A Videogame Canon

What are the greatest or most important videogames of all time? Which games are most deserving of archival priority, and which should we recognize as part of cultural or institutional knowledge?

These are the questions asked in 2007 by a committee of game scholars, developers and journalists (Henry Lowood,Warren Spector, Steve Meretzky, Matteo Bittanti, and Christopher Grant). The result, in no particular order:

Spacewar!, Zork, Sensible Soccer, Civilization, Warcraft, SimCity, Doom, Tetris, Super Mario Bros. 3, and Star Raiders.

Certainly, any top ten list will generate some controversy. Some of those games listed above are no-brainers, other's less so. Still others are real head scratchers.

Anyone familiar with the discourse of literary studies over the past few decades will be well aware of the intellectual and political stakes in canon-formation, but a simple look through Digg or Cracked.com reveals how much appeal a top-ten list can have.

More importantly, the kinds of questions a game canon raises are useful pedagogical ones, and so this past semester I led a seminar with our mission to investigate them further. In what follows, I want to reflect on the seminar -- which I think was moderately successful -- and reveal our findings: a new list of games to add to the original ten.

I teach at the University of Mary Washington (in the English Department), an this course was part of our campus-wide "First-Year Seminar" program. The idea is to take a small group of students, 15 per section, and undertake an interesting advanced topic in the professor's field of expertise. (In some ways, this class acts as an introduction to college life, but instead of teaching things like "study skills," the focus is on scholarship.) I had two sections, which left me with about 30 students total.

As I've done in the past, I built a course website in Drupal and had my students create blog entries. It's all online here, so if you're interested, you're welcome to view the schedule, syllabus, and the blogging. One could re-create much of the semester from the content on the website.

Curricularly speaking, I decided to shape the semester as an introduction to Game Studies, and for this I chose a wide-ranging selection of scholarship, anchored by the textbook Understanding Video Games, which I chose for its broadly introductory approach. Most of my students were indeed new to college, and some were, frankly, under-prepared for the rigor of advanced scholarship. I think UVG served these students pretty well, but I may re-think it in future iterations of the seminar.

The assignments of the semester centered around the canon, first analyzing the games on the original list, and then producing a list of our own. Working in teams, students divided up the ten games and prepared "exhibits" around these games, including images, a bibliography, and short analytical essays. Next, each student selected a game to be added to a new canon, and they each made their case through oral presentations and persuasive essays. A vote determined which 10 of those thirty to canonize, and we canonized them by preparing new exhibits based on these games. You can view the result here, or if you'd rather not click the link, here they are in no particular order (link go to each game's respective exhibit):

Pokémon Thumbnail

Pokemon Red and Blue

Legend of Zelda Thumbnail

Legend of Zelda

Half-Life Thumbnail

Half-Life

Super Mario 64 Thumbnail

Super Mario 64

Donkey Kong Thumbnail

Donkey Kong

Colossal Cave Adventure Thumbnail

Colossal Cave Adventure

Super Mario Kart Thumbnail

Super Mario Kart

Guitar Hero Thumbnail

Guitar Hero

Goldeneye Thumbnail

Goldeneye

PONG Thumbnail

PONG



Ultimately, though I agree with most of the selections of the list, I'm unsatisfied with the intellectual context we put them in throughout the semester. Emblematic of this was a tension I sensed on several occasions where students entered an area of inquiry related to videogames with an assumption that their having played a lot of videogames made them experts. For example, the task of selecting a game for canonization should probably require some sense of scope broader than oneself, but some of the games proposed for canon were, I suspect, simply the favorite game of the one proposing it.

