Giant Bomb News

250 Comments

The 2011 Spike Video Game Awards: On Teabagging, Cupcakes, and Charlie Sheen

Alex examines why the Spike VGAs aren't really the awards show the video game industry needs, but might just be the one it deserves.

Somewhere between Felicia Day and Brooklyn Decker bobbing for cupcakes, and Sledgehammer Games co-founder Michael Condrey being gently eased to the ground so that he might receive a mimed "teabagging" from a man who had been hired for this expressed purpose, a salient and depressing realization came to me: The Spike Video Game Awards are not for me, and they're never going to be.

This image sums up the 2011 Spike Video Game Awards better than any words could.
This image sums up the 2011 Spike Video Game Awards better than any words could.

For nine years now, Spike TV, GameTrailers, and complicit publishers have continued to push the illusion that the VGAs are an actual award show. And for nine years, people have continued to say, out loud, that we do not believe this. No matter how many times we try to express that we understand that the VGAs are simply an elaborate marketing ploy, designed to get brand awareness out for huge new games that we won't see until next year or later, Geoff Keighley and the show's producers continue to press this notion that the VGAs are meant to be taken seriously, and that the awards are meant to mean something. And every year, we end up back in the same place, watching the same embarrassing pageant of D-list celebrities trotted onto the stage to usurp air time that, on literally any other awards show, would have been dedicated to the people winning awards.

Prior to this year's show, this was the first time I made it a point to say anything publicly about my disdain for the yearly program. After the first round of nominees were announced (including the baffling "Most Anticipated Game Award"--an award ostensibly created to reward marketing campaigns), I made known via Twitter my belief that the VGAs were little more than a straw man awards show, an elaborate beard constructed to specifically gain Keighley and GameTrailers a mess of exclusive trailers. After all, the vast bulk of the hype surrounding the show was geared toward the big, exclusive reveals from studios like Naughty Dog, BioWare, and the like.

Interestingly, Keighley chose to engage my thoughts on the show directly, asking me what I'd like to see done differently. I explained to him my beef with the needless celebrity pandering, the fact that the awards felt completely secondary to the big exclusive trailers, and that the winners often seemed bewildered as to why they were even there. Keighley was gracious, at least made overtures that my feedback was something he cared about, and asked me to give this year's show a shot. He seemed legitimately enthused about what he and the show's producers had cooked up, so I promised to watch this year's broadcast with an open mind. I won't pretend I didn't still have reservations, but truth be told, nothing would have made me happier than to watch an awards show the video game industry could be excited about, and perhaps even proud of.

Then last night happened.

A rare moment, in which developers were allowed to speak.
A rare moment, in which developers were allowed to speak.

I won't recap the entirety of last night's dreadful spectacle, as much of it has already been recapped via social media and various blogs in the night since. You likely already know that the likes of Charlie Sheen, Hulk Hogan, and the cast of the next American Pie movie were paraded out to breathlessly (or dully, depending on how willing said celebrity was to pretend to be excited about the situation) introduce somewhere in the neighborhood of a dozen exclusive trailers for games not out until next year. You may already be aware that whole swaths of categories were awarded via montage or quick, dismissive voice-over, with only a few actual developers being allowed onto the stage to accept their trophy. You have probably already been informed that host Zachary Levi and sort-of co-host Felicia Day were saddled with material that involved them making off-handed jokes about award bribery right before introducing the Game of the Year Award, and running around with one of the Jonas brothers with velcro suits on, respectively.

Once again, the VGAs were a marketing-driven, tone-deaf disaster, almost entirely bereft of the awards emblazoned right there in the title. A more accurate title might have been GameTrailers and Spike TV Present a Video Game Coming Attractions Extravaganza! Then, in 8-point, Comic Sans font, it would read underneath "Also, some trophies!"

And in a way, that's actually kind of perfect for the video game industry.

A lot of people want to see the VGAs become the "Oscars" for the video game industry. There are a variety of reasons why this can never be the case. One, it's on Spike TV, the network that has brought you such visionary programs as MANswers and 1,000 Ways to Die. Another is that the video game industry isn't really built for something like the Oscars. The Oscars are personality driven, predicated on the notion that you understand who these people are, and why them getting up and giving a big speech is an important thing. As several have pointed out, the video game industry has precious few faces who could go up on a televised stage, and deliver an acceptance speech without the restless mainstream audience simply changing the channel. It is, perhaps, why so few developers were given the opportunity to actually come up and accept their awards, and of the ones that did, one of the less recognizable faces had to be teabagged. You know, to keep the audience interested. Not that that's any excuse for why poor Mark Hamill, who had been nominated for a voice acting award, was dragged out to the show, only to find himself in the bleacher seats and unaware that his award had been announced during the pre-show. He sounded none-too-pleased about that.

The exclusive reveals have all but overridden the alleged importance of the awards themselves.
The exclusive reveals have all but overridden the alleged importance of the awards themselves.

