Video Games: The 21st Century's Fine Art Frontier A well-rounded, erudite American could reasonably be expected to have read To Kill A Mockingbird, and to have listened to some Miles Davis. But should "beat Red Dead Redemption" also be on that list? Tom Bissell, author of Extra Lives, and game designer Kellee Santiago weigh in.
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Video Games: The 21st Century's Fine Art Frontier

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Video Games: The 21st Century's Fine Art Frontier

Video Games: The 21st Century's Fine Art Frontier

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

Fifty-eight years ago, the first computer game with graphics appeared. "OXO" was a digital version of tic-tac-toe. You played it with the rotary dial from a telephone on an impossibly small screen.

Now video games, of course, are a massive industry that sold $18 billion worth of product last year, more than books, more than Hollywood, which raises a question. If you have to be fluent with "Casablanca" and "Citizen Kane" to be considered a cultured person, if you have to have read "Huckleberry Finn" and "To Kill a Mockingbird," do you also need to have played through "Red Dead Redemption," "Call of Duty" and "Braid"? And if you don't, what are you missing?

Why do video games matter? Are they just entertainment with lots of gore, pneumatic women and hokey dialogue? Beyond business, are they important? Why? 800-989-8255. Email us: You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the lack of urgency in the flood crisis in Pakistan. But first, writer Tom Bissell. His new book is "Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter," and he joins us today from the campus of Middlebury College in Vermont. Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. TOM BISSELL (Author, "Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter"): I'm delighted to be here, Neal. Thank you.

CONAN: And I wonder if you are, at least in part, in trying to write this in writing this book, trying to justify a zillion hours with an Xbox.

Mr. BISSELL: That is a great question, one that I've thought about a bit. But, you know, I've played games all my life, and I was somewhat on the down-low about it. I didn't really, you know, feel tremendously enthusiastic about sharing that information, especially when, like me, you have a reputation as a literary writer.

But in - around 2006, 2007, 2008, the games that I was playing, more and more often - not very often, and definitely not as often as I would like. But more and more often, the games I was playing were beginning to push the buttons in me that I normally associated with really good films or really good books, questions about form, about, you know, narrative meaning and about, you know, visual meaning and what all that meant.

And I realized that, you know, games were steadily creeping up to a place of, like, aesthetic seriousness, for lack of a better term, and I, you know, really wanted to write about that.

CONAN: And let us stipulate there are a lot of really dumb books and a lot of really dumb movies out there in the world. But aesthetic seriousness in video games? What are you talking about?

Mr. BISSELL: Well, there's a few games that have come out in the last few years that have really been pretty special. There's a few that, off the top of my head there's a game called "BioShock," which is, believe it or not, a game-world exploration of the social consequences inherent within Ayn Rand's objectivism.

And you think that sounds like a heady topic for a game, and indeed it is. But it sort of smuggles it into the form of a first-person shooter in which you run around in an underwater city shooting lightning out of your hands at monsters.

But, you know, underneath that level, there's this super-smart and really elegant and frequently very disturbing exploration of what an objectivist paradise would look like. And, of course, it's a very disturbing place and it's a very upsetting place.

So there's a whole realm, as you say - you know, games have run the whole spectrum that Hollywood films run. Some of the big blockbuster stuff is actually pretty smart, and some of the art-house stuff is actually incredibly drab and dreary. And then, you know, the opposite is true. Some of the art-house stuff is great, and some of the blockbuster stuff is stupid. And games sort of have the same spectrum of, you know, aesthetic viability.

CONAN: It's interesting. One of the things you write about is attending a panel discussion about characters in video games, and nobody mentions writing.

Mr. BISSELL: Yeah. This is well, I'm not sure if it's a problem, but it's definitely a feature of the contemporary video game industry. A lot of the people who get into it are people who are very good in terms of design, drawing, art, programming, a lot of very smart math people.

But I've gone to a lot of video game talks about, you know, narratological stuff, you know, storytelling matters and character matters. And it really does feel sometimes as though these men and women are speaking as though they've just discovered the wheel.

They're not people that have been trained to think in storytelling terms so much. And so a lot of the discoveries that game designers have been making in the last few years are stuff that, you know, Marlowe and Shakespeare were pretty much getting to the bottom of in the 1600s.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BISSELL: But I don't say that to, you know, to dismiss the game industry. It's an industry that has sort of had to discover its storytelling chops on the fly after it had become popular, and that's a weird burden to place on a medium.

