I was recently interviewed by Chris Hampton, a student journalist currently writing a feature on the Digital Game Canon and its relation to ongoing digital preservation efforts - contextual information provided by The New York Times in 2007. Below is our exchange. The email conversation took place in June of 2013.
Chris Hampton. What is the point of the canon? Do you think in some ways it's too early to speak about a canon of videogames? How do you square the game canon with criticisms about the exclusion of marginal voices in your canon or videogames at large? Do you think you can have a meaningful canon without the representation of other genders, races, sexualities? Or does the argument fall outside of what making a canon is really about?
Matteo Bittanti. By definition, a canon is an expression of power, specifically, the power of the canon-makers. In this case, all male, all Caucasian, mostly American, all living in the United States, aged 30-something to 50-something. Obviously, it does not reflect Reality but rather, it creates a reality, modeled upon the interests, values, knowledge, biases, and beliefs of its originators. Reality is a social construction after all: thus, to suggest that a canon is a distortion of reality is like arguing that water is liquid. A tautology. To establish a canon is to embrace its eminently colonial nature. A canon is prescriptive even when it pretends to be simply descriptive. It is also proscriptive: what counts is not what the canon includes, but what it excludes. Different cultural institutions - from museums to schools - have been colonizing games since their invention. Their stated goal is to legitimize the vernacular, but in reality, they are legitimizing themselves. Their agenda is transparent, what changes is the rhetoric. For instance, if I were the curator of a powerful design museum would probably build a paralogism masqueraded as a syllogism that goes like this: “Games are objects of design, design is art, thus games are art” and therefore these “well designed games” belong to a museum. Our museum. QED. Canon-making itself is a meta-game: different players use their intellectual, social, and economic capital to create a new standard which can have significant intellectual, social, and economic repercussions. The Digital Game Canon was the first step of a process. As such, it was meant to include a broader variety of participants, thus different points of view. It was modeled after the idea of the Western canon, an expression which denotes a body of artworks - ranging from books to paintings - that have been accepted by Western scholars as the most influential in shaping Western culture. [Please notice that I have used the word “Western” three times in a single paragraph]. In a sense, the Digital Game Canon bypassed completely the “Are Games Art?” diatribe as it postulated their artistic relevance. The artistic nature of games was taken as a given. Although it was not didactic in nature, it can be said that such canon was an expression of perennialism - an educational approach based on the principle that there exist a specific knowledge having everlasting pertinence which should be shared with people everywhere. It is worth remembering, however, that perennialists emphasize methods over notions. In other words, since facts change constantly, what is important is the approach to knowledge: the reasoning itself matters more that the cases it produces, let’s call it Canon Fodder, for the sake of puns. In short, what really matters in a canon is not its conclusions, but its own construction. As such, each canon encourages its de-construction. A canon, by definition, is never fixed but always subject to a form of critical revisionism, in the same way that an archive is never finished but always incomplete. A canon is a work in progress, is a piece of software which is constantly updated. John Searle docet.
Chris Hampton. Why was making a canon of videogames important to you?
Matteo Bittanti. I am particularly concerned by the notion of digital preservation, which Henry Lowood, among others, has been advocating for years. Games are disappearing faster than film, but there has been very little interest by the industry to preserve their history, legacy, and culture. This issue is destined to become more and more relevant as we move into an era where games are distributed exclusively in digital form, making “traditional” (cartridge and disc-based) forms of preservation impossible. This problem affects tablets, smartphones, but also new home consoles - and it is particularly true in the case of Microsoft Xbox One. The planned obsolescence of game format has drastic effects on the longevity of this artform, as James Newman persuasively explained in his recent book, Best Before. Hence, the canon. The canon is a Trojan horse. The medium is the message, in the sense that what matters are not necessarily the canonized games, but the fact that these games that a bunch of “dead white men” deemed “important” have vanished because nobody deemed “important” to preserve them. The canon simply points at the history of the medium.
Q. If you were after a sports sim, why exactly Sensible World of Soccer over something like Madden?
A. I grew up in Italy. To Italians, there is only one kind of football and it is called calcio. Thus, the relevance of Madden is negligible to me. Let’s face it: outside of the United States, nobody gives a toss about “American” Football, and although the size of the American game industry/market is gargantuan, in the bigger scheme of things, soccer matters more, period. Sensi and Madden are like apple and oranges. Or, rather apples and durian. The question should therefore be re-framed as: “Why exactly Sensible World of Soccer over something like Kick Off?”. I could go on forever. I will simply say that Sensible Soccer majestically simplifies the complexities of calcio - “the most beautiful game” - without compromising the emotional, social, and cultural elements that make it so compelling. Compared to modern “simulations” like FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer, Sensi is like Foosball. But far from being a criticism, my comment is meant as a compliment. It takes pure genius to create something as playable and enjoyable as Foosball. Like most games, Foosball has been hijacked by artists like Maurizio Cattelan to create powerful commentary of Italian society - I am specifically referring to one of his earliest pieces, A.C. Forniture Sud (1991). As McLuhan wrote in Understanding Media (1964), "Games are popular art, collective, social reactions to the main drive or action of any culture" and they are "dramatic models of our psychological lives providing release of particular tensions." As such, "The games of a people reveal a great deal about them". If you want to understand American society, play Madden. But if you are trying to explain the world, perhaps soccer is a better metaphor. I mean, look at what’s happening now in Brazil. Additionally, the developers Sensible Software created a peculiar aesthetic that deliberately refused photo-realism as the normative style of sport games - FIFA in primis - opting instead for an iconography clearly reminiscent of another European ludic staple, Subbuteo. Sensible Software made pixel art a true form of art before it became trendy among hipsters. Unsurprisingly, an upcoming book by British graphic designer Darren Wall examines Sensible Software’s avant-garde aesthetics. Thus, if FIFA evokes Harun Farocki’s Deep Play (2007), Sensi Soccer is more like a Mike Kelley’s artwork. Only a British developer could make such a perfect game: after all, the Brits invented the game in the first place. Additionally, I advocated Sensi ‘s canonization because this game provides the essence, the eidos of calcio, in playable form. That is, Sensi expresses the idea of this sport - its form, in Platonic terms - while the so-called “real”, i.e. practiced, televised, professional sport is a degraded, corrupted form of this pure idea. I am specifically referring to Serie A, the Italian national league, which as been plagued with corruption scandals since its invention - and reached its apogee in 2006. I argue that the simulation is perfect because it is not compromised by real-life contradictions. I explored this paradoxes in a piece titled Simulacra et Simulation (2009). Sensi is Real, while the Italian Serie A is a copy of a copy. Few games perfectly captured the essence of the reality they wanted to simulate. Sensi is one of them.