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Even for the nongamer, there's fun in analyzing a phenomenon.

Review by Dan Zigmond

San Francisco Chronicle

With Pac-Man's 30th birthday behind us, this is a good time to reflect on the phenomenon of video games. What began as trivial diversions played on primitive computers is now a multibillion-dollar industry, absorbing countless hours from millions of players worldwide. What exactly have we gotten for all that time and money?

Quite a bit, according to Tom Bissell, whose fascinating book Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter is neither a history of the medium nor a survey of the industry nor a technical treatise on game design. Rather, it is "one man's opinions on what playing games feels like" and an examination of "why video games matter - and why they do not matter more."

The earliest video games took their inspiration from physical games: Pong, circa 1972, was electronic table tennis. They might have been colossal wastes of time (and quarters), but they had a simple, joyful purity to them. Extra Lives picks up roughly when video games broke from this innocent past.

As computer technology advanced, it became possible to approach a level of realism generally associated with film. Succeeding generations of video games began to include complex human characters, ever more lifelike scenery and, in particular, something like a real narrative. All of this fundamentally changed the way players experienced the games, and the question of just how successful these games have been at telling stories becomes Bissell's essential theme.

In a sense, Bissell's book is important precisely because video games do not matter, because one can go through life as a literate and perfectly functional adult - even in Silicon Valley - blissfully unaware of the evolution of first-person shooters from Wolfenstein 3D to Far Cry 2.

For such people, reading Extra Lives is like taking a private tour at a very exclusive museum, filled with lost masterpieces you never knew existed. You may not find yourself becoming a collector, but you won't soon forget the experience.

Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter

By Tom Bissell

Pantheon Books, 218 pages, $22.95