The Video Game Canon and The Age of Forgetfulness

Jonathan McCalmont @ 06-10-2010

0. Asking the Question

If you were a game designer and you were taken into your boss’s office and given carte blanche to create your own roleplaying game, what would your influences be?  My guess is that the games you see as central to the computer roleplaying experience vary according to your age and when you started gaming.

Screenshot from early computer RPG WizardryFor example, if you are currently a teenager then the chances are that you would be most influenced by games like World of Warcraft, Fallout 3 and Dragon Age: Origins, because these are the games that you are most familiar with.  If you are a slightly older gamer, then you might list titles like Final Fantasy VII or Suikoden.  Maybe if – like me – you are one of those thirty-something gamers who spent his high school years playing video games instead of getting to second base, then you might list Baldur’s Gate, Dungeon Master or Shadowrun.  Maybe you are even old enough to remember playing the original Wizardry and Bard’s Tale titles, and think that the future of CRPGs lies in ASCII graphics and getting the players to draw their own dungeon maps.

Well, you’d all be wrong.

And you’d all be right.

Genres are first and foremost conversations: new games, books, music and film are created as reactions to the games, books, music and film that came before them.  These reactions then prompt responses of their own as new generations of creative intellects join the conversation and discover new takes on old topics.  The conversation never ends… it simply changes to suit the times, forever and ever, never stopping, constantly moving.  But for this conversation to take place, the old topics must be there for the new voices to pick up on.  People writing space opera today are free to read Iain M. Banks and Alastair Reynolds, but they are also free to read E. E. “Doc” Smith and Robert Heinlein; any science fiction writer starting out today has over a century’s worth of books to draw on as they search for their muse and seek out their place in the grand conversation of genre.

The Skylark of Space by EE "Doc" SmithThis column is about the problem of forgetfulness in video gaming culture.  It is about how technological obsolescence, fondness for proprietary formats and frankly absurd attitudes to copyright are depriving future generations of game designers of their cultural inheritance.  New gamers simply do not have access to older games, and as such they will never learn from the battles that were fought to get those games made.  Without a deep memory, video games risk becoming shallow things that will forever be reacting only to that which came directly before them.

It is about how the short memory span of gaming means that game designers are freed from accepted doctrines developed in the pas: when they return to abandoned genres and franchises, they do so not with the eyes of veterans and fans, but with the hunger of explorers and colonisers, eager to put their own generational mark on old ideas.  A freedom from memory means that video games are free to move forward and embrace the changes in vision and perspective that flow naturally from an ever-changing society.

This poses a serious question: Do video games need a protected canon?

1. The case in favour: A Canon in D-Pad

The idea of a ‘canon’ is quite a simple one.  Springing from the theory of educational perennialism, the creation of a Western canon hinges upon the assumption that there are certain texts that transcend their origins: texts whose universal relevance to the human condition is such that they cannot be seen as speaking merely to the concerns of the time and place of their creation; texts of such pure and cultivated genius that – thousands of years after they were written – they continue to be relevant, insightful and important enough that, not only do they never go completely out of date, but that reading them actually comes to constitute a part of what it means to be a ‘cultivated’ or ‘educated’ person.  The assumption that such texts exist explains why American universities continue to frogmarch their undergraduates through courses devoted to the ‘Great Works of Western Civilisation’, and why publishers and academics alike devote so much energy to drafting ‘canonical’ reading lists.

Whether or not one buys into the somewhat conservative notion that certain ancient texts retain their relevance despite radical social changes, the canon serves to provide a common language for international scholarship.  Many of the concepts and images that thinkers employ today have their roots in the Western canon, and by teaching that canon, universities are ensuring that their students share the same frame of reference as the scholars whose work with which they must engage with in order to earn their degrees.

Italo CalvinoIn order to make the case for the creation of a video game canon, it follows that there must be games that are worthy of forming the building blocks of just such a shared language.  In the introduction to his collection of essays passionately re-examining a number of ‘classical’ works Why Read The Classics? (1981), the Italian author Italo Calvino says :

    “A classic is the term given to any book which comes to represent the whole universe, a book on a par with ancient talismans.”

