Books

Tom Bissell: The Mercury Interview

A New Way of Thinking (and Writing) about Videogames

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EARLIER THIS WEEK, I interviewed Portland writer/professor/gamer Tom Bissell about his new book Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter. Bissell's book is absolutely fantastic, and a short version of my interview with him can be found here.

Between gameplay sessions of Dead Space and Demon Souls, Bissell and I talked for like an hour and a half, though, and he said a lot of smart stuff—so if you simply CANNOT GET ENOUGH OF TOM BISSELL TALKING ABOUT VIDEOGAMES, here's a slightly abridged transcript of that conversation. We also talk about thermoses!

MERCURY: Something that's struck me about writing about videogames is that, like videogames themselves, it's in its nascent stages. What inspired you to write Extra Lives?

TOM BISSELL: The book came out for a lot of reasons. I think when the Xbox and PS3 generation of games started coming out, it was the first time I really began to realize, "Y'know, these games are something more than a way to spend enjoyable time with your friends and stuff." Obviously, games had been getting more sophisticated for a long time, but the first time I personally—your friendly neighborhood writer—noticed that games were doing stuff that was really compelling on a formal level to me was about 2006, 2007. And the first game that really drove that home for me was BioShock. I realize I'm somewhat late to the party on that one, but BioShock was the first game that made me realize, "I'm not vaguely ashamed to be playing this." Or, at least, I wasn't vaguely ashamed that often.

So I wrote this piece about Gears of War 2 for the New Yorker that's in the book, and I thought that that was just gonna be a fun way to justify playing lots of games. Y'know, in my own mind, [it] was, "Oh, I wrote this really fun profile for the New Yorker about this videogame designer, Cliff Bleszinski, a guy who I really like and respect, and I really liked that game." Just in terms of sheer videogame intensity, I think the first Gears of War is fucking phenomenal.

The thing I think of when I think of that game is purity. It's fun and smart and goofy as hell, but—

But it's smart about the way it's goofy.

Yeah, it owns it. There's that point in the second one where you have to fight your way out of a giant slug, and it's like, "You thought we were making a bloody game? Well, look at this."

I'm one of the few people... I think Gears 1 is a much better game than Gears 2. I just think it's smarter, I think it's a lot more elliptical, I think the more in-depth they had to get with the story the more hideously inadequate the story seems, etc. So I think Gears 1—like Dead Space, like you say—there's a purity to it, and it's sophisticated in a way that is very hard to explain to somebody who's never played games. But anyone who knows games plays those [Gears] games and realizes, "This is playing to every strength of this medium. It's smart and funny and gripping and affecting in a way that's very hard to explain." And so that's a pure game experience to me.

So! Writing about Cliff Bleszinski [and] spending time with these guys at Epic [Games, the development studio behind Gears] just made me think, "There's this whole world here that is not being written about." And I think it's not being written about because a lot of game journalists [are] just too deep in the world. The game writing that goes on in the game sites and the game magazines is really good for what it is, y'know? I mean, not really good, c'mon—but [while] some magazines are better than others and some writers are better than others, for the most part, it sets out to... give you a sense of what's going on from an insider perspective, and [offer] a consumer's guide kind of piece of writing telling you what to like or not to like about this game, and what's good and what's not good. What isn't really in any of these experiences is what the emotional experience [of a game is], and what [are] the aesthetic realizations and the kind of personal emotional reactions that you have. There's no personal account. There's not even a place for it, really, in any of these magazines.

What I discovered working on the book was that a lot of that writing is out there, but most of it is on blogs, and most of it's done for free, and so most of it is done by people who don't really have the time and luxury to spend hours and days crafting these first-person accounts of what games feel like—because there's no way to make a living off that. It's very hard to have people justify spending all their time writing these traditional, kind of lit-critty pieces about game experiences. Jamen Brophy-Warren, the guy who's the editor of Kill Screen, makes the great point that one of the many reasons there's not a really strong critical tradition of writing about games is that games rose at the same time traditional media outlets were collapsing. So all the really good writing on this subject is mostly done by passionate amateurs, and mostly done for free, and all of the paying, traditional venues for this sort of writing are all almost completely devoted to the tech and/or consumer experience. So it's not surprising that accounts like mine are kind of few and far between.

