Editorial: Innumerable

I swear, none of these are made of tin!
How productive is it to rank games?

Hello again, thawing readers. I can finally open the window next to me as I type this, the snow still on the ground but the air a very agreeable 41°F. As we move into one of the first major release schedules for 2015, I would like to address something that has been on my mind in one form or another since the wrap-up days of 2014 and early 2015. It will be on my mind again once this year trudges on, through the summer drought and into the next busy seasons of September and November, so I would like to plant the germ of this idea now that it might grow big and strong for the coming winter.

Lists are a common lazy format for articles, particularly the ones that simply supply items on that list with little to no supplementing information. But regardless of how effective or easy they are as work for publications, lists are also host to another problem. When a list of the best (or worst) games of the year is generated, it is common practice to then order or rank that list as well as limit the number of slots. I find this problematic for a few reasons, not the least of which is that inevitably unfair comparisons between two entrants will need to be drawn to whittle the list down to five or ten or however many positions. While at first it would seem that to measure games up against others is necessary to help find the best games of that year, it ignores the fact that good games are not made in set quantities every year.

“Best of” lists are composed on the idea that the list represents the top games made that year. But if few games were really all that good, then it means the bottom slots on the list will be made of mediocre titles. This might be a fine way to measure the output of that year’s creativity or quality, but it elevates the status of the lower games to be on par with potentially better games that occupied the same slot in the year previous. In a top ten or top five list, this problem is probably not going to occur too often, as even some of the worst years in games has about five good ones worthy of being recognized. At this point, good games need to be shaved off of the list and this is from where most of the debate comes. When faced with a difficult choice, something must be cut and the logic follows “if there is no easily seen reason to cut this game, then which other games on the list can be cut?” It is then that a concession is made, and it is often founded on uneven comparisons.

Souls Series and Sony Defense Forces will see to that. Here's hoping it's actually good.
Bloodborne is likely to receive many nominations, even if it turns out to be a mediocre game.

To evaluate games like this will mean the quality of one game’s story will be measured up against another game’s visuals, or one entry’s gameplay will have to be compared to another’s soundtrack. It is arbitrary at best when conclusions are drawn based on the merits of different categories like this, and it is all for the sake of making a list with a round number. Ranking the entries on that list then presents yet another problem about which game can be called categorically better than another. Even among sites that employ numbered review scores, these numbers are not always considered as proof of one game’s superiority over another. At the very least it serves to further question the benefits of scored reviews, and at most it proves that these “Best of” lists are about as valuable to the medium as rolling dice to determine a winner.

I would rather think the games industry and the talented people working in it would be better served by generating an unranked unlimited group of games that the evaluating body can agree are among the standouts of that year. This way, while different games may get into this group for different reasons, those reason are not pitted against each other for tangential purposes. Evaluation of games that get into this group should then be done in as detailed a manner as possible. Instead of adding or removing games from a small list for the sake of the size of that list, this group of games will be composed of however many games can be argued to be excellent in what they set out to achieve.

The result would likely be a much greater number of games in this group than a simple five or ten that populate most of the lists that currently get made, and this might seem like a lowering of standards. The reality is that this group represents (ideally) all of the great games of that year with none of them being arbitrarily sacrificed for an unnecessary sake of brevity. And it could be entirely possible than an evaluating body only appoint three games for the whole year on the argument that only three games proved their worth in that time. While I suspect this will not be the case should most major outlets adopt this practice, the idea is that it removes as much of the unnecessary limitations on accolade as possible. They should instead be replaced with a more rigorous justification for the honor of “Best of” and while I fully expect these groups would still vary between different people or groups of people, the results will approach a closer recognition of excellence that might not always fit neatly into a predetermined box.

It may not be the season to discuss wrap-up articles, but perhaps that is the best time to do so. We are not clouded by thoughts of which games should be honored as so few games have been released in the year. Does this idea miss the point of these lists? Can you identify any problems in the idea of a limitless unranked list of best games? Give me your approval, give me your refusal, just make sure to give me something in the comments!

9 comments

  1. “Can you identify any problems in the idea of a limitless unranked list of best games?”

    Well, yes. The point of a list is to select the very best individuals from a larger group, and that means there has to be a finite (and usually small) number of ‘very best’ titles so selected. The larger the number of titles, the more diminished the accolade being granted.