If this is the level required for a text to be considered canonical, then the bar is set dauntingly high.  Most video games are amusing diversions, but few are “on a par with ancient talismans”, even if it is precisely their job to represent entire universes.  For me, a canonical video game is one that forces you to re-examine your relationship to a particular sort of game.  Indeed, when Dungeon Master came out in 1987, it showed gamers that dungeons could be more than texts and maps on graph paper, opening up an entire virtual world that continues to be refined and explored today in the many RPGs and action games that represent their gameworlds in 3D.  In fact, Dungeon Master could be seen as canonical not only for the CRPG genre, but for digital media as a whole: its first-person perspective on a 3D world marked one of the earliest attempts to move video games away from abstract or artificially stylised renderings of virtual worlds and towards the more concrete, realistic and cinematic approaches favoured by the games industry today.  Similarly, when Half-Life was released in 1998, it broke the level-based play experience linking First Person Shooters like Doom and Wolfenstein 3D with traditional 2D shoot-em-ups like Space Invaders and Contra.

Canonical games change the way in which you perceive the genre.  They do not merely innovate; they also destroy that which came before them by completely redefining the way in which you experience the world of a particular game genre.  Indeed, I remember spending my teenaged years sneaking into Swiss arcades in order to play Street Fighter 2, only to one day discover Virtual Fighter, the first of the great 3D beat-em-ups.  From that point onwards, I simply couldn’t play Street Fighter 2 – its two dimensional approach to fighting and space suddenly seemed entirely artificial and horribly contrived.  Why couldn’t you just duck when Ken launched into a flying kick so that he would sail over your head and out of the ring?  Why couldn’t you use movement not merely as a way of keeping your opponent at a distance until you were ready to engage, but as a way of keeping them off-guard as you attacked from different angles?

Screenshot from Dwarf FortressBy allowing modern game designers to revisit all of these titles, we would be allowing them to realise for themselves which ideas are sacrosanct and which ideas can be re-examined or embraced anew.  However, because older games are so often inaccessible – due to being out of production, or reliant upon defunct operating systems and media formats – each new generation of game designers is limited in the range of games it can draw upon.  Future game designers will never know what it was like to play a dungeon-crawling game and have to draw the maps for yourself, only to then discover that your mum had thrown your maps out, or that you had numbered them incorrectly, and were suddenly completely lost.  At the time, these were irritations that gamers were gladly freed from once some bright spark decided to invent auto-mapping, but who knows what the right designer could achieve by having us return to these long-abandoned design principles.  How about a game devoted to the imperfection of human memory? A game that called not only upon your skill within the game but also your ability to administer how you approached the game.  Indeed, isn’t part of the fun of Dwarf Fortress working out how to play the bloody thing in the first place?

By protecting certain classic games and drawing attention to their status as classics, we would be allowing future generations of game designers the joys of retracing the footsteps of their forebears and understanding the progress of various genres not as matters of historical record but of intuitive progression.  To play an old game in light of later developments is to experience a sense of frustration with something that should be there, and to feel that frustration is to be able to call into question whether it is a feeling that is worth re-considering.  Indeed, there is no telling how future generations might react to design decisions made in the past, and by making sure that future game designers are able to familiarise themselves with older titles we would not only be making certain that old mistakes could be avoided, but also that old solutions could be called into question.  How many of yesterday’s games slip from easy access every year? How many of yesterday’s insights and innovations retreat into the memories of the elderly and out of the mind of tomorrow’s creatives?  Gaming is haemorrhaging its cultural life-blood, and something must be done to stop it!

