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The Spike TV Video Game Awards Identity Crisis

This year was the tenth anniversary of the annual Spike TV Video Game Awards (VGA’s), and by many accounts it continued the show’s slow but steady incline of iterative yearly improvements. Noteworthy positives included orchestral performances of a selection of the year’s best videogame scores, the wise decision to reflect the stature that smaller and independent games now hold within the industry by recognising The Walking Dead and Journey in more than just the Best Downloadable Game category, and a reduction in (sadly not abolishment of) the number of crass jokes about the ridiculousness of gaming.

Despite such progress, however, a number of persisting issues returned to tarnish what is the most mainstream videogame awards show, disconnecting it from the very industry it is supposed to be celebrating.

The most glaringly obvious problem was the lack of presence that actual videogame creators had on the show floor. Their on-screen time was minimal, with more focus instead being given to celebrities from other entertainment mediums. Tenacious D, Linkin Park, Snoop Lion, Jessica Alba and Zoe Saldana all took to the stage to present and/or perform, and whilst each of them did a fine job, not a single one is best known for their direct affiliation with the videogame industry. It begs the question of why more videogame creators from within the industry weren’t handing out these awards. Peer to peer is how it works at the Oscars and the Grammys, so why not the VGA’s?

Maybe, as I’ve read some people argue over the past few years, the show’s organisers believe that videogame makers are inherently less charismatic due to the less public-facing nature of their profession. But whilst it’s undeniable that game designers aren’t theatrical performers, the assertion that there aren’t any game developers comfortable with speaking in public simply isn’t true. What about the Tim Schafer’s, David Jaffe’s or Cliff Blezinski’s of the world? The closest the 2012 VGA’s got to this was Ken Levine giving an on-stage introduction of the new Bioshock Infinite trailer, and he was confident, clear and intelligent, exactly the sort of relevant industry figurehead that deserves a greater presence at this show.

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There’s also the argument that the VGA’s, being a production of Spike TV, a subsidiary of MTV Networks, were initially created for viewing figures and ultimately advertisement money, and considering that the videogame industry’s developmental community doesn’t have any truly mainstream celebrities as of yet, they needed some big names to draw an audience.

It’s undeniably true that the VGA’s exists to make money, and I can understand the relevance of the celebrity draw during the show’s initial few years when it was relatively unknown. But on its tenth anniversary it’s now a well-established event with a built in audience from one of the biggest entertainment mediums on the planet. The fact that so many big name developers now use the show as a forum through which to debut trailers is indicative of this popularity the show has accrued with its intended audience. This year saw the announcement of Dark Souls 2 and The Phantom Pain (or Metal Gear Solid 5 depending upon your philosophical slant), as well as new media for South Park: The Stick of Truth, Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us. The industry clearly thinks of the VGA’s as a great method of communicating with the game-savvy consumer, but this isn’t yet fully reflected in the fractured make-up of the show.

What little time was dedicated to the award-winners mostly came in the form of acceptance speeches. As in previous years, only six of the twenty four awards were televised during the hour and a half show time, with the rest being handed out during a companion backstage stream or an un-televised pre-show red carpet event. All in all the amount of time dedicated to the handing out of awards was dwarfed by the amount spent on random comedic skits and advertisements.

It’s a frustrating set up, because, when the focus was on the games, there were some insightful, entertaining and respectful moments that stood out in stark contrast to the celebrity showboating. Gustavo Santaliea, composer of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us giving a musical introduction to a somber new trailer, and an amazing acceptance speech from Journey designer Robin Hunicke were two such stand-outs. I couldn’t help but wish that every second of the show was like that, and wasn’t instead punctuated by performances from the likes of Snoop Lion.

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Exasperating these issues is the fact that there’s still a modicum of mockery inbuilt into the show about the very industry it is supposed to be celebrating. There’s clearly a level of immaturity perceived to be ubiquitous amongst the intended audience by the show’s creators, demonstrated this year by the fact that host Samuel L Jackson’s script writer felt the need to shoehorn the words “Badass” and “Motherfucker” into each of his Samuel L Jackson-becomes-a-character-inside-a-popular-videogame sketches.

Admittedly, this year’s VGA’s had nowhere near as many videogamer deprecating jokes as previous shows have, and I’m not suggesting that it should become some kind of Downton Abbey style dour starched-collar affair. But I am baffled as to why a show would belittle its intended audience by deriving laughs from the mockery of the very people it is trying to appeal to, as it still sometimes does.

Despite all of my complaining, the 2012 VGA’s were definitely a marked improvement, but I feel they still have a long way to go. It’s the closest thing that videogame’s have to a mainstream awards ceremony, and in its current incarnation it paints a false picture of the modern industry by favouring appearances from mainstream celebrities over the human beings who actually make the games. It’s for this reason that I want them to improve. Is there really a need to place so much emphasis upon those unrelated Hollywoodites anymore? I find it hard to believe that the VGA’s wouldn’t draw a substantial audience without the presence of non-gaming famous folk, and even harder to think that there aren’t any suitable or willing industry relevant presenters who could fill their boots.

This doesn’t happen at other awards shows. The Oscars are unmistakably about the people that create films, the Grammys about the people who create music. But the VGA’s? Well, they’re not entirely sure yet. They’re split between the Jekyll of being a truly mature celebration of the best creative, artistic and technical achievements in a cutting edge entertainment industry and the Hyde of being a celebrity fuelled drive for viewer ratings that happens to feature games. The numerous visible improvements this year indicate that there’s an aspiration from the shows creators to transition towards the former, but the recurring issues sourly reminded of the latter.

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in April 2012. Get in touch on Twitter @matski53.

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