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As media role evolves, 'best' lists matter less
As media role evolves, 'best' lists matter less Exclusive
January 7, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander

January 7, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Design, Business/Marketing, Exclusive

In games, another year behind us means another litany of top lists and best-ofs in the rearview. The annual parsing of the superlatives has been a well-observed ritual since time unending -- despite the fact the task becomes an increasingly complex proposition.

The year-end list phenomenon isn't unique to games, but in our culture round-ups seem to kick up a particular fervor. It's in part due to our heritage as simpler products and the role of press as primarily "buyer's guide" recommendation engine, and in part because judging, scoring and sorting is part of our nature.

Even alongside the prolific swell of games sites online, year-end roundups have persisted as a ritual to which nearly everyone makes obeisance. It fuels the team-sports, favorite-picking element of game culture, and feels like a way to reward or thank developers as a long year culminates in a much-awaited holiday break.

Performing top lists is pretty much a win for all involved: Reviewers point out the games they think are good, creators feel recognized, and readers get recommendations for quality titles they may have missed -- though usually the kind of passionate, engaged gamer that cares most about top lists has probably played most of the contenders and is reading the list in order to feel validated.

Traditional commercial disc-based releases continue to thin, but game creation itself explodes, offering a broader spectrum of interesting and often unexpected experiences than ever before. This makes curation and celebration even more important to the role of the games media, and yet the evolution present around the year-end process often seems cautious, confused.

The next evolution of "best"

At Gamasutra we've stopped sorting our year-end favorites into numerical orders that would suggest one title is categorically ranked "better" than another, and this year we focused on creating retrospectives that illustrate how significant releases defined the year, a measure of impact that, to us, offered more takeaways for our audience than crowning "winners."

New approaches at popular consumer-focused sites suggest that many others are also evaluating the best way to highlight well-loved games and to commemorate the year -- Kotaku's decision to publish top lists of individual editors' favorites, for example, recognizes the idea that the experience of games is personal and subjective.

Most of the media's work increasingly embraces and reflects the idea that games are bigger than product culture, that "quality" is not a single slider with two clear polarities, and that interesting games can make waves in the industry or among fans even if their commercial appeal is narrow.

But that perspective still feels relatively new, and it's hard to tell where the media ought to abandon rank and file product coverage of the sort that slots complex products into reductive lists, and where categorization and consensus might actually be important.

Look at Journey -- this year, one person's Game of the Year is another's Best Indie Game. People found Walking Dead a genuine surprise in part because it had dared to breach the ranks of what we conceive as a "big GOTY game". Categories were fuzzy and challenged individual ideas about how to "sort" games.

It seems funny to think about dividing "handheld" from "mobile" games now that portable games are more of a spectrum and gaming on smartphones is clearly more of an economic and cultural force than anything we see in the current handheld hardware market, especially now that functionality among both camps gets closer together. But surely some consumer sites still separate the two, while some don't.

To what extent is there a universal metric of "quality"? Should that matter to the industry, if it can't predict sales? Right now, newness and innovation is what's most important to players and critics alike, but our values and desires can change at any time. Currently the media straddles an uneasy line between pleasing its traditionalist audience, and conceding that a more flexible vocabulary and perspective is becoming more essential to our work.

There are readers who want to have a conversation about games, to have dialogue that helps them enjoy and process their experience. There are readers who want to be told what to buy, who want recommendation engines to sort what's popular. We'll need to know our audiences better, and speak to them more confidently. Crowning "bests" has always been a component of the media's role, but it seems more and more like an absurd task.

We can acclimate by talking more about favorites, about personal preferences, and about threads of successful innovation within complex products. But it's interesting to think about the long-term impact we'll see on the business of games when lists and awards are forced to play a diminishing role in how we talk about and recommend them to our audiences.

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james vaughan
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The existence of real time sales charts for the Apple App Store and Google Play are also important here as they also replace 'best of' lists.

At the click of a button - any person with iTunes can see the top 100 apps of 2012 (by #sales) - giving a fact based list which is free from hype / personal views. People benefit from wisdom of crowds instead.

Matt Cratty
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Just because something sells through the roof does not mean its a best of show.

What it means, is that the mass public found it easily digestible.

In some cases, the two intersect, but frequently, they miss and miss big.

Only two or three of the top 5 games I've seen in any year since 2005 has been a AAA/top selling title.

Leonardo Ferreira
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So, onto the subject, a weird though I had the other day; games are, by their own nature, impossible to classify in order of better to worse, because they have to have a flaw in them order to be played: the possibility of losing, of getting stuck, of a poor understanding of the rules or the message. The possibility of not being successful in a game is what makes, well, being successful possible. And since reception to the set of rules of a game is subjective to the individual, list are irrelevant as the perception of quality matter only to the personal taste of the author (or authors) of said list. So, in a philosophical way, games are unclassifiable, more than books or films, because of this direct engagement with the flaw.

