At the end of the calendar year the top ten lists start to appear, discussions on each what person and outlet will assign as “Game of the Year” comes to a boil and the arguments over how to pronounce GOTY (ˈgoʊtˈi) continue. The Video Game Awards 2012 are one of the ways in which the media gathers &em; or at least attempts to gather &em; the video game enthusiasts together to show off the best of the year that has passed. Spike TV in the US has been running these particular awards for ten years and this is the first year that I had felt inclined to actually sit down and watch. I had been warned for many years that it was a poor representation of the industry, the fans and generally those who enjoy being tangentially associated with video games. Curiosity, it seems, had finally gotten the best of me.
Rather than discuss the merits of the show itself &em; something I feel has been trumpeted for as long as the show has been around &em; is not something I have the right credentials to do effectively. The format as I understood it and described it a Another Cast episode in 2009 is more akin to the MTV Movie Awards than the Oscars as is often treated with about the same attitude by enthusiasts. It turns out that wasn’t entirely inaccurate, with celebrities who were barely even associated with anything remotely to do with video games were trotted on stage to promote themselves, their interests and then read out the winner for a small group of awards including Best Game and Best Character.
What really hit me, though, is how pervasive the discussion was on social media and through the major media outlets following the awards. Even those who chide the whole concept were still tuning in to discuss the finer (and not-so-finer) points of the show, as well as comment on the award winners and appearances throughout the program. Like it or not, it seems that this is the award show that people pay the most attention to inside and outside the industry.
The Critical Mass Effect
Any television program (or one would assume any media in general) is about finding the balance between the intention of the creator and discovering the critical mass audience that will support the success of the program. Everything about the Video Game Awards 2012 (VGAs) was geared towards a specific audience, whether it was through the specific celebrities that appeared, how it was broadcast or what categories were being awarded is all about hitting the right groups. In that respect, it is safe to say that the VGAs are not geared towards the video game aficionado or industry veterans, but rather anyone who has experience playing video games offered through the major publishers. It was not meant to attract much of an audience whose main consumption for games is their phone, nor those who could name the Creative Director for each of the games in the Best Indie Title category. No, this was for the folks who may or may not get their information from major networks, mainstream games media websites and popular video game magazines.
This was for people comfortable to treat video games as something that does not define their hobbies or habits, but as something to do on a Saturday night or in between classes. It is as pervasive and culturally relevant as watching a video on Youtube.
But perhaps that is enough. This is still a show for people who play and enjoy video games and ultimately it would to turn such an audience away because the way that they experience the medium is fundamentally different from the enthusiasts. And as I mentioned in my opening, there is still a large audience of industry professionals, media and enthusiasts who tune in if not only to describe how little they are enjoying it. It is a moment that brings the gaming world together to discuss the merits of the program, yes, but also of the people and products that are on display.
There are other, more somber and perhaps professional affairs like the Golden Joystick Awards &em; which have been running for over 30 years &em; which is still a sponsored show but perhaps a little less gaudy that the Spike TV show. The Independent Games Festival(IGF) have their annual awards that celebrate the independent games, as well, and even the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) have a video game specific award ceremony on an annual basis. There are big events that cover off both the big budget products and the smaller, independent pieces and put them on display. However, they do not seem to carry the same audience as the VGAs, although the numbers for the other events I’ve mentioned do not have publicized audience figures.
That said the VGAs have seen a considerable dip in their ratings over the last few years. On TV, the ratings for this year’s show were just under 400K, compared to a three years ago when it posted near to 700K. It has been a trend that, perhaps, is shifting to more online streaming (which is how I watched the program) or perhaps just shows a growing lack of interest in the whole affair.
The Man Behind the Curtain
I know I mentioned that I would try not to spend time criticizing the show itself, but one of the things that struck me most about the VGAs was who was out in front of the audience. The host of the program was Samuel L. Jackson, who is a dynasty in and of himself and made that exact point very clear throughout the entire program. Between each celebrity appearance, commercial, trailer or award was an ongoing narrative that the video game industry would fail without the help of Mr. Jackson. Adding a “Sam Jackson” mode to each game would inheritently make it better, something that was introduced through a sketch that saw Jackson as the President of the World who came from the future to deliver this important message to the video game figure heads (Mario, Master Chief, some dude with a Viking Helmet and someone else). Also Neil Patrick Harris showed up. It got weird.
Beyond the insane narrative that was Samuel L. Jackson, it was hard not to notice that most of the folks who introduced the awards, handed out the awards or just appeared on television the entire night were not at all involved with the video game industry. If they were, it was tangential and hard to discern. Jessica Alba, Zachary Levi (who came on to the stage with a booming “Hello Nerds!”) and Marlon Wayans were among those who came to the stage to represent the video game industry. Representatives from the companies and studios who won the awards did come up to accept said awards, of course, and for a special BioShock Infinite trailer there was an introduction from the game’s visionary Ken Levine, but with only 5 awards being given at the show (including one special Game of the Decade to Half Life 2) there wasn’t much time for those in the industry to champion their medium.
