What Will The Academic Canon of Games Be Like?


Off the top of my head I’d say Deus Ex, Doom, Planescape, the big Lucasarts adventure games, MGS2, Half Life 1&2, Shadow of the Colossus, Portal, Bioshock, Dark Souls/Bloodborne, The Witcher 3, Breath of the Wild. I think these will definitely become crucial to the academic canon of games if they haven’t already.

I know this reads like a list of The Best Games™ but these are all games that I read and hear designers geeking out about, and that seems to be where academics tend to look for guidance on the intersection of semiotics and technical design. I think a massive one that is regularly overlooked is point and click adventure games, because they’re a pure example of player input as verbs which is pretty important for digging into games-specific elements like kinaesthetics.


I don’t think we can get away with gaming in academia without considering the role that MYST played in developing a world the way that it did. While it was financially successful, certainly, the effect that MYST had upon the adventure genre, changing what was expected out of the genre through the first-person perspective, will probably be recognized as a major shift in gaming history. In regards to influence, there’s a direct line of influence from MYST to first-person adventure games in the Gone Home vein, and, really, the concept of exploring a 3D environment as it’s defined in games starts back at MYST (I guess, being curious beings that we are, we would’ve wanted to simulate first-person exploration in games at some point regardless, but MYST got there with a full terrain and interesting graphical world first)

In a similar vein, in terms of mechanical design, I can cite at least one academic work that looks at the Atari VCS Adventure in context. Adventure is an early example of a genre translation, an attempt to move from text adventure to graphical adventure. The flexibility that the original Colossal Cave Adventure had in this sense exhibits an early understanding the of the variance that a story told through games can have


Probably none of the games mentioned in this thread. You gotta remember academia is swarmed by middle aged white guys who care about “art” and intellectual superiority and are apparently mates with adorno because they saw them at a party once. Probably the “canon” is like, that shit game where you read random french words on a beach or literally any game criticising the soviet union because the easiest stance to take in western academia is to say workers are stupid


I think you’re understating the importance of Super Mario Bros. When film historians talk about Citizen Kane, they always discuss the technical ways it affected film, from extreme close-ups to that one shot of Kane from below where Orson Welles has to dig a hole for his camera.

Likewise, Super Mario Bros created the scrolling screen and made it a popular fixture of games. Likewise, Wolfenstein 3D not only created a genre, but defined how processors would compute 3D graphics from then on out. Nearly every first-person game (even today) shares some code with the work done by id.

I’m actually kind of shocked how few games pre-90s are being listed (although maybe I haven’t scrolled down that far). I literally just watched Waypoint’s short video on the Video Game History Foundation, and it’s only reminded me how important it is to make sure we not only preserve the artifacts, but the ephemera surrounding the artifacts so that we maintain context. For that, I mean magazines, books, game packaging, etc.


I agree that Super Mario Bros would have a place in acedemic canon. Even beyond the technical innovations it gave the medium, think about how much 1-1 is talked about for elegantly teaching the player the game’s mechanics. Or like how jumping is still an action you can do in most games despite it maybe not being at all necessary for the game’s design. I think the games influence is deeply rooted enough in so many games that as long as the medium doesn’t change drastically in the near future, it has a place in an acedemic video game canon.


@Lilly I mean, if you’re talking about Bientôt l’été, at least that would be a game created by a WOC over at Tale of Tales. While I more than understand your negative view, I feel like you’re misattributing a lot of issues with pretention. Academia tends to be, in my experience, more obsessed with, say, Victorian-era plays than weird art projects by small producers. It gets fixated on these (frequently problematic) corners of the media. This is through my limited experience, though, and a lot of this stuff tends to be based on where you’re looking at the discourse. Certain forms of iterary criticism looks radically different than other forms of analysis and favors different things, so it depends.

@bronson I feel like this is partially because narrative seemed to come into its own in the past 20 years. There’s only so much criticism that can be applied to Donkey-Kong in this regard. I’ve said this elsewhere, but so far it seems like we don’t really have a clear framework for a solely mechanical analysis of a given game, though I haven’t gone through many journals about this stuff. That being said, Zork could definitely end up there, and maybe the original Elite!


Halo & Halo 2 will probably be in there. I hesitate to pick one, because Halo established regenerating health, the 2-weapon limit, and standard dual-joystick control as genre hallmarks, while Halo 2 sort of validated online console multiplayer. In many ways, we don’t have widespread appeal of Call of Duty or even Minecraft and Fortnite without Halo & Halo 2.

In a similar vein, Goldeneye might earn a spot, but the lessons learned there almost seem like a fluke and its control innovations were pretty limited to the N64.


