Do Video Games Shape Who We Are?

Illustration for article titled Do Video Games Shape Who We Are?

Can video games have a Western canon?

It's a question I've been pondering since hearing that classic 90s strategy computer game X-COM is being remade as a first-person shooter.


For gamers of my generation, last week's news of a new X-COM was akin to hearing that Tom Sawyer was being remade as a cop buddy flick starring Vin Disel and Tom Cruise.


In X-COM, gamers travel the world as members of the Extraterrestrial Combat Unit fending off aliens set on terrorizing and abducting people from the planet. While the plot sounds a bit silly, the 1994 game's blending of action, strategy and the timely Sci-Fi alien plot helped cement it as one of the top PC games ever made.

The game introduced a number of unique ideas to the realm of gaming. It included a randomized artificial intelligence that made the enemy aliens harder to second-guess, the need to manage funds or risk being shut down by a UN-esque government oversight committee and several different endings.

Record sales and a warm critical response afforded the title a number of sequels and a place in video game history. But should it be considered part of the Western canon of gaming? Does such a thing even exist?


More than one list of important games is out there, but I'm not sure any of them are true to the meaning of what is traditionally defined as the Western canon.

When first conceived, the notion of a great Western canon tapped into the still controversial idea that people should be educated through the use of an essential list of facts. That there were works so important that they helped shape the definition of humanity.


Writers like Shakespeare, famed literary critic Harold Bloom argues, defined not only how modern people think but who we are.

Over the years, universities, book publishers and great thinkers have compiled lists of the written word, sometimes even including art and science, into a must read for the education of humanity.

The common factor was that these works shaped culture, and not just any culture, certainly not Pop culture, but high culture, the base knowledge of the intellectual and artistic.


So what then would make up the right library of games to form what satirist Thomas Carlyle would call the greatest university of all?

Are there games that influence culture or are all games the byproduct of culture? Is the medium of gaming aged enough to break free of the constant pull of the culture in which it seeps and become an influencer?


Let's look at some of those proto games, the titles that pioneered their own genres and decades of duplicators, to see.

The ten most important games of all time, according to a committee working with the Library of Congress, are Spacewar! (1962), Star Raiders (1979), Zork (1980), Tetris (1985), SimCity (1989), Super Mario Bros. 3 (1990), Civilization I/II (1991), Doom (1993), Warcraft series (beginning 1994) and Sensible World of Soccer (1994).


These games are each superb feats, creations that entertain, that educate, that perhaps even enlighten. But none of them redefine us as people or help shape the way humanity views itself.

While the medium of video games as a whole may influence parts of culture, individual games still do not.


That could, that should change with time. And as it does the secondary, much more debated issue of whether games are art, will also be answered definitively.


While video games most certainly don't shape us, they do entertain us, and sometimes, though rarely, they even inform our perceptions. But for now they have no place in a Western canon.

One day they absolutely will. How else will the creative break free of what Bloom terms the anxiety of influence? Video games offer humanity and high culture a reset, a chance to shake loose of the bonds of Hamlet, Freud, Eliot and Bloom himself.


What better way to find new ideas to express than in a medium that allows new ways to express them?

Well Played is a weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Feel free to join in the discussion.

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Well, that is still a difficult question for other arts, and games are too young and have shifted in their form too much to make any element of this applicable.

I do think there is a set of ideals that permeates western gaming, and it is best seen by opposition with the different ideals present in eastern games. Whether those ideals are cultural or merely artistic is harder to determine.

Are western games a depiction of a more capitalistic, competitive culture? Perhaps. Definitely, there is some cross-pollination between the way the west sees competition and sport and how games are designed, but capitalism and sportsmanship are too old within the culture to be able to confidently claim that this notion has had time to get into games and then flow back to a new generation that has learned how to be competitive through gaming. If that is going to happen, it will happen to the Halo brats who have been endlessly connected to a global pool of players that are also a ranked frame of reference through Gamerscores, leaderboards and rankings.

But then, you could also claim that this spirit was going to take the shape of one-on-one competition in arcades, and the whole arcade scene died down before it could take that idea and upload it to the design, then download it to the next generation. There weren't two generations of arcade games, so there wasn't time for that to happen. Perhaps internet gaming will also disappear before it turns into a cultural movement.

So no, I don't think there is a western canon of gaming that culturally defines and shapes us... yet. If western games become as solid, as self-referential and as culturally consistent as literature and cinema during the next century or so, then perhaps.