The Games Canon; or Canon Games

Michael Hancock is the Book Reviews editor on First Person Scholar.  He is a PhD candidate in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Waterloo.  Currently, his grey matter is engaged in writing a dissertation on the use of image-based and text-based rhetoric in videogames.


My first thought when I sat down to write this editorial was “canon.” Not “cannons,” thankfully, as in that case, my second thought would have been Sid Meier’s Pirates, at which point the editorial would have been indefinitely postponed. No, I was thinking about canon, helpfully defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a body of works, etc., considered to be established as the most important or significant in a particular field.” A canon is about inclusion and exclusion, about what makes the cut and what gets left behind. And in a very real way, working with and against the notion of canon that informs my work in game studies, as a scholar, as a contributor to First Person Scholar, and, particularly, as editor of the site’s book reviews.

Book Reviews Editor

A part of me still cringes at my editorial title. First Person Scholar is a publication aimed at producing critical analysis of videogames—isn’t critical analysis of books, even books about videogames, putting us at a position, perhaps even a retrograde position, one step removed from the actual subject of interest? It’s a question I want to answer, need to answer, but in order to do so, I have to take an even bigger step back, away from game studies entirely into the disciplines where discussions of canon started. As many game scholars, my background is literary studies, so I’m all too aware of where the canon starts. Originally, it was an ecclesiastic term, used by the Christian Church to refer to both the set of books recognized as official and genuine, but also to refer to any sort of Church-related decree. That use means that canon, right at its root, bound up with certain other heavily charged concepts: law, rules, Western religion, authenticity, system—even formalism, for those anticipating the connection to game criticism. In fact, the way people respond to games or almost any entertainment medium can be considered in terms of creating a canon—think of the hierarchies and exclusions performed in an Internet top ten list.

Later, the term was appropriated by the humanities, and English and literary studies in particular. In this context, it was used in the sense supplied by the OED, that list of works that a student in a first year English course MUST be subjected to for their own edification and well-being. Usually, that means a steady diet of figures such as Shakespeare, John Donne, Henry David Thoreau, and any number of individuals who traditionally and not coincidentally turned out to be old white men. And this focus became particularly troubling when you juxtapose it with those associated canon cluster terms above. If someone such as Charles Dickens is the authentic, exemplary English author, what model are we setting up for how writing is to be done and appreciated? More importantly, who are we excluding?

To its credit, my discipline (eventually) realized the problems with the canon, and interrogated their many varied positions toward it, in works ranging from Amy Tan’s essay “In The Canon for all the Wrong Reasons” to John Guillory’s Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation. And my own department, the University of Waterloo’s English Language and Literature, has done well in challenging the old divisions, our Shakespeare class being taught alongside classes on gender issues, postcolonialism, and race, not to mention classes on popular culture, superheroes, and digital life writing. But for the issue at hand, I think consideration of the canon is relevant to game studies. If nothing else, the canon debates in English represent a cautionary example one that perhaps we have already failed to avoid; a possible interpretation of the early 2000 narratology/ludology debate could be that it was a territorial argument about what methodology would be canon for game studies.

Significant Texts

Now, however, I think we’ve reached a slightly different position. With the either/or argument of narrative and games subsiding, there’s a lot more voices to be heard. Both approaches still exist, but we’ve also got platform studies rubbing shoulders with adaptation studies, ethnography sharing room with procedural rhetoric. I was discussing the current state of game studies with a colleague recently, and complaining that game scholars lacked a commonly read set of texts in the way that the humanities had works like Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, or Butler’s Gender Trouble—essentially, I was arguing for a game studies canon, without directly saying so. While the colleague in question certainly could have argued that we do have certain common figures, she took a different tact entirely. (And here you’ll have to forgive me; I’m paraphrasing, probably to the point of misrepresentation.) Rather, she argued that yes, we don’t have that shared background—but that’s a good thing. It’s what makes game studies multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary, what allows us to create hybridity and diversity. (In fact, she also challenged my claim that English had as many common figures as I was pretending it did, pointing out that every university’s English department had their own set of significant texts, and the divergence between two schools can be very great, in multiple senses of the word great.)