I also think that there has been a stigma about writing about this topic for people like me, who are, say, literary writers—I don't think it's really been a viable thing to admit about yourself publicly that you spend huge amounts of time shooting necromoprhs with a pulse rifle, y'know?

So! The book came out of that Gears of War 2/New Yorker experience, [and me] realizing how rich and interesting this world was, combined with my frustration that the kind of things I wanted to read about games were so few and far between. And my own realization that, "Well, shit, I should write the kind of book I'm looking for on this subject."

Do you see smarter, more emotionally and aesthetically based writing about videogames becoming more common?

I don't know. I have a harder and harder time imagining how writers are going to make a living at all. Obviously, people will, but it's definitely gonna be harder and weirder. Like, even the top-flight magazines like the New Yorker are paying considerably less than what they used to. You used to be able to make a really good living as a magazine writer if you could get the right assignments and get your name on the right editors' lists. My phone used to ring a lot—and I fully realize I'm one of the lucky young writers in the country in this respect. I haven't had an assignment in three years. No one has called me to go do something in three years. So if I'm one of the lucky ones, and I'm feeling more and more cornered and doubtful about how one does this, then I can only assume that it's just as bad for everyone else, if not far worse.

So! I have a lot of guarded pessimism. Not like mindless, bottomless pessimism, but I'm guardedly pessimistic about where all of this is going in general. That said, the responses to the pieces of the book that've come out online—I've gotten responses to these things that're really not like the responses to other work I've done. I believe that there is a real hunger about this sort of writing for this subject out there, and I think it's really gonna behoove people to have, frankly, the bizarre, bug-eyed fanaticism to assume that their strange virtual experiences can be made into interesting, literary experiences for an audience.

It's a weird kind of writing exercise: How do you take something that didn't happen and make it into something that's interesting and fun for someone for whom it didn't happen, and then address all these very abstract, geeky, technological problems in ways that feel artistically and aesthetically relevant to someone who cares about design and stuff like that? It's hard, and it's weird.

It's hard and it's weird because there isn't a model for it yet. I'm tempted to say you could write about a videogame like you could write about a movie—but that doesn't work, because your Fable II experience is going to be vastly different from my Fable II experience. But most videogame writing is written like a review: whether you're going to enjoy it based on how I played it.

Yeah, you're right. So I think what you have to do is just write as funny and as entertaining and penetrating and insightful kind of piece [as you can] about the range of potential experiences a game gives you. The game writing I like best has something funny to say about the experience, has something funny to say about the ways narrative and gameplay are incompatible, and has some comment about that.

Here's the big thing: The problem with game stories is that the game medium is, in itself, uniquely inhospitable to narrative. I don't think there's really any point to disputing that. So you have two solutions: You try to figure out ways, in game design, to make that process a lot less combative, and ways to hide it, like Dead Space does—clever ways to take that tension between narrative and gameplay and actually do smart things with it. Or you just simply accept that it's such an innate part of the medium that it's not really a deficiency.

I really think those are the only two choices. To pretend [that conflict] is not there.... Like, I'm playing Alan Wake right now, and I'm just really distracted by the fact that I keep having to collect thermoses! I'm less disturbed by the fact I have to burn the darkness off of these possessed people coming at me with my flashlight before I can shoot them—that feels sort of kinetically interesting! But when I'm running and I'm like "Ooh, a thermos!" and I pick it up? There's just something about that that is so stupid and so weird.

Your animal reaction that the game is training you to have is, "Thermos? Stop!"

Yeah!

