March 12, 2007

Video Game Preservation and the Canon

by Nick Montfort · , 11:12 am

Take a look at the New York Times article on video game preservation, discussing curator Henry Lowood’s list of canonical video games. He picked the ten games with Matteo Bittanti, Christopher Grant, Steve Meretzky, and Warren Spector. These “most important video games of all time” are:

I guess this settles one thing – Zork must be a video game. I wonder which is the canonical platform for the games on the list that are cross-platform?

35 Responses to “Video Game Preservation and the Canon”

  1. Kotaku Says:

    The 10 Most Important Video Games

    Henry Lowood, the curator of the Stanford University History of Science and Technology Collections, announced this past week a list of the 10 Most Important Video Games of All Time. This game canon has been created to preserve to cultural…

  2. Dennis G. Jerz Says:

    “Zork introduced the world to the adventure game.”

    Hmmm…if for “world” we read “those who hadn’t already seen ‘Adventure’.”

  3. Gregory Weir Says:

    Interesting. Not one roleplaying game. Warcraft is counted as a series, while Mario is not. No Myst, which ushered in CD-ROMs, redefined a genre, and was a bestseller of all time for a while. I guess if you have to pick 10, it’s gonna be hard. I don’t know what I’d take out to fit in the things they’re missing. Maybe they should have picked 15?

  4. Frank L. Fox Says:

    Point well taken, Mr. Jerz. I remember playing “Adventure” sitting at a 3033 mainframe in the L.A. Times computer room back around 1982. I credit Infocom with bring that wonderful game to the masses. Before Zork came along I could only describe a Grue to my nerdy wife; thanks to Infocom she got eaten by them on a regular basis.

  5. Patrick Says:

    Sounds like a generational thing. My top five are FFVI, SS2, Planescape: Torment, Castlevania: SotN, and Myth. Facade will probably be canonical eventually.

  6. Jimmy Maher Says:

    The whole fun of lists like this is of course to argue about them. In that spirit…

    Spacewar!: Agreed.

    Star Raiders: A bizarre choice. Why not Pong here, the first videogame large numbers of people actually PLAYED?

    Zork: I love Infocom as much as the next guy, but as Mr. Jerz notes above Adventure really belongs in this space. There is after all a reason that adventure games are called adventure games. If that’s not influential, I don’t know what is.

    Tetris: Agreed.

    SimCity: Agreed

    Super Mario Bros. 3: Another strange one. Why are we allowed only one choice from the Super Mario series, but can include the Warcraft series in its entirety? And if we must choose just one, why choose number 3? The first game was only the best-selling videogame of all time according to Guinness Book of World Records via Wikipedia, and the game that almost single-handedly gained world domination for Nintendo… and marked the beginning of the end for Atari. Not to mentiong ushering in a style of gameplay still frequently seen today, and presenting the whole Nintendo aesthetic to the world for the first time.

    Civilization I/II: Agreed on number one. Number two just strikes me as Civilization with more stuff, though, and doesn’t carry near the historical significance.

    Doom: A no-brainer. (Sadly, in my opinion, in light of the gaming culture it has spawned, but that’s another story…)

    Warcraft series: This strikes me as problematic in the same way that Zork is problematic. While the Warcraft games were and are immensely popular, the game that introduced the RTS model of play and really deserves to be in this place is Command and Conquer. (Well, one could make an argument for Dune 2, I suppose, but C&C really got it RIGHT for the first time.)

    Sensible World of Soccer: Perhaps my genetic American aversion to all things soccer is rearing its ugly head here, but this choice seems the most bizarre of all to me. If we want to include a sports game, why not the Madden series (if we are being American-centric) or the Championship Manager series (if we are being European-centric and must have soccer on the list)? I think what REALLY belongs here, though, is a MMORPG, as this form to my mind easily represents the most significant gaming development of the past decade. The obvious choice would be EverQuest, the first MMORPG to really get it right — as right as one CAN get it, I mean, as none of these game really interest me — and be profitable, even if its star has been eclipsed in recent years by World of Warcraft. I am assuming that the Warcraft series and World of Warcraft are considered separate entities by the authors of this list, by the way, as to do otherwise strikes me as egregious cheating.

