Spike VGAs: Celebration or Ghettoization?

Curator's Note

Since 2003, the Spike TV Video Game Awards (VGAs) have aired every December to the collected groans of most gamers, despite their emphasis on the hardcore gaming market of males aged 18-49. While there are many prestigious video game awards ceremonies, including the GDC Awards and the AIAS Awards, only Spike's VGAs are televised and have a presence in popular culture. Many game critics complain that the VGAs exist simply as an excuse to sell advertising space to corporate sponsors and game marketers looking to get their next big hit recognized by their core demographic; while I do not disagree with these critics, I suggest the VGAs perform a larger disservice to the games industry.

There is little arguing that the VGAs do not resemble a two-hour commercial, complete with spectacle (the latest ceremony boasted augmented reality), cheesy humor (bad jokes abound), and a multitude of inappropriate appearances from celebrities native to other media (why does the cast of Jersey Shore present an award?). Ironically, even when celebrating independently developed games, Spike sells the naming rights to the award: Best Independent Game Fueled by Mountain Dew?

However, the problem with the VGAs is not that they sacrifice integrity and authentic accolades for advertising and capitalism (the gaming industry is an industry after all), but that they perpetuate the position of video games in culture as first, a medium subordinate to film and television, and second, as a medium dedicated to the same demographic as Spike itself, a demographic entangled with hegemonic masculinity. 

Whether Spike wants to admit it or not, the VGAs are another key access point for the public into the culture and identity of video games. The emphasis on other media and the continued use of problematic gender tropes might be right for the Spike audience, but as the only televised gaming awards ceremony, the Spike VGAs paint the industry as the same immature, misogynistic, boy’s club it has been popularly known as for decades.

But are these criticisms too hasty? Does Spike owe the industry anything more than face time with a willing audience? Should critics expect the ceremony to be the Oscars when its closest cousin is really the Teen Choice Awards? Should media awards be about entertainment or recognition? Moreover, in what ways can an awards ceremony overcome the same pitfalls of the industry it represents?    



Thanks for the post, John--I'm thrilled you are discussing the video game industry and hierarchies of power within the media industries.  Ebert has brought a lot of attention to the debate about games as a narrative and visual art form, and I heartily agree that the packaging of this awards program on Spike reinforces problematic assumptions that are implicit in Ebert's claims.  I'm also really interested in the gendering of gaming and the corollary gendering of the audience for the VGAs.

But I can't stop thinking about WHY awards programs need to be televised.  This question seems particularly significant with regards to a new-ish industry like video games.  Did the Oscars play a role in legitimizing the film industry?  Pulling from Kyle's post yesterday--which discussed lesser-known artists promoted by the Grammys--doesn't the Grammys also validate artists perceived to be "less than"?  Is part of the purpose of any televised awards ceremony the repeated and insistent claim to value, especially for upstart media industries still striving for recognition of their aesthetics and depth?

Sure, the VGAs participate in a masculinist discourse, but they also demand a recognition of worth.  Does that need override the other concerns?

John, thanks for bringing the Video Game Awards into this conversation. I'm most interested in the VGAs as proof positive of the video game's inferiority complex in relation to the film and television industries. Earlier on, the lack of narrative in video games was a clear difference. These days games with sophisticated narratives are much closer to film and TV (note all the movie-style trailers circulating with game releases as one example). In some cases, they far surpass film and TV in terms of narrative complexity.

We could read the Spike VGAs as stacking the pop culture deck with an odd assortment of celebrities for cross-promotional purposes (Tyson putting The Jersey Shore cast in its place!). And by the way, who is Spike's parent company? I'm sympathetic to the notion that the show might reflect an unwillingness to rely on video games to make for exciting TV -- and for gamers to be reliable award show viewers. In other words, this could be bet hedging as much as cross promotion. If this is the case, and with the cultural power of video games at present, why hedge? This leads me back to a version of my question from yesterday: How do you best represent video games as an experience or an industry on television?

John, I absolutely agree about the problematic ways in which the VGAs portray the gaming industry (and gamers), and have long avoided the ceremony (outside of following those livetweeting or posting on NeoGAF about it to get a sense of its perversions).