The thing I think of when that sort of stuff comes up is that there's an army of programmers designing that shit from the get-go. "Is this thermos in a noticeable enough spot? Are people gonna see this thermos?"

Yeah. "Boy, whoever finds this thermos...!"

I understand where that tradition of game design comes from, but I just think for certain types of games... for games that say, "Okay, we're gonna take our narrative pretty seriously here. Storytelling is actually something we're stressing. Character and story, that's what we're putting on the front burner here." Messing that up with a bunch of ridiculous videogame conventions like collectibles? The fact that more game designers don't understand the diametrically opposed relationship between those two things boggles my mind. I don't get it.

You talk a lot about BioWare in the book, and what's interesting to me is BioWare's made their games' dialogue into a game in and of itself. Mass Effect 2 is shooter heavy, but it's ultimately a game about having conversations. So they've broken it into sequences: Here's the part where you're talking to people, and here's another part where you're diving for cover and shooting.

But the fact they fit as well as they do is incredible.

Yeah. You also talk in the book about developers having control during cutscenes, and gamers having control during everything else. Do you see anyone being able to subvert that or push that into more engaging territory?

I'm agnostic on the cutscene question. I just played Red Dead Redemption, and I thought those cutscenes were so well acted and well done. I got so invested in the Marston character, and thought he was so beautifully captured. And yes, I realize that there's so many dumb things about the way the narrative in that game works, but just when Marston's talking in that heartsick, hoarse voice he has, and like the little moments, the way he would just look sometimes at people... I thought, "Well fuck, if you're gonna do a cutscene, this is how do you it." You commit to it. You commit 100 percent. 'Cause anything less than a 100 [percent] committed-to cutscene is a bad cartoon.

If you're gonna have cutscenes, have them. If you're gonna do anything less than that with cutscenes, I don't really see the point.

And in Red Dead, the things you learn about that character spill into the gameplay. That characterization bleeds into the game, and integrates the cutscenes in a way that isn't, "Why can't I skip this?"

Yeah, and it's obviously absurd that this guy on this depressing quest to find his old partners... the fact that he would stop in the middle of the desert in Mexico and help someone find an ancestral treasure is narratively bizarre. There's a stranger quest like 75 percent of the way through the game, and when my Marston got asked to do it, he went [rolls eyes, sighs], "Ugh!" And I thought, "Okay, good! You're acknowledging that this is absurd." And that felt like enough for me.

I think a game like Far Cry 2, or Dead Space, which have cutscenes or quasi-cutscenes but they don't feel like it... Yeah, Far Cry 2's cutscenes are kind of wooden, and the interactions are very stiff, but because immersion is, I think, the most important part of the game experience, sacrificing that sort of actorly or dramatic fluidity that we get from a really well-acted cutscene to preserve that feeling of immersion in the game world is a reasonable sacrifice to make. Games like Dead Space and Far Cry 2 that dispense with the cutscenes and just have a scripted event that you're a participant in... to me, I think that is the most promising direction for game design to drift into. I think it's the most interesting, and I think it plays to medium's strengths.

I say this to my fiction writing students a lot: The point of working in a medium is to figure out the things a medium does really well and constantly highlight them. Fiction does any number of things really well: Interiority, that deadpan philosophical understatement kind of humor. But a kind of frantic, sitcom-like humor, it doesn't do well at all. And if fiction doesn't do that well, fiction should stay away from that. Videogames don't do well with a kind of patient, scene-by-scene, movie style, "This is the character, and this is what he's all about, and blah blah blah." Because of all the weird things gameplay and game narratives do... games don't do character-based narrative very well. Some games do. Mass Effect does. Red Dead does. But most don't.

And there's a fundamental stumbling block: Even if they do, that's not what most people are playing them for. You could have a game full of beautiful cutscenes that tell an incredible story, but that isn't why people are buying it. People buy novels and games for different reasons.