I agree that Super Mario Bros is an important game; I just think it will be dropped regardless. I love SMB, and Ocarina, but there are and will be games that are easier to point to and say: look at this greatness! That isn’t to say those games are actually better, just that they’re easier to point to. Film is a cool comparison because there does seem to be more discussion of innovators in it – but that could be because film is still young. Give it and games a chance to grow old (older anyways) and I do think they might leave the conversation

@vehemently You’re right; I’ll edit the reference to system shock out. I’ve returned to play both SMS and OOT, but we’re not that far removed from when they came out, and I grew up hearing them called “the greatest games ever”. I don’t think younger generations will return to them as we did because they didn’t grow up with them.


I mean…I suspect middle aged white dudes who care about art make up a not–insignificant part of these forums and this thread (I’m a young -aged one, anyways). The games we mention probably won’t make it, but I think it is a decent sampling of what academia might like to see.

You do make me wonder what the Robinson Carusoe of games will be. RC is a middling book that’s stuck around because it’s a love letter to the recently created Middle Class. I think to think of canon of what is passed down as an educational tool, but canon can also be a tool of cultural warfare. What are the games whose shitty politics give them immortality?


I don’t think academia cares one bit about any of those points about Halo & Halo 2. There are no lessons to teach there. Also, Halo didn’t establish regenerating health. It still had health packs. It had regenerating shields. It was Call of Duty 2 that established regenerating health.


Yeah, to go back to the Citizen Kane comparison, that was not the first movie to use those techniques (to my knowledge??). It was the best, early, mainstream implementation of those techniques that happened to produce a film that is still very watchable by modern standards. SMB3 or SMW may likely become the stand-in for SMB’s successes.


the easiest stance to take in western academia is to say workers are stupid

I’m not disputing any experience you might have had, but this doesn’t match up at all to anything I’ve seen where I’m at. That might be because the media studies and film/literature departments I’ve experienced all have some pretty active Marxists but I don’t think that’s particularly odd in Western academia. Systemic classism is a thing but it’s not quite that overt.

@sleepiest partially from what @Lilly said, I think it’s going to be The Stanley Parable. I think that game is an overly nihilistic thought experiment that caught on because its concept was novel at the time, but in hindsight doesn’t say anything particularly meaningful about either games or people who play them. Out of Wreden’s work, I feel like The Beginner’s Guide both has more narrative substance and also goes about saying it in more interesting ways, but I feel like it gets overlooked because it wasn’t novel in its approach to genre in the way SP was.


I hope that games academia will be as concerned with mechanics as storytelling. From a different kind of “educational” perspective, I would still probably point to Halo 1 as the place for someone to learn how to use dual-joystick controls. Because it was so early, it was very concerned with teaching basic movement and aiming in combat situations tuned for fun and success.


In line with this, I’d argue for Shovel Knight’s inclusion just on how clearly and comprehensively it showcases its design philosophy. It’s such a good example of clear tuturoialization and how simple mechanics can take advantage of complex level design.


Desperate for legitimacy and recognition. The academic canon of games will be desperate for legitimacy and recognition from the wider academia and public and will throw in a bunch of well known games that don’t actually contribute all that much to the field just to get what they need and save themselves from people asking why Gears of War 3 isn’t a part of the canon.


The Sims will certainly be in there. It’s interesting for a few reasons: it’s a simulation-heavy game that cares about human interactions more than explosions, it clearly communicates its mechanics, it was an early example of a game that promoted emergent narrative, and it appeals to an unusually broad audience.

Façade seems to be a perennial source of discussion. Despite being a somewhat underwhelming experience, a bit of a dead-end (currently) in the evolution of games, and incredibly clunky, it’s a game that’s important in talk about games. I think this is largely due to the aspirational nature of the game: it’s a glimpse of a different direction that games could go in and until games do go in that direction, we’ll have to keep talking about Façade.

I agree that Spec Ops: The Line and Bioshock have enshrined their places in academic discussion, simply because so much has already been written about them. I don’t think they’ll stimulate much further discussion relative to other games, but they’re important for their role in the history of game criticism.

There’s also a lot of genres that I think will be represented that don’t necessarily have a canonical representative. Fighting games, rhythm games, and abstract puzzle games can all support theorizing without there needing to be a single exemplary form of the game. The same could be said for other genres, but these mechanics-focused genres make abstract discussions easier than they might be in games where a crafted narrative is the main point of interest.


This is a long post, and isn’t really about specific games, more just some broader thoughts about the subject, so sorry ya’ll.

