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If you’re allergic to rampant commercialism, you may have missed the Spike Video Game Awards this weekend. Shot in Las Vegas and covered by a number of major media outlets, the award ceremony was a balls to the wall (and trust me, I rarely use that phrase) extravaganza of hype and consumer hypnosis, which nevertheless promises to do as much for the game industry in moving it toward the mainstream as we could ever hope from a televised awards show.

Unfortunately, however, it will not disprove the theory that videogame makers are dysfunctional, juvenile, pre-adolescent ingrates with severe testosterone imbalances. In typical Spike TV style (I mean, come one, it’s on Spike TV, FFS), the event was full of rock ‘n’ roll, celebrity worship and the glorification of excess. As one colleague put it, it’s hard to be critical of an event willing to fly you to Las Vegas, put you up at the Wynn and roll out the red carpet. Fortunately I wasn’t there, so I can be as critical as I want.

Another theory the VGAs will not disprove is that gamers are suckers for the new, shiny. Our own Executive Editor was selected as a judge for this year’s awards, and in reviewing the list of nominees with her one remarkable fact leapt out at us: Many of the games nominated hadn’t even been commercially released. And the majority of them had only been out a short time.

Granted, this is a busy time for game releases, and as Kyle Orland aptly pointed out in this week’s issue of The Escapist, most games come out this time of year, which, as far as my way of thinking goes, makes it an odd time to offer awards unless one’s intent is merely to add to the marketing glare. (And as far as the VGAs are concerned, I’m not entirely certain it isn’t.) One should hope for a window, or a cut-off point, during which, or after which, games are eligible for review. Or at the very least to not award games that had been on the market for less than a month. Instead, as far as the VGAs are concerned, it would appear any game that’s even been talked about can win an award. I’m surprised Duke Nukem Forever didn’t take home something.

While it’s true game journalists (and the majority of the judges for this year’s events were, in fact, game journalists) often receive their review copies well before a game ships to retail, it just seems somehow seedy that ballots were being passed around – and winners chosen – before anyone could legally purchase some of the games in question. Before some of the review copies had even shipped.

Let’s take Spike’s “Best RPG,” Mass Effect. This is a game that takes roughly 40 hours for the full experience, and while it’s not necessarily necessary to play it for 40 hours to give it a fair review, I would suggest it’s necessary to play it for at least that long in order to call it the “best RPG.” There have been a lot of other RPGs released this year, many of them obscure Japanese titles for the PS2, but they were released this year, and they are RPGs. Is Mass Effect better than all of those games? I don’t know because I didn’t play them, but I’m hoping someone on that panel did, otherwise Mass Effect, while certainly a great game, can’t in all seriousness be called the “best.” “Newest” may be more apt. It was released about two weeks before the awards ceremony.

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Let’s take another one, Rock Band. This game has also been out for about two weeks and was also graced with awards. Two of them, in fact. One of which it almost certainly deserved, the other … I don’t know. Rock Band was awarded “Best Rhythm Game” and “Best Soundtrack,” and the soundtrack award is a gimme. You don’t even have to play the game to know it’s got the best soundtrack ever put in a game. If Forrest Gump can do it on the strength of licensed songs, so can Rock Band. Nuff said, hand over the trophy. Done.

But let’s look at the “Best Rhythm Game” award for a second. There aren’t many, so this was, admittedly, a tough category to judge, but of the rhythm games available this year, all but one were released well before Rock Band, and while I’m willing to give some games the benefit of the doubt and admit the folks doing the judging had their hands on review copies of most of the games up for awards this year well before the games shipped, I can’t buy that with Rock Band.

I know how many folks got review copies of the game, and it wasn’t a large number. I know folks with major connections working at console makers who didn’t get a copy. We didn’t get a copy. I’m willing to bet a good half the judges for this year’s awards didn’t get a copy. And yet, it was nominated. On the strength of what, exactly? A few hours’ play time at E3? I’m sorry, but I just can’t accept that.

I’m sure history will prove them right, and come on, it’s Rock Band, but still. If we’re going to pretend we have ethics and integrity, we should probably act like it and not nominate games we haven’t played for industry awards.

And now on to Super Mario Galaxy . This one earned two awards, “Best Action Game” and “Best Wii Game.” Really? Best action game? I understand 2007 was a shooter-heavy year, but surely there was an action game people could actually play we could have voted for. “Most anticipated Action Game” would be more like it, I think. Or “Most Screenshots Wanked Over by Nintendo Fanboys” perhaps. This one was a shoe-in, not because it was actually a great game, but because it was called “Mario” and we’d been teased with trailers of it for over a year. But, I say this again, the game hadn’t even been released when it was put on the ballots.

If this is the way we’re going to play, we may as well just call Madden ’09 “Best Sports Game” for next year right now and save everyone the trouble of pretending to be involved in the process. Better still, let’s pass the hat around and see who ponies up the most cash before we start handing out awards. It’s what everyone assumes we’re doing anyway. May as well be honest about it.

Anyway, I’m setting my own criteria. I’m giving out The Russ Awards and there will only be one category. And the criteria for this award are the game must have been out for a full year, it must be enjoyable, re-playable and fun. It must have cute characters, a catchy theme song, collectibles and lots of swag to send to me.

These criteria close the door on some of my favorites released this year, like BioShock and Call of Duty 4, but they’ll have their chance next year, as it should be. Therefore, I’d like to proclaim as my game of the year, knowing full well this award will have absolutely no chance to make it onto a product box and will therefore fail to cement my name as one of the “people to watch” or “tastemakers,” and deprive me of a slush fund for another year: Viva Pinata.

Discuss.

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