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The Great American Game

2020-05-05 07:59 BST

Between the end of class and when I have to work again this summer, I’m going to spend some posts on games. Sorry to everyone who thinks games are beneath them. Sorry for more reasons than one. Also, to co-opt one of Tyler Cowen’s favorite sayings, this is the blog post I want to write, not the one you want me to write.

The Great American Novel refers to a novel that captures the spirit of American life at some time. And a lot of people probably need to read it for it to count as one. Everyone agrees that Moby Dick or The Great Gatsby counts. More recently, people think To Kill a Mockingbird counts too. An analogous concept exists for other art forms, like music or film or painting. But people seem to use the term “Great American Novel” most often, and just call other great works of art “classics” or something similarly medium-agnostic.

What about the Great American Novel analogue for games? Not only does the term not exist, I don’t think any game actually exists that deserves the designation.

I’m assuming you agree that it’s possible for a game to be considered art. I’ll leave the definition of art ambiguous. But what’s a game? We can broadly define it, like this:

To play a game is to engage in activity directed toward bringing about a certain state of affairs, using only means permitted by certain rules, where the means permitted by the rules are more limited in scope than they would be in the absence of the rules and where the sole reason for accepting such limitation of means is to make possible such activity

Then everyday activities like making coffee, making friends, even all of life can count. So maybe a useful condition to add is that a game’s primary purpose is to entertain its players and audience. Then professional athletics might be a fuzzy line, but counts more often than not. Football, chess, and video games are all games under this definition.

I’m arguing that nothing that falls under this definition of a game exists in people’s imagination as a great work in the same way Moby Dick does for literature. There are games that have changed industries, games that people have devoted their lives to, and games that an entire generation of people might remember. But games fall far behind in how essential they are to culture, despite the fact that people have been playing games at least as long as they have been reading and painting.

You might be thinking of counterexamples. But I’ll give some reasons why I think no game can qualify as a “Great American Game,” and hope that I address them there.

The creators of games are not ambitious enough

If the intent is to entertain, and nothing more, then at best a game can only hope to entertain. This is certainly true of big-budget video games, often serialized and quickly forgotten. These are most of the most popular video games, from Candy Crush to Call of Duty.

Other artists can claim to be reaching for some inner aspect of the human experience, or to tug on some relevant cultural heartstring. There is a clear divide between attempts at great literature, and the trash airport convenience store paperback for example. The ocassional art created for the masses wanders into greatness, but not often. But games that scoff at mass appeal are dead on arrival. There are “serious” indie games, but what they have in artistic ambition they lack in fun.

I doubt most people think of games as art, also. People who play sports, people who do crosswords, and people who play video games is a stranger grouping than people who consume different forms of traditional art. No one expects games to be art, so there’s no incentive to create games as art. Self-fulfilling prophecy.

Instead of creating a game with the purpose of achieving great art status, games created primarily for fun should take on a greater artistic burden.

Too much eminence is credited to the act of playing

The games with the most longevity are extremely competitive. Longevity is promising for greatness, but competitiveness can detract from greatness. Its greatness depends on the players more than the game. Great literature doesn’t depend on its readers to the same extent. Idolization of the players is most obvious in physical sports. It’s been true of chess, Go, and other board games since the establishment of competitive leagues. Same for video games, like League of Legends and my favorite, StarCraft. Good players change all the time. The longer a game exists in imagination, the more great players will rise and fall. The players change the game. It seems as if it isn’t the game itself that is special–it’s great players that make it special.

No piece of art ever got anywhere putting its life in the hands of an ever-changing, self-selecting group of people. Other art immortalizes the artist. A great cast in a theatrical production complements the scriptwriter. No one ever sees a creative chess opening and thanks the rulemakers or the FIDE. No one ever watches HuK land a devastating psionic storm in StarCraft and praises David Kim (actually, maybe some do).

Greatness of a game is not intrinsic to its rules

You may counter, players can also complement the game. Superficial focus on the players doesn’t take away from the importance of the game itself. Like how football (soccer) is intrinsic to the culture of many countries around the world. But the tin is correct. The greatness of the game is not intrinsic to its rules. You could argue that baseball itself is essential to American culture. But it has very little to do with the rules of baseball itself.

