What Will The Academic Canon of Games Be Like?

As it becomes more and more the case that video games are becoming commonplace in academia, I got to thinking. Literary and film academia are both notorious for having particular fixations with specific works, so its no stretch, nor a surprise, that games would end up with the same fate. We can already see patterns within the discourse of games criticism arising, particularly in Western, English-speaking games criticism. What do you think will make up this “canon” in the future?

I want to be clear about this: This is not what games you think should be in of the canon of games. That’s a question that is complex in its own right, and is for another day. Rather, this is about what games you think will be in that canon. Think about the kinds of literature, film, and music fits into the general academic consciousness, and what you think would be their counterparts in game studies. These works might be overrated to you, they might be regressive, or they might be truly excellent works of art, but they all occupy a similar space in the discourse.

So, like, yeah, Dark Souls will be on that list. There’s no question. Ocarina of Time and Super Metroid continue to be revered to this day. I also have noticed that Far Cry 2 has a big following in games criticism. There would also be a hearty dose of immersive sims, likely Deus Ex and System Shock 2. Spelunky and FTL, also, have a kind of reverence. I also think Bayonetta fits in as a kind of wildcard. This is my opinion, at least.

This is only the beginning of such a list, of course. What games do you think are going to be taught and discussed in the future of game studies?

EDIT: There was some discussion about the word “canon” down below, and I think the term is somewhat inaccurate in hindsight. Here is what I said down below, that I think clarifies:

What I am trying to direct the conversation towards is works within the field of games that develop a reverence within academia and provoke discussion about its influence on the artform, as well as perhaps being talked about a wee bit too much… I used the word canon because I think it conveys the kind of critique and analysis I am referring to in a succinct manner.


That’s a cool idea and I am looking forward to what people contribute.

Off the top of my head, in no particular order or along no particular spectrum, adding to your list, I would say Bioshock: Infinite, Fez, Braid, Diablo, Hotline Miami, Spec Ops: The Line.

Now I’m going to sleep and hoping to see this discussion develop when I wake up!

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I think if we are to take this as the ethos of the exercise then the titles that have been rattled off so far are maybe a bit too recent to be certain of their eventual inclusion. I think if you look at existing canons (English literature, or film studies for instance) you’ll often find a strong preference for older stuff by authors/auteurs no longer living (Shakespeare or Eisenstein, say) over something within the last five or even 20 years.

Part of it is, I think, an implicit recognition of the difficulty of recognizing what is important or influential or worthy enough of being talked/written about without some amount of retrospective distance.

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I thought about this, for sure, and I actually was hesitant to use the word “canon”. You’re right, many of the meaningful discourse about games is quite recent, so it might not be really a “canon”. Further, the discourse is constantly evolving and growing as the artform itself does, and canon is more often stagnant and unchanging. Two things.

  1. I would ask that you think about the lifetime of the medium proportionally. If video games became a mainstream medium in the 1980s, then the equivalent to Battleship Potemkin was River Raid. This is partially sarcastic, but the history of video games is not only far more recent but also informed by a history of literary and film critique. The retrospective on games frequently includes this.

  2. Especially if looking at things proportionally, some of the discourse of American literature and film is quite recent. To Kill A Mockingbird was only written about 60 years ago, and Mulholland Dr was made in 2001. Citizen Kane is actually older than Death of a Salesman. These may not be “the Western canon” as defined by certain academics, but they occupy a similar space in the domain of discourse.

What I am trying to direct the conversation towards is works within the field of games that develop a reverence within academia and provoke discussion about its influence on the artform, as well as perhaps being talked about a wee bit too much. (i.e. guys, I love Dark Souls to death but this has to stop). I used the word canon because I think it conveys the kind of critique and analysis I am referring to in a succinct manner.

Hope this clarified my meaning. :slight_smile:

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I realize this is nitpicking, but is canon a western thing? It only took a couple hundred years after the invention of writing for a literary canon to develop, and that was back in ancient Sumeria.

Anyways, canon at its best, in my opinion, are the works we pass down for the purposes of teaching. The best game I know of for that would be Spelunky, especially if it’s paired with Yu’s excellent book about it. Also, Tetris. Those are the only two I feel confident about. I suspect whatever else winds up being carried forward would surprise us.


Would an academic canon of games be different from a list of historically important games? Like an academic canon of games are ones that are held in high regards due to the games themselves, whereas historically important games also take into account the gaming/cultural effect they had when released. I feel like there is some overlap, but slightly different. I hope I’m making sense.

No, canon isn’t exclusive to Western society, if that’s what you’re asking! I specified “Western canon” because a) I grew up in Western society so cannot speak to what the discourse looks like elsewhere, and b) because most of the people in this forum are more familiar with the Western discourse.

@UmbrellaTerms I would agree with this distinction! There is a substantial amount of overlap, but that is because of their impact in the first place, usually.

I think I will edit the original post to clarify my use (and perhaps misuse) of the term “canon” since it has a very distinct undertone and might confuse my meaning.

