Thursday, March 25, 2010

Finding the edge

Last Sunday, The Observer published "Videogames: The addiction," by Tom Bissell, a story that deserves a read, despite what its title would suggest. It is a document of the author's descent into a state of crippling addiction, one in which perpetual scapegoat Grand Theft Auto IV plays a commanding part. It is also a heart-wrenching self-investigation, one that reconciles the writer's the author's attraction to cocaine and his fascination with the unique experience contemporary videogames offer. There are of course, the unavoidable parallels between Bissell's downturn and the imposed degeneracy of his favorite on screen persona, Niko Bellic. But these are ancillary to the author's relationship to the game that characterized his time in the wilderness (and it is apparent that this part of his life is not necessarily behind him).
Perhaps given the amount of time that has elapsed, Bissell handles the particulars of his decline matter-of-factly. From 2001 to 2006 he led a productive, disciplined and invigorating life, devoted almost entirely to the pangs of his literary appetite. At the time he wrote this piece in 2010, he could barely put his 360 controller down long enough to park himself in front of his keyboard before deadline. He is however resolute in his simultaneous reverence for his once superlative writing capacity and the avenues of experience his more recent gamer lifestyle has afforded him. He does not discount the damage his addiction has obviously wrought: "I do know that video games have enriched my life. Of that I have no doubt. They have also done damage to my life. Of that I have no doubt." The GTA games that preceded it captivated him with their promise and partial delivery of near absolute freedom. The parameters of the games provided boundaries within which certain sensations of freedoms were profligate. They appealed to Bissell overwhelmingly, at the eventual expense of his actual freedom. He began to literally flee his videogame addiction, moving around the world in a vain attempt to jumpstart the rigor of his former studies. He would find his games at each new location. He describes how his move to Las Vegas would also introduce him to cocaine, exacerbating his affliction. The ensuing meditation on his experiences with videogames and cocaine both individually and in tandem provides a decidedly sober affirmation of his respect for gaming as a medium. It is difficult to imagine the depths of addiction would yield such eloquent and concise thinking on the role videogames serve for their players. But Bissell has found an enlightening sense of the relationship, which he is expanding on in a book from which this passage is excerpted, Extra Lives: Why Videogames Matter. I will certainly be looking forward to his other discoveries.

Olly Moss's other classic video game covers can be found here.