    I think that the creators of this list got a bit confused as to whether they were selecting games based on their historical importance or based on their artistic quality. It’s certainly hard to avoid picking pet favorities in creating a list like this, of course. My first instinct would be to fill it up with IF and adventure games and maybe an RPG or two, and run screaming from sports games, FPS games, or anything featuring a typical Extruded Fantasy Product setting. Such a list wouldn’t reflect cultural reality very well, though, much as I might wish it did. ;)

  7. mark Says:

    While we’re kvetching about games left out, I think at least one of the major late-70s/early-80s arcade games that collectively define “classic arcade game” should’ve made it, whether Pong or Pacman or Space Invaders. Seriously, Sensible World of Soccer?

  8. Fox Harrell Says:

    Of course Super Mario Bros. 3 was selected as the representative of the series. It features the “Tanooki” (tanuki) suit.

    Seriously though, that was the game in the series that really captured my imagination (partly because of Mario’s ability to glide). It consolidated and improved upon a lot of the advances to the platformer genre up to that point.

  9. Christopher Grant Says:

    I’m with Fox on this one — uh … obviously. I chose Super Mario Bros. 3 (instead of 1, or 2, or World, or 64) because of what it accomplished at a technological parity with Super Mario Bros. 1. SMB3 was a marked evolution of the genre, introducing a unique nonlinearity, while adding more: more powerups, more levels, better graphics. The game represents the first mega-marketing gaming blockbuster, a trend we’re familiar with today. And, not including bundling, SMB3 is the best selling game of all time. Sure, it was hard to pick one over the other, but when I want to pick up a SMB game, it’s going to be 3 over 1 any day.

    “Why are we allowed only one choice from the Super Mario series, but can include the Warcraft series in its entirety?” — This wasn’t a question of allowance, it was a question of choice. Henry decided the Warcraft RTS series was best taken as a whole whereas I think the SMB games are fine as self-contained, unique offerings. Perhaps I could have selected DOOM II to go with DOOM I since, for all intents and purposes, they’re the same game. At least know that selecting a series was a controversial choice for us as well!

    As for Sensible, you’ll need to talk to Matteo. He’s Italian. They like soccer, I’m told.

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  11. Henry Lowood Says:

    A general point about the list: It served a greater purpose, which is awareness that digital games now have a history — which needs to be preserved. Judging by all the comments on various sites, we accomplished the goal of establishing that a lot of people care about the culture and history of digital games. So, we need to move to step 2: preserving that history.

    That said, this was not a list of firsts but more generally centered on criteria of influence, importance, impact. A theme that emerged from the exercise, by the way, was the aspect of influence not just on other games or on players, but on popular culture, society, aesthetics, etc.

    Warcraft (my choice, we each chose two): The points I wanted to make about the significance of this title all were worked out over the course of the series. For example, the addition of an aspect of “interface mastery” to the traditional strategy game is there in Warcraft, but nothing like the “micro” required to play Warcraft III. The same can be said for the working out of the narrative world and its impact on other media (boardgames, card games, a virtual world). There were eight points in all, which I will post to the IGDA Game Preservation SIG site as soon as I have time this week. My only peeve with respect to comments about Warcraft is the one that has appeared mostly elsewhere, that Dune II was the first RTS. First, no it wasn’t (there were numerous real-time tactical and strategic games published during the 1980s) and second, it wasn’t nearly as significant as either Warcraft or C&C with respect to the impact criterion. Honestly, the only doubts I had with respect to my choice had to do with Command & Conquer, but I don’t think the impact of C&C has kept up with Warcraft. That’s another thing about history: Perspective often changes with time.


  12. josemanuel Says:

    I think I understand why Zork was chosen, but if the reason for its inclusion was its significance as a seminal work of interactive fiction, I would have picked Adventure, as other have pointed out; and if it was a matter of quality, I would have preferred A Mind Forever Voyaging. Too bad it was pretty much ineligible being Steve Meretzky on the selection board.

    I miss The Secret of Monkey Island 2 on that list. Or anything by Ron Gilbert for that matter.

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  14. Jimmy Maher Says:

    Christopher and Henry,

    I don’t want to quibble too much over the specific titles on the list. I understand your larger purpose to be the legitimizing of academic study of gaming’s history, and the preservation of that history so that such studies can take place as well as to give the general public access to the classics. If I am at least vaguely correct in this, I wholeheartedly commend and support you. I think it is a darn shame that the only people who seem serious about gaming preservation are the ones running illegal abandonware sites such as Home of the Underdogs. It’s a horrible situation in my opinion, and it’s long since past time for something to be done about it. I really believe that if some respected university somewhere started a serious project to curate a gaming archive, a sort of library of out of print titles both common and obscure, the various copyright holders would be receptive to the idea of granting the necessary permissions. I’m frankly surprised no one has done it already.

