Scripted’s Canon in (D:)


We’ve been thinking about the idea of a canon for games. Canon, as in a literary canon. ‘The Greats’. Not canon as in, ‘Are the expanded universe Star Wars novels considered canon?’. So yeah, a games canon. What would it be? What criteria should a gaming canon follow? Do we need one? So Chris and Jake sat down to talk about it.

Jake: Looking at current working canons, we’ve got the one listed on Wikipedia, made by a Doctor at Stanford and some others. Their list is thus:

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

Of these, would you want to play any now? Sure they were groundbreaking when they were first published, but of these I would only really play Super Mario Brothers today. Regardless, these games are old. So we can assume that they were picked for their influence on the world of game design. And fair enough. But if I were to give a list to someone who didn’t know about games and wanted to show them something that would represent the best of them, this wouldn’t be it.

The above list is based on the National Film Preservation Board, run by the Library of Congress. I think this is a mistake. Too often the parallel between games and films is drawn. You can watch Citizen Kane today and it still stands up and stands up well. It stands up better compared to today’s films than Star Raiders! does to today’s games, at any rate.

Bat maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Just what is a bloody canon anyway? And can I shoot anything with it?

Let’s go back to Wikipedia. It defines canon as,

‘A criteria of books and, more broadly, music and art that have been the most important and influential in shaping Western culture. As such, it includes the “greatest works of artistic merit.” Such a canon is important to the theory of educational perennialism and the development of “high culture”.’

I guess the important words in here are ‘the most important and influential in shaping Western culture.’ and ‘…it includes the “greatest works of artistic merit”’.

So, how useful is this for games?

The first big difference we can look at is that games have a technological bent to them. So would Wolfenstein 3D be considered for inclusion in the canon simply because it was the (contentiously) first 1st-person shooter? Playing it today, it’s clunky as fuck and not that much fun and that’s if you can find something that runs it. Obviously, the same wouldn’t be said for The Odyssey. Despite it being old. Nor would you include whatever the first thing that Caxton printed in a literary canon just because it was first. But that’s silly.

I think the difference is, perhaps, that a lot of games are just updated versions of older ideas. Call of Duty 3 is just Wolfenstein 3D with nicer make up and less squeaky gears.


Chris: To me, the most important part of that Wikipedia definition of ‘canon’ is that it ‘is important to the theory of educational perennialism and the development of “high culture”.’

If we’re saying ‘by what criteria would you measure a gaming canon’, and also ‘should we have one?’’ then the most important questions, at least in terms of canons, would be:

“Is there an educational merit to certain games which, across all times and cultures, is enriching for the soul (this ‘educational perennialism’ lark)”

“Should games be part of ‘high culture’?”

This is where you get into a big thorny bush, because the list above (taking into account influence and, I guess, originality for its time) is by nature of that tied to technology — old games equals “not always that nice to look at”, and sometimes not that nice to play — but also, more importantly, posterity. You can’t canonise something contemporary because how would you know that its influential yet?

J: Ah yeah, but see my point about modern games being essentially the same as older ones but with nicer graphics.

C: I reckon that approaches a different issue. What’s the difference between Call of Duty 3 being based on Wolfenstein 3D and Ulysses being based on the Odyssey?

J: Well, I guess one doesn’t make the other redundant like it might do in games. Because the technology doesn’t change in literature, nor does our relation to the piece of art in question.

C: But isn’t the literary canon, at least, based on a singular view of artistic and cultural merit, from the point of view of one part of Western society? So things get into the canon, often, because they are like the things already in the canon.

J: Yeah. So maybe it would be useful to substitute some words in that Wikipedia definition? ‘High culture’, for instance, could be replaced with… what? The games industry? Gaming culture?

C: Well now I guess it’s about whether you want to call games ‘art’, or ‘cultural’.

J: Well, crikey. Let’s not get into that. Would you call Michael Bay movies art? You could call film an artistic medium. Or at least, a medium that is capable of creating ‘high art’. Perhaps we can work on a definition that looks for games that move the medium further towards that?

C: In that case, all the games in the canon listed above should be in the canon. Except ‘Sensible World of Soccer’.

J: OK, but I don’t want to play any of those games anymore. But I will still read Dickens or something.

C: Well, to compare again with the literary canon, you’d read Dickens because it’s in your language; would you read the Odyssey in Greek?

No, because you can’t speak Greek. (I assume).

J: Woah, woah, woah. What’s that got to do with games? And my Greek is immaculate.

C: You’ll read a new translation of it, in English. So the new translation is Call of Duty 3, maybe, where Wolfenstein 3D is the Odyssey. Dickens might be…I dunno, Unreal Tournament. We’re maybe talking about an issue that exists in existing canons, and in other mediums, but that shows a much slower arc because the technology (language in the case of books, programming language, actual technology in the case of games?) moves much slower. In games it’s all being condensed over three decades.

J: Yeah, that and games have a lot more financial motivation in them than literature has. Which is why at the moment the most innovative and interesting games are the indies. Which is interesting, because a lot of them eschew a lot of the modern technology. Now, that is also a cost consideration, but it’s also because the idea comes above the shiny shiny.

C: So let’s say then, that what’s missing, definitely, from that list, is indies.

Well, that got convoluted fast, didn’t it? We’re going to keep on this topic for a bit, so stay tuned. We’re going to have a bit of a rest now though.

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[ 5 comments to read... submit another ]

  1. Jake. Star Raiders needs to stay on the list because I needed to buy a special control pad for my Atari and it kept me amused for months. Gorf also needs to be on any list, so please add it. Can’t add to your debate about canons, but Jet Set Willy was probably a modern parable for the 1980s. So chew on that please.

  2. I can’t live in a world when SWOS isn’t a part of gaming’s cannon.

    This is one of those conversations that makes you question the name of the entire medium. Can a “game” ever be an artistic endeavour? Other forms of games, like board games, require artful design, but are never considered artistic. Also, golf isn’t art.

    When there are enough video games that have been for art’s sake, then I think you can draw up a legitimate cannon.

  3. @Leo You’ve second guessed another article I’m writing about whether ‘game’ is the right word any more. There definitely are games that exist that are art, but often those games don’t have much ‘gamey’ about them – To the Moon, Dear Esther, Passage etc. But we still call them games because we play them. Or rather, we have some input as players.

  4. Great, now I have homework. I’ll get round to ‘To the Moon’ and ‘Dear Esther’ soon enough. Passage definitely had a neat concept, but it’s not like I’ll ever want to play it again. You can’t have art that disposable.

    I remember a year or two ago there were people angrily calling their work “not-games” or something like that. I need to look that stuff up again.

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