Now, any list is subjective to some extent, so avoiding that entirely isn't necessarily the goal. Rather, the process of decision-making that negotiates a compromise been subjective opinion and objective value (whatever that is) mirrors the cultural evaluation of videogames altogether -- that is, the sense in which games move from being a genre of entertainment to a medium of expression. I had hoped this latter realization would emerge organically in the process of canon selection within our class, but the fact that it didn't really go as far as I'd hoped really isn't my students' faults. I didn't set them up for success by making the schedule too tight and, honestly, giving them too much work to do. I make no apology for teaching a difficult class, but the amoung of writing became a burden (to me as well) that detracted from deeper reflection and critical analysis.

Anyway, I offer the list above for your consideration, and I do so with the caveat that I really don't believe in canon. Of course, game preservation absulutely should be an institutional undertaking, and we do have to start somewhere. But I reject the idea that coming up with a list like this proves that videogames are worth studying in a serious manner. I won't go as far as to criticize the initial game canonizers, because their work succeeded in starting an interesting conversation.

But for me, the process is more important than that product, which is why I'm someone disappointed, pedagogically, in the seminar. I'll get to do it again, though, hopefully, so I look forward to revamping it. Mainly, I want to consider a different (or no) textbook, a closer focus on the original 10 games, a more thorough introduction to the concerns surrounding literary canon, and more non-writing assignments.

Novices, Games, and Scholars

Hey Zach, I'm sure you already know about the Game Studies article Novices, Gamers, and Scholars: Exploring the Challenges of Teaching About Games by José P. Zagal and Amy Bruckman, but I thought I'd mention it here, in case it's new to some of your readers. Zagal and Bruckman wrestle with the same problem you mentioned: that students' notion of videogame expertise does not necessarily translate over into scholarly or critical expertise.

The most useful part of the article is Zagal and Bruckman's rundown of what constitutes a "naïve understanding of games" (this comes toward the end of the article, just before the conclusion). For my videogame studies course in Spring 2010, I'm intending on bringing in their list to my class, and sharing it with my students. And maybe even (and here I'm planning my course off the cuff as I write) tasking the students with developing their own exercises for fellow classmates. The assignment would challenge students to address specific problems identified by Zagal and Bruckman, and then create pedagogical activities that would shift a naïve/artificial/superficial understanding of games to a more critical understanding.

Questions

I made a similar experience in a game studies class I attended. Almost everyone was having problems going beyond what they know are their favourite games. For such a small canon (have you seen a ten most important movies list?) I think it's best to focus on landmarks. In what way exactly did the game change the industry or what we expect from future games. Which leads me right to my first question. I know one shouldn't discuss these lists too much but I still have to wonder why Guitar Hero was included, especially as I can't find good reasons on the exhibit page either.
- It is not the first bemani game, not even close
- It also wasn't the worldwide breakthrough for that genre, that would be Dance Dance Revolution
- It is not the first party music game to reach a wide audience either, that would be SingStar
- It is not even the first guitar based bemani game too
- It is not the first game to expand beyond one instrument, that's Rock Band

Which landmarks exactly are the reasons for including it? I'd be very interested in them :) It can't just be current popularity, that's not good enough for a 10 game canon, is it?

A few more remarks rather than questions:
- GoldenEye should be either "GoldenEye", "GoldenEye 007" or "007: GoldenEye"
- Legend of Zelda (besides missing the "The") should be renamed "The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time" judging by the exhibit page. Otherwise the name refers to the first Zelda game on the NES.
- there's nothing one can do about it but this list has the same problem as all of them, it's focusing on the American market too much. I'd be very interested in a canon which was created by western gamers and Japanese ones
- do you have any idea what the students favorite gaming platform is? The list seems to have a slight bias towards console games rather than computer games. With just ten games it's hard to avoid though!

Answers

Jan wrote:
I know one shouldn't discuss these lists too much but I still have to wonder why Guitar Hero was included, especially as I can't find good reasons on the exhibit page either.

