Ten games you need to play: The Digital Game Canon

Henry Lowood


The digital game canon is the brainchild of Henry Lowood, the curator for Stanford University’s History of Science & Technology Collections and professor of German Studies. It is the first effort to establish an authoritative collection of historical games that ought to be known by all design and production professionals in the games industry. Lowood recruited four leading videogame experts – two designers, a theorist and a journalist – to join him on a panel of judges: Warren Spector, Christopher Graft, Matteo Bittanti, and Steve Meretzky. Each judge selected two games to enter the canon, for a total of ten. The list was presented and discussed on March 8, 2007 at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.Lowood likens the effort to that of the National Film Preservation Board, which each year selects several films to be added to the U.S. National Film Library. Managed by the Library of Congress since 1988, following passage of the National Film Preservation Act, the National Film Library has been a catalyst for the preservation of historically significant movies, which otherwise may not have survived. Similarly, important computer and video games face the challenge of long-term preservation, as gaming platforms become obsolete, operating systems disappear, and software isn’t maintained. By identifying the most significant videogames in history, the panel hopes to draw attention to the need for deliberate preservation efforts before it is too late and the original games disappear forever. Because of the challenges of preservation, some of the games shown here in GameWorld are presented using software emulators, which function as “virtual computers” that run inside of a modern computer.Criteria for the games selected were left to each panel member. Lowood makes clear that the list is in no way definitive, but is rather just “a start.” Interestingly, these ten games are not the ones most people will remember feeding coins into when they were young.. Some of them are more obscure, difficult, and attracted smaller audiences. But they had vast influence, establishing conventions that have been widely followed and built upon by future games.On the list are widely recognized games and franchises from the world’s most celebrated game creators: Will Wright, Shigeru Miyamoto, John Carmak, and Sid Meier. Alternately, “Star Raiders,” an extremely innovative game now largely forgotten, was selected due to concern that its lack of commercial success could mean it may not be properly preserved, and so simply disappear.Once the exclusive province of enthusiasts and collectors, videogames are attracting the attention of academia, just as other art forms have before it. Future game creators are now enrolled in digital media programs across the globe. As the foundational period of video games recedes beyond any living person’s childhood remembrances, the need for scholarship and preservation becomes more acute.Just as the academification of cinema practice and criticism in the 1960s changed both the discourse about and content of movies, this process – now at work in games – is likely to have a similarly far-reaching effect.Digital Game CanonSpacewar!, Martin Graetz, Steve Russell, Wayne Wiitanen Star Raiders, Doug Neubauer Zork I, Marc Blank, Dave Lebling, Bruce Daniels, Tim Anderson SimCity, Will Wright Civilization I/II, Sid Meier Tetris, Alexey Pajitnov Super Mario 3, Shigeru Miyamoto, Takashi Tezuka Doom, John Carmack, John Romero Sensible World of Soccer, John Hare Warcraft (Series), Blizzard Entertainment