As media role evolves, 'best' lists matter less
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.