And the more I think about it, the more inclined I am to agree with her argument over my own. In my personal research, I don’t really gravitate toward any particular methodology. They all have their strengths and weaknesses, and the one I use depends on what I’m using it for, what sort of arguments I want to invoke, and what the games at hand I’m considering lend themselves to. But at the same time, though, I think there’s a risk involved in ignoring issues of canon entirely. If no attention is paid to official canons, then, as contradictory as the term sounds, an unofficial canon rushing in to fill its space. For me, the perfect example comes from my admittedly overdetermined reading of Ring Bearers: The Lord of the Rings Online as Intertextual Narrative, edited by Tanya Krzywinska, Esther MacCallum-Stewart, and Justin Parsler. The book, though rather brief for an anthology, contains some genuinely intriguing ideas about adaptation, MMOs, and game design at large (consider that a single sentence version of the usual FPS book review style).

But the part of the book that leaped out at me as most interesting was a short passage from the introduction: “One of our concerns as editors, particularly during the lengthy period spent concerning of the collection and getting it ready to go to press, was whether LOTRO would garner and then retain the numbers of players needed to keep the game from being beached on the reef of financially unsustainable MMORPGs” (1). I can only speculate on why the editors were concerned about this issue—the early collapse of LOTRO doesn’t invalidate the research they performed, after all. But two obvious reasons present themselves. First, LOTRO’s end would place some rather rigid strictures on any future research conducted on the game. A videogame, though more than the sum of its cultural parts, is a different entity when it’s not a part of current play practices, and that dictum holds true for MMO games more than most, just because they’re so defined by their player community. Second, and unfortunately more important, there’s the concern from the publishing side of the equation, that a book devoted to a specific game has to justify its existence, to prove its value—value in a sense of cultural capital as well as actual, financial capital. Put more crudely than Ring Bearers’ editors would say or ever implied, LOTRO’s financial success justifies the existence of scholarly criticism of LOTRO.

Canon of Capitalism

The same logic, extended to game studies at large, creates a canon of capitalism, where the most studied games are also the most financially lucrative, or those that captured enduring public attention. I don’t personally have any evidence to back up this claim beyond that of an anecdotal sort, but World of Warcraft is quite possibly the most studied game in all of game of game studies, in terms of having the most books devoted to its study; I’d attribute that attention to both its financial success and its ongoing persistence in public awareness. Close behind, I’d wager, are Second Life, and the Grand Theft Auto series, for similar reasons relating to how deeply they penetrated into the public in their time(s) in the spotlight. My argument, however, isn’t really about why they became popular, but that their popularity demonstrates an already-existing canon in game studies, a set of priorities that we operate by whether we acknowledge them or not—especially if not, I think. An implicit canon can be more insidious than an explicit one, because it’s only when a canon becomes explicit that it can be directly challenged.

As our editor-in-chief Steve Wilcox developed at length in his article on middle-state publishing, one of the underlying goals of First Person Scholar is to move beyond the narrow list of commonly studied games, or common approaches, to give voice to new ideas and perspectives. In a similar vein, my personal goal as book reviews editor is to show that no single book exists in a vacuum and must to be read in conjunction with what’s already out there, to demonstrate the unacknowledged trends that we operate under, to spread word about voices that deserve to be heard. That’s why we have reviews of Hyrule Historia in the same place as reviews of Walton’s aesthetic theory and Anna Anthropy’s Rise of the Videogame Zinesters.  That’s why we have reviews from scholars focusing in rhetoric and medicine policies alongside those specializing in popular culture and videogames.

You’re not going to remove the notion of canon from videogame discourse, especially in terms of popular discourse; our industry is too wrapped up in being an industry, too attached to Metacritic and other ranking systems. And our unstated canons have done a lot of damage over the years, from the exclusion of women to denying the status of game to those currently labeled “ungames.” And that’s why it’s not just a good thing but a necessary thing that groups and individuals such as Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency and The Borderhouse exist. A canon is like a cannon in the sense that it too can be used as a weapon, albeit a weapon of exclusion rather than physical violence. But I think it’s better used as a tool, a device by which we can interrogate our unconscious assumptions about what we value, and why.