    An obvious comparison can be made with the early years of cinema. Something like 90% of early films are lost to us just because nobody gave a darn about it until it was too late. We would be in largely the same state in the videogaming field if not for a bunch of scruffy, unpaid nerds on the Internet. There is, however, only so much said nerds can do. Scruffy nerds who are technically software pirates don’t have much standing to negotiate with the corporate world.

    I can’t resist just a bit more quibbling, though. :) You said: “That said, this was not a list of firsts but more generally centered on criteria of influence, importance, impact.” This is why I am baffled by games like Star Raiders, Super Mario Bros.3 (as opposed to #1), and Sensible World of Soccer making the list. Whatever their merits as games, which I assume are considerable, I don’t see their influence and importance as exceeding that of Pong, or EverQuest, or The Sims for that matter. (Although maybe there was a decision made not to include games of the last decade or so, which would invalidate the latter two choices? If so, fair enough.) It does kind of strike me that you perhaps weren’t all choosing based on the same criteria. :)

    But the larger point is that what you are doing is important. Thanks for doing it, and if this part-time grad student, full-time computer nerd can help you in any way, let me know.

  15. Frank L. Fox Says:

    As far as I’m concerned, A Mind Forever Voyaging blew the doors off of every game that came before it. It wasn’t just another North, South, East, West, Take, Drop game. Steve Meretzky is a god in my book! He got into my head like no other writer had ever done. AMFV was the first interactive story that made me feel like I could alter the outcome of the plot in some meaningful way. There have since been very few games that inspired such vivid visuals in my imagination.

    AMFV not only deserves a place in history, it should somehow be respectfully introduced to this new generation of gamers in a form they can swallow.

  16. Steve Meretzky Says:

    Sorry about the “Zork introduced the world to the adventure game.” The Times’ wording, not mine. I paid (what I believe was) ample homage to the role of Adventure in the development of the genre, during my presentation at the Game Developers Conference.

    Regarding the lack of more recent games, we didn’t have a hard and fast rule, as in “no games that aren’t at least N years old”, but we did discuss that it was better to wait a period of time in order to judge a game in its historical context. Just as a baseball player must be retired for 5 years before being eligible for the Hall of Fame.

    Sensible was one of the last additions. I hadn’t played Sensible myself, but those who had felt it was the best soccer game. I was glad to see a sports game on the list, and I was also glad to see a European-developed game on the list. (I guess you could technically call Tetris a European-developed game…) Diversity of age, genre, and geographic origin where all criteria we discussed.

    Of course, there are TONS of worthy games that we couldn’t include … but this is just the first of what will hopefully become an annual exercise.

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  18. Henry Lowood Says:


    Regarding your comment about a games archive: We have one at Stanford. We have a historical collection of around 25,000 titles and 75 platforms (just up to 1993-1994). It’s not fully cataloged yet but if you google “Cabrinety” you will find information about the collector, collection, and the roughly 7000 titles we have indexed thus far. Also, we do collect current titles for our Media Center, where we have about 10 platforms set up. Current games circulate, can be used there, etc.

    There is a more official archival guide (“finding aid”) here for the collection:

    This leaves aside the preservation of these collections, which is the issue we really need to start working on.


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  20. Jimmy Maher Says:


    I was totally unaware of that archive. Thanks for pointing it out to me. It looks like an absolute treasure trove for digital historians.

    It seems that this is a physical collection of actual program disks/cartridges with their boxes, manuals, etc. That’s wonderful, but floppy disks are notoriously unreliable storage media. It wouldn’t surprise me if you had a pretty fair number of dud disks in there right now. The next step would need to be to save the information to a more reliable format. I assume that is what you mean by “preservation.” This would also allow the games to be playable on emulators by those who don’t happen to have an Atari 800, Commodore 64, first-generation Nintendo, etc., handy.

    I have ideas for several more steps after that one, but I’ll spare you. :) You’ve probably thought of it all anyway.


  21. nick Says:

    Henry is the real pioneer in video game archiving, so I’m sure he has – but I’m curious if the conventional wisdom about the short lifespan of floppies is actually true. I’ve heard this for more than a decade, but I talked with Matt Kirschenbaum recently about how, at least anecdotally, 5.25″ disks seemed to be outlasting expectations.

    I have much more to add on the topic of the list and video game preservation, but I’ll just mention this one boring thing for now…

  22. Matt Kirschenbaum Says:

    Anecdotally speaking, I’ve yet to have a problem booting a single one of the dozens of mid-1980s 5.25″ disks I’m still running on my Apple IIe and IIc.