But perhaps this is a representative of the industry’s failing to represent their own talent. It is obviously more difficult to have on display the same bombastic and larger than life personalities that Hollywood is able to strut out for their film and television awards seeing as the “actors” in games are artistic renditions and not actual people, but I would be remiss not to mention that I never notice any human being mentioned during the marketing of most major video games. Aside from the named creators in some older series such as Sid Meier I imagine it would be difficult for someone to name a single person who is not actively immersed in video game media to name someone involved in the creation any of the top ten selling games in a given year. I would even have difficulty naming one person who worked on Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 which is arguably the most popular property released this year. It would not be hard, however, for me to name the director of any of the Best Picture nominees from this year’s Oscars without having seen a single piece of their work.
Credits in games and how the names of the creators are displayed is something that I do not feel is talked about as much as it should be. Without that kind of recognition, who are the real ambassadors for the industry as it relates the mainstream media?
And the winner is…
One of the sticking points for any award show is how seriously the actual awards themselves are taken. There are always detractors for any distinction, especially if one disagrees with the merit of the media receiving it, but it always seems exceptionally vitriolic when the conversation takes place around the VGAs. It was funny how that conversation shifted, though, when The Walking Dead received the Game of the Year award in 2012. From a sales and exposure perspective it was certainly a dark horse when compared against Mass Effect 3 or Assassin’s Creed III, two games that met with great critical and commercial acclaim, but it has been a favourite of those within video games media especially as it relates to narrative in games.
It’s not surprising when you consider who judges the awards themselves. For all of the pomp, circumstance and Snoop Lion that is contained within the show, the judges themselves are some of the most decorated and listened to pundits in the industry. People like Wired’s Chris Kohler, Penny Arcade’s Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, Giant Bomb’s Jeff Gerstmann and more are those sitting behind the curtain and making the consensus that determines the winners. These are people whose favourites lists are likely the most propagated in the industry.
So if the winners themselves have merit because the people judging them are the same taste makers that are prevalent within games media in the first place, perhaps it is the format that makes it all seem less attractive. Ian Bogost, a professor a Georgia Tech and game designer quipped on Twitter that night that even the good stuff isn’t done justice when presented this way (referring to the BioShock Infinite presentation). I am inclined to agree, and although I am dipping back into the criticism of the event I think that it demonstrates what could be done differently to make the program itself a better ambassador for the best the industry has to offer. It seems that the right people are operating behind the scenes from a media perspective, although it certainly lacks in industry representation.
With a declining audience and ongoing criticism, perhaps the VGAs will never be the award show that truly celebrates video games for their merit and cultural significance. The whole culture needs to change before something like that would truly be possible, however, as the video game industry either needs to more strongly showcase their talent through their marketing or video game autuers need to have a bigger say in how their personal brand is showcased. There also needs to be a respect for the audience, even those who may only enjoy the major releases and do not have an interest in the people behind the products but have a vested interest in the products themselves. This is the balance that seems to be struck in award ceremonies like the Oscars and although award shows like that are not without their criticism, ultimately they are a celebration by the folks who are within the industry of the accomplishments that have taken place. While the Game Developer Conference may be a place where industry folks meet to celebrate that, it doesn’t feel like an open invitation for the enthusiasts and does not give them an opportunity to share their excitement with the general public.
There feels like a gap because of shows like this. It seems to be geared towards an audience that almost doesn’t exist, which is perhaps an explanation of the declining ratings. If someone doesn’t feel like they have an interest in the properties, then they are not likely to want to see who wins awards for their merit in the year. And if someone does have a serious interest in who is winning, they are probably not going to be impressed by Tenacious D performing in front of a giant, inflatable phallus as the major send off to the gaming year that was 2012.
We should have a place where we can come to celebrate all of the great successes of the past year. A snapshot of what was popular and what is to come in the industry and the people that helped shape it. I could have spent a long time simply writing a commentary about how insane the whole VGA experience was, but I found myself feeling let down by the fact that it seems to be the best we have to offer the general public. The one event I am likely to be able to direct those who do not consider themselves to be video game enthusiasts if they want to see a public spectacle about gaming in 2012. Jamie Love of Gamesugar‘s coverage echoed the loudest part of the whole experience, that the VGAs are more about the trailers to the enthusiast crowd (like a televised E3) rather than a showcase of the best of 2012. A look forward with hope and a marketing opportunity rather than what it could be.