The Game Awards Are at a Crossroads

Between industry politics and Gamergate, the winner is not always so obvious.

In their vying for something to celebrate their favorite hobby, players around the world gather all in unison for one night, to witness the greatest of gaming recognized, and sit through a batch of anticipated announcements along the way. This year’s ceremony however, was quite different, both in tone and scope. It’s not a surprise at this point that the Game Awards — even in their earlier permutations — have always historically paid lip service to the industry rather than providing somewhat of a respectable measure of what games are best in their respective categories, but this year’s in particular felt like it was trying to justify the existence of the awards in a way that almost foreshadows their future–the popular consensus now is that Geoff Keighley uses the show as a glorified ad spot for an industry that is increasingly being perceived as ridden with corporate greed, and it’s only a matter of time until the inevitable collective backlash occurs.

The saving grace for the Game Awards has been the moments of emotional vulnerability we see from developers when their work, no matter how small compared to the litany of blockbuster releases we see throughout the year, is recognized on a global stage and given its due. It’s a nice change of pace from the Emmys, the Oscars, or the Grammys for TV, movies and music respectively, but where these shows are plagued by internal turmoil, the Game Awards represents an opportunity for transcendent works of art to reclaim back a spot in the cultural zeitgeist they might’ve been denied due to the incredible pace at which games seem to be releasing today– the problem however, is that in an industry where consumer satisfaction is so closely intertwined with commercial success, the line between providing a token of excellency based on merit — which is the whole point of an awards show — and gauging audience reaction then calibrating for that from fright of backlash gets really muddy, and it gives Keighley’s show free license to award whomever they want, based on criteria which are known in theory, but can boil down pretty easily to industry politics when examined at a close distance.

These dynamics aren’t entirely foreign to award shows, but they’ve been the main selling point for the Game Awards ever since Geoff Keighley broke free from Spike and decided to go solo. The theory was — at least for bystanders back then — that this was going to decouple the show from the trappings of traditional TV, and allow it to exert independent influence from the whims of an industry that once bet its entire existence on becoming part of the mainstream. Now that video games are mainstream, the calculus for the Game Awards takes on a slightly-different form–what can they do to bring additional value to the gaming apparatus, issues of toxicity withstanding, all-the-while catering to a somewhat consistent measure of what games to prop up during the biggest celebration of the medium throughout the year?

How the Game Awards tackled this, is by playing a very similar playbook of legacy award shows, although with a greater success rate in passing it off as “organic”. For the smaller categories, the choices are usually unorthodox, and reflect the consensus of the professional class–those being cut-cloth game journalists and industry personnel. Medium-importance categories are a mixture of this aforementioned class, and fan response throughout social media as the stakes aren’t high enough for either to place their entire stock of influence behind them. But where things get interesting, is when it comes time to reveal the biggest spoils of all–most-notably, the award for Game of the Year.

This category, in particular, is laced with more intercommunity politics than anyone can realistically fathom. It’s one that has always been in strong contention, and no matter what the choice will be, those left out will feel like they’ve not been pandered to.

A hint of things to come was revealed when Control — a dark horse by all measures — ran away with Game of the Year from IGN, and despite a heartwarming thanks from independent studio Remedy to finally seeing their labor of love awarded the dues it deserved after full eight years of being left out from the conversation since the release of Alan Wake, the response was harsh, and it was met with predictable resentment from Gamergate especially, who saw this as an affront to the majority’s (a notion highly disputable) opinion and a potential sign of collusion from Remedy. If IGN — the biggest trade in gaming news worldwide — couldn’t let an independent editorial decision stick, the Game Awards would surely have a lot to lose from attracting players’ ire, and they indeed chose to go the safe route–awarding the title to Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, a game whose adornment was seen coming a million miles away, given From Software’s present cultural cachet.

This year, more-than-ever, feels like it’s trying to appease the show’s audience rather than breaking the mold. The implications for a From Software game winning the award are huge–it signals that no matter how original an idea you have, the odds of winning an award are only bound by the audience’s receptiveness to it. Control, which won IGN’s own Game of the Year award, and the Critics’ Choice Golden Joysticks award, was seemingly stripped the honor, and awarded the Art Direction category as a consolation prize. Outside a confined space of games media, early buyers, and subsequent comers from good word-of-mouth, Control stands as a perfect example of what happens when “best of the year” is only justifiable insofar as it is a subjective choice, not because it adheres to any cogent standard of excellence that is to be applied indiscriminately across all nomination categories. It meant that critical darlings like Disco Elysium got to sweep the technical categories — where the least backlash could be expected — and everywhere else, the vote was decided by cultural decree.

In an environment dominated by Gamergate, it’s important to set a clear distinction between industry trends that are dictated by the peripheral discourse, and the independent judgement of game journalists — composing the bulk of the voting jury — who more-than-ever feel like they’re trapped under the looming threat of a high-profile content creator putting their choices on blast. Now that the industry has subsumed the Game Awards into its being fully, its picks for who the best are, will start to look less like decorations of painless hard work, and more the culmination of coveted fanfare. That, to say the least, is highly unsustainable.