On a Videogame Canon (Part 2)

This is part two in a two-part series engaging with rhetorical arguments for and against a videogame canon. In this part I attend to Jonathan McCalmont’s arguments against a videogame canon, and draw my own conclusions about how any efforts toward a canon should proceed – if indeed they should. You can read Part 1 here, and you can read Jonathan’s original column here.


I hope you caught up on your reading instead of just looking at this stupid picture.

We all set? Marvellous.

As in the arguments for, there are two key lines of argument. The first, referencing French academic Pierre Bayard, is that ideas of canon are themselves outdated. Bayard argues that knowing the connections between things within a genre is more important than having first-hand experience of them. This is a very attractive proposition in an age where possessing first-hand knowledge of everything within a medium or even a single genre is almost impossible. However, until a map of such connections exists – and at present, the bulk of videogame criticism is online, atomised, and almost impossible to track as an easily decipherable network of information – this argument is only useful as a theoretical alternative to a theoretical canon. We shall return to this idea.

Harold Bloom - The Western Canon

Most academics, anyway.

The second argument focuses on the flaws inherent in the most established canon in the world: the canon of English literature. These traditional efforts at producing a canon resulted in a body of work mostly by “dead white European males”. This monolithic body of classics held together for many generations, but as the power of empire and colonialism waned, so too did ideas of European (and particularly British) cultural supremacy. The world is not a monoculture, and any canon which does not reflect this is flawed. Today, this is widely accepted among academics.

To be aware of past mistakes is to avoid them. A gaming canon might easily produce something that focused on American, Japanese and European efforts – and in terms of past commercial success, notoriety, and maps of influence, this may or may not be inaccurate. Videogames, unlike literature, emerged in nation-states which were technologically advanced, in which consumers were sufficiently affluent to spend excess income upon dedicated entertainment machines, and in which the entertainment industry was substantial and growing.

That’s history: today, the situation is different, and thankfully the language of gaming is fairly universal – after all, anyone who has a PC can play Audiosurf and get the same pleasure from it as anyone else. Language and geography don’t enter into it. Equally, games from Russia and the Ukraine are increasingly well-recognised (S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and the new King’s Bounty games, for example), and then there are the efforts of indie developers all over the world. If the games industry in other countries is nurtured, and if that is then given greater exposure in more traditional markets, recognition of that universality could continue to grow.

STALKER campfire

Moody, atmospheric, cruel, unforgiving, bleak and desolate... yep, it's a post-Soviet bloc game alright.

(As an aside, if any developers from a country which is not widely recognised as a source of games wants us to write about their titles… get in touch!)

Returning to McCalmont’s second argument against: another remark that is now regularly levelled against the literary canon is “who gets to decide?” He observes that sales figures are easily attainable and may seem a tempting guide to use, but not all influential titles sell well. A recent example is Shadow of the Colossus, but it’s another shadow he feels best illustrates this point: Shadowrun. It’s a compelling argument: I’ve never played this game.

McCalmont’s conclusion against a videogame canon is that it would never meet the demands of what was required of it. I’ll quote him verbatim:

“Video 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.”

The first sentence I am in agreement with, but the rest of this paragraph I find questionable for the reasons dealt with in Part 1. Technological obsolescence simply does not represent the threat to gaming history that it once did thanks to digital distribution, backwards compatibility and emulators, and indeed retro gaming has never been more popular.

The most powerful argument against a videogame canon remains “who will decide?” Gamers are a cantankerous and opinionated lot, and attempts to impose such a list would be doomed to failure. Yet modern games, and games journalism, have come of age alongside the internet. If ever there were a time to try and establish a canon, even one that were not universally accepted, that time is now.

Starcraft Defiler swarm

Swarms are useful things. Adding tags to open source databases, slaughtering groups of zerglings, that sort of thing.

Fortunately, I am not the first to respond to McCalmont’s column. According to wikipedia, Gareth Mensah has “proposed an alternative in the form of an aggregator organizing all innovative video games and innovations in video gaming through the use of a tagging system.” You can read his mission statement here. In many ways this project is reminiscent of Bayard’s argument for mapping the connections between cultural objects – and it is also a thoroughly modern solution that draws on the advantages of web 2.0 and ‘swarm thought’ (essentially, large numbers of online people who do not always share opinions but regardless work together towards a common goal – like Wikipedia).

Technologically obsolete titles have never been easier to acquire and play, and communication between huge numbers of people with opinions to share has never been simpler, so what better time to engage in such an extensive and comprehensive project than now?