2.  The case against: Re-inventing the Driving Peripheral

In his hugely entertaining essay How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (2007), the French academic and psychoanalyst Pierre Bayard argues that being cultured is not a matter of being intimately familiar with a long list of classic texts.  According to Bayard, rather than seeking specialist knowledge, we should instead seek a good understanding of how texts relate to each other:

“Culture is above all a matter of orientation.  Being cultivated is a matter not of having read any book in particular, but of being able to find your bearings within books as a system […] It is, then, hardly important if a cultivated person hasn’t read a given book, for though he has no exact knowledge of its content, he may still know its location, or in other words how it is situated in relation to other books.”

In other words, in order to draw upon the lessons learned over decades of game development, future game designers would not need to actually play through any of these old games, they would merely need to know that they influenced the games that came after them and how they influenced them.  So, without playing any game in particular, a game designer might know that Lode Runner inspired Prince of Persia and that the original Prince of Persia trilogy was re-imagined and re-launched in 2003 with Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. This new Prince of Persia trilogy, along with Spider-Man 2, contributed to the development of free-running as a game mechanic that would yield not only Crackdown but also Mirror’s Edge.

Pierre BayardTo understand games is to know how they relate to each other.  It is not to possess the knowledge that you are better off playing a Paladin than a Ranger in Baldur’s Gate II (because the red dragon in the game has a +5 Holy Avenger in its hoard, and that particular magical doohickey kicks arse, Broadway style).  Culturation is about familiarity with connections, not the specialised knowledge that only comes from first-hand experience.

Another argument against the utility of a gaming canon comes from the debate surrounding attempts at codifying a Western canon of literature.  Some scholars have argued that the Western canon is nothing but a collection of writings by dead white European males and – because the canonical authors lack the degree of ethnic and sexual diversity achieved by modern society – the books of the Western canon are not only unrepresentative of entire swathes of human endeavour,but  also constitute an exclusionist stumbling block for women who come from non-white and non-European backgrounds.

Indeed, one of the most famous literary papers ever given saw the Nigerian novelist and poet Chinua Achebe denounce Joseph Conrad for being “a bloody racist” on the grounds that his deeply canonical novella Heart of Darkness (1902) not only contained stereotypical depictions of Black people as barely sentient sub-human beasts, but presented a continent as diverse and beautiful as Africa as “a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognisable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril”; an entire continent reduced to a mere staging point for the breakdown of a single European mind.  However, while criticisms such as Achebe’s are not only well-made but a vital part of the process of re-examination and re-discovery that keeps culture vibrant, one could argue that they are first and foremost about authority.  The problem is not that Conrad is a bad writer, or that Heart of Darkness is a second-rate text; it is that a text full of racist imagery has been elevated to the status of an immortal classic without Africans – the subject matter of much of the book – ever being consulted.  The canon, according to scholars like Achebe, is a privileged club in which white men of European descent make claims of universality about their experiences of the world.

Setting aside the issue of the political correctness of particular games, there is the issue of who gets to decide what constitutes a classic piece of software.  Some games are more popular than others, certainly, and it is easy to look at some titles with their millions of units sold and the dozens of spin-off and copycat titles that appeared in their wake and claim that they are classics… but what of the smaller games that cast disproportionately long shadows?  Indeed, GTA III is undeniably worthy of a place in the canon, but what of games like Shadowrun

Shadowrun on the SNES was never a huge success but when an identically titled sequel was released for Sega’s 16-bit console, it simply never made it to Europe or Japan.  The Megadrive version of Shadowrun massively expanded the sandbox-style gameplay of the original SNES title and introduced unlockable side-quests and sections with different forms of game-play that would go on to inspire Baldur’s Gate, System Shock and BioShock.  The Sega version of Shadowrun is one of the defining texts in the evolution of the video game, yet hardly any game designer who grew up in either Europe or Japan has ever played the bloody thing.  Its influence was felt indirectly, its impact made through a whole host of unremarkable CRPGs and action games which did manage to get released in Europe and Japan.  The problem is that we have no way to tell which old games might inspire the designers of the future – and so, if we want to protect the mistakes and the solutions of the past, we must protect all of them.  Which is hardly a practical solution.

