The Heavy Pour

Extra Lives

This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #111. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.


Three fingers of analysis when two will do.


Tom Bissell was 35 when he wrote Extra Lives: Why Videogames Matter, the age I am now. I read it not long after publication, some seven or eight years ago, when I was still young enough to judge the essays on his gaming habits harshly and decide that this guy had a serious videogame addiction (unlike my reasonable self) which kept his geekiness at a respectable distance from my own gamer identity. That he was impressively self-aware and able to write of his debilitating habits in well-structured, incisive prose was neither here nor there – as much as his book’s subtitle might hint at the medium’s potential for greatness, videogames were still firmly the stuff of nerds and/or losers. I should know: he may have almost a decade on me, but barring the earliest forays into programmed adventuring, my gaming evolution also progressed nearly parallel to the industry’s own coming of age.

In addition to regular gaming, I had been a productive writer since I was in grade school, though my work was relegated entirely to fiction and bad poetry. At 27 I wrote short stories and plugged away at a novel that would be a memoir if only I had the guts to talk frankly about things, but as it stood, I did not. I wrote around the edges of the important stuff, like Warhol outlining the bare parts of Do It Yourself (Sailboat) until you could tell exactly what was missing from the negative space, which made me more frightened than if I just spelled out my actual feelings on my childhood. It was as if the process of writing turned me to a sorcerer’s apprentice or even The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, a clumsy conjuror in too-big robes bringing impish spirits into my psychic plane to wreck havoc.

So here’s this dude writing deeply and intelligently about videogames and how they’re affecting his life. I finish the book as if I’m eating cotton candy at the state fair and think, we’re allowed to write about things like this, in this way? Bissell approaches his subjects like a literary critic, which both exalts and denigrates the things. He marvels at the emergent storytelling in Far Cry 2, letting a hint of existential dread seep into his analysis when he realizes the various inhabitants of a computer world can plug away at their daily business without his avatar being there to witness their movements. He also finds the dialogue of most games still generally sucks.

Sheik ran away from her own fate to keep herself safe and help the Hero of Time beat the usurper king who was sometimes a man, sometimes a giant pig-monster who hit too hard. I liked her. She seemed like she could probably beat the bad guy by herself, but was clever enough to get help.

I dig the juxtaposition of the lowbrow and highbrow in his reactions. I grew up a poor kid from a not-great family and had the singular purpose of escaping the town that succeeded in dragging its denizens ever deeper into the pit of itself, like so many demon broomsticks clawing at Mickey Mouse’s apprentice robes. I tunnel-visualized myself getting into a good college as far away as possible (it had to be good so there’d be no arguing with my going), and bound myself to the east coast when accepted by an Ivy early decision. I was weird and introverted, though, so when I got there I holed up in my dorm room playing videogames on my computer. I kept my trashy secret while learning how to read real literature – Dickens or whatever – the more legitimate stories humans have told themselves forever. Tom Bissell was my first exposure to a writer of note (published and everything!) asking “why not both?” I too wondered what made the game stories less legitimate.

Sometimes when I was a kid my mother would be in one of her moods and yell at me about some minor pre-teen offense then work backwards through my life from that point, reading through the laundry list of childish crimes I had committed against her, ending finally at the story of the labor pains alerting her to a secret knowledge that she was, in fact, birthing a monster. She’d holler for what seemed like hours and I’d sink silently into the sofa until whatever string tethering me to the here and now snapped and I’d be floating on the ceiling instead, still sinking, but upwards.

When she would finally release me to the confines of my bedroom I’d play Ocarina of Time and pretend I was Sheik, a ninja who was secretly Princess Zelda in disguise. Sheik ran away from her own fate to keep herself safe and help the Hero of Time beat the usurper king who was sometimes a man, sometimes a giant pig-monster who hit too hard. I liked her. She seemed like she could probably beat the bad guy by herself, but was clever enough to get help. Once a teacher asked me how I split my lip and I told her my mom did it with the back of her hand. She scolded me not to say things like that, that they weren’t funny.

Maybe if Tom Bissell could write about how he did too much cocaine while playing Grand Theft Auto, I could write about how I wasn’t good at getting help like Sheik was. I could keep my toothless autobiographical novel in its drawer and tell my story through other people’s pixelated fantasies and together, them and me and whoever else was reading, we’d help each other. We’d give each other some extra lives.


Sara Clemens thinks too much about things, generally. She runs a site called Videodame and retweets stuff on Twitter @thesaraclemens.

Ad Free, Feature, Games, Heavy Pour, Unwinnable Monthly