And that right there is the main issue at hand: the utter lack of respect the VGAs have for the very people they're theoretically supposed to be honoring. Go down the line of awards shows, from the Oscars on down to the Teen Choice Awards, and the thing you will see is that, shock of shocks, the people who win their awards are usually given opportunities to accept them. The VGAs didn't even pretend to have an interest in such a thing. They brought up the few developers they seemingly felt obligated to allow on stage, then hurried them off as quickly as possible. Essentially, the message was, "Great, you've got your award, now can you go away so we can show this new Spider-Man trailer?" It's not just disrespectful, it's downright antithetical to the very meaning of an award.

To be clear: "meaning" does not have to equate to "boring." The last thing in the world the video game industry needs is to be treated with dire seriousness. This is simply not that kind of entertainment medium. There are serious games about serious subjects, but the very core of what gaming is rooted in is fun. We want to enjoy ourselves while playing games, so watching an awards show full of tuxedo-wearing developers delivering Important Speeches about Important Things would be senseless. It would not only be dull, but also disingenuous.

Unfortunately, somewhere in the process of designing the VGAs year-to-year, the term "fun" became mistranslated as "idotic." As our own Jeff Gerstmann pointed out during the broadcast, the writers of the VGAs clearly can't find a happy middle-ground between the knowing in-jokes and broad humor aimed at the non-endemic audience. In effect, the VGAs have no idea what they want to be, a show for gamers, or a show for the mass audience. Instead, it's stuck somewhere in the middle, and pleases no one in the process.

I do believe that a middle-ground for such a show can exist. Other industry awards like AIAS, DICE, and the Game Developers Choice Awards have offered glimpses of what a show by the developers, for the developers could actually look like. The GDC awards in particular have generally been pretty good in the last few years, with Tim Schafer proving a more-than-capable host and even some genuinely funny comedy bits tossed in (several of which were courtesy of the Mega64 troupe). The production isn't strong enough to be TV-ready yet, but were a network like, perhaps, G4 (they're still sort of about video games, right?) to toss a little production capital its way, it's something that could totally be broadcast to an audience.

Unfortunately, it's not likely to ever happen on a Viacom network. With Mark Burnett and his team of producers running the show, it's frankly a wonder that this thing even features game developers at all. This is, after all, the man who has been responsible for the last several installments of the MTV Movie Awards, along with several other reality programs I'm guessing you don't have particularly fond feelings toward. Burnett and the executives in charge of programming at Spike TV are the ones that are truly responsible for the decisions made regarding the broadcast. People like Geoff Keighley and Zachary Levi bear much of the hate from the audience--something I, myself, am responsible for too--but truly it's Burnett and Spike's executives that decided that a video game awards show should feature as few actual awards as humanly possible, for fear people may tune away and upset the sponsors.

You can't lay the blame on host Zachary Levi. The dude honestly looked like he was trying.
You can't lay the blame on host Zachary Levi. The dude honestly looked like he was trying.

It's too bad, because one gets the impression that Keighley would love to be working on a more respectable show. While the gleefulness with which he promotes his exclusives is maybe a tad off-putting, Keighley's rep as a writer and personality in the industry isn't smoke and mirrors. His Last Hours pieces and GameTrailers interviews shows he's a man who cares about this industry passionately, and not just for his own self-interest. Unfortunately, he is saddled with a broadcast in which his sole duty is to bring to bear as many exclusive treats as he possibly can, and smile for the pre-show camera. He is tasked with trying to make the game industry not hate this show, and while I'm sure the marketing and PR teams at various publishers are on board, there seem to be no shortage of developers and writers less-than-enthusiastic with what the show offered. I doubt I would have even watched at all were it not for Keighley's promises that this would be a better show, something that the industry could really get behind. I realize now that he probably didn't have much choice there, but it was nonetheless disappointing to find myself watching the same haggard thing we've been offered for the last several years.

I don't even blame Zachary Levi, or much of the rest of the talent involved. When Levi was interviewed by MTV ahead of the show last week, he seemed to be saying all the right things. His "geek cred," or whatever, seemed to be on the up-and-up. When he said he wanted this to be a show families could enjoy watching together, I honestly believed him.

And then the teabagging happened.

At that point, I realized he was just trying to put the best face on a not altogether pleasant situation. Watching him deliver one-liners he clearly hated and try to turn the Augmented Reality segments into something other than confusing and weird, I felt for him. He looked like a man who wanted to host a video game awards show--just not this one.

The question, then, is whether or not another video game awards show can, or should even happen. The VGAs will continue on as they always have. Of this much I am certain. Though the ratings have slipped from year to year, they continue to rise in the core demographic Spike TV unashamedly covets: young males, 18-34. So long as the game publishers get the publicity they crave, and Spike continues to get returns on its desperate pandering to immature boys, then there is no good reason for it to ever change its course. So long as we continue to come for the trailers of upcoming games, and not for the games we're ostensibly supposed to be celebrating, the VGAs will continue to represent the "next big thing" portion of the gaming audience, and no one else.

Perhaps some day, someone will make a video game awards show for those of us who would like to celebrate the best games of this year, and not the biggest ones of next. All I know is that, perhaps years after I should have figured it out, the Spike VGAs are, and never will be that award show. And now that I know, I won't be watching again.

Alex Navarro on Google+