Indeed, Lowood, Spector, Meretzky, Bittani and Grant made a proposal to the Library of Congress to create a collection of ten canonical games that would be preserved in the Library for the good of future generations, in order that they could be accessed without fear of technological obsolescence or intransigent copyright holders.  Their list of ten titles is as follows :

  • Spacewar!
  • Star Raiders
  • Zork
  • Tetris
  • SimCity
  • Super Mario Bros. 3
  • Civilization I/II
  • Doom
  • Warcraft series
  • Sensible World of Soccer

These are all undeniably great and canonical games; each of them either created or revolutionised the genres they are a part of.  However, to look at these ten titles is also to feel a sense of utter futility.  Merely reading through it, one is forced to think of all the great titles that are not included in it. [No Elite? Epic FAIL! – PGR] Each title could be removed and replaced with a further ten examples purely from within its own genre!  For example, if Sensible World of Soccer, why not Kick-Off, Championship Manager, Adidas Power Soccer or Tekhan World Cup?  All of these titles were influential in their own ways… many of them much more obviously so than the admittedly brilliant Sensible World of Soccer, whose 2D graphics, simplified play, integrated management system and top-to-bottom scrolling all remain resolutely out of fashion in a cultural climate obsessed with celebrity endorsement and hyper-realism.

Screenshot from Sensible World of SoccerVideo games do not need a protected canon because such a canon would never do the work that was required of it.  Rather than protecting the cultural legacy of video gaming, it would reduce it to a collection of safely canonised titles, and because of the forces of technological obsolescence, every year that passes means that a non-canonical game would become that much harder to reclaim for posterity.  One of the great things about the Western canon is that it is subject to change: as times move on, some titles are elevated to canonical status while others lose their halo and drop into the background. But because books are easily stored and easily accessed, de-canonisation is never that much of an issue; to de-canonise a game on an abandoned format would most likely be to consign it to oblivion.

3.  Answering the Question (Or Not)

Ultimately, there is no answer to the question of whether video games need their own canon.  Each answer relies upon its own internal logic and has its own pitfalls and benefits.  To create 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… but also to free us from the past.

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Jonathan McCalmontJonathan McCalmont is a recovering academic with a background in philosophy and political science. He lives in London, UK where he teaches and writes about books and films for a number of different venues. Like Howard Beale in Network, he is as mad as hell and he’s not going to take this any more.

Jonathan recently launched Fruitless Recursion – “an online journal devoted to discussing works of criticism and non-fiction relating to the SF, Fantasy and Horror genres.” If you liked the column above, you’ll love it.

[ The fractal in the Blasphemous Geometries header image is a public domain image lifted from Zyzstar. ]

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7 Responses to “The Video Game Canon and The Age of Forgetfulness”

  1. Wolf says:

    That was inspiring reading. You are asking the wrong question though.
    For the right question, and the answer to it, go there.

    http://stphu.blogspot.com/2010/10/on-canonical-videogames.html

  2. Jonathan M says:

    Hi Wolf 🙂

    Thanks for the thoughtful response. I agree that I wussed out on the conclusion. Totally.

    As for your point that there have yet to be any true jewels of video game design, I think it depends upon your frame of reference. The reference point I took in writing this article was much more limited than yours: Would it be beneficial to the development of video games as an art form for the medium to have a canon?

    If you ask this question, then there are LOTS of great games. Too many to protect realistically.

    Conversely, if you ask about about a canon composed of games that stand out as true works of art compared to novels or paintings then I quite agree that there are not that many. But then, I’m not sure that there are many art forms that stand up to those criteria. I think that most classic works of literature are classics on their own terms but struggle when asked to appeal across different media. For example, Rousseau’s The New Heloise is a classic and a milestone in the development of the novel but unless you’re interested in the development of the novel and the whole ‘psychological realism vs modernism’ debate then I’m not sure you would get a huge amount out of it compared to reading Musil, Proust or one of the Russians.