CONAN: Well, you raised the question of there are inherent problems with the medium in terms of storytelling, and that is you go - tend to go from level to level and scenario to scenario, and in between, you've got to stop and explain what's going on at the next level. This explication, here's an example of that from a game called "Mass Effect."

(Soundbite of video game, "Mass Effect")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (As character) There they are, the Dantius Towers. We'll have to get up to the second tower and cross the bridge to the penthouse. There are mercs who will fight you every step, but it's your best chance.

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) Why don't we just save time and take the shuttle up?

Unidentified Woman #1: (As character) She's got mercs with rockets just waiting for you to try. You'd get maybe halfway up before they shot you down. Besides, your assassin won't go in that way. Best to go in low.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) All right. Let's do this.

Unidentified Woman #1: (As character) Hold on.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: Oh, let's rock and roll.

Mr. BISSELL: Oh, boy. You know, your toes just curl right into your shoes when you're listening to that. But I must say, in the context of playing the game, all that sounds like just nail-bitingly relevant information. You know, and games do have these total collapses of expository overload sometimes that they really only make sense within the context of playing them, you know.

And if playing a clip like that does sound really mortifying, but there is this interactive element, and because the things you have to do via the controller to produce action on screen is so often complicated that, you know, God help them, the games really just have to kind of hold your hand a little bit more than most other forms of art or entertainment find necessary.

CONAN: We're talking with Tom Bissell about his book "Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter." If you'd like to join the conversation: 800-989-8255. Email: Eric's on the line from Nashville.

ERIC (Caller): Hello. You guys have picked some great examples so far. I just wanted to ask your guest about the advances of technology and what effect that's had on storytelling and the stories that they're able to tell.

Mr. BISSELL: Well, Eric, that's a really fine question. And it's very much a double-edged sword, I think. In a lot of ways, technology has sort of blown the doors open of a lot of things games can do storytelling-wise. The worlds are much bigger. The span of characters you can talk to are much bigger. The realm of branching narrative possibilities is infinitely larger.

But at the same time, with all this increased processing power, I feel like a lot - in a lot of games, more care goes into making sure their hair looks good rather than making sure the stuff that they're telling you actually has any kind of dramatic oomph to it, you know.

And so I think that as games get better-looking, sometimes I feel like games' creative priorities get a little screwed up in that relationship - that equation, I should say.

CONAN: Okay, Eric, thank you.

ERIC: Oh, thank you very much.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to this is David, David with us from Minneapolis.

DAVID (Caller): Hi. Thanks so much for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

DAVID: I'd just like to I mean, it's my opinion that part of the problem is that the video game industry is - it's so new. And it seems to me that, you know, the best story in a video game that I can remember from anytime recently has been "Uncharted 2," which is kind of like an Indiana Jones kind of a thing.

But at the same time, you see movies like "Inception," which, to me, borrow heavily from video-game-style storytelling, where so much of the movie is about teaching the viewer the rules of the world and...

CONAN: A lot of explication in that movie, too. Yes, we noticed that.

DAVID: Yeah. And I'm just wondering if you think that the video games are going to move away from borrowing from Hollywood so much, because it seems to me that that's about 80 percent of video game stories. And I'll hop off the line.

CONAN: All right, thanks.

Mr. BISSELL: I will say my personal belief in this is that I have a lot of fun with some of the big, Hollywood-style blockbuster games, which are very much interactive experiences where you feel like an action hero in a movie. Those are really fun. They can be really fine. "Uncharted 2" is, to me, an example of a game that does the Indiana Jones-style, you know, story as well as you can do it.

But I also think those games are essentially a kind of creative dead end. And one of the people I talk to in my book is my favorite video game designer, a guy named Clint Hocking, who used to work for Ubisoft Montreal and now works for LucasArts. And I think Clint is just a real -a figure of real creative integrity in video games today.

And he says, you know, basically, the problem with the Hollywood-style storytelling game is that we really already know how good that kind of story can be. We've seen it. We've seen really great Hollywood-style films.