  23. Henry Lowood Says:


    Yes, we are working on a project proposal (Matt’s involved too) that would get to work on some of the preservation issues around 1970s – 1990s formats. We did propose doing a sample back in 1999 of the Cabrinety Collection, but it was not funded. We could basically settle the issue (well, I’m exaggerating) by sampling from such a large collection.

    I haven’t had very many problems with floppies either. Interestingly, most of my problems are with CDs and DVDs, either due to scratches or poor handling (such as one practice unnamed libraries engaged in for a while of putting barcodes right on the disks). Oh, and of course, I’ve had the odd hard drive fail, though I’ve yet to lose any data that way. The weak point is the console. Even if the game ROMs were in perfect condition 100 years from now, I doubt very many consoles will be running. In our media center, the NES or 2600 is replaced on an annual basis, due to failures of one sort or another. So I think the strong argument for data migration has to do with future platforms (likely emulators of some sort or another) as much as integrity of the original media.


  24. J Bushnell Says:

    [The list] served a greater purpose, which is awareness that digital games now have a history

    Very true, but half the fun of canon-making is arguing about it. That said, most of the ones I’d like to see included (Adventure, Pong) have already been mentioned.

    If Space Wars is taking the slot I might give to the more-well-known Asteroids (another vector-based game with hyperspace), I’d nominate Pac-Man as the dominant representative of “major late-70s/early-80s arcade games.” I think Pac-Man is arguably the first video-game that defies early genre strictures: it isn’t trying to recreate fantasy environments or sci-fi scenarios or sports events or warfare but is rather content to build its own bizarrely self-contained universe and rule-space pretty much from scratch (it isn’t even really indebted to either “mazes” or “labyrinths”).

  25. J Bushnell Says:

    This discussion also caused me to pull out this list of “video game firsts,” published by Computer Games back in 1984. It’s pretty goofy, with stuff like “The First Couple To Be Married In An Arcade,” but other parts of it are more interesting, with stuff like “The First Game With A High Score Mode.”

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  28. greg Says:

    Obviously its hard to pick 10 games out of the millions,

    DOOM over CASTLE WOLFENSTIEN is a little wierd, CASTLE WOLFENSTIEN came first but DOOM probably sold more. Sensible World of Soccer over i tut in disbelief

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  30. CloudStrife Says:

    What about FFVI?

  31. CloudStrife Says:

    I mean VII sorry I feel like a douche now.

  32. amuseum Says:

    I think just 10 is undercutting the long history of video games. There have been probably millions of games ever made in dozens of various categories, genres and platforms. We’d need at least 25 to make a good list that most of us can agree upon. You’re obviously missing the really important ones that everyone first thinks about–Pong, Pacman, Mario 1, Final Fantasy 6/7, Ultima 7, Street Fighter 2, Flight Simulator.

    In defense of Civ II, it pretty much ushered in the era of gaming on Windows. Besides improved gameplay and graphics, it provided scenarios, moddability, and multiplayer.

    The musical score from Mario I is perhaps the most iconic of any game. I’ve seen videos of a guy doing the Mario theme using hand farts / manualism.

  33. Ricardo Malafaia Says:

    kinda pathetic to see everyone and their bias. The 10 Most Important Games?

    Other than Mario I don’t see any other japanese titles, even though Nintendo and their japanese companions has single-handedly brought back the industry to life after Atari’s demise and indeed was much responsible to the end of textual games in favor of fast-paced graphical action. How about Capcom’s Resident Evil? Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog? Konami’s Metal Gear Solid? Hell, what about all those japanese arcade classics like Galaga, Pac-man, Frogger? Well, what to expect from a bunch of americans from the early days of PC games?

    And what about titles like Elite, Ultima, Hard Hat Mack, The Immortal? Forget it, this is just some list by some fanboys like every other…

  34. Chris Lewis Says:

    Resident Evil has done nothing for the industry in general.
    Sonic was derivative of Mario.
    Metal Gear Solid is pretentious, and again, is not a landmark in any meaningful way.

    But that’s me just playing Devil’s Advocate.

    I don’t really give any real credence to any list that limits the history of video games in to a list of 10. It’s an arbitrary limit that makes for nice column-inches, but doesn’t say much of anything. Just like with movies, music, plays or literary works. For some reason, though, gamers like to argue that these lists absolutely have to be definitive, whereas fans of other mediums shrug them off as nonsense and carry on enjoying a huge range of works.

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