Criticism, if it’s good, is constructive. If criticism points out something that isn’t working, that criticism makes it clear why something isn’t working. Creators can then draw from that criticism and try to alleviate the problem. Good criticism should be more about the work being criticized and less about the person leveling the criticism. Criticism of the Spike TV Video Game Awards, on the other hand, has taught me more about the people making the criticism.
Too much of the response to the VGAs by critics of the event falls under the category of concern trolling, i.e. wrapping a set of attacks in the guise of wanting to make someone or something better. Complaints about the VGAs usually invoke video game developers not being treated with respect, and/or the VGAs not taking the awards seriously, and then degenerate into the snarky fare favored by so many who write about video games.
While I believe responses along these lines are completely honest reactions to watching the VGAs, they are disingenuous to me as criticism if the voices behind these responses don’t promote the legitimate video game awards like the Game Developers Choice Awards handed out at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, or the Interactive Achievement Awards given out at the DICE summit in Las Vegas. Those are video game awards given from developers to developers, versus being handed out by a television network after an “advisory council” of consumer-facing games journos and a pair of webcomic creators decide who the nominees are. Surely if someone’s concern is lack of respect for video game developers at an award show, that critic would also do their best to direct their audiences towards an example of how award shows ought to be run.
Complaints about the VGAs are also made in ignorance as to the realities of broadcast television. Putting on an awards show is not cheap, and someone has to foot that bill. Networks won’t sink their money into financing an awards show unless that awards show is going to make them money. Television makes money by selling the ad space that runs during the commercial breaks. No one will be watching the program to see those commercial breaks unless the programming plays to the network’s audience. When critics of the VGAs suggest that Spike TV make changes to the awards show which would make the program less palatable to Spike TV’s audience, they’re essentially recommending that the network throw money away just to please a few vocal, pissed off writers who cover the video game beat. That’s not criticism that Spike TV can act upon.
Many of those suggested changes also have to do with asking Spike TV to represent the video game audience in a certain light, versus leaning so heavily on the stereotypes that have plagued the video game industry for years, but it’s not the job of a cable network to change anyone’s perception of video game fans. The picture of the video game player that the Video Game Awards paint for anyone analyzing them with the intent of putting that picture together (which is probably a ridiculous proposition – I doubt any cultural critics are paying attention to the VGAs at all), is such a patently false stereotype as to be laughable. Can’t we grow up just a little and get past this?
Or to put it another way: Do you, dear reader, feel like the average person at your workplace watched the VGAs and, knowing that you play video games, is now looking at you with less respect or increased scorn as a result of having watched them? No? Me either. That’s why I won’t lose my mind over some perception that the VGAs might create for whoever the hell watched them.
Recognize that the choice may be between having the only nationally-televised video game awards show hosted on Spike TV, which regrettably does pander to a lowbrow audience and which will therefore dictate a lowbrow Video Game Awards show, or having no nationally-televised video game awards show at all. Given that choice, and thinking about what’s best for the video game industry, I’ll choose the VGAs every time. They are a step in the right direction in what will be a very long process of video games going mainstream, and the impatience for this inevitable process is a little immature and very tiresome.
Ten years ago, the idea of a nationally-televised video game award show might have sounded a bit strange. Twenty years ago, the idea would have been ludicrous. Thirty years ago, the response to such a proposition might have been “What’s a video game?” Be patient. It won’t be too long before a show like the Spike TV Video Game Awards ceases to be a viable economic property solely on account of the diversification of those who play video games, but the VGAs at least will continue keeping the idea in the television industry’s head that such an awards show is, at the very least, not just a silly idea.
Think about what the kind of knee-jerk criticism that gets levied at the Spike TV Video Game Awards looks like to an outside observer. Do we, the people who really love video games and want to see them treated with respect, want to paint ourselves as a bunch of argumentative, reactionary people who are out of touch with reality and riddled with a bloated sense of self-importance? Would you want to engage with people like that, all other information about said people absent from your observation? Does that help video games take their rightful place in the pantheon of “normal” media?
Criticizing the Spike TV Video Game Awards for grasping at low-hanging fruit, and then writing criticism of the event that also reads like a grab at low-hanging fruit neuters that criticism and renders it impotent. Knocking something down is child’s play. Building something up is much more difficult. Video game journalists who dislike the VGAs can help pave the way for a different kind of televised video game awards show without bashing anything or anyone.
If we want video game developers to be respected figures who deserve some time on stage to accept awards that are meaningful representations of quality of craft, and if we want this sort of programming to be economically viable, it’s the job of video game journalists to make those developers interesting. People like David Jaffe, Cliff Bleszinski and Ken Levine make that job easy because they are outspoken, charismatic, and interesting. The job of a good journalist, at least as I understand it, is to find the angles to make anyone interesting.
If video game journalists are really concerned about a lack of serious video game awards coverage, there are things they can do to help set the stage for making that serious coverage possible. If they don’t, perhaps that’s because those journalists are facing the same, difficult choice that the producers of a video game awards show in the present day face: trying to take material which on its surface is informative and dry, and turning it into something entertaining.
First Person is a weekly column by Boston, MA-based freelancer Dennis Scimeca. You can read some of his other musings on his blog punchingsnakes.com, or follow his random excitations on Twitter: @DennisScimeca.