possibly a new career direction.

Bissell's book, "Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter," was published this month by Random House's Pantheon imprint and is part criticism of video games as an art form, part social commentary and part memoir.

His research took him so deep into the world of video games -- from playing them to talking to the world's leading game developers -- that his next job is writing a video game.

"I am going to start writing at least one game," Bissell, 36, said. "I am beginning to understand why so many video games are so badly written, because writing for them is really hard and really weird."

Bissell, known for his high-brow, offbeat travel books, expects more literary writers to follow suit.

"Literary writers used to go to Hollywood to make money," Bissell said. "People my age and younger are going to go into video games."

Bissell's resume to date gave few hints that he might have a future in video games. He has written a short story collection, "God Lives in St. Petersburg," a travelogue about the Vietnam War and his father, "The Father of All Things," and a book about Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan called "Chasing the Sea."

But he fell in love with video games and decided to write about why they should be considered as meaningful as other forms of pop culture like novels and movies.

EXPLOITING ANXIETY

"Video games have an immediacy other storytelling forms don't have," he said. "Unlike other forms of media, video games are experiential, putting you inside a fictional story that you can ... change to create your own story that feels alive."

What video games do better than other forms of storytelling, he said, is exploiting human anxiety, tension and emotions to ignite an intense experience in players.

"Pretty soon we are going to have a form of storytelling that will be able to do things that no other medium can do," he said, predicting the next decade will bring huge advances in how sophisticated video games become.

When video games began, they were simple diversions -- 1958's Tennis for Two simulated a game of tennis or ping-pong.

By the 1980s games like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong were goal-oriented with vague stories. By the 1990s, games such as Half Life and Resident Evil went beyond simple goals to add stories and narrative.

The 2000s brought games such as Bioshock and Grand Theft Auto, both from Take-Two Interactive Software, that added voice acting, cinematography and better animation. Those improvements made games appear more like movies and let players choose their own narrative and experience.

Now the business is worth billions of dollars and top games often make as much money as hit Hollywood movies.

"The next big challenge is now to get anxiety and emotional reactions (from players) without revolving around violence and physical confrontation," Bissell said.

Bissell writes that one evening when he was about to play Grand Theft Auto IV, a friend gave him some cocaine, helping him play the game for 30 hours straight. This sparked a months-long cocaine and game-playing binge.

Having now kicked cocaine, Bissell plans to get back to travel writing. As well as working on his video game, he said he is trying to complete a book he has been researching for nearly six years -- a travel book on the supposed final resting places of the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ.

(Reporting by Mark Egan, editing by Michelle Nichols and Bill Trott)

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