As someone who’s currently doing academic work on games hopes to be doing some of that teaching eventually (probably in the far future though), and who comes from a background in English lit and theory, I absolutely love this. Thanks for starting it off!

First, I agree with pretty much all of the choices offered so far, and would have to add the original Half-Life to that early canon. It may have long been outstripped, but it’s largely impossible to discuss modern game narratives without brushing into that one. I’d also add Silent Hill 2, if only because that narrative is so rife with psychoanalytic overtones and symbolism that people like me tend to lap up. And Super was already mentioned, but I think a lot of the Metroid series could end up being pretty revered.

Also, I know this was explicitly not supposed to be what we think should be canon, and that me listing the games I’m working with right now is probably a violation of that. But to just pick a couple, I think Shadow of the Colossus, Undertale, and Majora’s Mask are such rich texts that they will eventually end up as part of a video game canon. And I hope Ico does too.


I actually think Shadow of the Colossus is a perfect model for the kind of game that would end up in canon. During the whole Roger Ebert “games-as-art” hubbub, that was the only game Ebert admitted was artistic.

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In that case, I think some games that would be a part of the academic canon would be:

Gone Home, The Stanley Parable, The Beginner’s Guide, or What Remains of Edith Finch. I’m not sure which one will ultimately be the main one of it’s genre to join the “canon”, but each made significant strides in their genre, for different reasons. If I had to choose now, I would go with What Remains of Edith Finch as that was embraced by even more “mainstream” outlets and players, whereas the others have the “walking simulator” criticism held against them.

Doom, since that has had so much discussion around it already, and is usually used as the main example of that style of FPS, to the point where anything similar to it was a “doom-clone” at the time.

Outside of games being in the canon, I think another interesting thing to think about would be games that seemed like they would’ve been in the canon and have seemingly fallen off. Bioshock: Infinite at release was looked at pretty positively from what I remember, but eventually as discussion around it turned to the flaws in the game, I think its chances of being in the “canon” are now gone.


Thanks for the clarification. Sometimes when people use the term “Western” it feels like a value judgement is going unsaid.

Can I also state that I think a lot of “genre-defining” games won’t make it into canon? Like, I don’t think Super Mario Bros will and I don’t think Ocarina of Time will either. They’ll be talked about, but within the context of serving as influences for whatever is carried on as canon works. Assuming this follows literary canon rules, anyways.

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This is sort of a weird one maybe but I think Call of Duty 4 represented a really important moment for the medium as a whole. Its impact in shaping what the future of multiplayer and its attached progression systems would look like for the next decade are a big one, but its campaign still remains for me a landmark achievement. It paved the way for games like Spec Ops: The Line and Wolfenstein to take a closer look at the destructive cost of nationalistic attitudes and overzealous superpowers (the US forces being depicted as eager but incompetent and the British as conniving and shady), breaking out of the early 2000’s era of the relatively straightforward WWII shooter.


academia ruined my life and i’ll probably let it do that again so i can get possible access to a stable job, but let’s seeeeeeee…

Agreeing with What Remains of Edith Finch up there for sure.

Bastion is the strongest of SuperGiant’s works and it’s pretty well loved, but Pyre has a lot more to say that I think people would be more interested in.

Binding of Isaac is up there. Amnesia: The Dark Descent basically flipped the script on horror games. Silent Hill, with focuses on 2 and 3, the strongest games in the franchise. Metal Gear Solid for sure, with focuses on 2 and 3 yet again, and people not shutting the fuck up about 5 because of the backstory behind its production.

Every single game made by Blizzard Entertainment, with the exception of their “hero brawler” because League of Legends or DOTA are more likely to dominate canon on MOBAs, just like World of Warcraft will dominate the canon for MMOs, with Final Fantasy XIV following close behind. And for JRPGs, it’ll have to be Final Fantasy VII, but I don’t actually know shit about JRPGs.

Oh also Mario, Kirby and Pokemon as franchises, imo.

I hope I got that roman numeral right…



That’s an interesting point. When I think “genre-defining”, I think we are generally talking popularisers (it doesn’t matter who did it first, it’s the game that did it early and was at least successful enough to get credit with expanding the genre conventions). So we’re already a step past the “someone came up with X”.

My academic reading is typically a long way from literary canon discussions (so my ideas of what is a typical paper may vary somewhat) but I do wonder if this is an area where we might see the academic nature of the text leading to an unusual pattern (as you’ve proposed). We cite the canon work as the interesting point of comparison, we cite the originator (that few played but we’ve read enough papers to know what is cited as the originator and that typically we pass the credit up to it), and we miss the in-between (because I’ve only got so many pages and lots to say). Maybe these genre-definers will not only miss the core canon but even drop out of the conversations entirely? That’s not really something I’d seriously thought about before.

Edit: for my own offerings (potentially being trapped in the genre-defining gap above but maybe able to break into the canon as exemplars):

World of Warcraft: Holy trinity (in no way original but cementing the design), order of magnitude more popular than similar games, already heavily references around social spaces in games etc.

