Why I think GOTY lists are silly

Utagawa, Kunisada, Artist. Mitanoshi to Yamauba. Japan, None. [Between 1848 and 1854] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2008660053/.

We have (mostly) moved away from the frankly asinine practice of giving games scores, as if they were prize pumpkins at the county fair. We recognise that such a practice is a reductive and overly simplistic way of talking about art and media. And yet those who play games by and large continue to make game of the year lists. From late November, every second conversation about gaming is someone talking about their list and what game might be lucky enough to be declared the game of the year (GOTY) something I always pretend means a game is the most video game a game can be of the year.

I have to confess: I do not understand the enduring appeal of practice and I’ll argue that its days ought to be numbered. To be clear, I’m mostly talking about the form of GOTY list that consists of some number (usually ten or five) of games in descending order, with the game in the first ordinal position is presented as the prized pumpkin of the year, surpassing all others.

It is incredibly reductive to rank games in this fashion. And it is largely unhelpful. Comparisons between pieces of media demand nuance and context otherwise they fail to give the audience any meaningful information. Without describing the hows and whys that game x is rank 3 and game y is rank 5, the whole list becomes impossibly and helplessly opaque. Even if we find there is some value in the subjective position of game x and y on such a list, it cannot possibly be true that game x is in all ways ‘better’ than game y. Each game shines brightly alone, yet the simplistic nature of the ranked list squashes down this uniqueness in favour of viewing games as merely commodity goods.

Even more so, I instinctively rebel from the adherence to publishers marketing schedules that is implicit in the fact that GOTY lists are based only on games released in a particular year. That a publisher has determined that a particular release date is likely to be most profitable feels like not a great basis for curating a list of things that are personally meaningful to me. I understand – although disagree, obviously – why online gaming media uses games released this year as their criteria (the human centipede of online content creation flowing from publishers to the media to the poor folk at the end of the trail), but for individuals to adopt this as their criteria when they needn’t is puzzling.

I do not think it is a positive thing that so much of our lives are mediated by the flows and ebbs of capitalism in this way: where we can carve out a small distinction, that seems a victory to me. I’ll write more on this in a future essay, but suffice it to say for now: let’s not act as unpaid marketing interns. Publishers, even smaller, seemingly friendly indie publishers, really do not need our help.

I reject that the GOTY format is even useful. They reinforce the underlying combative nature of the gaming world where superlatives are prime and shades of grey are 180-no scope’d on sight. At any time anyone can say that a game was meaningful for them, and here is why. They don’t need permission or the enabling factor of the GOTY list meme. And they don’t need to wait until December, in the same way people don’t need to wait until 1 January to adopt a new habit or hobby.

By all means, if you find the GOTY format to be enriching and contributive to your happiness at this time of year then by all means, the power is yours! I would, however, perhaps ask to you heed the following counsel:

  1. Eschew publication date as your foundational criterion. Your job isn’t to promote the cynical nature of release schedules. Celebrate what you have enjoyed—your enjoyment is the only criteria that will ever matter.
  2. Reject rankings. If a game is on your list, trust in your audience to realise that it is special. Ranking is great for objective qualities but I think pretty useless for conveying the amount of joy, curiosity or pleasure a game has given you. Thinking about media in this way narrows our ability to enjoy things.
  3. Be radical. Abandon the empty list format. Instead of just plonking titles next to numbers, share what about these games was meaningful to you (and why!) I realise this is already more work, but I guarantee it’ll be both more valuable an exercise for you and for your audience.
  4. Remember the point. You are not trying to celebrate consumerism, you’re talking about your personal experience with a unique art form. The list is tool of communication (otherwise there would be no value in sharing it, after all) and so invite discussion. Our views are enriched through dialogue with others. It is with this spirit that the games were made in the first place: so do them honour.

Whatever you played this year, I hope you enjoyed the journey.

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