Wednesday, March 21, 2007

In literature, we're trying to get away from this idea

Henry Lowood, curator of the History of Science and Technology Collections at Stanford University, has announced a list (he's actually calling it a "canon," which is a particularly loaded term for a student of literature) of the "10 most important video games of all time."

Spacewar! (1962)
Star Raiders (1979)
Zork (1980)
Tetris (1985)
SimCity (1989)
Super Mario Bros. 3 (1990)
Civilization I/II (1991)
Doom (1993)
Warcraft series (beginning 1994)
Sensible World of Soccer (1994)

(The NYT via the Chronicle of Higher Education)


Anonymous said...

If we're going to give video games the same artistic weight as literature, don't we have to expect some kind of development of their aesthetics and criticism similar to literature (albeit faster, and more dorky)? I mean, people can't start rebelling from video game 'canon' until that canon becomes established.

That said, the idea of video game canon seems a little silly, for while well-read people may go back and examine the dusty tomes of literary canon, I have a hard time believing that 'well-played' people will be eager to play Zork or the original SimCity even 10 years from now. As much as the idea of the Wii Virtual Console or XBox Live Arcade may keep some games going for a little while, I'm guessing any popularity old games may enjoy today is caused more by nostalgia than any feeling that they are aesthetically equal to their contemporary incarnations.

Gavin said...

I'm still a bit wary of the use of the term "canon," but as I implied, that term has particular meanings that I don't think Mr. Lowood is trying to convey. Mr. Lowood's list isn't presented as the "best" video games of all time (which is how the orginal phrasing of my post made it sound), but of the most "important." (When having similar discussions I tend to use the word "influential.") These are the games that contributed the most to the development of the architecture and grammar of the video game, and Lowood is specifically not interested in study or emulation so much as preservation.

Thus, I also dislike the use of the word "canon," because literature is not really a good analogy in this case. I think you have a point, JB, that the creation of an aesthetic language to describe video games is going to involve a process of qualitative distinction, and likely the creation of some sort of a canon of really great video games. Mr. Lowood's goal, however, is not really aesthetic so much as anthropological or linguistic, if you will. He's not trying, at the moment to distinguish between Milton and Shakespeare—he's trying to preserve the earliest examples of the written word.

Anonymous said...

That makes me wonder if his idea of 'canon' might be better served by looking at, say, the code involved, and by not limiting his list to video games. Certainly video games haven't been created in a vacuum, and other software must have influenced how they have developed over time.

Andrew said...

The inclusion of the "Warcraft Series" is a convenient catch all (or catch many).

The first Real Time Strategy game was Westwood Studios' Dune II, but it was Warcraft that popularized and expanded the genre.

Ultima Online was the first real, graphical, MMORPG, but it is World of Warcraft that turned that style of gameplay into a massive phenomenon.

Blizzard has consistently used the well thought out mythology of the Warcraft world to capitalize on emerging gameplay technology.

As a sidenote: I have played all of these games except Sensible Soccer.

Tim said...

I will go out on a limb and say that any literature professor who really spends a lot of time wringing his/her hands over the idea of a canon is either posturing or wasting everyone's time.

The questions that are much more serious for serious literary critics ask how literary and other canons get constructed, whether particular instantiations of the canon are politically, aesthetically, or otherwise problematic, and what value is to be found in looking at noncanonical texts.

I'm not sure that the difference is totally clear, so I'll frame it this way: while both groups doubt that the canon is a purely aesthetic absolute set, the second group treats the canon as a historical reality, while the first seems to both doubt that reality and excessively worry about its complicity with it.