And Clint's passion and my passion is for a game that doesn't follow that model, a game that's not so much a story that pushes you through this maze in which you're confronted by an array of enemies that you have to defeat to move on and experience more of the story, but Clint's model is a kind of system through which, you know, through very cleverly placed baits by the author figure, the game creator, you wander through a world or a story that you create through your own actions and that gives you feeling of agency. And you sort of tell your own story through the medium of the game, and the story feels real and meaningful.

Unfortunately, very few games have managed to do that really well, but my belief - and Clint's belief, I think - is that that is the most promising storytelling path that, you know, really sophisticated games, games that really have the opportunity to address something about, you know, life and art and the person playing them are really going to follow, to be to really achieve what I think this medium can do better than any other medium.

CONAN: One of the, well, the most recent blockbuster is, we previously mentioned "Red Dead Redemption," one of the relatively rare video games that takes place in the Old West and adopts a lot of its well, just take a listen.

(Soundbite of video game, "Red Dead Redemption")

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) Let's clear out Pike's Basin once and for all.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Unidentified Man #2: (As character) Oh, my good God.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (As character) I can hear more gunshots. Quick, let's go help my deputies.

CONAN: And the reviews of this "Red Dead Redemption," Tom Bissell, suggested that this was a huge, open expanse for gamers to explore, that nobody's experience is likely to be the same.

Mr. BISSELL: Yeah, it's true. It's a pretty magnificent game, I have to say. I've had some experiences playing "Red Dead," both me and my girlfriend. We both played it through on separate occasions, and both of us were marveling, like, how different our experiences were and how many moments of - you know, away from the dictated storytelling of the game in which, you know, it tells you to do this and save this person or go do this, but moments where you're just sort of moving through this vast, unbelievably varied world on your horse, and maybe the sun's going down, and you see the river, and you see some birds flying by.

And if you have a decent, you know, stereo system and a nice-sized television, man, I tell you, you really vanish into that tableau, and it feels, like, really beautiful sometimes.

There's moments of real quietness and stillness in that game that are not really like anything else I've played.

CONAN: We're talking about why video games matter. Just entertainment? Are they important? Why? 800-989-8255. Email us: More with Tom Bissell in a moment. His book is entitled "Extra Lives."

I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

For those of you who curl your lip at video games, listen up. Our guest, Tom Bissell, argues some games are better than the best fiction he's read. You can read more about why in an excerpt from his book at our website: Click on TALK OF THE NATION. The book is "Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter."

In a few moments, we'll talk with a game developer. And tell us: Why do video games matter to you? Are they just entertainment, or are they important, and why? 800-989-8255. Email: And let's go next to Holly, Holly with us from Minneapolis.

HOLLY (Caller): Hi. How are you doing?

CONAN: Very well. Thanks.

HOLLY: I really think that video games matter. My husband and I are both in our 40s, and when our little girls were little, he wanted a son to follow in his "D&D" footsteps. But he got little girls.

And they wanted to play Nintendo 8-bit with him, and he and I both agreed the only way they could play was if they could read the words. And back on the 8-bit, I mean, it was word, word, word.

So our little girls, by the time they were four, could read words like resilience, and they could understand what they were reading because we didn't let them go through and just play like I see a lot of kids with their GameBoys doing now.

And I think if the moms or the dads took time with their kids to sit aside and say, okay, I'll let you play this if you can read this to me and tell me what it means.

And for us, we've grown as a gaming family. Through the years, we did "D&D." We did the girls did their own Barbie kind of "D&D," where they set aside when they were younger. And then they've moved forward onto, like, werewolf stuff. Now, we all play "World of Warcraft," as well as we all play multiple different games like Xbox.

We are - we can't wait for "Halo" to come out. My daughter, when she was 12, beat a whole bunch of boys in the "Halo 2" competition that they had locally. And I think that, as a parent, if you want your kids to play video games or not, you still have to control how every other aspect of their life works. If you want - video games can be good, and they can be bad. But I think they can be a good learning experience if you control them as the parent and take care of your child.

CONAN: And it also sounds, Holly, like you accept the idea that for kids of your kids' generation, if they're not playing video games, they're not partaking in their generations' what their generation does.

