VGA 10: One Step Forward, One Step Back

Despite being a general improvement over last year’s show, Spike & GTTV’s annual Video Game Awards cling tightly to juvenile and damaging stereotypes about gamers and their industry.

Part of the obligatory year’s end retrospective is awards season and when it comes to gaming, for better or worse, part of that season is SpikeTV’s Video Game Awards ceremony. This year’s VGAs were par for the show’s course: bombastic presentation, a few genuinely thrilling reveals, and an overall emphasis of non-gaming celebrity over actual award presentation.

The last of these is perhaps the most overtly pervasive issue with the VGAs. Despite extant and emerging stars within or related to the field, the majority of presenters had tangential or no obvious connection with gaming. How Jessica Alba’s having grown up playing Super Mario Bros. was considered appropriate segue matter for introducing the trailer for Dark Souls II (beyond the perceived need to establish her “gamer cred”) is anyone’s guess. The best explanation I got for Snoop Lion’s presence was “he’s a stoner, just like most gamers.” And I’m still waiting for someone to tell me why Zoe Saldana was handing out the night’s most prestigious award.

Therein lies a troubling trend for the VGAs: at best, they attempt to celebrate gaming while undermining its legitimacy with non-gaming celebrity. At worst, they cater to the most unflattering and juvenile aspects of the industry and perpetuate the worst stereotypes for non-gamers who happen to turn in to see “gaming’s biggest night.” That the show is hosted by Spike — bastion of dudebro and lowbrow entertainment specifically for men — speaks volumes to its shortcomings in catering to a massive, diverse, and ever-changing industry.

Instead of a sleek and professional showcase of evidence against the game-hating likes of Roger Ebert, we’re stuck watching Samuel L. Jackson speak while the censors frantically silence every other word from his mouth. It’s a nonplussing production which simultaneously lauds gaming’s importance on the basis of its ability to compare to its big brother cinema and then celebrates all the reasons that naysayers call that comparison a joke.

Though viewers were mercifully spared the embarrassing debacle that was last year’s backstage “entertainment” (I wonder if Felicia Day has yet recovered from being put through that Fruit Ninja bit) and the tea-bagging “soldier” failed to make a reappearance, there were still plenty of questionable choices. The running “Samuel L. Jackson mode” gag in which Jackson was inserted into various games (primarily for the purpose of cursing and killing people), though it had its moments (notably its lampooning of PSY via Minecraft), was mostly an eye-roller.

As a writer, I’ve learned to pay particular attention to how people begin and conclude their stories. These are the sections of the essay, film, or show that establish the tone we want our audience to carry throughout their experience (the opening) and as they leave it (the conclusion). The VGAs, then, commenced with South Park: The Stick of Truth and a short in which Frodo — one of the most beloved literary characters of all time, according to the video — is brutally bludgeoned to death by Cartman for failing to respect him unquestioningly.

Crude, brutal, and over-the-top: these were the first images of the VGAs, and they led into the introduction of host Samuel L. Jackson amidst a chorus of profanity-laden lines from movies (note: not games) in which he has starred. It’s difficult to say which aspect of Jackson was more emphasized over the course of the two hour show: how cool he is because he’s a movie star, or how cool he is because he likes to say “mothafu**ah.” One or both factored into almost every time the man was on screen.

Jackson’s opening monologue included mention of the show’s live-streaming over Xbox Live — which is nice — but marginalized past Live offerings (like the Mars landing and national election coverage) as uninteresting or boring, suggesting gamers have little interest in science, exploration, or civic duty but plenty interest in badassery and South Park. Later, when introducing (perhaps the show’s non-award highlight) a live orchestral medley, Jackson said “I love movies!” and “Films can be downright epic, and now the same can be said about games.”

That’s it, right there folks. Finally, games are cool like movies. We’ve arrived because someone in movies cares about us.

Incidentally, Journey — which was just nominated for a Grammy for its beautiful score — was alluded to (and in the medley) but not actually named, and in fact the phrasing of the medley’s introduction suggested that it was Assassin’s Creed 3‘s score that had gotten the nod instead (due to the medley’s conduction by Lorne Balfe). That said, the medley itself (and subsequent musical bits throughout the night) was mostly unassailable. Given the show’s tendency to stray far and wide from what gamers actually appreciate, this segment was right on the mark.

