Remember when we thought the web would reinvent the way we talked about videogames? We, the fans and enthusiasts, could finally ignore BS-heavy magazines packed full of giddy previews of Christmas toys. In their place would rise a new era of thoughtful dialogue about the artistic strides, cultural issues and personalities involved in our favorite hobby.

Years later, social news websites like Digg and Reddit have offered us a decent approximation of what the public really wants from its videogame coverage: lists. Lots and lots of lists.

The top “adult” issues Pokémon doesn’t address? The top five most influential SNES games, as chosen by a single person? The top ten anything? Is it too late to trade this stuff in for glowing previews of Assassin’s Creed again?

Whether IGN is counting down the Most Wanted Games of 2009 or a random blogger is trolling about the Hardest Games of 1988, the top ten list has become the new standard of internet gaming articles. And apparently we’re OK with that. No matter how infuriating, typo ridden, incorrect or sloppy they are, we can’t stop reading them, commenting on them and voting them to the top of Reddit and Digg.

Not content to fall by the wayside, we at The Escapist have gone to great lengths to understand and explain the proliferation of the top ten list. We put together a comprehensive survey of gamers’ reading habits, cross-analyzed the data with EGM and PC Gamer reader surveys from the early ’90s and invited leading taste-makers from mainstream magazines to weigh in on the trend. Then we threw that stuff in the trash and farted out a top ten list of our own. Enjoy!

10) It’s karma, stupid.
Reddit Gaming Channel Co-Moderator Jon “Masta” Disnard personally knows at least one reason for the trend: karma points. “The persistence [of top ten lists] might be attributed to the popularity contest that goes on with sites like Reddit, Digg or Slashdot,” he says. Because up-votes on these sites’ links also count on their submitters’ profiles, those with a nose for popular content quickly rise in the ranks. But it’s not always easy to be the first to post a big news story or the latest SecuROM complaint. For an easier shot at karmic gold, you’re better off posting a top ten list.

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If gamers love anything more than top ten lists, it’s an arbitrary, valueless points system. Consider Reddit and Digg’s karma systems the ultimate Gamerscore for flamewar freaks.

9) The author is always right.
So what if a top ten list from a gaming fanboy is full of retread reviews and missing a few obvious choices? That’s not the point.

Take this Game Boy Advance top ten as an example. The reviews are short, even flippant, and each item alone can be shrugged off. But as a collection, the author has picked a revealing series of games – mostly side-scrolling action/adventure games, with hat-tips to Mario Kart and Zelda. It’s a reflection on the GBA’s catalog, but it’s also an authentic depiction of the author’s gaming preferences, and chances are you can relate. It’s the perfect “recommended if you like” scenario: Whether we’re curious about his foreign perspective or nodding in agreement, there’s a chance we’ll discover something new. Maybe he’ll hip us to a side-scroller that passed us by; we may even take comfort in the guy’s Nintendo crush. Here, his shamelessness is an asset.

8) The author is always wrong.
WTF, dude?! Why didn’t you mention Final Fantasy Tactics, Advance Wars or any of the Namco Museum games? How about you grow a pair and import some real GBA games like Kuru Kuru Kururin, Rhythm Tengoku or a bunch of other titles people can’t even buy?

The Game Boy Advance sucked, anyway, because it was for 12-year-old losers. You’re a 12-year-old loser. I totally hate you – so much so, in fact, that I’m going to endlessly refresh this comments thread in the hopes that either you or one of your 12-year-old loser friends replies to my rant, so I can reiterate just how much I hate you. Loser.

7) Most gaming news outlets are already lists.
Folks are still trying to figure out how readers consume web content, but the current consensus is they prefer skimming and don’t want to click through a lot of links. With those criteria in mind, list-formatted content wins out every time. Even the most popular gaming sites have little reason to shy away from the bloggy, long-column format.

Digg and Reddit take this one further, allowing users to rank the presented content by date, number of views, comment count and other variables. The top 25 list as an ultimate gateway to top ten lists is meta enough; this very top ten list has gotten dizzy and fallen over just thinking about it.

6) Everything old is new again.
Even the biggest gaming outlets run out of things to talk about in their rush to post 40 stories a day. When stretched thin, some outlets use the opportunity to “investigate” or “report.” Not your favorite sites, though. On slow news days, they prefer to dust off the yearbooks, reminisce about the good days and wistfully regret that they never asked Super Metroid out when they had the chance.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with nostalgic lists, because they’re a reflection of the way we consume games. This list, for example, catalogs the ten problems the author hopes won’t reappear in the forthcoming Diablo III. His piece is as much a chance to uniquely reflect on an old favorite as it is a chance to anticipate and salivate over a long-awaited follow-up – and the list’s attention to Diablo detail caters to the series’ biggest fans, who are already doing both of those things in droves. (It figures that dungeon-crawling addicts would be compulsive about information.)

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Also, lists like “top ten N64 games” don’t read much differently than when friends get together for some FPS mayhem: Somebody inevitably brings up GoldenEye, another guy mentions BattleTanx, insults are thrown, Cheetos fly, etc. The top ten list is an easier way to reflect this never-ending fanboy conversation – without the cheese-orange fingers.

5) They help you become an expert as quickly as possible.
To the previous point, older titles form the basis of our gaming vocabulary. As in any other critical field, games writing would be nothing without comparisons – “Killzone is Call of Duty mixed with Gears of War,” etc. To keep up, we flock to top ten lists for the same reason we consume so many gaming sites in the first place – to “win,” to know everything we can, to be masters at the game of gaming. With a list, we can learn about a chunk of similar games in much less time than it would take to play ’em all.

Chances are you didn’t own a Sega 32X, a Neo-Geo, and a Jaguar, let alone every single game for those systems. (If you did, chances are I showed up at your doorstep begging to be your new best friend.) For hoarding nerdy minutiae, lists are the only reasonable option, especially since they skip over a category’s ho-hum titles and focus on the studs and duds.

And for younger gamers who’ve missed ancient consoles, listening in to neurotic list-makers is an organic way to catch up – and to learn fun, new curse words in the comment threads.

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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