Gaming’s “Game of the Year” Problem

Spike TV’s annual gaming awards show, now called VGX (putting a meaningless X in the title to make it seem “cool” is the least annoying part of the show) aired on Saturday. A quick search online will reveal that the general consensus is that the show was an unbelievably terrible train wreck of unfunny, insulting quips at gaming’s expense and awkward interviews with industry execs so they could sell their latest products.  But I’m not interested in getting into that. One, because you can find many many other people talking about it in great detail and offering a lot of great solutions to try and fix the show elsewhere and, two, because I think the show is a symptom of a larger problem that has created other problems in the game industry.

It doesn't seem so bad paused.

It doesn’t seem so bad paused.

Right now, gaming doesn’t have its Academy Awards. We don’t have our Emmys (television), or our Grammys (music), or our Tonys (Broadway theater). What all of these major awards share is that they are voted on by industry members i.e., the people who create the art, vote on what they think is the best art made that year. While the game industry does have awards like that, the Game Developers Choice Awards for example, they often aren’t marketed to the mainstream populace like the big four media awards are and they don’t make a big impact in the gaming press or community. The one gaming awards show that does get attention, VGX, is voted on by journalists, not members of the gaming industry, and is, also, universally derided for being pandering, insulting, poorly-made, commercialist crap (okay, last time putting down VGX). So if we don’t have a well-regarded award ceremony that people will pay attention to, what do we have?

The statue is a monkey cause that's cool and hip with the kids.  Also pictured: Same Jackson, actually pictured.

The statue is a monkey ’cause that’s cool and hip with the kids. Also pictured: Sam Jackson, actually cool.

Currently, if people are going to be arguing over what was dubbed “game of the year”, it’s because a publication has selected their own “game of the year”. Nearly every gaming website or magazine selects their own “game of the year”. Because we use “game of the year” as if it were an official term like “Academy Award for Best Picture,” the phrase itself as been imbued with a false sense of meaning. The phrase by itself doesn’t have weight to it. “Academy Award for Best Picture” means something because we respect the people who make that decision. Simply saying “game of the year” doesn’t hold that same meaning, yet many treat is as if it does.

As a result of all these different “game of the year” awards, publishers will rerelease popular games, package them with all of their DLC on disc, and brand them as the “Game of the Year Edition”. Games like BorderlandsRed Dead Redemption, and Fallout 3 have all received this treatment, not surprisingly. They’re wildly popular games that did well in sales and with reviewers so a publisher decides to slap a few publications’ names on the back with some nice quotes from them and they can turn a profit. But then you get cases like Dead Island. Even setting aside my own immense hatred for the game, it’s clear that, while popular among many, the reception to Dead Island was not on par with the previously mentioned titles like Red Dead Redemption. Yet, its publisher, Deep Silver, released a “Game of the Year Edition”. Why? Because dubbed the game, their game of the year.

This seriously might be my least favorite game ever.

This seriously might be my least favorite game ever.

Now, I’m not here to say their opinion is any less valid than anyone else’s, I only want to point out the way Deep Silver has used the term “game of the year” for their own benefit, playing off of the gaming community’s deeply instilled, but falsely attributed, reverence for the term. They’re treating the term “game of the year” as if it is inherently instilled with respect, when it isn’t.  We naturally expect movies with Academy Awards to be better in some regard than the average film, and so we expect games marketed as “Game of the Year” to be the best of the best, but their not backed up with the same integrity as the Academy Awards, and so using the term as if it was is misleading.

In Telltale’s first trailer for The Wolf Among Us (a game that I absolutely love), one of the title cards reads “FROM THE MAKERS OF 2012 GAME OF THE YEAR THE WALKING DEAD”. No source or citation, just a statement that The Walking Dead was the best game of 2012. Now, I’m not saying it isn’t, in fact, it’s my personal favorite game of 2012, but if you’re going to be stating an opinion like, “This piece of art is the best that was made during this year,” then you should back it up with a respected source. Dozens of websites and publications named The Walking Dead the best game of the year, why not quote them? No movie would advertise itself as “best movie of the year” without a publication or industry organization to back it up.  Even if they just used a quote from some no-name newspaper that nobody’s ever heard of, making a statement like “best of” without backing it up looks both sad (like you’re the only one who thinks that) and manipulative.

This beautiful screenshot is just to remind you that you should be playing The Wolf Among Us.

This beautiful screenshot is just to remind you that you should be playing The Wolf Among Us.

I’m not a fan of the term “game of the year”. I don’t like the way the industry uses it to sell their products and I don’t like the way many people are beholden to it as if it carried some deeper respect. Without somebody or some organization behind the words, somebody who knows and understands video games as an artistic form, the words don’t mean anything. I really do want gaming to find its own Academy Awards. An award voted on by members of the industry, that will be looked at as a sign of respect like the Best Picture award (for the most part; don’t get me started on Rocky vs. Taxi Driver), and that will draw in an audience that is interested in, not only seeing the developers and creators who make their games, but also to see what those people deem as the best achievements in the art of game design.

And VGX is as far away from that as possible.

– Cam

Check out Blackman’N Robin where my weekly posts go up first and check back every Tuesday for more.  Also, follow me on Twitter at @cam_wade37 for tweets like, “I never know how to format my Twitter handle in a sentence.  Is the @ symbol necessary when I use the word ‘at’ right before it?  It just looks awkward.  Maybe if I italicize it?  Nah, that didn’t work.  Whatever, never mind.”


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