It's OK to discuss these lists, since that's the whole point of the seminar! In fact, the very difficulties you point to (how to prioritize influence over popularity, avoiding bias, an arbitrarily short list) are exactly what give it pedagogical traction. Even if our final list does reflect some Americentric or console-centric bias, that's OKl. None of us (certainly not me or my students) has a broad enough view to avoid someone else's accusation of bias, which is the whole problem with canon anyway, and a big reason why we don't typically think of canons to inform the same cultural-gatekeeping they used to.

Anyway, for more on Guitar Hero and all of the other games proposed, you can view the complete set of proposals here (click the thumbnail). And keep in mind that the primary audience for these documents is other members of the class. In other words, they're attempting to recruit votes for the games from their peers, who likely share similar assumptions (which you might call biases, for example).

Jan wrote:
do you have any idea what the students favorite gaming platform is? The list seems to have a slight bias towards console games rather than computer games.

Consoles definitely, though there were a few strong PC-gamer voices. Among consoles, many seemed to be Nintendo fans, generally speaking.

I didn't mention any demographics in my original post, so maybe it's worth noting here that the female:male ration was 11:19, out of a Freshman class with a balance skewing more 6:4. Most of my students identified as gamers (girls included), or at least acknowledged that gaming (again, typically console) was a significant part of their lives for some reason. Finally, most if not all were born after 1990, so that necessarily gives them a different perspective from me on qualifiers like "classic." Given that, I think it's actually encouraging how many games on the proposed list (the original 10) dated from the 80s or 70s.

A Computer Games "Canon"

I have an issue with the very idea of cannon, but I still want to play. Here's a personal cannon of personal computer games, in ludic response to Zach's class' N64-heavy canon

(in a very vague semblance of chronological order:)

  1. Zork
    not the 1st, but almost certainly the most played and best remembered text adventure, and the genre of Interactive Fiction lives on
  2. Rogue
    created the top-down dungeon genre that games like the Diabo games have mined so profitably - and, like IF, roguelikes are a "technologically surpassed" genre that is still alive, due to Nethack and other open-source and freeware titles
  3. Wizardry
    graphical 1st person dungeoncrawlers more-or-less start here - if you love or hate the Elder Scroll games, look here for roots
  4. King's Quest
    there was a time when graphical adventure games ruled, and this is where they all began - in many ways, Roberta Williams presided over the rise and fall of the genre
  5. Prince of Persia
    probably the first significant side-scroller for the PC, and the first motion-capture game that I know of
  6. Wolfenstein 3d
    the basics of FPS gameplay, and most of the nuances, haven't changed since ID's breakthrough title - not the first FPS, but the first one that everyone took notice of
  7. Dune II
    all the early RTS games have interface problems and weak AI - Dune II is no exception, but I think it precedes Warcraft (not sure, not going to check right now), and is the only one I've ever played in which the wonky RTS resource-collection scheme (raw goods = instant money?) ever made sense
  8. UFO: Enemy Unknown (US title: X-Com)
    simultaneously one of the crowning achievements of turn-based strategy gaming and an original challenge to the assumptions of the genre (especially for those unfamiliar with the previous work of the Gollup brothers)
  9. Civilization
    definitive of large-scale turn-based strategy
  10. Everquest
    not the first MMORPG, but boy did they get the pavlovian formula right

...as you may have noticed by now, this isn't a list of personal favorites. The only game on this list that I personally love is X-Com, and the more I think about it, the less I can justify it being there (perhaps it SHOULD have founded a genre, but it didn't).

Without intending to, I've betrayed why I distrust canons so much: they tend to uphold and justify the status quo, as if the present state of things was desirable. The history of gaming, like that of literature, is largely one of unrealized potential and discounted brilliance, or at least it will be, once the field matures a bit (give it a generation).

