A lot of people hate awards shows, and it’s not hard to see why. They introduce needless competition into subjective and creative fields. They’re charged by the internal politics of the industries and communities they seek to highlight. And they can often be self-aggrandizing to those industries and communities while ignoring very real issues that face them. But a sense of optimism (or perhaps naivete) leads me to believe that there’s still value in awards ceremonies. It’s worthwhile, in an age of caustically angry nerd review shows, an audience increasingly divided among political lines, and general cynicism about the future to take the time to celebrate the things that went well. The things that worked or are working. The things that resonated with people, or even just resonated with a specific place and time. It’s perhaps a bit idealistic, but I find we need some hopeful ideals to cling to these days.
Despite the rose-tinted glasses I wear when thinking about awards shows, though, I can’t stomach The Game Awards. They’re awful. Positively the best thing that can be said about them is that they aren’t the Spike Video Game Awards – the event that acted as something of a precursor to Keighley’s latest endeavor. The Spike Video Game Awards were, of course, the ceremony that bestowed such prestigious honors as “Most Addictive Game Fueled By Dew” (which was, oddly enough, won by Halo 3 – a game that had a tie-in deal with Mountain Dew. Huh.). But after 10 years of gaudy pre-shows, a variety celebrity hosts, and a sustained disinterest in actually cultivating any sense of dignity, Spike TV finally pulled the plug after the final show was deemed to be a complete disaster.
But that’s all in the past. Freed from the responsibilities of attracting celebrity endorsements or over-the-top spectacle (and no longer beholden to the douchebro frat boys that Spike cultivated as an audience), The Game Awards can now be a respectable award show that games deserve, right? Well, maybe not.
Between the date and the emphasis on “exclusive” trailers, it’s pretty clear the ceremony is still an advertising opportunity for publishers first and foremost. Instead of waiting until early 2016 to recap 2015 games, the awards are held in early December – smack-dab in the middle of the holiday buying season. The show acts less like an awards ceremony and more like a commercial or buyer’s guide reminding people which games are available and which ones to consider must-buys. And in between giving out awards the show is host to a number of brand new trailers and game announcements, priming the pump for next year’s sales. The announcements are such a part of the show’s appeal that the Wikipedia entry for last year’s event not only lists the announcements and premieres, but does so before listing the awards.
And when it comes to the awards themselves, the categories are something of a confused mess. True, they’re no longer doing anything quite so disgusting as “Most Addictive Game Fuelled By Dew.” But while the new categories aren’t embarassing they also don’t really make sense. Awards like “developer of the year” are vague to the point of meaninglessness, judging not a work or collection of works but an entire company. Same thing goes for the “Games for Impact” category – what, exactly, does that mean? Is it a Nuovo-style innovation category? A category for emotionally resonant games? If so, what does that say about the aspirations of the rest of the games we’re talking about? Should there be a “films for impact” Oscar in order to ensure that stuff like Avengers has a chance at Best Picture?
The remaining categories are sort of scattershot: They’re broken out by genre, but not all genres. They’re broken out by platform, but not all platforms. They’re broken out by technical achievements, but not all technical achievements. Which is to say: There’s no category for puzzle games, but a category for shooters. “Mobile/Handeld Games” are a category that seems to exist as a ghetto for Free To Play and 3DS games – influential titles with millions of players but not quite relevant enough to factor into any other category. “Independent games” is such a broad swath of the medium that there are entire awards shows and festivals dedicated to just that topic – here they’re represented by five games. There are categories for best narrative, best art direction, and best soundtrack, but no categories for audio or technology or design. In short, there are some genre-based awards, some technical awards, some platform awards, and some audience awards, but nothing that amounts to a unifying idea of just what it is The Game Awards prize as an institution. And combined with the marketing’s focus on celebrity appearances, musical guests, and big announcements, it’s hard to feel that these awards stand for much of anything; they have the backing of an organization with no clear ideology or identity so the awards have no ideology or identity.
Most reputable game awards have some reason to exist, some core ethos that motivates the desire to hand out prizes. The Game Developer’s Choice awards are an industry award show where game development professionals hand out recognition to their own. The Independent Game Festival started as an offshoot of the GDC started in 1998 as an attempt to highlight smaller self-funded games that were at the time lacking major distribution and coverage in the pre-digital-distribution days. The Indiecade festival was designed to celebrate the wide variety and vibrancy of the modern indie scene in a way that engages more people with more games than the increasingly antiquated IGF possibly could while standing in the shadow of GDC. Nothing like this can be said for The Game Awards. It’s a continuation of an outright embarrassing award show that was always more concerned with generating ad revenue than curating a year’s worth of games.
And then there’s the issue of their jury selection. Announced as thirty men and a lone woman, the final pool has managed to land at twenty-eight men and two women (which I’m sure they’d proudly frame as doubling the number of female jurors). It’s hard to take this as an innocent mistake; gender representation has been the big issue in game circles for several years now. I don’t buy recent suggestions that this is a hard problem that can’t be solved; you can solve it pretty easily: engage more women. To suggest otherwise is to erase all of the hard-working lady games writers out there. There are innumerable female critics that could have been cited. Keighley and The Game Awards chose not to, and settled for a 96.7 percent male jury on the first pass, then leaned on that jury lineup as a stamp of authority and reliability.
As it stands The Game Awards are simply the Spike Video Game Awards show dressed up in an ill-fitting suit. It’s moderately less flashy, ostentatious, and obnoxious. It stuffs the sexist bullshit behind closed doors rather than wearing it on its sleeve. But it’s still a shallow, aimless exercise in commercialism that panders to the worst parts of the game industry by focusing on hype and consumption rather than artistic merit or technical achievement. It’s not a celebration of games, it’s a celebration of game commercials. And as much as I want a games award show with mass appeal, I’m not sure I’m looking for one that still carries the torch lit by the channel that aired something called Manswers.
That said, hope isn’t lost. I’d love to see it succeed as a legitimate awards show. But to do so it needs to move out beyond the new year so it can step outside the high-pressure selling season and look back at the previous 365 days properly. It needs to dial way, way back on the announcements and trailers – I get that it’s a show further complicated by the loss of funding from a TV studio, but it remains excessive. It needs to fix its damn jury selection process. But perhaps most difficult of all, it needs to find its identity as an awards show, or they’ll continue to hand out trinkets that stand for little more than a reason to hype people up with ads.