HOLLY: Well, and one of the things I get really mad at about my girlfriends, and I share this with them. Some of them complain that their husbands are out, you know, with the golf, with their, you know, and at the bar and bowling and whatever. And I say when I want my husband, I know where he is. He's in the office, and he can stop between bosses and help me get this thing done or whatever.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HOLLY: He's always home. We know how much we're spending on these things. We can manage our budget. I'm not worried about, you know, where he is, whether he's safe on the road. Or even with the girls, a lot of the times when we play "World of Warcraft" as a family, because we have one kid in college, she's off away from home. We spend that time, family together, in a guild, talking in a little remote world that can be so beautiful.

And we can't wait for "Red Dead Redemption" to come out, and we're also playing "D&D Online." And I think it's a time where we can all spend together, a couple hours a day. I'm not saying play 16, 20 hours. But, you know, it's very important for today's teens to learn control and restraint, and that's a good place for them to learn it - better than out in the real world where their currency could get lost.

They learn the value of economics by having to buy things from an auction house. They learn the value of where you and what you're doing in space and time in space, and standing in red circles in fire is bad. Well, in life, you have to know how to spend your money and what's good to buy and what's a good place to save your money for and, you know, saving up for something really important and expensive, and then to be aware of your surroundings.

And I think that you can - if you take that time to sit outside of the game along with your kids and spend that experience that you have, okay, this is what you learned in the game. This is what we have outside of the game. Can you relate to me something?

And talk to them. And share with them, and not only do you learn more about your kids. You learn about their life, you spend time together as a family, and video games matter. And it doesn't matter what anybody says. They're not going to go away. They're only going to get bigger, and if you don't embrace it, I think that you're going to alienate your kids.

CONAN: Holly, thanks very much. We'll let you get back to the game.

HOLLY: Thanks.

CONAN: Bye-bye. We are familiar with the sound of many games that, well, they involve aliens and grinding things and, well, you've got to destroy.

(Soundbite of video game, "Gears of War")

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of evil laughter)

CONAN: That from "Gears of War." There are other kinds of games, though, that can sound very different.

(Soundbite of video game, "Flower")

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: A taste of the game "Flowers" designed by Kellee Santiago. She's cofounder and president of thatgamecompany, and joins us today from our studios at NPR West. Nice to have you with us today.

Ms. KELLEE SANTIAGO (Co-founder, President, thatgamecompany): Thanks so much for having me.

CONAN: And I know that the future of the video game and the kinds of video games and the ways to tell stories, these are things you think about a lot.

Ms. SANTIAGO: Yes, absolutely. Thatgamecompany was founded to create games that we felt would push the communicative boundaries of video games. My business partner, Jenova Chen, and myself met at the University of Southern California in the Interactive Media Division.

And we really both came to the program from different backgrounds, but were exposed to the possibilities of games. And certainly the level that they're at now just opens up so many possibilities.

And we kind of wanted to make games that kept showing and pushing those boundaries of what's possible in a video game.

CONAN: And I know that you've also thought about a conundrum that I know Tom Bissell writes about in his book, whereas games really have to find a new level if they're going to hang onto the audiences that they've developed.

Ms. SANTIAGO: Yes, and include and be more inclusive of global audiences as a whole, you know, really break down this barrier between what's a gamer and a non-gamer. We really think that a non-gamer is just someone who hasn't found a game that they've liked yet, which is very feasible because the emotional spectrum in video games has been relatively narrow. So we aim to make games that we think are maybe more relevant or thought-provoking.

CONAN: And, well, I know, Tom Bissell, to bring you back into the conversation, you write about a game called "Braid," and Kellee Santiago, you've thought about that one, too - games that are different in purpose, really, than the familiar first-person shooter, the "Wolfenstein" scenario.

Ms. SANTIAGO: Yes. And I think "Braid" is a great example because, like us, Jonathan Blow, the developer of "Braid," was really empowered by the digital distribution, this ability that we now have to make our games and just make them available online, which takes down a huge barrier to development entry, which was having to manage buying disks and getting into stores and negotiating those deals.

And so now there's a greater possibility of these games that are made by one or just a few people, and they have a very strong creative vision that comes through. And "Braid" is a good example, in that Jonathan's personality and his expression comes through. And I think every aspect of that game - the audio, the visuals, as well as the mechanics themselves - are intertwined extremely tightly.