Maybe the concept of what baseball is relative to other games–that it’s slower than hockey, for example–gives it cultural power. But a small change to the rules can change how the game is played without changing its place in a national culture. American girdiron football changes small rules all the time. But it’s hard to imagine that in a parallel universe with a different football metagame, American are any less attached to it.

It’s hard to tell how big a change to a great work of literature would cause it to become un-great. I think not very much, though. Different phrasing of dialogue would strike different people.

The hegemony of the optimal play

Most games don’t teach people something about themselves. People can react in all sorts of ways to traditional great art. But games have objectives by definition, and in theory there exists an optimal play to obtain that objective.

So maybe this is a unique advantage of simulation and sandbox games, like SimCity and Minecraft. But even then, only a sliver of self-expression is possible. You build curved roads because you think grids are boring. You don’t dig straight down because you’re risk adverse. You could argue that you learn more about an opponent playing chess, or poker. Under intense pressure, they can crack, succumb to their natural instincts, aggressively lash out or play hyper-conservatively. Playing these games teaches you about yourself and others, but only about what people subconsciously think is the optimal move.

I think some games can compare to other works of art in what people can learn about themselves from it. But the game’s creator needs to formulate their game’s objectives creatively. A player’s ability to interact with the game is a curse and a blessing. Maybe a player learns from their own actions, but it’s hard to give them real choices. The passive consumption of other art gives traditional artists greater control.

Addendum May 5, 2020: The Mind Game in Ender’s Game, if it was possible to implement, is an example of avoiding this problem.

Underuse of the medium

Simply the ability to interact doesn’t make a new medium. Consider the game Journey. It has beautiful visuals, and a beautiful soundtrack. The gameplay, however, consists mainly of different ways to travel and admire the beautiful visuals and beautiful soundtrack. If you’ve played before, the silent interaction with random players is a unique mechanic. But that mechanic, which I consider the only gameplay innovation of Journey, is hardly the reason why anyone would consider it great. Journey is carried by art forms which are not the game.

Suffice to say, if there is ever a Great American Game, it ought to be one on the merits of its use of play as a medium, not solely on its combining traditional art forms.

The hegemony of technological development

I can think of some old Pokémon or Legend of Zelda games that escape what I’ve said so far. Or even Pacman and Pong. They are undoubtedly culturaly significant, and arguably artistically ambitious. Surely the unanimous praise these games receive overshadow other issues I’ve brought up?

To this I’ll just say that in the future, the only thing going for these games is nostalgia and history. I don’t see any advantage for someone born today to play these game from the past. They don’t get nostalgic feelings. If they play for the story, the game’s greatness has nothing to do with the fact that it’s a game. Some games are great by virtue of advancing the medium at the same time as being technological innovative. But I can’t count them as great, on the basis that they’re easily usurped by a remake with better graphics.

Other art has eras, where artists use the same technologies in different styles. In physical and mental games, even if technology changes, the style of game creation hasn’t changed at all. The metagame of tennis reacts to better racquets, but better racquets don’t inspire new games like tennis. In video games, the style change is too dependent on rapid technological change.

Technology which makes it easier to go through the act of writing a novel hasn’t improved the modal quality of a novel. Bad writing sucks just as much on paper as it does on a word processor. So I’m suspicious of any game that assumes greatness which also benefits from better computation, graphics, or memory.


Some games come very close. I’m thinking of Undertale, Papers Please, and The Stanley Parable. They’re not the only ones. To me they each don’t completely satisfy the criticisms I’ve mentioned. But that’s far from obvious. These are the best counterexamples I can think of to argue against myself.

The problem is, if you don’t regularly play video games, you probably haven’t heard of these. But even if you don’t read, you know Moby Dick is great. The simplest answer is probably the most true–nothing counts as the Great American Game because people don’t believe the concept should exist.

To me this seems like a huge loss. This blog post is premised on my opinion that a Great American Game would be a good thing. Games are an extraordinary medium–I see no reason why not.