Arthur De Martino
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So you are telling me lists are a matter of opinion?
I think everbody already knows that no?

Anyway if your point is: "Lists are irrelevant" then I agree. Unless someone has very good arguments for their list, just listing the games does nothing. And the list itself needs to be filled with opinions, conjectures, arguments and so on and so forth.

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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Usually, good critics understand the technical points of the art they are reviewing. For example, movie critics usually understand things like cinematography, photography, etc. But game journalists are typically enthusiasts and they rarely understand the technical points. Thats why we end up with categories like "best shooter" instead of "excellence in level design". And then when we *do* have a "best level design" category, you realize that the judge are considering level art, not level design.

I still havent seen one award that is a recognition of excellence, instead of a popularity contest.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Ian Uniacke
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I don't think you know what journalism is.

The point of a journalist is to dig deep and find the story...if they're just parroting pressers than they're not journalists at all. If that's what you want there is always IGN (tongue in cheek...kind of) or even go straight to the company's home pages.

Does it offend you in some personal way that people have political opinions about things? The more discussion the better imo...we don't live in fascist states and no one is forcing you to adopt Roger Ebert's opinions.

Nicholas Capozzoli
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Hmm...I think I disagree, Andrew. There's merit to this sort of media, too. People speaking out and making subjective claims sparks discussion. Through that discussion, we all learn something (assuming that the discussion's good and we're reflective enough). I enjoy GOTY conversations, particularly when I'm privy to the underlying methodologies behind the choices - nobody learns anything from a single line: "GOTY: The Walking Dead".

For example, I really loved Giant Bomb's GOTY voting podcasts. They went through and recorded their process for all of their voting. Subjective or not, agreeable or not, I found every bit of it fascinating. You learn about how others think, what their methodologies/priorities are, etc. When you think about why you agree or disagree, you learn something about yourself.

One other point:

"Joystiq made asses of themselves by simultaneously calling "Far Cry 3" "misogynistic and homophobic" and giving it a game of the year award."

- Wouldn't denying Far Cry 3 game of the year for its misogynistic and homophobic traits be the same sort of personal political injection that your decrying above?

Joy Zimba
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"I enjoy GOTY conversations, particularly when I'm privy to the underlying methodologies behind the choices - nobody learns anything from a single line: "GOTY: The Walking Dead"."

I agree with Nicholas Capozzoli on this point. I think what gets kind of lost in making lists that are based more on ' personal opinion/subjectivity' and curating games rather than ranking per se is actually expressing global principles of what makes a game good AND actually having practical examples (the games themselves).

Especially on a site like Gamasutra where you can say people are more well versed in - if not immediately tackling- issues of game development - the limited number of games on such a list forces the judge & audience to be ruthless in their thinking( not to say curating titles doesn't allow this). For the reader it is a 'priority list' of games to hunt down, buy and play NOW not just for a new experience or novelty factor but to experience the mastery of game development techniques.

More subjective based lists I note tend to be more dilute in their conclusions and also criticism of flaws in games. Same goes for curated lists. All games are good (in places) and these kind of treatments of games tend to just feed this notion.

Personal preference is always welcome but like films ( as Mathieu MarquisBolduc mentioned) - games have a whole lot of technical aspects that can be assessed and evaluated beyond- 'I like how this game did its battle system- it's quirky and innovative' or 'this game moved me'. Some might say that's what awards are for -sure - but after reading the gamasutra 10 best list - I think it could have gotten a little bit 'messier' and really gotten under the hood of their favourite games- be ruthless but expertly detailed about it. Curate games, have staff picks, but I think a top ten list is still needed and very valuable in this respect.For each title on the top ten list give the reader 10 reasons why it's there- or 10 things they can learn to do (or not to do).

I like it when people get behind their visions, pick their corner- have a mental list ready of why things are left and not right - and are willing to put their money on it as they speak with references.

Everyone has an opinion but not everyone has an expert opinion- and it's expert opinions, I feel, that are being lost in all the opinions.

Everybody is an expert only of their own opinion ... and sadly in some cases not even that (a la retweet- where my opinion might actually be someone else's 'expert' opinion).

John Flush
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I've noticed the longer the industry moves on the more these lists become boring pageantry to make sure you are playing / "enjoying" what everyone else is enjoying. Or that you are feeling more civilized by playing games that expose you to 'new ideas' or new norms.

If there is one thing the last few years has shown me, I can usually see if games are going to be good for me simply by someone describing the details, features, etc like a requirements list or actual non-biased reporter. I don't know how many times I lost by saying to myself "Everyone keeps mentioning this game, I didn't really have a lot of interest, but maybe I should..." then trying it and hating every second of it.

I wish someone made gaming sites again that focused on getting information to us and letting us make our own decisions - no ad dollars tied to the 'journalism'. Anyone know of any?