Ben had two questions.
Is game genre sheerly defined by the mechanics of the game interface, or do ineffible unengineered aesthetic/artistic qualities play any deterministic role?
It doesn't always have to be this way, but I think we define genre exclusively by the interface. It's why Halo is a first-person shooter and Halo Wars is a real-time strategy game. Sometimes the aesthetics can make a difference -- I think the shift from high fantasy to sci-fi wasteland is a big reason why I loved Fallout when Oblivion had left me cold -- but ultimately I think we tend to base our gameplaying preferences around mechanics first, and aesthetics second.
Hrm, that's not really an essay question. Bonus: Who's the awesomest turtle in gaming? Show your work
My favorite has historically been Donatello, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle whose bo staff gave him excellent reach in combat (he was absurdly useful in the original TMNT game for the NES). But going the TMNT route is a little too easy, as is picking any of the Koopa Troopas. What does that leave? Nothing I can find. I defy you to find any combination of Google queries incorporating "video games" and "turtles" and not find your heroes on the half-shell exclusively. Or hey, about that turtle-like colossus in Shadow of the Colossus?
This one's from L.B. Jeffries:
You just won the lottery. Big time. Assuming you set aside enough to be comfortable for the rest of your life AND assuming you dedicate the other portion to gaming in some way...what would you do? Start a magazine? Make your own game? Start a museum?
If I won the lottery, I am pretty sure that no one would ever see or hear from me again. I would drop off the grid entirely. But I would spend plenty of money putting together the most bitchin' man cave you've ever seen, of which gaming would be the central focus. I would spend much more time playing far fewer games.
In the spirit of the question, it's entirely possible I would get bored and feel the need to give back in some way. Now that you mention it, if I could self-fund a magazine without having to worry about the bottom line, that would be a great idea. There are too many good writers spread too far apart for this not to happen. Most of my favorite writers remain either unaffiliated with professional publications, or do their most interesting writing on the periphery. It would be awesome to have a central place for all this.
Of course, there's no reason this couldn't happen now, in website form, but then I'm a lazy, lazy man. Also, I think I just described the Escapist.
What should be essential/required reading for a college-level course on analysis and criticism of video games?
There's not anything I can think of directly related to video game criticism, in the sense that it deals with that as its subject. But I have read a few books that have broadened the way I think about games. Among them are James Paul Gee's What Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, Steven Johnson's Everything Bad Is Good for You, and, just this past week, Jim Rossignol's This Gaming Life. All three books take a hard look at games that isn't reflected by most mainstream reviews. The first two break down games into components much different than the usual graphics-sound-control axes, while the third book is about how games provide singular experiences that have the power to shape lives.
I'd also recommend reading Roger Ebert's Awake in the Dark, because the way Ebert writes about movies is the way I think more people should be trying to write about games: he's literate, informed, and respectful, and his love for all movies shines through everything he writes.
To be continued.