N64-heaviness

The fact that the list is N64-heavy may have to do with the fact that most undergraduates and new graduate students first really engaged with games in a meaningful way on the N64. In 1996, when it was released, I was 9 years old; most undergraduates were between the ages of 4 and 9. This is the first console that they remember. Even I, who can remember the SNES and Sega Genesis very clearly, only got to play one or two games on those consoles (Sonic!) because I was so young and didn't have nearly the interest level or ability to really enjoy more. I've had to really go outside my element to play earlier games, seek out emulators (and, where possible, seek out the old consoles themselves - but that isn't always possible).

I've noticed that this is something that not everybody keeps in mind: the young people who are working on video games today may be interested in and excited about video games before the N64, but they didn't encounter them as early, and almost certainly aren't as familiar with them.

N64-heaviness

The fact that the list is N64-heavy may have to do with the fact that most undergraduates and new graduate students first really engaged with games in a meaningful way on the N64. In 1996, when it was released, I was 9 years old; most undergraduates were between the ages of 4 and 9. This is the first console that they remember. Even I, who can remember the SNES and Sega Genesis very clearly, only got to play one or two games on those consoles (Sonic!) because I was so young and didn't have nearly the interest level or ability to really enjoy more. I've had to really go outside my element to play earlier games, seek out emulators (and, where possible, seek out the old consoles themselves - but that isn't always possible).

I've noticed that this is something that not everybody keeps in mind: the young people who are working on video games today may be interested in and excited about video games before the N64, but they didn't encounter them as early, and almost certainly aren't as familiar with them.

Top Ten Lists

If I had to describe top ten lists made by an institution or group of people rather than the opinion of one individual in one word, that word would be "bad." This opinion may just stem from the very top ten list I helped create for Mary Washington's own The Bullet, which I was more than unsatisfied with (http://tinyurl.com/ylqyhw8). For some reason, and this goes for myself too, everyone is sort of fascinated by these lists, whether it be for games, film, music, or any sort of art. Theorizing on the spot, I'd say it has something to do with confirming one's own beliefs, but I'm no psychologist so take that with a grain of salt.

The initial top ten list presented here, the scholarly one (I am only familiar with Warren Spector here, DeusEx4LYFE) is probably great, though out of the list I've only played Super Mario Bros. 3, Tetris, and Doom. I've played SimCity 2 and Civilization IV though, if that counts. The main problem with a list comprised of old games like this is that it undermines more recent games, even if they are also old by today's standards. I have a sneaking suspicion that they are the games that inspired the people that were making the list. Regardless, using important people to make lists like this, especially ones so short, is arbitrary. You need way more games to get any sense of the landscape of video game canon. In film, the equivalent is AFI's top 100 movies list, which is silly in its habit of completely removing films rather than moving them down the list, and not actually a good example. Plus having #1 be more presitigious than #100, and indeed having numbers on your list in general makes the list mean less. "Oh, it's too bad The Godfather got #2, I was really rooting for it."

Regarding your class list, I have to express my disappointment with the lack of strong narratives, with the maybe-exception of Half-Life, but that is only notable for the way the narrative is presented (exceptionally) rather than the narrative itself (kill the aliens/dystopia), but even for this it certainly does deserve to be on a list like this, as the ways in which it changed stories in video games are around all the time, especially the calm and friendly interactive intro. The merit of having a class compile a list like this is in seeing what students think are the most important. The downside of teaching a class on video games is in how long most video games are, ranging from 10-100 hours if it's a single player experience, sort of forcing the students to draw upon previous knowledge. Then again, I suppose many books take just as long to read, and for many classes students are forced to buy them, so I guess there isn't really a problem. Did your students have to play the games in the original list or just study second-hand accounts?

Also, most kids will present mainstream games to the class without any knowledge of the lesser known, but much more impactful games, in addition to the problem you mentioned with kids just picking their favorite games. I don't know if this is a problem that can be corrected with anything except assigning various games to play...which would just bias them further, now that I think of it. I don't know, it's a hard thing teaching a class on canonical games when your classes have only played the video game equivalent of the Harry Potter books rather than Catcher in the Rye or The Man Who was Thursday. Not that the Harry Potter books are bad, but you know what I mean. I hope.

