The Ephemera

Game Over

From the Christmas, 2011, issue 

(No. 27)

Recently, a writer challenged Taddle Creek on its (generally accepted) stance of not italicizing the titles of modern video games. The magazine was somewhat dismissive of the argument, as it has heard it many times before, usually from someone without much editorial experience who just likes video games and doesn’t see the lack of logic in their argument. Nonetheless, Taddle Creek said it would present its thinking officially at the first opportunity. The magazine does not relish rehashing the argument, but it does so enjoy proving people wrong.

First, some quick background: as any style guide worth its weight in en dashes will tell you, standalone works of art such as books, paintings, magazines, movies, and albums (there it is—the link to this issue’s music theme!) are usually set off in italics or alternately, though less frequently, with quotation marks. Also of note: while the contents of books, movies, and albums (i.e., the words) can be copyrighted, the titles of such works cannot. Were such copyrights (or, more accurately when talking about titles, trademarks) possible, teenage girls around the world would have had to settle for wondering whether Paul would prevent Jesse’s nineteenth-century murder—depriving Suze of the only ghost she ever loved—in Meg Cabot’s Twilight, forever deprived of the forbidden love between the tortured vampire Edward and the teenage Bella of Stephenie Meyer’s book of the same name.

Usually, when the argument to italicize the titles of video games comes up, the joystick wielder presenting it offers one, or some combination of three arguments: these games—your Halos, your Grand Theft Autos, your Call of Dutys—like movies, have higher production values than video games past; like movies, these games are sold on discs; and these games have more of a narrative than older games, also like movies. Taddle Creek calls it the “like movies” defence.

Weaker arguments there never have been, and if you’ll indulge Taddle Creek in some more background, it will tell you why.

The closest old-school equivalent to a modern-day video game is a board game (Taddle Creek’s favourites include Monopoly, Risk, and Pop-O-Matic Trouble). These games are products—their names, in nearly every case, are trademarked and thus, capitalized. Other games, such as poker, hopscotch, or hide and seek, are not trademarked, nor are they capitalized, in keeping with their generic nature. Taddle Creek cannot remember there ever being a movement to treat any of these games, whether trademarked or generic, as art forms whose names called for italics.

Taddle Creek also cannot recall a similar movement to italicize the names of early arcade games, such as Pac-Man or Dig Dug. Nor was there an argument to italicize popular home system video games, like Super Mario Bros. (It should be noted that all of the aforementioned game titles are trademarked.)

And so:

Modern video games do have higher production values than previous video games. But quality, sadly, does not an art form make. If it did, there would be no need to italicize Howard the Duck (the movie, not the comic).

They come on a disc, like movies? Go check out the nineteen-nineties board game Nightmare. Seriously. It’s on YouTube. Taddle Creek will wait while you look. A major component of this game was a videotape. Have a look and then tell Taddle Creek if it’s an art form. (Nightmare actually does double duty arguing against the quality argument too.)

Narrative? Nearly every video game has a narrative. Mario saving his girlfriend from Donkey Kong? Narrative. Preventing a demon invasion of the earth in Doom? Narrative. The difference between a video game narrative and a book or movie narrative is, books and movies end the same way each time you read and watch them. Like an art form. Video games, though they usually have a singular goal, can and do end any number of ways. Like a trademarked product. Which is what they are, however good their production values, and however much time you waste playing them instead of reading books and talking to girls.

Taddle Creek will admit readily that editorial style rules must remain open to change with the advent of new technologies, but it does not support blind change for the sake of change simply because something new appears unfamiliar when, in fact, it is really something old dressed up in a different package.

  • François Martin

    So, if I went along with your explanation, I should stop italicizing The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. … If art needs to be defined, the way a piece ends doesn’t seem to fit every case. By the way, the MoMA features some video games.