CONAN: Tom, "Braid" is a kind of game, but also, Mr. Blow has some, I thought, interesting critiques of the industry as an industry.

Mr. BISSELL: He does. You know, I agree with Kellee, and let me say that I adore your games, and really, it's a thrill to be on this show with you - that, you know, games can communicate all sorts of things: enchantment, self-disgust. You know, they can disturb. They can compel.

But there's a kind of emotion that a game can communicate that is very hard to find an analog to in other media. And I think "Flower" does this. I think "Braid" does this. This new game that recently came out, "Limbo," does this, which is this strange place somewhere between a fairy tale, you know, a more traditional game that has rules, something between visual art.

And it's this strange intersection of a wordless kind of communication that's going on between you and a system in which you interact, and you get this flow of action and reaction in which you're suddenly not interacting with the system. You kind of are the system.

And it's a real wonderful, like, feeling of merging that you have with the game, and it's very hard to call those things games.

I would never call "Flower" a game so much as just an experience that you have. And it's one of the first games I take and show people when, you know, you want to get away from the more traditional kind of physical, confrontation-based model of game play and really show something - really show someone something that seems to work on a completely different, and I would say, you know, much more aesthetically interesting level - although I do love shooting things.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BISSELL: I would like to make sure that that's completely clear.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Was that what you were trying, the effect you were trying to get, Kellee Santiago?

Ms. SANTIAGO: Yeah. And thank you so much for those compliments. That's really - I'm really honored.

Yeah. I would say we do have an experiential approach to our games. When we consider the experience, how we begin any project is from an emotion or an idea that we think would be interesting to have an interactive experience with.

With "Flower," it was this idea of giving players an escape through their PlayStation 3 and exploring these themes of balance and harmony in a game. And through that, then we develop the mechanics and the visuals and audio to all support that.

CONAN: And that idea of language that Tom was talking about earlier, do you think that you are in the process - you and others, I mean not just you but - of inventing a new language that's not directly tied to that cinematic language we're often so familiar with?

Ms. SANTIAGO: Absolutely. I mean, it's just - completely, it's when we're - when - one of the reasons that it gets so difficult to do experimental and new games is because you are simultaneously inventing a new language as you go. I think the rules, so to speak, of game making aren't really set in stone yet, which is also why it's just an exciting time to be making them and playing them.

CONAN: So like Shakespeare, you get to make up words as you go along.

Ms. SANTIAGO: Yeah. Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Cameron(ph) in San Francisco. As a big gamer going into my later 20s, it's very hard to talk about my passion for gaming without getting very self-conscious and feel judged. I have heard stories of people who don't want knowing - don't want people knowing they game even to the extent that it might affect their ability to get a job due to the majority of people regarding gaming. But people fail to realize boys and girls who are becoming men and women grew up playing video games and will continue to do so. I encourage myself and others to embrace their gaming lifestyle.

Is there - Tom Bissell, is there some aspect of gamers on that we have to embrace here?

Mr. BISSELL: Well, you know, there is a sense that I think a lot of the shame that comes from people who play a lot of games, and there aren't real senses of this shame, it's this weird thing that games do. And unlike, like, bad fiction or bad film, it's very easy for me to pick up a game I'm not even enjoying very much and just keep playing it. And that's a weird thing. If there's a movie that's on that I'm not liking, I turn it off. If there's a book that I'm detesting, I close it.

And so there is this weird way that games work on you that can become oddly and compulsively joyless. And so I just have a very strict game-playing rule now that when I start to not like it and when I stop being interested in it, I stop. I get that thing out of my system and out of my life. But...

CONAN: You're not compelled to go all the way to the last level and save the princess?

Mr. BISSELL: No, no. I have to be, like, pretty engaged by some aspect of the game and I have to keep playing it until I see how this works out, you know, to its completion. But that said, there's something very obvious to me that, you know, this is very much a generational thing. And I suspect it goes back to the, you know, Protestant work ethic and Max Weber or something like that. But I remember there was a controversy a few - like a couple of years ago when some vets of the Iraq war came back and they consulted with a game company and they made something called "Six Days in Fallujah," which was, you know, a pretty horrifying, documentary-style, horror game in which, you know, you were a participant in the Marines' fight to retake Fallujah. And a lot of this game, basically, got shut down because a lot of people viewed it as exploitative.