If I were in charge of the way videogame design would go, for every first-person game, I would go, "Okay, our protagonist is not going to talk." All my most memorable first-person experiences—BioShock, Half Life 2: Episode 2, Far Cry 2—use that silent protagonist device, I find so haunting and good and weird. Not because I want to be that person—it's not that easy, it's not that simple. There's just one less abstraction between you and the world....

Did you play Heavy Rain? Heavy Rain is a really interesting game that is unforgivably clumsy and stupid in so many ways and terribly written and frequently camps in the very lowest point in the uncanny valley. But the thing I loved about it is that it really took its storytelling seriously, and it managed to introduce very tense gameplay elements into situations that felt imaginably normal. The way it exploited sources of worry and anxiety and tension—it managed to get anxiety out of situations that videogames, as far as I know, spent almost no time thinking about how to exploit before. And that was that game's hugest, most wonderful thing for me. That style of game, when it's actually done by somebody—and no offense to [Heavy Rain developer] David Cage, who's someone I really respect—but when that kind of game is written by somebody who's got a slightly better ear for writing than he does, it'll be really special.

Is there anyone working today that you think has that necessary ear for dialogue, that eye for characterization?

I think the guys at BioWare are really good. The fact that you take those characters in Mass Effect as seriously as you do, when they're just giant lizards and stuff, is pretty amazing.

Yeah, like the part of Mass Effect you write about in the book—when characters start dying, and you realize that things you've done in a dozen other games with no consequence have consequences here? I'll buy anything BioWare does, and I don't have that relationship with any other studio.

Dragon Age really tested my patience for BioWare's style.

Dragon Age felt like it was 10 years old. It just felt... antiquated.

It did, in so many ways. And it frequently failed the girlfriend test—that when my girlfriend would be behind me, and I'd hear these ridiculous [in-game] conversations, I would literally just be embarrassed to be sitting here playing it. For all the good BioWare does with their games, there's an occasional Dragon Age that comes out and ruins it.

I love Valve. I think Valve is fucking phenomenal. I would love to sit in on those meetings at Valve and hear the way they do things. I think Ubisoft has got some great people—that second Prince of Persia reboot that came out a few years ago? That was a beautiful, beautiful, phenomenal game. That and Mirror's Edge are two of the games that [when] I hear game people take a shit on [them], I actually want to fight them.

Yeah. I can see why those games stand out as black sheep, 'cause they're not like anything else on the shelves. But what they do, they do so well. And you can see the effort, the genuineness. That earns a lot of credit as far as I'm concerned.

You're obviously someone who takes the medium seriously, and when you see a game shining a light at a place where the medium has not had a light shined so directly before? It's a great feeling.

Portal had that same sort of reaction.

Now everyone loves Portal. But they didn't!

I actually stayed away from Portal because I was like, "I don't know if that game's for me." And then I finally played it, and 20 minutes into it, I was like "This is absolutely amazing." It's an experience that only videogames can give you.

In terms of hiding story and having interactivity go along with story, Portal is my favorite example. Mass Effect kicks into two game modes, but Portal is such an integrated experience.

This is the thing: Mass Effect and Uncharted 2 say, "We're storytelling games. We take that seriously. And we're also shooters, and we take that seriously. And we want to do both of those things as well as we can." No matter how well they do them—and both of them do them incredibly well—there's no escaping the fact that there's a real and fundamental incompatibility between those two things that they do. Like, the fact that [Uncharted protagonist] Nathan Drake just killed 73 people, and he's still this joke-crackin' [guy]. I'm not looking for seamlessness, it's not that, 'cause Indiana Jones kills a lot of people too—

That's the first thing I thought when you said that!

But he doesn't kill as many!

He doesn't kill as many, and it's not like you have to pick up a book and read before going back to the action scenes.