I think one of the problems that video game academia could run into is an organizational one. I can’t speak to literary fields, but for film at least, a lot of what films are deemed “important”, academically, are centered around individual artists or historical movements. That’s why there are classes and fields of discussion about people like Kubrick, Hitchcock, Ozu, etc., and similarly around the French New Wave and the Hollywood studio era. With regards to the former, I don’t think that we really have an equivalent as of yet for games. This is almost certainly due to the prevalence of the Auteur Theory, the idea that films (and really art regardless of medium) are the singular vision of an individual rather than a collaborative, collective one, which I personally think is inaccurate and reductive for how we talk about art. As of yet, I think it’s tough to ascribe that idea to video games. There are some individuals who stand out like Kojima, who do seem to fit the restrictive “auteur” model, but mostly authorship is assigned to development studios, and they can see a ton of turnover even in a short amount of time, and so it’s tough to say that they form a unique, singular stylistic vision over the course of their lifetimes. Which, I do want to make clear, assigning authorship to a group of people collaborating together to create something is a far more accurate take on the creative process, but it’s also a lot messier.

With regards to the latter, assessing the historical importance of some games, I think it comes down to a combination of evaluating their mechanical impact and their wider, social impact. Super Metroid not only honed the Metroid formula, but as a combination of good design and mechanics, created a subgenre that will persist for the foreseeable future (genre I think is an important yardstick in this regard; what game created this genre, what game popularized this genre, what game innovated and changed this genre, etc.). Likewise, I think @Foxtrot nailed it with Modern Warfare. That game set the standard design-wise for multiplayer and FPS singleplayer for a decade, and also ushered in a slew of tonally identical military shooters that were relevant to the current social atmosphere of surveillance, conflict in the Middle East, and nationalism. It served not only as an important jumping off point for other shooters to follow from, but managed to reflect the environment it came out in in a way that I’m not sure many games before it were able to do. Although, of course, all of this stuff is still up in the air, and nothing will really become clear until the dust settles and we have the buffer of a few years or decades even to look back and accurately point to what games made the most impact.


Out of curiosity, I ran a “game studies syllabus” search through the ol’ engines.

Here’s one from Jennifer Whitson at the University of Waterloo: (pdf). Specific games covered include: The Walking Dead, Candy Crush Saga, AdVenture Capitalist, Dys4ia, World of Warcraft (in the context of gold farmers), Star Wars The Old Republic, “don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story”, Pokemon Go, Unmanned, “Zombies, Run”, and League of Legends.

Now obviously those games aren’t a literary “canon” that is being held up as masterpieces for analysis, but I think it’s interesting to note the real choices academics are making when teaching. I think game enthusiasts also underestimate how much academics enjoy talking about mobile games and reductive experiences like idle games.

Here’s another syllabus, this time from Mark Chen at the University of Washington Bothell (more like Botheaven am I right anyway here’s the pdf). There’s some overlap with the Waterloo course (Walking Dead, Dys4ia) and that might be because they shared the materials during the creation of the courses, though Chen’s course also references Terraria, FTL, a bunch of free games, and a bunch of tabletop games.

At NYU (yup it’s another pdf) Alexander Galloway covers: Tekken, Metroid Prime, Half-Life, Halo, Adventure, Warcraft, Ico, Shenmue, Myst, The Sims, Pencil Whipped, SiSSYFiGHT (blurred for possible slur, though the game is using it in an odd way and claimed to have progressive intentions and I don’t have any more context on this it was just in the list), Team Up, Orisinal, Adam Killer, untitled game, r/c, America’s Army, Kuma\War, SOCOM, Special Force, Under Ash, NARC, State of Emergency, Civilization III, and Dance Dance Revolution.


Speaking from a literary field, Auteur Theory is definitely most prevalent in film, and while lit theory and studies still do often focus around individual artists or historic moments, there tends to be a lot of freedom to shirk those particular structures. Heck, there are still formalists in literary fields (who I highly disagree with, but who do still have clout) who think you can only accurately analyze a work if you completely divorce it from all authorial and historical context. And then there are more reasonable people who argue that analyses can sometimes benefit from moments of strict formalism. Coming from literature rather than film, the idea of divorcing games from ideas of authorship doesn’t seem as problematic.

In addition, I agree that it’s definitely difficult to ascribe art-as-singular-vision to most games (and Kojima almost proves the rule because he clearly takes so much inspiration from film), but I don’t think that’s a problem that hasn’t been encountered before. In particular, this idea of:

assigning authorship to a group of people collaborating together to create something is a far more accurate take on the creative process, but it’s also a lot messier.

has been addressed (and is by nature always in the process of being addressed) by comics studies, since comics are also a highly collaborative medium. In line with that, the advisor for the work I’m doing in games studies is in part a comics scholar, and we tend to bring a lot of ideas from that side of literary studies into the work.

Also (not so much in response to your comment but more in general), y’all, video game academia does currently exist. It’s small and a bit hard to see, but it is very much there and growing. There’s a corpus of critical work that is largely recent but constantly growing. Moreover, after a couple years of working in a literary field on a pretty sizable games project, the academics I know in English lit (even the oldest and fogiest) all seem to think that this is the way that field is headed.


To be fair, that is a Sociology course that involves video games. To look at a “canon”, we’d probably need something like a “Survey of British Literature”, but for games.