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"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." - George Santayanna

A requiem for a Video Game Canon, but for one much different then the top 10 list Henry Lowood came up with.

Gareth Mensah, Blogger

November 12, 2010

7 Min Read

Is Tetris really one of the top 10 greatest game ever made? Is Sensible World of Soccer the standard for all sport simulations? There’s a lot of top 10 lists out there, some including your favorite RPG, others including games no one in their right mind has been playing for the last decade.

But not all lists are born equal, some matter more than others. In fact, there is one special list of video games, a list above all others, a list better known as The Canon. Here’s the list in question:

1. Spacewar!
2. Star Raiders
3. Zork
4. Tetris
5. SimCity
6. Super Mario Bros. 3
7. Civilization I/II
8. Doom
9. Warcraft series
10. Sensible World of Soccer

This is not another top 10 list made by group of game designers, hardcore gamers or journalists with too much time on their hands. This is not some long-held secret list made by a cult figure or founding father of video gaming.

And this is definitely not the result of a representational vote taken by a given group of video gamers. And yet this is the official list of video games “with cultural significance and historical significance” created by Stanford University academic Henry Lowood, and submitted to the Library of Congress.

recent article by UK scholar Jonathan McCalmont illustrated the dilemma of having or not having a Canon for video games, and ultimately came to the conclusion that to have “a canon is to lift some games out of the mire by pressing others down, while to leave our collective memory to the forces of technological obsolescence is to shorten the memory.”

Arguably, the current Canon is limited, not to say bias or arbitrary. But should we accept the limitation of a top ten list or, accept that no video game should ever be celebrated, much less remembered for any achievement, innovation nor impact made in video gaming? Neither propositions seems satisfying.

The current Canon is limited, but there is room for improvement, to make it at the very least representative of all video games of historical and cultural significance. In fact, this could be so easy there might be room for more. In fact, it’s as easy as 1, 2, 3:

1. Forget the top 10

Forget Henry Lowood’s list, forget N’Gai Croal and Stephen Totilo’s Canon Fodder, no top 10 list will ever do as a Canon, if for any other reason that ten is an arbitrary number that does everything but reflect the number of innovative and influential video games.

Should games be cut off the Canon because a top ten sounds better than a top eleven, a top twelve or a top twenty-one? Shouldn’t the Canon include all video games of significance? The real question is not which top ten games to fit in a cookie cutter list, but how many video games are of historical and cultural significance.

In comparison, motion pictures, which arguably are as ( if not less ) innovative as video games, have a top 100 list as their widely accepted and celebrated Canon in the form of the AFI’s ( American Film Institute ) 100 Greatest American Films. Were we to cut that list to a top 10 we would have to say bye bye Starwars (15), so long A Clockwork Orange (46), take a hike Pulp Fiction (95), etc.

To leave a game out of a Canon is to say such a game is not significant enough to be worth remembering, and most likely this game will be forgotten, if it hasn’t been already.

2. Forget the list

A comprehensive list of innovative games would be a great improvement from a top 10, but regardless of its length, a list will ultimately fail to capture an essential aspect of video gaming, which is that many innovative games do not inherit from other innovative video games but from innovative technologies.

I’m not sure how innovative Tetris was when it first came out, but there was an undeniable cultural and historical significance of playing Tetris when the Game Boy first came out. It would seem more sensible to credit the Game Boy for being an innovative video gaming platform than to credit Tetris for being the first game delivered on the device.

The same could be said about flash-based games, that while none of them really stand out from an innovative standpoint, flash-based gaming is an important innovation in video gaming. This is not to say that Amazon Kindle should be added to the Western Canon right next to Hamlet, but as a Canon is established to celebrate and remember great works, it seems unfair not to recognize that some of the technologies and platforms introduced in video gaming were great works, with cultural and historical significance.

The inherent innovative nature of video gaming sets it apart from other media, hence a Canon that would include this legacy of innovative video games and innovations in video gaming would be more relevant:


A tree data structure, where each node could either be an innovative video game or an innovation in video gaming, linking back to influential parent nodes and to influenced child nodes, would better show the legacy of the great works significant to video gaming.

3. Forget everything

The Western Canon was created a few centuries ago for an art form which has remained much the same over that period of time. However, significant innovations in video gaming are happening on a daily basis, and are creating convergence with other art forms. So, is it relevant to talk of video gaming simply in terms of video games?

While shunned by the Motion Picture Academy at the time of its release in 1982, Tron was heralded by the video gaming community for its use of computer-generated images alike to a video game made for the screen, and its sequel Tron 2.0 already promises to be another visually-striking ode to the virtual worlds gamers inhabit.

In the face of video gaming becoming omnipresent on cellphones, social networks, as the center piece of home entertainment; In the face of game theory and game mechanics being used on websites, web applications, TV shows ( i.e Big BrotherAmerican Idol, etc ), etc, the question really becomes, what is video gaming? Short of answering that question, a Canon for video games should give video gaming its proper dimension with the understanding that paradoxically, its future lies beyond the boundaries of video games.

In his book, Life: The Movie, cultural critic Neal Gabler suggests that we live in such an entertainment-driven society that reality is becoming entertainment and entertainment becoming reality to such extend that we can no longer tell where one ends and the other begins:

“Once we sat in movie theaters dreaming of stardom. Now we live in a movie dreaming of celebrity.” – Neal Gabler

Similarly, if we now seat in front of gaming systems dreaming of victory, we can already start to see a future where we would live in a game dreaming of high scores. Already in the pavlovian reward system of social gaming, in Facebook friends list, in Twitter followers, the game mechanics of scores for the sake of scores already foreshadow the emancipation of video gaming beyond video games.

Hence a Canon must anticipate this future where innovative video games and innovation in video gaming will come from and to politics, arts, technology, business, technology, etc, crossing over multiple boundaries at once. Hence  a hierarchical tree won’t do either.


It is my conclusion, that no list nor tree but only an non-hierarchical aggregator with a tagging system could truly be representative of innovative video games and innovations in video gaming with cultural and historical significance.

Video gaming is entering a new age, reaching mass audiences beyond traditional gaming, be it social gaming, be it serious gaming, or video gaming as a business or communication tool, or as tools for other art forms ( I plan to write more on that topic ).

It is crucial to revisit and rethink the significance of video gaming beyond traditional video games. Is such a canon for video games, one that paradoxically extend beyond video games and into all of video gaming, useful or even possible? Yes. It is only my vision of it without any claim of it being the solution, if only a few steps ( I count three ) towards one. I call it, what else, the Video Game Canon.

[crossposted from gamejudgement]

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