As a subjective side note, I am also disappointed that Planescape: Torment is not mentioned. Despite it being my favorite game, I insist that it has the deepest narrative of any game ever made (to my knowledge). I could teach a class on that game like classes are taught about the Divine Comedy.

Cannon and medium

I do agree with the rest of the opinions regarding the canonization of creative works. It's audacious of a small group to dictate their standards to others. However, creating a list of recommended works makes a medium much more approachable for burgeoning scholars and the general public. As with other media, especially film, recommendations are usually made with certain criteria in mind. Films such as Vertov's "Man With a Movie Camera", Eisenstein's "Battleship Potempkin" and Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" are selected on the categorical, historical, and technical benchmarks that they have set. Other lauded films are selected based on their narrative merits. These were considered when I began my research on First-Person Shooters and Performance Theory.

It's useful to have prime examples in a given medium that work well, they should however, be flexible and open to constant revision. I also ask for others to consider the possibility that for Digital Games, that any attempts to create a list must be made at the level of genre. A sharper focus may create a more definitive and academically sound canon.

R.

Mechanic over history

Besides convincing me to buy wedding dresses and jewelry, this string has got me thinking about how we would want to approach a video game canon. I am currently working on a couple of scholarly projects involving sports games, so I was deeply disappointed to see a total lack of sports games on most of the lists (though Sensible Soccer seems like a uniquely bizarre choice to represent sports games in such a list). I think the reason these lists seem frustrating, though, is that the lists tend to be structured on mechanical development, rather than cultural importance. I guess what I'm saying is, just because a game was the first of a particular subgenre (i.e. Prince of Persia, Dune II, etc.), does not necessarily make it canonical. Thus, I would argue that World of Warcraft deserves a place in the canon due to its immense cultural effect, rather than Everquest, a game that is generally unknown outside of fan communities. Similarly, the entire Madden series deserves a place in the canon for its role in the mainstreaming of video game culture and multiplayer gaming. Now, I am not saying that merely the most popular games are the most important, and therefore the most canonical. Yet, when we study video games, we study not only the formal development of game mechanics, but also the development of a larger video game culture.

Perhaps the most apt way of putting this is to revert to the literary canon. Books enter the literary canon due to a combination of innovation, popularity, and skill. Similarly, we should consider each game for what it provides to the critical discourse, be it a massively popular game or a deeply innovative simulation.

Sharpening our focus

I believe that you make a a valid claim, Doom is a more culturally resonant work than, let's say, Catacomb 3-D (Romero & Carmack's early venture into FPSs). However, consideration must be made for mechanics and aesthetics within a given genre. Doom made the FPS a huge success; but Wolfenstein had all the basic genre conventions in place. I would argue (and I have) that Wolfenstein is a valid compromise because even though it was not the first FPS, it set the groundwork for the innovation that would come later. WoW may be more relevant and may be dramatically better than Everquest, EQ does deserve a place in digital game canon. EQ was not the first graphic MUD, but it made huge strides in realizing an immersive, real-time MUD experience. Everquest, in the same way that Wolfenstein is important for the FPS genre, really paved the way for WoW, Guild Wars and countless others.

I will concede that this may be a case of comparing apples and oranges as FPSs and MMORPGs are fairly different. I still hypothesize that digital games should be analyzed within the context of their given genres. I also write this coming from a position of viewing digital games as text, excluding paratext. With this view, I agree with your last point on your comparison to literary canon. Finding out how to do this, however, is why we are all here having these discussions.

That's not a picture of the

That's not a picture of the Legend of Zelda, which came out on the NES in 1986: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legend_of_zelda . That is a picture of the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time for the N64.

Legend of Zelda (Series)

You are correct. What's probably not clear from the list above is that what was "canonized" here was the entire Zelda series, much like the original list canonizes Warcraft as a series.