SAN FRANCISCO — Who makes a list of 10 all-time great games and leaves "Pac-Man" off the list? Henry Lowood and four of his friends did.
Lowood is the curator of the History of Science and Technology Collections for Stanford University. More relevant to gamers, though, is the fact that Lowood recently got together with another game researcher, a blogger and two highly respected developers to come up with a list of games they feel should go in a museum.
"The video game canon is a list of 10 games that are important for history and all of game culture," he said when the five-person panel sat down with MTV News at the Game Developers Conference earlier this month in San Francisco. "The reason we wanted to put a canon together was to jump-start efforts to preserve the history of digital gaming."
Last July, the Library of Congress put out a call for suggestions on how the institution could preserve digital content, including "interactive games." The Library collects important cultural and literary works from throughout the world, but so far hasn't archived games. "I believe that was the first time a major American cultural institution said, 'Games belong on that list,' " Lowood said. He decided to make a list, a suggested starting point of what should be saved.
A few months ago he roped in game designers Warren Spector ("Deux Ex") and Steve Meretzky ("Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy") along with fellow academic Matteo Bittanti and gaming blogger Christopher Grant of Joystiq.com. Their mission, at first just by e-mail, was to submit two games apiece for the proposed museum list. Then they argued. Then they presented at GDC.
"Sensible World of Soccer"
"Super Mario Bros. 3"
Those 10 games weren't the first ones the group selected. At least one major argument ensued when Bittanti initially nominated the "Call of Duty" series. "I was attacked by everybody," he told MTV News. "Not too many people consider 'Call of Duty' a masterpiece." He does, referring to the second game as a masterpiece of "merging cinema and games." He argued that including the game would also touch on the close historical ties between the games industry and the military. The four others didn't care; he was talked out of it. "Doom" would be the first-person-shooter on the list.
Grant was the one who officially backed "Doom" as one of his two choices. He too had considered a different first-person shooter. "My next game that I would have added that would have been hard to leave out was 'Half-Life 2,' he said. "I wanted to get a game that had been made more recently. The latest game on our list is from 1994."
Meretzky was sympathetic. "I was actually pushing to have 'Half-Life' on there instead of 'Doom' because I thought it was a better example of the first-person-shooter genre."
Spector didn't care. "I would have resisted having a game that recent on the list if only because we don't have the perspective to know what is going to have lasting value and what is going to change things." He said "Grand Theft Auto" would surely make a future list, but games that recent need more time to settle in proper historical context.
The group debated whether recent games should go in. They pondered which versions of a game would go into a museum. If "SimCity" gets preserved, then which version? If "Doom" is preserved, then should the game's most popular mods be as well? Should special credence be paid to what was first or is it more important, since these are games, after all, to preserve what was most fun? "This is the real question," Bittanti said. "Do you select a game that was groundbreaking because it was the first of a genre or do you pick a game like 'Call of Duty' or 'Half Life 2' which perfected the genre?"
Grant settled that debate for himself when he went about picking which Mario game to nominate. "We were looking for originators, so I didn't want to jump to Super Nintendo, and I didn't want to jump to the 3-D games," he said. "I wanted to stick to the original Mario series on NES. 'Mario 2' automatically kind of gets booted — sorry, 'Mario 2.' So it's between 'Mario' 1 and 3. When it gets down to games you want to play, 'Super Mario Brothers 3' added more levels, more creativity, more power-ups, better graphics." Plus "SMB3" was marketed more extravagantly — it was featured in a movie, for one thing — than many games of its time, making it a precursor for the blockbuster treatment many more recent games get. So he picked that game, the one with Mario sporting a raccoon tail.
The group of five all emphasized the major impetus of this exercise: Games need saving. Digital entertainment doesn't have the lasting power of books. A novel printed a decade ago may be dusty; its pages may be crumbling. But it's not hard to preserve. A game made for an early 1980s video game console doesn't get made anymore.
"I felt a little guilty talking about 'Tetris' because it is so accessible and it is so easy to play, easy to find, and so not in need of preservation," said Spector. "But 'Star Raiders,' I can't play it." The game was released in 1979 on the long-defunct Atari computer. "Someone asked me, 'Well, what was it like to play?' I honestly have vague memories of it. I have memories of emotions it evoked. The fact that we can't play that game anymore speaks to the importance of preserving our history and starting to do that right now before it's all gone."