In regards to video game awards in general, I'm wondering whether the problem is the fact that the video game industry does not have a star system which naturally expands the audience for the awards beyond those who actually play the games. While laypeople know the names of major franchises and corporations active in the industry, they don't know the people. A star system exists among gaming fans, with figures like Cliffy B or Miyamoto gaining cult status, but the VGAs rely on presenters (like the Jersey Shore cast) to try to pitch this as a pop culture "event" when the people being rewarded are not known within the pop culture consciousness. It's gaming as refracted through culture, rather than a celebration of gaming culture, which is why the "Voiceover in a game" categories are so prominent (and so loaded with celebrities).

Considering how difficult it would be to quantify the value to nominated and winning games, and considering how reductive the awards are, I'm reticent to the idea that we're being too hasty. However, at the same time, the big game companies are getting a great platform to preview their big Fall titles (like Uncharted 3) to a captive audience, and Spike has a valuable tool for convincing advertisers that they're the home of the "18-49yo males with disposable income" audience that is perhaps more lucrative the more reductive it becomes, so I think we might be gritting out teeth for years to come.

Karen, you are correct when you surmise that other than commercial reasons, the VGAs exist in order to lend some legitimacy to a medium historically maligned by mainstream media and popular knowledge.  Even watching contemporary news pieces on games, they are continually referred to as a child's pastime despite the average age of a gameplayer being somewhere nearer 35.  And while I would be the first to argue against Ebert's assertion that "games can never be art," some games are best discussed as products or services rather than artistic endeavors.  Don't get me wrong, these are good services or products, but some games often lack something to say.  In this way, the VGAs almost perfectly imagine the duality between the product and the artform, the commercial and the art.

Speaking of the awards show as a commercial entertainment presentation, I agree with you, Kyle, that part of the reason the Spike VGAs (owned by MTV, itself owned by Viacom) feature so many celebs from other media is because they want to engage an audience familiar with these personalities.  Like Myles alludes to, while many gamers might know who David Jaffe (Twisted Metal) or Tim Schafer (Psychonauts) are, the average Spike viewer will find themselves at a loss as to why they should care about these people.  Ideally, I would like to see game directors get more coverage in the mainstream media (Jimmy Fallon is spearheading this), but this also neglects the fact that unlike something like a film, video games have sometimes dozens of people contributing key ideas, shaping the final experience.



Great post, John!

There are so so many problematic aspects of the VGA's it's hard to even know where to begin, but I think you hit on some of the main issues at stake here. 

However, I would suggest that while you seem worried about how the VGAs are presenting games to the world at large, I wonder if we shouldn't be more concerned with the show's general irrelevance and insularity. The ratings for the VGAs have been steadily declining over the past few years (see Variety or Gamasutra), with last year's show reaching about 627,000 viewers. Compared to, for example, the Oscars' 37.6 million last year, the VGAs are barely even noticeable. At the same time, the VGAs predictably continued to perform in that male 18-34 demograhpic. 

To me, this suggests that, as bad and harmful as they are, the VGAs aren't even on most peoples' radar. What is especially dangerous about this, though, is that it continues to ghettoize games, reifying their gender and age-defined subcultural stereotypes. However, for the most part it is not outward facing, but justifies the "bro"-ness of the worst aspects of gaming culture to those who are already invested in it. This insulation has not only meant blatant misogyny (see 2008's "chrome angels" or 2007's practice of presenting nominees on painted female bodies), but a continued exclusion of the millions of women (or anyone who does not subscribe to this established subject position) not only from the event, but from the medium itself. 

This continues to deepen the discursive construction of "video games" as only AAA titles, while social/Facebook/Wii titles are not even considered games. Much of this, again, is linked to marketing, as AAA titles seek out large television audiences while Facebook games rely on the built in newsfeed streams to sell their games (and generally have a lower investment to recoup). I don't know if this will change until we see major shifts in production AND culture to recognize that neither AAA or social should control the definition of "video game." Given Spike's audience, they don't have any incentive to change this perception, but it's troubling on a much broader scale.

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