Right! So! No matter how well those games do that sort of thing, there still is, for anyone who stops to think about it, a very real problem at the heart of those games. Portal, and to a large extent Dead Space, do not have that problem, because they figure out ways to either hide it so well or design their stories in a way that you aren't aware of it. I hate the "games as art" question, but I think that question will seem even dumber than it does today when game designers in general figure out that the Portal method and the Portal solution is clearly the most artistically viable one. That might sound really pretentious.

That's actually one of the things I really liked about the book: You didn't have a chapter that was like, "And here's where I fight Roger Ebert about whether or not games are art."

The question "Are games art?" is not a good question, because there's too many orbital questions you first have to answer: "Well, what is art to you?" and blah blah blah. Here's the question that I don't think really anyone, Roger Ebert included, could say no to: "Is the videogame medium a viable one for an artist?" That's a different question. And who could say no to that? That's a much harder question to say no to.

I think when the general perception of videogames was Mortal Kombat, it would have been easy for people to say no to that. But I think showing somebody something like Portal, and saying, "Look at what's going into this, and tell me what's going into this, and tell me that's not made by an artist."

I do realize that different kinds of art have different kinds of goals, and it's pretty hard to imagine a videogame artist saying, "I don't care if this is marketable, I'm going to make it anyway." I don't think the videogame industry has that much room for those kinds of people yet. Certainly in the indie scene there are a lot of those sort of people.

When it pops out—like with Braid or Portal—you can see that niche. But how many more people are aware of this year's iteration of Madden than driving themselves crazy with Braid?

I use the term "popular art" a lot, which I think is a much less sticky [term]. It avoids overstating the case of an experience like Dead Space. [Dead Space] is obviously not the same sort of artistic experience you go to if you want to read a novel. It's a quantifiably different kind of experience.

[Here was a lengthy digression that somehow involved both Werner Herzog and Iron Man 2. I'll spare you the nerdy details, but all you need to know is that at some point, Bissell and I started talking about videogames again.]

TOM BISSELL: What's so funny to me is when you hear game people talk and they're like, "Well, we brought a real writer in on this one. We brought in a comic book writer."

MERCURY: I always have a weird reaction when that comes up, 'cause I've written comics. And I also have read enough pulp sci-fi that when the Gears guys go, "We got Karen Traviss to write Gears 3, guys!" I'm not entirely sold. It's like, guys, I'm your target audience. I play videogames for their stories, I read comics, and you're not even fooling me when you brag, "Look who we got to do dialogue for us!"

Well, people like us are in the minority. People who consume videogames and have what I would say is a moderate to very rich life within other mediums, I think we may be the minority.

This is an overgeneralization, but I realize what the majority is like whenever I go into a GameStop. There's something about those stores that feels so antithetical to the reasons I enjoy playing games.

I went into one with my friend yesterday to buy Alan Wake, and I actually got into a little fight with the girl [working there]. She's like, "Do you want it used? It's 10 dollars cheaper used." And I said, "No, I'd like to buy it new." And she's like, "Well, um...."

They sell you on it. "You do want it used, you just don't know it yet!"

I actually said to her, "You are aware that your economic health is directly related to the economic health of this industry that you are seriously harming with this [resale] practice." And the other guy [working] is all, "Well, record stores...." And I was like, "Yeah, 'cause that's worked out so well for that industry!"

I was like, guys, seriously, I know this is not your policy, I know it's GameStop's policy, but it is so shortsighted to insist on selling used games before new ones. It's crazy. I want to write the GameStop CEO a letter and just say, "What are you thinking?"

I think they know they're on borrowed time.

That's it, isn't it?

As soon as Xbox Live turned on, they were like, "Oh, people are buying games from the internet." Their business was over. They're getting as much from it while they can.

I never thought that. This is like Hitler's scorched earth policy!

Realistically, they know they've got this generation, maybe next generation. By then—

—everything will be streamed.

People aren't buying physical media anymore. Videogame stores are like, "Fuck it." They see the end of the road. That's my cynical take, anyway.

I think you're absolutely right.

[SHIT YES I AM. Anyway, another digression happened here, after which I asked Bissell about how being a fiction writer influences the way he thinks of games and game narratives.]

