The other day a Professor of mine posted a comment on twitter asking for suggestions on which games should be included in a canon of the topic. In is tweet he pointed to a series of articles by Angela R. Cox, in which she outlined the process she went through in order to design an introductory writing course based around 20th century PC games. After reading her articles I began to think about how I would go about creating a canon for the topic.
I just wanted to get a couple general thoughts about canon creation out of the way before I dive into my thoughts on a video game canon. Canon creation is a highly contested process in any field of study and I’m sure some people would rather abandon the practice entirely in an effort the avoid creating power imbalance or one sort or another. Defining what counts as canon is as much an exercise in exclusion as inclusion and can have powerful implications on what is considered accepted culture or belief. Regardless of its downsides, the creation of a canon has to important benefits that cannot be overlooked. Firstly, creating your own canon is one of the best ways to steer the current conversation on a topic in the direction you think it should be going. This may be exactly the kinda a behaviour that causes people to question the legitimacy of canons, but if it is done with an appropriate level of transparency it should be possible to avoid the kinds of absolute assumptions and statements that I think most people wish to avoid. Secondly, a canon can be such a useful tool in terms of not just teaching, but also centring a debate. A canon establishes a uniform starting point from which to build, deviate and disagree. I am all for taking things in new directions and changing conventions but without a true understanding of what the conventions are how can you really effect change.
Moving forward from this point I think the most important part of forming a video game canon, or any canon for that matter, is to clearly define the goal of your canon and its specific criteria for inclusion. In the name or transparency, these ideas should also be foregrounded and not only known to the privileged few involved in the selection process. The example of Angela Cox’s reading list does an excellent job of doing just this. As a general writing course, her primary goals in creating the syllabus were somewhat more practical and the criteria for selecting games further reflected these practical needs.
1) It is an excellent representative of an important genre or form
2) It is historically significant in some way (such as being the first or most influential game to do something important, or as having caused a major controversy)
3) It already features prominently in existing academic work about videogames
She also made an effort to include only games that were readily available digitally and for reasonable prices. In this exercise I am going to stray away form these these more practical considerations. A concise effort was also made to limit the scope of the collection to 20th century PC games in an effort to make it more manageable for one course.
As I start to define the criteria I would use to create a historical video game canon I will first define what these criteria would not be. I would not want to see games included solely because they deal with a historical topic. Plenty of work has been done on representations of history in video games but I personally do not think this is the best route to treating and using video games as historical sources in themselves. An analysis of historical representations and of the value of games as tools for teaching history is to me a very different exercise than creating a canon of video games and treating games as a valid historical source. The mission statement of my canon would be to foster an understanding of games as historical sources by illustrating how the form and content of games can be used to gain some understanding of the both their creators and users.
In keeping with that mission my criteria for inclusion could be seen as an expansion of Cox’s first two criteria.
1. They should represent specific genres
2. They should represent distinctive evolutions in game mechanics
3. They should represent important forms or platforms
5. They should be critical or popular success
6. They should be influential to future games
Included games would not necessarily have to fulfil all the criteria but I think these six reason offer a good point to argue for the inclusion of any given game. Genres and mechanics allow us to explore the interior workings of games and what their systems say about their designers and users. Discussion of platforms and technology allow use to make a more tangible connection to the physical world and its limitations. Success and influence allow us to explore the impact on culture more generally. I think these are the types of approaches that will help legitimize video game as a historical sources in the same way that other forms of popular media have been embraced.
I would be happy to hear you comments on what other criteria I have missed or that I am wrong about. Also suggestions of what games fit this bill and why, are more than welcome.