Should Some Video Games Be “Required Reading?”

Many historically impactful games have been re-released this year, including Metroid Prime, Resident Evil 4, and several of the classic Final Fantasy games. In a lot of this discourse I’ve noticed people making claims such as “You can skip Final Fantasy I, II, III, and V, but Final Fantasy IV and VI are must-play games.” I pondered over that term: must-play. It reminded me of English class in high school, and how my teachers assigned me to read classic works of literature. I had to drag myself through 1984 and The Great Gatsby; but thankfully I read many other works in these classrooms, too, such as Chinua Achebe’s tragic masterpiece Things Fall Apart and Juang Chang’s multi-generational epic, Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China.

When I decided to become a professional writer, I dove headfirst into other books considered “Classic Literature” even during my summer breaks. I know, I’m an overachieving dork. Some of these books felt like a death march before reaching the end, such as John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath; but other books opened my eyes and made me wish they were a part of my English curriculum, such as Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. With every story, even the ones I disliked, I learned something more about writing. I learned more about figurative language, characterization, plot, and I even learned about how to “break the rules” of writing to create an emotional impact. While I ended up going down another career path, I rely on that knowledge whenever I write. And to this day, I strive to keep reading books, both new and classic, to keep my skills sharp.

So, if we have a canon of Classic Literature that creates a foundation for our writers in the world, it makes sense to have the same thing for video games. Should Final Fantasy VI be “required reading” the same way that high schoolers have to read The Catcher in the Rye? Should we talk about its opera scene the same way we talk about The Green Light in The Great Gatsby?

Well, until Video Games become a required class in public schools, then I think the answer is pretty cut and dry: no. At least, not for your general consumer. Is there a lineup of video games that stand the test of time? Of course. Would any person’s life likely be better having experienced them? Quite possible. But I find it a little ridiculous to dictate to people how they should spend their free time.

But that’s also kind of the easy answer, and it doesn’t have much nuance. Let’s explore this idea a bit further.

The Reason We Preserve Video Games

I’ve been talking about video game preservation for years now, and over the past few months I’ve doubled-down on this stance. But if the general public is only going to play a small handful of these classic games, if any at all, then why should we bother preserving them?

The real reasons is this: while preserving these games is important to have as an option for everyone, it is the job for game critics and game developers in particular to educate themselves on these games so that the industry can keep moving forward. Creators and critics alike need the old games to provide a foundation and a common frame of reference, or else we’ll struggle to make and critique new games.

But there’s a problem with this. If we weren’t allowed to create or criticize a game until we played a long list of “required reading,” then we’d probably still be sitting here playing through them, especially if you’re someone who can’t do it for a living yet. Plus innovation often comes from outside of the gaming industry. If you want to be a game developer or a game critic, all you really need are three things: 1) a passion for video games, 2) an open mind, and 3) the work ethic to keep trying.

That being said, experiencing more video games will help you learn about game mechanics and storytelling techniques. It will give you a bigger perspective and a better eye for details. Video games, perhaps more than any other media, is difficult to summarize with just words and video alone. The games truly need to be experienced in order to truly understand them. You can’t just CliffsNotes your way through the nuances behind Pac-Man‘s frantic maze navigation or Super Metroid‘s atmosphere (do people still use CliffsNotes? Great, now I’m dating myself). Whenever I’ve assigned myself “required reading” in genres I initially disliked, such as Doom (1993) and Halo: Combat Evolved, I ended up not only liking them, I felt like a better critic because of them.

So I’ve come up with a better name than a “Required Reading” list. I’m calling it: The Improvement List. In other words, it’s the list of classic video games that will likely improve your craft, whether you’re a game developer, a game critic, or just simply a game player. I like calling it “The Improvement List” because 1) it removes any gatekeeping, and 2) it removes the guilt and shame that some people might associate with these lists. Because if the list makes you guilty or shameful, then you’ll likely lose the motivation to play, and then what was the point of making such a list in the first place? Now, I’m not exactly ready to make a comprehensive Improvement List for a general gaming public, but I do have my own Improvement List, and these are some of the games on it:

  • Dragon Quest III
  • Final Fantasy VI
  • Chrono Trigger
  • Streets of Rage 1, 2 & 3
  • Xenogears
  • Deus Ex
  • Half-Life
  • Paper Mario
  • Grim Fandango
  • Jet Set Radio
  • Ikaruga
  • Ico
  • Shadow of the Colossus
  • Resident Evil 4
  • Far Cry 3
  • Fallout: New Vegas
  • Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
  • Mass Effect 1, 2, & 3
  • BioShock
  • Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
  • NieR: Automata
  • Red Dead Redemption 2
  • The Last of Us
  • Elden Ring

I have plans to play through these games eventually, and when I do, I hope that they will be the experiences I think they will be. Do you have any games that are on your improvement list, or games you think I should add to this list? I’m always open to suggestions.

2 thoughts on “Should Some Video Games Be “Required Reading?”

  1. I love that you compared this to reading books in order to become a better writer. As a writer myself, that’s definitely something I can relate to! I’ll admit I’m not nearly as much of a gamer as I am a reader, but I think you should consider adding Tetris to your list 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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