Guild Wars (the first one): The not-MMO design. Social spaces (shards), instances, solo zones which is never really at MMO scale. Even some of the technical stuff (streaming almost all of the client data during play rather than needing to download the game first) is worth pointing back to. Maybe it doesn’t make it but I think it’s an interesting game in enough ways as to make potential for it to break into a canon.

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I was going to say, the first Modern Warfare felt like a pretty huge turning point in shooters. On top of its innovations in online multiplayer, it was one of the first blockbuster shooters to turn its gaze to more modern, topical conflicts. With that, of course, came a new age of shooter-as-propaganda; Battlefield, Call of Duty, CS: GO, and many others grounded their settings in the contemporary moment, imbuing the previously more abstracted celebration of militarism with more immediate applicability. Games don’t inspire real-world violence, but as cultural artifacts, they can certainly shape public perception of whatever group the designers decide to be an “other.” In the case of Modern Warfare, the go-to enemy changed from Nazi to “terrorist,” and that new coding found its way into other modern shooters as well.


Either Skyrim or Oblivion for sure, but probably Skyrim.

My argument for Oblivion is that it brought that specific genre or RPG into the spotlight, and laid the groundwork for Skyrim’s success, but Skyrim is such a phenomenon that I can’t imagine it not being included in academic discussion about games, especially if you wanted to discuss modding or modding communities and how that can be linked longevity and popularity, or the concept of streamlining mechanics.

Hell you could make a valid argument for any game in the Elder Scrolls series, probably. But if we’re picking one? Skyrim.


I feel like if you’re talking TES games, Morrowind is also pretty likely.


Also interesting to think about the discussion that missions like Death From Above, Charlie Don’t Surf, and Shock and Awe sparked about the widespread real-world issue of NATO forces operating on bad intel, using drones and the like indiscriminately, and inflicting massive collateral damage on a regular basis. Missions weren’t just included to stir up controversy like MW2 or MW3’s scenes of civilian mass murder.

It brought these things into the public consciousness in 2007, even when the drone/remote warfare debate didn’t seem to reach its peak until the middle of Obama’s time in office. Little did Americans realize we would still be mired in conflict in the Middle-East all these years later with no real end in sight. The first American mission where you and the cavalry enthusiastically ride into the city and kill scores of enemy troops only for the mission to end in failure and without completing your objective thanks to unreliable intel sticks with me as a pretty profound statement/condemnation that I don’t think gets mentioned a whole lot.


My game suggestion is Fat Princess because of what it says about gender, violence, bodies, property and desirability. Beyond the game itself a discourse analysis of the games press coverage of it could give scholars lots to chew on.

Now I want to take a moment to speculate on the future of Game Studies as a discipline.

Right now scholars are split between departments like Film & Media, Cultural Studies, Sociology, Women and Gender Studies, Communications, Surviellance Studies and English. I imagine there are others I’m missing as well. Each of these disciplines has its own set of methodologies, theorists and ways for engaging with a text. In games studies journals there are appeals to stop transposing ways of reading texts like films onto games.

While I think there will be more and more scholars from these disciplines engaging with games in really thoughtful ways and publishing in Games Studies journals we are a ways off from Games Studies departments. Until these departments are formed it may be challenging to see what really sticks or declare a cannon because of the diversity of voices.

Also how do people about the term the global north instead of the west?

So I do agree with you in ways, but I think you’re wrong about things like Ocarina of Time and System Shock 2; the latter in particular because I think it’s not actually part of your point. SS2 was not the first immersive sim, and it wasn’t even the first System Shock game. Though, it is honestly likely that we will probably end up closer to the original Bioshock. (Also @UmbrellaTerms, Bioshock Infinite might fit in, because what canon would be complete without a hot centrist take and vague racism?) More importantly, I would point to Ocarina and SS2, not because they were progenitors, but because they have some quality that causes players to continually return to them both to play and to discuss them.
I think about the way people today still talk about Metropolis, Pet Sounds and Borges, it’s very hard for me to think that these early works will drop away from discussion, even though there’s not a huge amount of reasons to think this canon will evolve the same way other canons do.

Another point: I feel that game criticism has a weird relationship with prototype theory. Terms like “Metroidvania” and “Rogue-like” are prototypical by their nature. This is partially due to, in my view, how well mechanical traits slot into Venn diagrams. Rather than having to list of a slew of mechanical qualities, we can conveniently say “it’s like X-COM”. Because of this, a lot of categorization, criticism, and discussion of games I’ve noticed often spends a lot of time discussing what it has in common with other seminal games. Super Metroid is nearly 25 years old, and it’s still being used as a yardstick for the analysis of interconnected worlds in 2D action platformers.

You’re probably right that particular progenitors will probably melt away, but due to the way modern archival and the way this particular discourse takes place, I think it’ll be more complex than that.

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