The Game Awards: All Spectacle and No Substance?

Legitimacy is becoming harder to assert as the industry remains all-too-powerful.

The gaming industry is now bigger than it’s ever been–as of 2019, it was worth more than music and film combined, making it the most lucrative player in entertainment. It was then only a matter of time before the spectacle of the Oscars and Grammys would find itself an analogue in the gaming space–with its seventh iteration now however, the industry’s commercial interests are making themselves more loudly-known, leaving players ever-reticent to fully embrace the ceremony as a genuine display of what gaming has best to offer.

This is ironic considering that the show’s spiritual predecessor — the Spike Video Game Awards —was more of an interesting relic of media anthropology than it ever was a serious player in the critical space. It is comical the degree to which celebrity appearances played a greater role in the awards than the games themselves, but such was the state of games media in the early aughts. By 2013 and after Geoff Keighley’s untimely departure from Spike TV, he had ambitions of freeing the show from the confines of traditional media, hosting it on players’ natural habitat, which was and still is the internet–the transition to digital was smooth enough, but not without its curses to follow.

With further reliance on online media’s dodgy economy, came inevitably the intermingling with various brands, game publishers and console manufacturers in order to sustain the show’s semi-independent nature away from the moguls of legacy media. This meant that in order to preserve the Game Awards’ status as gaming’s biggest night of the year, industry politics started playing a more prominent role in the show’s procedure–even as the popular vote constitutes a measly 10% of the overall decision count, the liability of any ill-advised pick mainly befalls the press, and in the era of Gamergate-led industry commentary, there’s pressure on all parties to go with the picks that upset the least rather than vote for what they deem is truly best.

That gaming outlets want to simultaneously decide the winner and divest themselves of as much involvement in the process as possible is an unintended consequence of the medium’s relative youth–because the industry has yet to form bodies capable of independently deciding which games were the year’s most-remarkable without significant inside or outside pressures, Keighley’s clandestine effort has to rely on gaming media, of which its bulk has yet to rise above the status of a glorified purchase guide. Outlets doing the sort of analytical work that an independent jury could conceivably rely on to make sound picks are few and far between, and the insistence on a quantitative rating further underscores the massive rift that exists between film, theater and music criticism and its gaming counterpart–the latter is young and has yet to forge a concrete identity, while the formers have centuries-long established legacies with little to cast doubt on their judgement.

The above statement might sound weird given that the Oscars and Grammys don’t fare that much better, but the key difference between them and the Game Awards is that the latter likes to impart upon a pretense of editorial independence while clearly failing the standards of which it laments the comparisons to. The Last of Us Part II’s win on Thursday night was a great example of this–despite being highly divisive among critics and players alike, the title still earned its GOTY title in what seems like yet another attempt of grasping at the prestige of film without fully giving in to the medium’s own strengths, which made it the cultural juggernaut that it is today. This signals to whomever wants to make a GOTY pick to just overinvest in cinematics and slick presentation with a half-decent gameplay, undermining the importance of the risk-taking and boundary-breaking that video games are in dire need of today.

There’s been in film history this concept of Oscar bait, where filmmakers try to hit upon cues that the Academy responds to best in the hopes of scoring a win, and well… we’re firmly in the territory of TGA bait if recent ceremonies are anything to go by. It seems that all but the most ambitious and expensive games of our time have even a chance of nabbing the GOTY award, with Naughty Dog solidifying that status by winning ‘Best Direction’ despite putting its employees through crunch hell to release the game earlier this summer, and if not, awards are merely won on popular decree (like in the case of Among Us, which wasn’t even released this year)–simply put, where TGA heads is where the zeitgeist already is, and any potential to exercise its own influence on culture is thrown completely out the window.

Because the Game Awards are following trends rather than setting them, they’ve automatically subscribed themselves to the theory that whichever is most popular and resonant must be the most artistically potent, but owing to the subjectivity of such an assessment, it is hard to indict TGA’s jury for voting in a populist manner–however, it shouldn’t be out-of-bounds to question the very motives of conforming such a basic view of evaluating art and literature, especially when those are so deeply intertwined with the corporate machinations of the gaming industry.

I’m stopping shy of saying that TGA are bought out by game companies, but at this point, all anecdotal evidence seems to point towards a mutually-lucrative relationship between both parties at the very least, if indirect on the surface–it isn’t a coincidence that storefronts across console and PC are boasting deals courtesy of the event, and it would be folly to deny that TGA’s profile has circled back to the VGA’s deeply-capitalistic roots, much to its chagrin.