I love videogame narrative, but I don't judge it by the standards of fiction. 'Cause you would drive yourself crazy. It's obviously not as psychologically acute or as emotionally encompassing. I think those are two good phrases to use to characterize the fictional storytelling experience as opposed to the videogame storytelling experience.

So what does the videogame storytelling experience do really well? It handles ambiguity tremendously well. It handles stress and tension and it handles reveal moments really well. It handles panic really well. And so videogame narratives that work with the tools that they have to make those sorts of experiences of central relevance [work].

I think my background as a fiction writer and thinking about what fiction does well makes me someone who maybe looks at videogame narratives slightly more complicatedly than people who might be inclined to dismiss it on the fiction side, or videogame people who think about it just as deeply, but I don't think that they have that narrative appetite... and I think videogame storytelling desperately needs people who have done something other than watched a lot of action films. And if you disagree with that, then that's fine—but then we're gonna have a medium that's really fun and cool, but will never be more than this.

In your book, it is [Braid creator] Jonathan Blow who points out that action movies shouldn't be what developers are copying. Because best-case scenario, they end up copying it really well... and you have an action movie.

Yeah. And I don't agree with him 100 percent about his idea about narrative and challenge being incompatible. I think it's a fascinating thought, and I take him very seriously and I really like him, but I don't think he's 100 percent right. But that said, he's a lot more right than he's not.

And it's good that he's thinking about that stuff.

Yeah. And he studied literature in college, and he was a fuckin' fiction writer himself at one point. The good news is that I think people like us are now—we all take this medium seriously, we come to it with different things. Ten years from now, I think it's going to be a totally different ballgame. People coming up, going through college programs studying videogames academically—to me, there's every sign that really interesting things are on the verge of changing.

Like what?

The fact that Pantheon books was willing to do a book like this. That the New Yorker ran that piece.

What were those conversations like?

They were totally into it. My editor is this guy named Leo Carey, who's a wonderful guy who'd been wanting me to get something in the magazine for a while, and I'd had a few ideas, none of which had really worked out. And then I wrote him an email and said, "Look, this new videogame is coming out, it's kind of an emblematically good videogame, and the guy who's the developer is this and this, and he's like this and this, and I'd done a bunch of research on him, and I thought, nobody's really done, in mainstream journalism, a piece like this before about a videogame developer." Leo said, "I love this idea," took it to [New Yorker Editor] David Remnick... and even he said, "Yeah, let's do this."

So it seems to me, even people temperamentally inclined to dismiss games seem growingly aware—and tell me if you think that I'm wrong on this—that there is something kind of interesting that this medium has going for it.

[ANOTHER DIGRESSION here, during which I rambled incessantly about my particular way of playing Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption. I eventually bust out of it and ask Bissell if, as a fiction writer and a gamer, he'd ever be interested in writing a game.]

TOM BISSELL: Well, it's funny—um, I sort of am right now. I can't talk about it, because I've signed non-disclosure agreements, which the game industry is absolutely crazy about, but it's a game that is being funded in a really weird way, who knows if it'll actually come together, but they've got enough money to make a demo. I'm one of the three writers on it. So far, it seems unbelievably complicated.

How many more layers are you working with than you would with a standard authorial project?

Well, this is a licensed game, I can say that. So we have a certain amount of direction, but there's gonna be lots of freedom within that direction. I'm just getting my first tasks right now. One of the first things I'm doing is writing six or seven alternate things for characters that you stare at too long to say to you. So you come up with three or four, and you're like "Okay, that's easy."

And then you're like, "I'm beginning to understand why so much of this is so fucking tedious! Because it's not that easy to come up with six or seven different things to say!"

Are you enjoying that challenge?

It hasn't really begun yet. It's gonna be a very, very, very ambitious game, and if it works, it could be great—it could be something I'm very proud to be associated with. But it's gonna be really hard, and it's gonna be really weird.

