This weekend’s VGX (the Spike TV Video Game awards show with special guest, the letter X) was a new high in the ongoing television pursuit of alienating video game players. Most years, I tuned in to see what won and see what absurd, alienating thing would happen that year. I cannot say I ever watched it for the game trailers—I’ve got other outlets that I go to for that kind of in-bed-with-industry journalism and advertising.
In case you missed it. You can watch all three miserable hours here. It was hosted by Joe McHale (from The Soup) and a Bag of Doritos. Rather than a theatre or theatre-like venue, it happened in a bizarre, steampunk studio with a car, a couch, and a balcony. Both hosts were either reading from a script that was uncomfortable at best or poorly speaking extemporaneously. Representatives from games studios occasionally showed up on the couch to awkwardly converse about their new projects with the hosts. Awards winners walked in from behind the cameraperson, whose last job was the Blair Witch Project, to stand with their little black award statue.
This year’s show happened to coincide with other events in the world of games this weekend and in my life, which I’ll detail later, that made it particularly reprehensible. But, before I get there, I think a little historical perspective is in order.
A Brief History of Timocracy
Spike TV hosted the first VGAs in 2003. David Spade was the host, Lil’ Kim and DMX were there, and there, uhm, was a WWE tag team wresting match too. It had some strange categories, such as “Most Anticipated” and “Best Fantasy Game.” A year later, Snoop Lion hosted and BloodRayne, the main character of BloodRayne 2, won “Cyber Vixen of the Year,” the title most coveted by the fictional creations of a sexist video game industry. “Best Military Game” was introduced to differentiate military-themed games from the Sci-Fi shooters that populated the “Best First Person Action” category.
In 2007, with Samuel L. Jackson hosting, the “Best Shooter” category appeared for the first time, and that sexist “Cyber Vixen” shit finally went away for good. Also in 2007, the VGAs had “Best of” categories for the consoles, ending the long othering of PC and handheld games. The next year we saw the “Best Independent Game” for the first time—I should mention, for Doritos’ sake, “Best Independent Game” was “Fueld [sic] by Dew.” “Most Anticipated Game” appeared, relatively recently, in 2011.
As far as I can tell, the winners and nominees for each category have always been chosen by an “advisory board” of editors from prominent video games journalism/criticism outlets, with the exception of the few viewers’ choice awards, such as “NFL Blitz Cover Athlete” and “Character of the Year.” (Please leave me a comment if you have found a list of all the past VGAs boards of judges!) This year’s advisory board was made of a similar mix of prominent editors of video game publications, a dickwolf, and a Bag of Doritos:
- Geoff Keighley (Host / Executive Producer, SPIKETV)
- Darren Franich (Staff Writer, Entertainment Weekly)
- Andy McNamara (Editor in Chief, Game Informer Magazine)
- Ludwig Kietzmann (Editor in Chief, Joystiq)
- Tal Blevins (VP Games Content, IGN Entertainment)
- Shane Satterfield (Editor in Chief, GameTrailers)
- Jeremy Parish (Editor in Chief, 1UP.com)
- Chris Kohler (Games Editor, Wired.com)
- Francesca Reyes (Editor in Chief, Official Xbox Magazine)
- Justin Calvert (Executive Editor, Gamespot)
- Dale North (Editor in Chief, Destructoid)
- Mike Snider (Entertainment Reporter, USA Today)
- Jeff Gerstmann (Editor in Chief, Giant Bomb)
- Jerry Holkins (Co-Creator, Penny Arcade)
- Mike Krahulik (Co-Creator, Penny Arcade)
- Ben Silverman (Yahoo Games)
- Chris Slate (Editor-In-Chief, Nintendo Power Magazine)
- Sophia Tong (Editor in Chief, GamesRadar)
- Logan Decker (Editor in Chief, PC Gamer)
- Lou Kesten (AP)
- Chris Grant (Editor, Polygon.com)
- Brian Crecente (News Editor, Polygon.com)
- Russ Frushtick (Senior Editor, Polygon.com)
- Stephen Totilo (Editor-In-Chief, Kotaku.com)
- Tina Amini (Coordinating Editor, Kotaku.com)
To my mind, this advisory board begs the question that there is no appreciable line between journalist, critic, and Bag of Doritos. Although, with a few notable exceptions, this mix of journalists, critics, dickwolf, and Doritos did a decent job of selecting award-worthy games, this kind of hand-picked set of judges establishes the VGAs as a certain kind of awards. But, it also presupposes that the highest level of respect for games journalists and games critics can aim for is the level populated by Bags of Doritos and dickwolves. And, it takes an out of touch corporation to make a Bag of Doritos the executive producer; however, it takes a Bag of Doritos to put dickwolves on the advisory board instead of Ben Kuchera.
And, to be honest, none of the previous VGA shows were great. There has been plenty of on-point criticism for the previous VGAs. In 2010, Jeff Green said the show is not about honoring award winners, but about honoring men and commercials. In 2011, Alex Navarro suggested that the VGA exclusives are a Bag of Doritos’ hoard of “delicious, exclusive acorns”—by the way, sorry for mixing that metaphor, also nothing’s changed. That same year, Jason Schreier wrote an open letter to Spike TV criticizing their representation of the gamer community and their choice to not demonstrate the cultural significance of games. And, I don’t think I need to say how timelessly sexist the “Cyber Vixen” awards were.
