The Most Important Games

“The 99th” over at Play This Thing! posted a list of the top ten most important games in history. It includes such things as family, fiat money, and Passage. I’ve got issue with a lot of things about this list.

First, as with most top ten lists, there is an issue of definition. What is a game? The much-lauded Chris Crawford has claimed that a game must be made for money, must have a goal, and must allow you to attack your opponent, among other things. By this definition, The Sims, Tetris, and the original release of Cave Story are not games. Many other definitions of games include “fun,” “play,” or “artificial,” although mathematical game theorists would vehemently argue otherwise. Let’s see if we can come up with a definition in the spirit of The 99th’s list.

For the purposes of this post, a “game” is a goal-oriented activity with artificially-established rules that are shared among multiple participants, called “players.” Players need not play simultaneously or adversarially. By “historically important,” I choose to mean “most significantly contributed to and/or were most necessary for the existence of the sort of games I discuss on this site.” As an initial disclaimer: I am not a historian. Now, for my version of The 99th’s list.

The most historically important games, in chronological order:

  1. Government. By playing the government game, we are able to organize human behavior over a large scale.
  2. War. War is Genocide: The Game, a way for us to kill off another culture in effigy without many of the downsides and inconveniences of actually destroying the other culture.
  3. Mancala games. Probably the oldest set of entertainment games that are still played today.
  4. Science. The goal is Truth; the rules are the Scientific Method, a way for irrational beings to think rationally.
  5. Capitalism. With all of its flaws, capitalism is a very efficient way to motivate innovation in a productive field. And it is a game. A game with bugs.
  6. Soccer/Football. Took war and removed most of the nasty violence. Thanks to the British, lovers of rules, gameplay was very clearly defined. A very significant and early team sport.
  7. Pinball. Forget Pong. Pinball was interactive, goal-oriented, and coin-operated long before Bushnell’s coin bin overflowed. The first arcade game and, eventually, the first digital game.
  8. Dungeons and Dragons. And by extension, war games. D&D introduced the collaborative narrative to a wide group of people and popularized the hit point.
  9. Super Mario Bros. Ended the great video game crash. Popularized platforming and created the single most enduring character in all of digital games.
  10. Half-Life. Brought in-game cutscenes, realistically laid-out environments, and WSAD to the masses. Turned the Quake mod craze into a tiny revolution. Indirectly responsible for the rise of the first-person perspective in games of all genres, digital distribution, and actual storytelling in games.

What have we learned from all this? Top ten lists are irritating, and just about anything can be seen as a game. Also, Passage and Braid have some really good aspects to them, but they’re not really significant in a historical view. You can’t evaluate any event’s significance until about ten years have passed. However, I predict this: when artistic games are discussed a decade hence, either Trinity or A Mind Forever Voyaging will be mentioned. Passage and Braid will not.

5 thoughts on “The Most Important Games

  1. Also, Wargames predate D&D, pinball and soccer (depending on whether you take the game as it is currently or admit in its spiritual predecessors).

  2. Wargames do, but I would argue that it is D&D’s addition of more creative aspects that made them significant. Without the human element that D&D added, wargames were a deadend niche, a product for grognards and numbercrunchers: the “hardcore gamers” of their era.

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