    If we have one hundred apples (games), and you ask me to select only the very best for a pie (time/money), and I come back with ninety-five apples and say, “these are the best,” you would be quite right to tell me:
    1) My standards of judgement need to be more critical; and,
    2) We can’t use all ninety-five apples in the pie.

    Lists of this sort are generally created as a short guide to tell people what the handful of ‘most essential’ titles are, whether that is for a genre, system, etc. Giving someone a one-hundred game list may err on the side of inclusivity, but it is manifestly impractical. And, with so many degrees of difference, what’s the meaningful separation between individual objects: e.g. why is X ranked 87 and Y ranked 86? What’s the manifest difference between these two things?

    Listicles are stupid as news items, absolutely. But that doesn’t mean that ranked lists are themselves unprofitable or useless. They are not news, they are not an acceptable substitute for news, and they are largely click-bait when presented as if they were. But, as a set of general consumer guidelines they have more than a little use.

  2. I think the difference we have is in the purpose of this list or group of games. Perhaps they’re used as buying guides where time and money need to be considered for picking the most “essential” or indicative of a certain genre, but I don’t know that they should be. (Literally, I’m not saying “don’t know” as a cute way of saying “they’re not”).

    It may be that the concept I propose has its place somewhere and not as a replacement of these lists. However, I think if a game achieves excellence (vague term, I realize, and would require justification) it shouldn’t necessarily be cut out because the list has to be a finite size because of its use as a buyer’s guide. It’s not that we’re fitting these apples into a pie, there is no pie and we’re appraising more than just apples (i.e., more than just one kind of game). If we were ranking all the RPGs or shooters in one list, that might sit better with me. But we’re not. I don’t think they should be appraised with the ulterior motive of making an affordable short-list for someone’s Christmas shopping, and if that is no longer the case then I don’t know why we would need rankings or a limited number of honorees.

    Also,

    Giving someone a one-hundred game list may err on the side of inclusivity, but it is manifestly impractical. And, with so many degrees of difference, what’s the meaningful separation between individual objects: e.g. why is X ranked 87 and Y ranked 86? What’s the manifest difference between these two things?”

    I take your other points, but this one doesn’t apply. I’m advocating not ranking them at all because, like with review scores, I find doing so to be unnecessarily reductive.

  3. The only thing I find interesting about lists are the opinionated people that take issue with them.

  4. @Mel: YOU HEAR THAT? WE’RE OPINIONATED PEOPLE WHO TAKE ISSUE WITH LISTS!

  5. @Mel: “I’m advocating not ranking them at all because, like with review scores, I find doing so to be unnecessarily reductive.”

    Then you have the problem that inclusion implies equality, which will demonstrably not be the case in any list of a large-ish size. A small list, perhaps–ten games, maybe even fifteen, you could argue are similar in quality so as to be indistinguishable. But for a very large list? Some of them are clearly going to be better than others, and hence gradiation (or separate lists, or non-listing of the ‘worse’ games) is going to be necessary.

    Ultimately I don’t see much purpose for a list of this sort except as a buying guide for genres/systems/etc. Otherwise it’s like ranking the Final Fantasy games–what does that serve, except to demonstrate what the ranking creator likes and dislikes? And surely there are better ways of conveying that information than with a list of games which one must interpret in order to get to the likes and dislikes of the list creator.

  6. Here’s my list of main series Final Fantasy games in order. Non-MMOs are based on their original release; MMOs are based on their latest version.

    1. Final Fantasy VII
    2. Final Fantasy VI
    3. Final Fantasy IX
    4. Final Fantasy IV
    5. Final Fantasy XII
    6. Final Fantasy XIV
    7. Final Fantasy XIII
    8. Final Fantasy V
    9. Final Fantasy I
    10. Final Fantasy III
    11. Final Fantasy XI
    12. Final Fantasy VIII
    13. Final Fantasy X
    14. Final Fantasy II

  7. Readers, don’t mind Java. He got his hands trampled by some elephants or something, and he meant to type “Mel has a great and unassailable point!”

  8. I was being serious! Lists themselves, meh. It’s the talk they generate that I look toward. There is always quibbles and comments about the faults or virtues of a given list, and I feel it colors a larger picture most of the time. I’ve actually discovered some of my favorite authors because of the dissenting comments on lists.

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