The person who brought me into this game gave me some of his company's design documents for a previous game; I was given almost 800 pages of documents for a game of pretty high ambition. The degree to which every single element in that game had to be planned, conceptualized, [and] described, all for the benefit of the programmers and the artists, who had to not just make it look good or sound good.... It has to make sense within this piece of programming, this bizarre, artificial tower of numerals. These documents were planning for stuff and describing stuff [went] into a level of detail—one living creature in the game, say, had a 45-page design document devoted to it: How it behaved. What it did at night. What happened when you attacked it. What if you saw three of them together, and how they behaved as opposed to 10 of them. What happens to [the player] in close-contact melee combat. How they respond to each and every individual weapon! I was looking at these documents, and I was like, "Oh my fucking god."

Of course if you had told me this, I wouldn't have been surprised. It makes perfect sense. And we have to write all these. It's the first thing you've gotta do. They aren't fun to write, and they aren't very rewarding to write, they're incredibly tedious. You're setting out rules. And you don't need to know anything about programming to do this—you just have to have a sense for systems, a systemic understanding.

So this is the stage of the process that we're about to enter, and it doesn't sound that fun. It actually sounds terrifying. You think it's gonna be "Oh, I get to write lines of dialogue! Fun!" No. For this situation, everybody is involved with this level of creative input. I'm excited, but excited is not the only thing I am.

It's easy to think games as final products, not as incredibly complicated computer programs. I'm used to thinking of games from a storytelling perspective, not as a huge math problem that solves itself.

How about this: There's a vehicle. How many bullets does it take before it starts to smoke? How many more bullets does it take before that vehicle's smoke turns to black smoke? Once it does turn to black smoke, how many seconds does it take for that vehicle to blow up? If it does blow up, how much damage does it deal to people 10 feet away from it? How much damage does it deal to people 20 feet away from it? That's just one little tiny thing that can happen to this vehicle.

I'd never really thought of that. It's a series of statistical models, and it makes every bit of sense to me now that people who love rolling 20-sided die [make games]. That's actually the design principle of a lot of these experiences. You have to do that, because if you didn't it'd be fucking chaos and it wouldn't work. It's weird, isn't it?

In the book, most of what you really go into are singleplayer games and story-driven experiences.

Well, they're easier to write about. I have a very funny story: A guy who I don't even know sent me an email. Like a 45-year-old guy. He said, "Look, I don't know you, you don't know me, we have friends in common. My son in high school wrote an essay about playing Call of Duty multiplayer that I actually think is really good. But his teacher was incredibly mean about it and said it belonged on some internet blog. Would you read it and tell me what you think?" So I read like this 17-year-old kid's mediation on what it meant to play multiplayer games, and it was fuckin' really smart, and really funny, and really interesting. So I wrote this kid's dad back, and said, "This is a real piece of writing here, and you can tell that fuckin' English teacher that world-renowned writer Tom Bissell says so!"

But the funny thing about it was, reading it, I realized that there's so little good writing about the multiplayer experience because it's even more hostile to literary encapsulation than singleplayer experiences are. At least singleplayer experiences have a through line.

I play a lot of multiplayer games, a lot of death-match stuff. I really like them, but here's the funny thing: I play four hours of death match, when I get done, I feel a little sick to my stomach, I feel like I've kinda wasted my time, and I kind of hate myself. [But] if I spend four hours in an active, imaginative process interacting with a narrative, I never feel bad about that.

There's a sense of accomplishment.

Well, you feel like you're gotten something out of it. But when I've just killed a bunch of guys in Modern Warfare 2 and maybe unlocked a few more, like, call signs....

I realized at one point I was playing hours and hours and hours, 'cause I was trying to unlock a certain call sign I really liked. And that's when I thought to myself, "This is the most colossal waste of my time I could possibly ask for." And it really made me upset. So I haven't played Call of Duty for a while.

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