Thursday, October 07, 2010

On Canonical Videogames

Over there at Futurismic Jonathan McCalmont has put up a post dealing with various questions concerning a canon of video-games.
In our culture there are pieces of literature, which one has to know about as an educated person. Two kinds of books make up that literary canon: the milestones, which influence everything that comes after, and the jewels, timeless pieces of storytelling.

The linked article deals with the question if we need to introduce a videogame canon. After all there are also milestones in videogames. On the other hand the list of game-titles, which one can describe as timeless jewels without hyperbole is very short, if it exists at all. The article in turn provides some arguments for a canon, some against it, and wusses out on the conclusion.
Which is to be expected, since the author has a background in philosophy.

But being overly wussy is not the only fault I found. It also asks the wrong question right from the beginning: Do video games need a protected canon?
The answer is irrelevant. Even if we come to the conclusion that a protected list of "must play" video games is needed, it will not make the idea catch on. Canons are not decided upon (as much as all the list writers would like the idea), they evolve.
The better question to ask is: Can a videogame canon develop?

In order to answer that better question, it is a good idea to examine other media. No doubt, there is a well established literary canon. What about s film-canon? A twitter-canon?
In my opinion the ability of a medium to establish an authoritative list of works, which is considered essential, depends on two factors: Age and constancy of the medium.
Literature has some of the best cards in both categories. It has been around since the dawn of civilization and always consisted of signs on a flat surface, representing stories. Ample time to produce timeless jewels. Even its greatest revolution, the printing press, has about half a millennium of history. Because of this, even literature's milestones are more about quality, than novelty.
Film is on the brink of catching up with literature in terms of having a list of undisputed classics. Which shouldn't be too surprising, since the basic form of the medium has not changed since the era of silent films: It's still actors playing and speaking their roles in front of a camera. That's enough time to form at least some jewels. That it has been the most popular form of entertainment of the last century probably helped too. A constant stream of technical innovation gives the film canon its share of milestones.
Twitter on the other hand is just too young for a canon. Nobody has yet found out what can be done with that thing.

Video games are in an awkward place on this list. While, with maybe 40 years of histroy, it is old enough to have accumulated a healthy mix of jewels and milestones, technological progress has been rapid and shaped what is possible, more than in any other medium. What gaming is, has been everything but constant.
It began with text on a screen, through an increasing evolution of symbolic graphics, to graphics as a direct representation of reality. While the game-designer of a text-adventure was a novelist, who could draw upon an extra interactive touch, today's designer of an adventure, tells a story more through an environment, than anything else. Game design has gone from being a novelist to being an architect within four decades. That explains the strange shape of the video game canon: Lots of milestones, with no timeless jewels.

Which brings me to the answer to my questions. If you want to make video game canon, currently there are only half the ingredients for it. Many milestones, no jewels. It's not time yet.

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