    So does that mean that The New Heloise is not a canonical work of art? Difficult to say, hence my wussiness 🙂

  3. Wolf says:

    Hi Jonathan

    I think the linchpin is the dreaded question: What do we mean by canon?
    There are two aspects to it: Agreement and “no excuses”.
    Agreement is just one part. To take up your example: When people interested in the development of the novel agree that The New Heloise is a classic and a milestone, does that alone make it a canonical work of art? I don’t think so.
    In order for something to count as canon, it has to a certain extent be inexcusable not to know it. Even if you are not interested in theater, that’s no excuse not to know Romeo and Juliet. Even if you don’t like westerns, you should know about Once Upon a Time in the West.
    It’s only because of the second aspect that one can even argue that there currently is no canon of videogames. People agree on what the great classic games are (as far as people can agree on anything), it’s just that this list is irrelevant, if you don’t care about games.

  4. Matt Hilliard says:

    What makes a video game worth remembering? I think when you talk about The New Heloise being a milestone in technique but not in itself a great work, you are approaching the question from an art history angle. From a historical point of view, the 10 game list you mentioned isn’t a bad start (although, indeed, woefully inadequate).

    However, most people don’t want to read an old book just because it’s of historical interest. They want to read an old book because it is still artistically valuable today. Most books of the past, however well received at the time, aren’t worth the effort the modern reader must spend to accommodate all the cultural and linguistic changes that have taken place since. The great pains people go through to read, for instance, Shakespeare speaks to its continuing power.

    With games, the loss of context happens much faster, as graphics and control systems modernize rapidly. Even worse, great games have their best aspects cannibalized by those that follow. Take two games from that list of 10 I’m familiar with, Doom and Zork. Everything that made Doom great has been successfully copied and improved upon by later FPS, in my opinion. Zork was important but not anywhere near the best of the Infocom generation of text adventures, all of which are in turn far outshone by the modern hobbyists.

    But that doesn’t mean there aren’t games that are still worth going back to. These are games which are distinguished not merely by gameplay, but in their whole experience. It’s easy to copy a control system or a set of gameplay rules, but sometimes the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Instead of Doom, I’d point to System Shock II as one of the greatest FPS, no matter how painful its graphics become. And I think Prince of Persia: Sands of Time remains head and shoulder above its successors. In both cases later games tried to replicate what made them great (Doom 3 and Bioshock for SS2 and some of the Prince of Persia sequels for Sands of Time) but failed (although I guess some people would argue in favor of Bioshock).

  5. Jonathan M says:

    If we do get rid of historical importance (which is relevant for the reasons I sketched, it’s easy to get ‘locked in’ to a particular design principle and going back to eminent games from a particular period might make it easier to avoid lock in) then there is a risk that the canon would only ever represent that which we like now. I’m not sure that that’s always a good thing. Canons should be about providing ammunition for challenging the established order, nor just providing a whiggish history presenting its emergence as inevitable.

  6. Gareth Mensah says:

    Great article, but somehow the conclusion seems inconclusive. Your case against a video game canon is really against a case against a canon set in stone. I’ve recently started a project to aggregate and collect innovation in video gaming and review innovative games here:
    http://videogamecanon.com/
    http://videogamecanon.blogspot.com/

    I think a democratic canon, one that is not limited to a given number of game or decided by a given group of people, is the best solution.

  7. ShaunCG says:

    Another highly thought-provoking piece, Jonathan, and I hope that I will soon have the time to write a proper response!

    In the meantime, you get one of my usual anal-retentive observations: Baldur’s Gate 1 actually came out after Final Fantasy VII; 1998 and 1997 respectively. Of course FF7 did come out on PC two years later, in ’99, but regardless there’s no generational gap between them – indeed I’d argue that they’re best considered as high watermarks of the Western and Eastern (excuse the gross generalisation there) approaches to the CRPG prior to the cross-pollination we’ve seen in the past decade (to some extent).