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The Top Ten Reasons Top Ten Lists Reign

Sam Machkovech | 28 Apr 2009 13:05
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4) Everyone else is doing it.
IGN and GameSpot are the torch-bearers for online top ten gaming lists, though they were preceded by plenty in print before that. It's not just their year-end roundups or all-time super-lists - these major outlets have gone list-crazy. IGN alone has maxed the format out with its long-running "Top 10 Tuesday" feature.

In a recent send-up of the trend, Giant Bomb's 2009 April Fool's gag transformed the site into a top ten depository. But the joke pokes fun at a relatively serious issue - that editors and writers increasingly rely on top ten lists to fill their gaming pages. It's easy to call the tactic "lazy" - these sites are rehashing old content to drum up commenter arguments - but a more apt description of this kind of link-baiting would be "desperate." It's a weird vicious cycle - top ten lists are plentiful because people are reading them, and people are reading them because they're all over the place. Are we in for oversaturation and burnout?

3) They're ours.
That burnout depends on which lists we're reading. When asked whether he believed top ten lists were bad for games journalism, Reddit's Jon Disnard answered, "Perhaps legitimate game reporting is hurt by not doing top ten lists correctly." It's a fair point: The typo-ridden Blogspot rant and the slick, tidy IGN list have to meet halfway to succeed. The best lists are equal parts passionate and surprising, pushing our expectations without seeming inauthentic in the process.

When a writer nails this balance, the top ten list encourages readers to post thoughtful, substantial comments and enter a real dialogue with the author and each other - not because the list was totally wrong, but because the list is an educated, informed segue into a qualified conversation between fans. It's a shared experience that neither dimwit bloggers nor corporate link-bait can replicate. This perfect conversational storm doesn't come to pass all that often, but when it does, it's a precious thing indeed.

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2) Well, you know, sometimes ... they're great!
Top ten lists are an opportunity to be stupid, silly, excitable and wide-eyed. They turn anger and disappointment into constructive looks at what went wrong in a game. They condense the joy of a favorite old console into a mid-afternoon nostalgia trip between emails at work. They're a short and snappy format for enthusiasts to try their hand at games writing without purporting to be expert. And they're all by people who love games so much, they had to make their own lists. If the sheer number of lists is hard to fathom, the fandom that fuels each one might knock you on your butt.

1) We want to know how they end.
Heck, you made it this far.

The top ten list is a classic carrot-dangler, mined for all its worth since people debated the merits of Gone With The Wind versus Citizen Kane. So it's not just that we're rabid completionists, as desperate to get to the No. 1 entry on a list as we are to reach and overcome an end boss. The journey from bottom to top tickles our inner list-makers, like when we introduce a roster of nominees before opening the envelope.

But more so than any other entertainment medium, games are in the eye of the beholder. Really, "beholder" isn't fair; we're active participants in the experience. Barring pre-rendered scenes, games unfold how we tell them to. They are in the eye of the manipulator, and so is the No. 1 entry on every top ten list.

Sam Machkovech is the games critic for Seattle weekly newspaper The Stranger.

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