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Indiana Jones and the Lost Arcade

Written By mista sense on Thursday, March 22, 2007 | 9:53 AM

We've all been talking about "games as art." But what about games as artifacts?

Earlier this month at the GDC, Stanford University presented an interesting idea. Henry Lowood, the university's History of Science and Technology Collections curator, discussed a proposal to the Library of Congress. The essence of the proposal was, as the New York Times reported, was that "video games have a history worth reporting and a culture worth studying."

Hallelujah.

In that vein, Lowood and a panel of five compiled a list of "the stuff we have to protect first." These choices apparently are intended to reflect the first ten games that demonstrate a particular cultural and historical significance:

Spacewar (1962)
Star Raiders (1979)
Zork (1980)
Tetris (1985)
SimCity (1989)
Super Mario Bros. 3 (1990)
Civilization I & II (1991, 1996)
The Warcraft Series (1994, 1995 and 2002)
Sensible World of Soccer (1994)

Since the list includes multiple installments of the same game (Civilization and Warcraft), this is technically a list of twelve, not ten titles. What I'd be most curious to know about is the criteria on which the selection was made-- and, assuming the Library accepts the proposal, on what criteria selections will be made in the future. Why was the Warcraft trilogy and two Civilizations included on the list, and only the third Mario game? Why is Zork a more significant classical adventure than Colossal Caves? Pong's not on here? And what the hell is "Sensible World of Soccer"?

Well-versed game fans and seasoned reviewers can hardly agree on what makes a "good" game, let alone a culturally significant one. In the case of "firsts"-- the first computer game to employ graphics and text, or the first MMO-- how will we be sure that the title selected is a true "first"? After all, many people create and enjoy independent titles in small groups long before the developers catch on and produce a hit for consumption en masse. With more and more gamers craving less commercialism and more innovation-- thus contributing to a subtle but sure rise in indie gaming-- this is sure to be even more of an issue.

Not to mention the fact that the "first" is not always the best-seller-- and even if it were, does that cement its status as "the best", or the most significant? It's generally accepted that Nirvana ripped off the Pixies, but it was Nevermind, not Surfer Rosa, that achieved iconic status. Which is more significant? Which is "better"?

Every time new honorees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are inducted, there's controversy and debate. Deciding which games are-- and are not-- significant to their own industry and to society as a whole promises to create a similar flashpoint. Gamers will argue ceaselessly over the most important ten games in a given year, let alone over the industry's lifetime. If we must prove the cultural relevance of gaming in order to make the case that archiving games as part of our shared history has serious value, must we then pass over simple little titles-- even if those titles have been cited as inspiration for major design houses to produce the heavy-hitting classics? What will Congress think of the case for Grand Theft Auto?

The idea that games belong in the Library of Congress, like any other digital artifact, part of the story of humanity in America, has serious promise and merit. It'll be interesting to see how it's executed if the concept moves forward. What would your list of 10 include? If the apocalypse were tomorrow and you could only put ten games into a time capsule for the next generation of alien émigrés, which ones would you pick, and why?

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