But I read interviews with some of the marines themselves, and their point of view is that this is the medium in which they process, you know, their experience, that this seemed like the most natural medium for them to try to create, you know, sense from the senselessness of war.

And it may have been an exploitative game. I wouldn't know. I haven't played it. But I remember being very disappointed that these people who's, you know, most - the quickest medium that they retreated to when trying to process, you know, something as awful as the war experience was a game that could actually treat war as something other than a shooting gallery. I just remember being very bummed out by the generational divide that was very obviously at work in that dynamic.

CONAN: We're talking with Tom Bissell, the author of "Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter." Also with us, Kellee Santiago, co-founder and president of thatgamecompany, creator of award-winning games including "Cloud" and "Flower." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get Dennis(ph) on the line. Dennis with us from East St. Louis in Illinois.

DENNIS (Caller): Hi, Dennis here. I was just listening to the what you talk about art developing through video games and technologies a lot. A lot of that to happen from the old days of Atari and ColecoVision before that, but something that I hadn't heard you talk about was voice acting in the video games and how a lot of popular actors have been in the past and are getting more engaged now with voice acting, which I think brings a whole lot of realism and engagement to a game from, like, "Fallout" and Ron Perlman, and then eventually, Malcolm McDowell. And new games like that from the old soundbites of "Zelda" and those things, no sound and just all text when the character is talking until you're engaged and you feel like you're someone listening not just a soundbite.

CONAN: Well, of course, they won't achieve the true form of art until they start using a lot of radio announcers. But, Tom...

(Soundbite of laughter)


CONAN: Tom Bissell, you write about voice acting as a craft and, indeed, an art.

Mr. BISSELL: Yeah. I think the early models, to use a lot of big name voice actors to do a lot of parts in games. But, you know, more and more, I'm seeing that some of the best performances recently in narrative game, narrative style, storytelling games that use voice actors are people that are may be not so well known. The lead voice actor in "Red Dead Redemption" - damn, whose name I'm forgetting - he turned in where I thought was just one of the most jaw-droppingly effecting video game vocal performances I've ever heard. I thought he was just magnificent.

And I think a lot of movie actors used to just, you know, kind of roll into the studio, kind of hung over, looked - you know, read their lines and, you know, probably didn't want to work too hard because a lot of, you know, movie...

CONAN: The words on the script they saw were free money.

Mr. BISSELL: Yeah. Free money words, yeah. And I think, you know, I think most game people have wised up to the fact that it's - really doesn't matter too figs if you've got a big name guy in your game, that you really want the person who's going to give it their all and give the best performance.

CONAN: From the designer's point of view, Kellee Santiago, well, "Flower" certainly doesn't rely a lot on voices.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SANTIAGO: Yeah. We try to cut localization costs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SANTIAGO: But I - to the caller's point, I agree that I think it's one of those aspects of the artistry of game making that we're seeing really evolve. And for acting, specifically, I could probably draw a comparison between when acting as a craft sort of shifted from theater into film and how you kind of have specific skills for film acting that are different than theater. And we're seeing, through video games with the voice over as well as the motion capture animations, these new acting skills evolve that feed into the final product.

CONAN: We can't end this conversation without this email from Jerry Lyn(ph) or Terry Lyn(ph), excuse me. Like a lot of mothers, I detest video games, but my son and his friends had become very well-rounded young men and women because many of the games have caused them to do research on various subjects the video games have introduced them to. "Assassin's Creed" piqued their interest in the Knight's Templar and the Spanish Inquisition. Another game brought about an interest in Greek and Roman mythology. Inasmuch as they drive me to distraction, video games have allowed my son and his friends to grow as individuals rather than stunted as is often the hit that video games take.

But thank you both very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Mr. BISSELL: It's my pleasure. Thank you.

Ms. SANTIAGO: Thank you.

CONAN: Our guests were Tom Bissell, author of "Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter." He joined us from Middlebury College in Vermont. And Kellee Santiago, cofounder and president of thatgamecompany, their games include "Cloud" and "Flower." She joined us from the studios at NPR West in Culver City, California.

Coming up, more than 20 million people now affected by devastating floods in Pakistan, so why is aid flowing in at just a trickle. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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