Of course, for an awards show, very few actual awards were distributed. Many awards were consolidated into a single announcement — for example, Borderlands 2‘s Best Multiplayer award was nonchalantly mentioned as Randy Pitchford and crew approached the stage to accept Best Shooter. Not counting asides like that, a mere six individual awards were announced over the course of two hours. Most awards were announced on the (untelevised) red carpet. Some weren’t announced until after the show ended, leading some people with wrap-up article deadlines wondering if they’d somehow missed something.

It’s telling that the best moments of the VGAs are the moments the VGA producers had least control over: the acceptance speeches of developers, the pre-rendered “acceptance” speeches of Character of the Year nominees, and the world premiere trailers and gameplay for which most viewers justify tuning in at all.

With two new consoles likely just around the corner, truly new reveals were less common this year than most. A gorgeous if confusing trailer for a game called The Phantom Pain had Hideo Kojima’s fingerprints all over it, and the similarly gorgeous (though pre-rendered) trailer for Dark Souls II legitimately surprised many, more for the venue of announcement than the game’s actual existence.

New trailers for known IPs were also present, with standouts including Castelvania: Lords of Shadow 2, a story trailer with gameplay from Gears of War: Judgment, and an extended live action ad for Metro: Last Light. Mostly, though, we were treated to heretofore unseen footage of games we’re already anticipating, most notably Tomb Raider (introduced by Lara’s new voice and body, and therefore perhaps the most understandable presenter of the night) and the long-and-ever-longer-delayed Bioshock Infinite (which, despite framerate concerns, rekindled some lost faith in the (as of late) mysteriously newsless game).

In an attempt to capture the magic of last year’s Miyamoto appearance, Spike invented a new one-time-only award, the ridiculous “Game of the Decade,” which went to Gabe Newell and Valve for Half-Life 2. No discredit to the recipients, but such a wide-reaching award makes little sense. It’s as if someone took a basket filled with apples, oranges, pears, and bananas and elected a “Best Fruit.” In a field of royalty, it’s rather silly to name a king of kings.

It’s worth noting that this year’s show took steps, if not strides, in the right direction from the headache-inducer that was last year’s VGAs. The show featured greater polish and fewer gimmicks than its predecessor, and had some genuinely strong moments when it actually focused on the games themselves. But we’ve a long ways to go.

The VGAs smack of massive identity crisis and what researcher Henry Jenkins calls “cinema envy.” The awards themselves — voted on by fans — rewarded paradigm-changing games like Journey and rich storytelling as provided by The Walking Dead. But their message — that games are beautiful and powerful and don’t require a hail of bullets and f-bombs to be great — was marginalized. No one at Spike really seemed to care who had won what, and the real surprise is that any awards were handed out live at all. It wouldn’t be too surprising if next year the backstage “second screen” hosts were the only ones announcing winners to make room for another big-name non-gaming celebrity performance for Spike’s ratings.

Meanwhile, Samuel L. Jackson tells viewers that games are important, but only because they’re finally like movies. And if that weren’t bad enough, the show itself denies gaming’s importance by trivializing the people who make games. Aside from the less than five aggregate minutes given to award-winners for actually thanking their fans and talking about their creations, most screen-time was given to people who barely play games, let alone build them.

Singers present at the Grammys, actors and directors present at the Oscars, but at the VGAs instead of developers and voice actors and writers — heck, even gaming PR — we need to borrow the people who make other art to help us celebrate (read: ignore) our own. As the industry’s largest public self-representation, it’s disheartening.

The VGAs began on a note of irreverence and offensiveness that told the world not to take gaming seriously. To conclude, Spike brought out Tenacious D, who sang a song about how no one liked their last album in front of a giant, flame-spouting phoenix-cum-ejaculating phallus. See what I did there? Spike would be proud. I’m just ashamed.

Actually, that kinda describes the whole show.

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