Tom Bissell was a productive, healthy, and somewhat disciplined young award-winning author, before his passion for Grand Theft Auto helped transform him into a cocaine-addled gaming addict.
As a travel writer with an eye for politics and history, Tom Bissell has visited Uzbekistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan, but it wasn't until his first forays into Vice City that he found himself lost. In his article "Video games: the addiction," published Sunday in The Observer, Bissell discusses at length how his life changed with the introduction of the Grand Theft Auto series.
The article begins with Bissell giving an account of how he used to productively spend his time.
Once upon a time I wrote in the morning, jogged in the late afternoon and spent most of my evenings reading. Once upon a time I wrote off as unproductive those days in which I had managed to put down "only" a thousand words. Once upon a time I played video games almost exclusively with friends. Once upon a time I did occasionally binge on games, but these binges rarely had less than a fortnight between them. Once upon a time I was, more or less, content.
That all began to change in 2002, when a friend convinced him to pick up Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Bissell found the freedom offered in the game compelling; almost intoxicating.
Never has a game felt so awesomely gratuitous. Never has a game felt so narcotic. When you stopped playing Vice City, its leash-snapped world somehow seemed to go on without you.
The insight that Bissell lends to each successive game in the series is quite enthralling. It's obvious to the reader that these games were much more to him than simple diversions, and his observations on everything from the simple pleasures of picking up a new set of clothes to darker fare - cop killing, prostitution - definitely bear reading.
It wasn't until Grand Theft Auto IV, however, that things took a turn for the worse.
When I was walking home from my neighbourhood game store with my reserved copy of GTA IV in hand, I called my friend to tell him. He let me know that, to celebrate the occasion, he was bringing over some "extra sweetener". My friend's taste in recreational drug abuse vastly exceeded my own, and this extra sweetener turned out to be an alarming quantity of cocaine, a substance with which I had one prior and unexpectedly amiable experience, though I had not seen a frangible white nugget of the stuff since.
Perhaps it was the combination of the drugs and the increased production values of this new iteration of the series, but something in Grand Theft Auto IV struck a chord in Bissell, travelling with him wherever he went. He moved several times over the course of the three years since GTA IV was released, each time promising himself he would leave the consoles behind; each time failing to live up to that promise. As for the cocaine, it almost seems as if cocaine was his co-pilot...his friend on the sofa next to him, laughing at his exploits and giving them some sort of greater meaning.
Soon I began to wonder why the only thing I seemed to like to do while on cocaine was play video games. And soon I realised what video games have in common with cocaine: video games, you see, have no edge. You have to appreciate them. They do not come to you.
There are times when I think GTA IV is the most colossal creative achievement of the last 25 years, times when I think of it as an unsurpassable example of what games can do, and times when I think of it as misguided and a failure. No matter what I think about GTA IV, or however I am currently regarding it, my throat gets a little drier, my head a little heavier, and I know I am also thinking about cocaine.
Now Bissell has put the cocaine and Grand Theft Auto both behind him, but the attachment he felt for the game's star, Niko Bellic, will always remain.
Niko was not my friend, but I felt for him, deeply. He was clearly having a hard go of it and did not always understand why. He was in a new place that did not make a lot of sense. He was trying, he was doing his best, but he was falling into habits and ways of being that did not reflect his best self. By the end of his long journey, Niko and I had been through a lot together.
Update: Tom Bissell dropped me a line in order to clarify a few things. First, he doesn't blame Grand Theft Auto for his cocaine addiction, a fact that seemed clear to me in his writings but might not have been quite as clear to you, our readers. Second, the writing is an excerpt from his upcoming book, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, which will be published in June. If the excerpt is any indication of the quality of the full work, I would definitely keep my eyes out for it.
Video games: the addiction [Guardian.co.uk]