It’s no secret that gaming as an industry and an artistic medium has long had something of an inferiority complex when it comes to cinema. There appears to be a pervading sense that films are somehow more prestigious, or worthy than their interactive counterparts. I suspect this is largely due to films having been around a lot longer, but that’s beside the point. It does bother me that so many games sacrifice themselves on the altar of being “cinematic”, but that is also not what I want to discuss today.
And so we now have our very own Oscars, the stunningly unimaginatively titled “Game Awards”, I can see the thinking behind this. We want gaming taken seriously, so let’s have a big glamourous awards ceremony to show everyone how important we are. Perhaps a veneer of sophistication is all we need to win the respect of the world at large. Now, while awards ceremonies can be good fun, there is a serious problem here. Blinded by a desire for recognition and respect, no one stopped to ask whether or not we ought to imitate the Oscars at all.
The man behind The Game Awards, Geoff Keighley, is obviously a passionate man. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times he has “longed for the medium to earn the respect of more established art forms such as film or television” since he was a teenager. I completely get that. Games deserve the same respect and are all too often denied it. Look at Roger Ebert’s misleading, and not a little condescending approach for evidence of that. Ebert is wrong. But I don’t think a copycat awards show will help our case.
And so we come to that wretched hive of scum and villainy, the Academy Awards. I’ve probably given the game away with that description, but never mind. Why do I think we ought to avoid pushing for a gaming equivalent? The question we must ask at this point is what exactly are the Oscars? A celebration of excellence in cinema? That may be what they are for some people, but I have my doubts. I don’t see how the Oscars are anything other than an elitist, self-aggrandizing, marketing tool. Strip away the gold paint, and there is very little left to see.
Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way first. The Oscars do not and have never been purely about quality cinema. Money talks and executive types in TV and film seem happy to let it shout them down. An average Oscar “campaign”, which includes lobbying and advertising for a film, costs around $10 million. That narrows things down considerably as far as independent or smaller studio stuff goes. I also feel duty-bound to point out that until very recently the average Oscar voting panel was 73 % male and 94% white. Their average age, 63. There’s not really anything inherently wrong with that, but when you claim to be passing a definitive judgment on an entire artistic medium, a little diversity might be nice.
Let’s return to the important question. What are the Oscars? Well, let me put on my most cynical trousers and tell you that they are nothing more than a toilet-tissue thin facade. A veneer of ceremony and prestige over a shamelessly indulgent effort to make even more money for the film industry elite. Another meaningless accolade a producer can dangle in front of the cinema-going public in order to sell a few more tickets on opening weekend.
Unfortunately, The Game Awards have not learned from this example. Take a look down a list of the previous game of the year winners and you will notice a conspicuous absence of anything outside the AAA or mainstream sector. Return of the Obra Dinn (2018) and Undertale (2015) losing out to God of War and The Witcher 3 respectively is a travesty and I will not be convinced otherwise. It’s Mel Gibson’s Braveheart winning best picture all over again. Incidentally, it was around that time I think human culture went into decline.
But let’s not dwell on the politics. Most people are aware that the Oscars aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. There is a more insidious evil at work here, one which threatens artistic expression itself. We return the final time to that all-important question. What are the Oscars? Other than all the things listed above. They are a competition. There are judges, prizes, winners, and losers, all things that don’t belong anywhere near art, or criticism of it.
That may seem a bold statement but I stand by it. A film (or a game) is an artistic expression. It is an attempt by the artist or artists to convey an idea, a message, or an emotion that is necessarily personal and unique to them, by virtue of how it is expressed. This being the case, declaring any one work the definitive “best” for a given year is nonsensical. It is not possible to rank individual expressions of entirely different ideas and concepts above or below one another. In most cases, individual works are beyond comparison.
The Oscars completely recontextualize the framework within which art is created. It imposes a normative structure onto the creative process. By its very existence, the Oscar for Best Picture suggests a kind of ideal or blueprint for an objectively high-quality film. This is anathema to the foundations of artistic endeavour. Art is about freedom, possibility, and creativity. Not marching in lockstep with what a cabal of pretentious old men think makes for a good watch.
There is good evidence for the reality of this phenomenon. First, we have the fact that the term “Oscar Bait” even exists. Oscar-winning films typically have a very similar feel. Research has shown that they tend to be historical, biographical, and include elements such as war crimes or, of course, show business itself. Secondly, it is actually possible to predict Oscar wins with 77% accuracy, which to me indicates a decidedly formulaic nature on the part of the winners.
My worry is that we are already seeing this happen to games. It may only be the thin end of the wedge, but I can feel its presence. I won’t name any names here, but there is an increasing number of games that I feel are being developed first in order to win acclaim, and only secondarily in order to say or discuss anything of any real worth, something I think films have been doing for years. A lot of big Oscar winners are forgotten instantly. They may have been “critically acclaimed” but achieved very little beyond that. They had no identity or message that resonated with anyone. Shakespeare in Love, Crash, and The Artist, to name but three.
In chasing the film industry down a rabbit hole of recognition and prestige we are at risk of losing something much greater. Games are art and as such should not be subject to the trial by combat that is the Oscars or The Game Awards. We can achieve so much more without strutting about on a stage telling people how clever and important we are. Making clever and important games is all we need to do. Games free of the creative tyranny I fear The Game Awards will usher in.
Always ready for a bit of a ramble. People have even been known to listen on occasion.