Heather Chaplin



Tom Bissell


Three ways of looking at video games:
Flaccid, juvenile male fantasies made virtual
Problem-solving training in an increasingly militarized society
A new medium for creativity and enrichment

I first met Heather Chaplin through a friend, though we did not instantly become close. For a long while she was, in my mind, “that cool, good-lookin’ girl who is into video games.” This is not to say I walk around equating moral worth or coolness with good looks; it is merely in recognition of the fact that cool, good-lookin’, girl, and video games do not often find themselves in the same sentence with the same referent. Video games began as a form intended for children and young people. Over the last forty years, games have grown up in many ways. They are smarter, more sophisticated, and more absorbing than ever, but they still suffer from the origins of their nativity, both in terms of their affect and in how they are perceived. Playing a lot of games is rarely viewed as a productive way for adults to spend time. (But then, reading a lot of novels was once attacked as a similarly frivolous waste.) I long wondered when someone would come along to treat the emerging art form of games with the respect, and skepticism, it deserved. Then I read Heather’s book Smartbomb: The Quest for Art, Entertainment, and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution, and realized that here, finally, was the book I had been waiting for. Rigorous, funny, and endlessly insightful, Smartbomb is, in my mind, one of the best books on the subject ever written.

Since then, we have talked much about games and gamed together. Heather’s view of games is intellectual and organic, critical and appreciative, smart and wise. In addition, she once wrote a piece about video-game addiction that began and ended with a case study of one T. Bissell. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, GQ, and Details, and she contributes often to All Things Considered. She is currently working on a book about women and their rising economic status that Hyperion will publish in 2010. She insists there is nothing in it about games; I say, We’ll see. This conversation was enabled by the wonderful people at Skype, with Heather talking from her beautiful apartment in Brooklyn, New York, and me from my apartment in Tallinn, Estonia.

—Tom Bissell


TOM BISSELL: I was embedded with the Marines in Iraq in 2005. I was going on patrol with these guys, these MPs, driving outside the wire, around the base, stopping cars, driving through villages, etc. So I’m in Humvees with guys sitting in their fifty-cal turrets, pointing guns at people pretty regularly. Then we’d go back to their billet and they’d turn on the PlayStation 2 and we’d play Desert Storm II: Back to Baghdad, in which you’re driving around in a Humvee with someone manning the fifty-cal turret—odd, to say the least. I don’t think playing those games made those guys want to kill Iraqis any more than they already did or did not want to kill Iraqis. The more I thought about it, though, the more I wondered if the difference between that and, say, being Wilfred Owen in World War I, getting mustard-gassed in the trenches, and then going off to read The Iliad, was maybe not so great. Obviously, they’re different in all sorts of ways, but what I mean is the emotional necessity of finding something martial with which to relax your mind when you’re already deeply engaged in a martial pursuit.

HEATHER CHAPLIN: Maybe there’s something relaxing about playing at war instead of being at it. Although I also wonder if it’s just the opposite—if the games just keep you pumped up and ready to be at war twenty-four hours a day. And to go back to the “show me the games of your children, and I’ll show you the next hundred years” thing, you could rationally look around and say we’re moving into an increasingly militarized society. I mean, the army advertises in gaming magazines like crazy and shows up at first-person shooter competitions. This colonel I interviewed once broke down for me exactly what video games foster above all else—the ability, amid a sea of chaos, to discern, in seconds, what’s important and what’s not. That’s the reason so many grown-ups feel only fear when they look at a video-game screen—there’s so much going on and they don’t know how to begin to make that kind of instantaneous decision. But any modern-day kid can see the same screen and know immediately what he’s supposed to do and how—no matter how much chaos there appears to be. That’s a good skill for a soldier to have. It also sounds like a pretty good skill for any twenty-first-century citizen to have, considering the amount of information with which we’re surrounded and how fast it flies.

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Tom Bissell is the author of Chasing the Sea; Speak, Commentary (with Jeff Alexander); God Lives in St. Petersburg; and The Father of All Things. He is working on a long book about the tombs of the Twelve Apostles entitled Bones That Shine Like Fire and a much shorter book about video games entitled Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter—and Why They Don’t Matter More.

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