“Recovering critic” and essayist Arthur Krystal writes a “defense of the canon” in the pages of the latest issue of Harper’s. Though his is an encomium for “Great Literature,” a number of the points he makes apply equally well to video games.
Krystal traces the origins of the “canon” to the Greek meaning “measuring stick” or “rule.” Contrary to the popular conception of an ageless list of “the best books for all time,” a literary canon in this sense implies a body of work that can act as the measure of a form or genre. It becomes a tool whose purpose isn’t to strictly define what counts as Literature, but rather to provide a shared touchstone, a common frame of reference, that can help facilitate discourse.
Alternatively, for those still “uninitiated,” a canon, even one that’s ferociously disputed, provides an effective point of entry by way of including only those texts which can’t be missed or ignored. Simply put: it can serve as a user-friendly road map for newcomers that also saves a lot of time.
Nor does Krystal ignore the commercial inspiration for canonization. Part of the impetus for finding “the best of Western literature,” or in some cases arbitrarily anointing one or another anthology of authors as such, was a growing market among would-be casual readers buoyed by a budding sense of nationalism. This is interesting for video games in two respects.
First, though “game of the year” editions and the like have been crowding store shelves for some time, HD collections and decisions about what classic games are ported to new systems and digital libraries are much more prevalent now than in earlier hardware generations for obvious reasons (each new generation brings with it new “classics”). At the same time, as the video game industry seeks out new, non-traditional “gamers” through multipurpose entertainment platforms (smartphones, PCs, living room media boxes that play games but also stream Netflix), canonization becomes an obvious tool both for re-branding old content and for initiating legions of new consumers into the “gaming” subculture.
Second, while this initiation serves the interests of video game companies (consumers who invest part of their identity in the culture surrounding gaming and its history are, I would guess, much more likely to invest in buying the new products necessary to remain a relevant actor in it), this also creates pushback from the existing community. Brining new consumers into the fold leads to inflation, such that “hardcore” members feel the need to create new ways of setting themselves apart from the influx of “casuals.”
Thus moves (explicit or otherwise) to canonize the medium by corporations is greeted by a second tier of canonization by the existing subculture; for everyone who might have played Super Mario Bros. on the Wii’s Virtual Console, or the Ocarina of Time remake for the 3DS, others have played them on their original platforms, or sought to argue why more obscure titles in both of these series, like Super Mario Bros. 2 and Link’s Adventure or Majora’s Mask, are actually the better/more interesting/more significant games. It’s not nationalism of the kind that Krystal is talking about, but the tribal urge to delineate between groups, draw boundaries between who’s in and who’s out, and develop a critical framework that can justify this hierarchy, is very similar and still very much present.
Krystal doesn’t ignore the postmodern, postcolonial, multiculturalist critique of Great Literature either, though he’s hardly chartable toward it. Even rejecting his overly simplistic rendition of the anti-canon arguments of the 70s and 80s, he tacitly endorses a distinction I find persuasive: the drive toward canonization is not the same thing has defending an actual literary canon as timeless and self-evidently worthy of critical subservience. One can criticize and reject the ideologies and power structures that create a particular set of “Great Books” without rejecting whole-sale the need for curation, or the principles such an enterprise relies on (namely, that some works are more central or imperative than others).
And indeed, the very fact that the drive toward canonization ends up revealing certain latent ideologies or power structures makes the act itself, rather than whatever product results from it, appear eminently useful. My experience in a two semester “Great Books” seminar was actually what helped lay the groundwork for my own developing critical orientation to the world. Whether or not Shakespeare or Tolstoy should actually remain at the center of discussions regarding the origins of humanism or the creation of the modern novel is somewhat beside the point.
Even if both artists are completely overrated, and their ongoing legacies simply the result of a discourse that privileges one set of people and ideologies over another, the fact that the discourse(s) have privileged both bodies of work only makes them more worthy of study and critical deconstruction. Canonization helps to materialize, in a way, forces and prejudices which might otherwise remain more amorphous and less easily scrutinized. Rhetorically, it provides a number of common frames of reference, the kind which are often crucial to productive debate.
This is why I don’t think that “game of the year” lists or arguments about the “top games of all-time” are especially useless or destructive (though the homogeneity of the people who create and disseminate them certainly can be). Discussions like this help people to articulate what video games they think are doing interesting things (and why) and where they’d like to see more resources be employed in the future (for instance: more experimenting with rogue-likes/non-combat exploration, less iterating on FPS shooters).
Krystal quotes British writer E. E. Kellett’s observation that, “almost all critical judgement…is in the main built on prejudice,” but responds to it with one from critic Desmond MacCarthy,
“[O]ne cannot get away from one’s temperament any more than one can jump away from one’s shadow, but one can discount the emphasis which it produces. I snub my own temperament when I think it is not leading me straight to the spot where a general panorama of an author’s work is visible.”
Again, the suggestion isn’t that we can successfully arrive at a list of “Great Games,” or that we can analyze them in a vacuum free from ideology or the ultimate confines of our subjectivity, but simply that judgement can be made, and not all of them will be of equal merit or equally worthy of consideration. To this Krystal adds, “the fact that there is no set-in-stone syllabus or sacred inventory of Great Books does not mean there are not great books.”
Put another way, the fact that a consensual canon of video games is just a mirage, something forever unobtainable, doesn’t mean that the direction it provides and the inspiration to pursue it is completely in vein or fruitless. The canon as syllabus, as manifesto, as history, all of them have their uses.
Which is why I’d like to see self-proclaimed video game critics be less worried about appearing to claim or imply that “some games are far better than others,” and more focused on clarifying criteria by which these judgments can be made. I understand that this won’t be everyone’s project, but the space for aesthetic critiques of video games, which I would propose are closely linked to careful analysis of how systems inform player interaction and experience, feels under-developed at this point. Too often, at least as of late, cultural analysis or player response become the default prisms through which new and old games are discussed. As a result, most of us are much better at explaining why a given title and its mechanics or representations are problematic, but whether it’s has something interesting or worthwhile to share, or the competency to do so elegantly and affectingly.