This year’s VGX met with biting criticism as well. Samantha Allen justly pointed out how tasteless and insensitive Joe McHale’s transphobic comments were. Simon Parkin read it and argued the term “gamer” gives rise to these kinds of comments that education can solve. Aran Suddi took issue with the representation of gamers in general. Truthtellah, at Giantbomb (one of the advisory board member institutions), posted a mostly satirical take on why the letter X appeared as special guest. David Hinkle and Xav De Matos, at Joystiq (another advisory board member institution) liveblogged a moment by moment observation of the tragic awkwardness and multiple failures of the night. Finally, Owen Good, at Kotaku (also an advisory board member institution) observed that “gamers care more about the VGX than the show did.” Seems like there is a lot of criticism coming from writers at the same publications that are on the advisory board…
Strange that a publication like Polygon hasn’t been on the criticism bandwagon. Brian Crecente (literally on the advisory board) wrote a veritable press release for the VGX rebranding. But, I suppose Crecente deserves some credit for getting Casey Patterson to expose how involved Viacom is in the rebranding.
A Certain Kind of Awards
And that’s just it. It’s a certain kind of awards show: a Viacom kind of awards show. Let’s do some comparison.
At the Oscars, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a group composed of Oscar nominees and significant contributors to film, comprising 17 “branches” of film production, select nominees and award winners via secret ballot. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was conceived over dinner in 1927 and a second dinner a week later created the founding group, containing some of the most respected names in film production. We’re mostly familiar with what their award categories look like: “Best Actor in a Leading Role,” “Best Actress in a Leading Role,” “Best Makeup and Hairstyling,” “Best Production Design,” “Best Original Song,” etc. Suffice it to say, these categories are about people first and product second. Where the product is the subject of the award, for example “Best Picture,” it broken by only the largest of generic constraints: Animated or not, Documentary or not, Musical or not.
The SAG awards are given annually by the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, a labor union representing some 160,000 actors and behind the scenes employees in radio, television, and film. Two randomly chosen committees of 2,100 people each nominate people, and then all dues paying members can vote for winners. Again, we’re mostly familiar with the categories (“Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role,” “Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series,” “Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Television Movie or Miniseries”); they are about people first. Where generic constraints enter into the category it is by the constraint they place on the performance, i.e., the type of job the person does.
The MTV Video Music Awards are given annually by a group of hand-picked people. The VMAs offer categories based industry retail genres, hip-hop, pop, rock. Moreover, the categories mix people and product with little distinction between them:
- Justin Timberlake (person)—“Mirrors” (product) won Video of the Year;
- Robin Thicke, featuring T.I. and Pharrell (three separate people)—“Blurred Lines” (product) won Best Male Video (a video with a penis and/or an inexplicable and sense of biological superiority?);
- Austin Mahone (person)—“What About Love” (product) won Artist to Watch (a comically obtuse award for celebrity culture and panopticism?).
The Spike TV VGX Awards are given annually by a group of hand-picked people. The categories are broken along industry retail genres mixed with technological exclusivity (“Best Fighting Game,” “Best Nintendo Game,” “Best Handheld Game”), and they recognize people as voices alone (“Best Voice Actress”).
See what I’m getting at? Spike TV’s Video Game Awards portray video games in the same celebrity culture spotlight that MTV’s Video Music Awards do. Except they do not recognize the person, ten people, or hundreds of people who put hard work and absurd amounts of time into creating that honored celebrity product. They reduce the entirety of video games writing to a single character. They maintain the, now silly, industry retail genres, relegating games that challenge this generic status quo to “Best Independent Game” and “Best PS3 Game.” Rather than doing the work of watching the credits on video games, the award goes to the game.
I’d say that it’s strange to watch a Bag of Doritos have such unbridled fandom for the executives of the gaming industry and then give awards to their products, but it’s the modus operandi for Viacom awards shows. This same dynamic happens at the VMAs, where we’re sold pop culture celebrities, except, apparently Viacom has decided that video game developers won’t work as celebrities (because gamers don’t know who Kojima and Blow are?).
This Year is Not Most Years
Let’s let Spike TV have the VMAs of video game awards. The rest of us deserve a real awards ceremony for the developers.
If this were any other year, I wouldn’t be an editor for the Journal of Games Criticism, and I would’ve talked venomously about VGX at the bar for a week and dropped it. I wouldn’t be aware that there’s a community of exceptional video game critics that are better suited to take on the Spike TV establishment than ever before.
If these VGAs were any other weekend, they wouldn’t have coincided with Zoya Street’s effort to start a games criticism event:
I think we need a games criticism event. Do you agree? Then put your name to it here: https://t.co/Q0KQiqJ3a6
— Zoyə Street (@rupazero) December 9, 2013
Viacom, there is a community of funny, knowledgeable, presentable people writing and talking about video games. But, I don’t actually want Viacom to have any part in connecting video games with credibility/recognition. I’d rather see it come from a professional organization partnering with an industry association or television studio, like the Academy Awards does. And that still wouldn’t be entirely satisfying: It would be a video games award ceremony masquerading as a film awards ceremony.
The Game Developers Conference hosts the Game Developers Choice Awards. It’s the less televised and more reputable alternative to Spike TV’s VGX. It’s judged by an invitation only group, and nominations come from professional game developers. Although its categories still grant awards to games, buried in the rules section are rules for how awards are attributed to people, so the capacity for a video game awards ceremony about people is there already.
What’s not there is television. With Viacom having had 10 years to parade around video games as curios of popular culture, it’s time for competition. I imagine, that with the Entertainment Software Association’s help, the Game Developers Choice Awards could be that competition.