It’s been many weeks since Game of the Year was awarded. I’ve been mulling over the state of the industry and, I have to admit, almost didn’t mention it beyond a few grumpy tweets. The numerous layoffs at the start of 2024 have reinforced my desire to contribute to the edifice that all those who dream of a world where the artists behind our games are treated with more consideration are trying to build. So let’s go back in time to the beginning of December. The festive season is approaching, and we’re plunging headlong into the sweet smell of victuals, presents and reunions with loved ones. Joy is in the air, but not without a certain lightness. So it seems only logical that the Video Game Awards ceremony should take place at the start of this beautiful month of December. After all, there’s no better time to celebrate video games than in the midst of all those multicolored garlands and other exuberant decorations. Geoff Keighley has been the initiator of this great videogame mass since 2014. The objective has always been clear: to offer gamers the equivalent of the Oscars ceremony. Such a desire was logical, considering that our medium was already one of the most profitable cultural industries in the world.
The idea of showcasing the artists who make the games we’re so passionate about is commendable on paper. While it’s common to know the little hands who work on films, such as cinematographers or editors, it’s rarer to identify personalities specific to video games, with the exception of a few development managers with an almost mystical aura. The problem is that this promise never materializes on stage. The show put on by the man associated with the Doritos’s Gate scandal is more a bloated billboard than a ceremony worthy of the name. While this is not a new observation, it should be noted that the evening of December 7, 2023 provoked much stronger reactions than usual. Between the lack of respect for artists, the lack of consideration for the mass lay-offs affecting the industry and the exacerbated consumerism, it seems increasingly clear that this gleaming ceremony will never live up to the stakes. We deserve better, and we demand better than this extravaganza. Let’s take a look back at this event, which is more concerned with pleasing the outside world than celebrating its art, and ask ourselves where we should be going from here.
Geoff Keighley in Wonderland
It’s Thursday, December 7, 2023 at the Peacock Theater in Los Angeles. A small, effervescent crowd is making its way to the prestigious Californian stage. It’s the prospect of a wonderful evening celebrating our wonderful art. The lucky few developers who have been invited are decked out in their finest costumes and gowns. After all, they have to look chic alongside the publishers, publicists and Hollywood stars who have kindly agreed to lend their aura to the evening. The bottles of Champagne are ready to flow, the petits fours are neatly lined up, before the avid eyes of the few journalists and other influencers seated at the end of the table. But enough of mocking words and thoughtful quips. This ceremony will be an opportunity to give a voice to those who work tirelessly so that we can explore these enchanting worlds. While the year was rich in excellent games, it was also marked by numerous layoffs and studio closures.
I’m told in the earpiece to stop rambling, because it turns out that not a word was said to even scratch the surface of the issues that have affected our cultural sector. Nothing must mar Mr. Keighley’s party. “The show must go on”, as good old Freddy Mercury used to say. Anyone who has watched this great commercial circus will have been struck by the dichotomy between what happened on stage and the reality of the outside world. As a symbol, many developers, as well as actors, demonstrated outside the Game Awards, calling on the industry to unionize. This protest comes as a response after a year marked by massive layoffs and the fear that AI will replace many jobs. This nascent fear is more than understandable when we recall the words of Xbox CFO Tim Stuart at the beginning of December. He sees in this technology the advent of simplified, less costly development. In other words, he is already anticipating future redundancies with a view to further boosting profits in an industry that has never made as much money as in recent years.
The actors’ union SAG-AFTRA joined forces with the Game Workers of SoCal to organize the rally. Leaflets were distributed to explain the problems facing workers in the industry. Other volunteers joined in, swelling the picket line to serve as a welcoming committee as participants entered the ivory tower one by one. Comfortably seated in the warmth, the numerous guests found themselves in a bubble cut off from everything for just over three hours. Geoff Keighley missed the opportunity to truly honor the artists he claims to love and want to showcase. Of course, there’s no question of turning the Game Awards into a political forum to develop lengthy pamphlets on the slightest social issue. It is nevertheless sad and unacceptable not to hear a single syllable about what needs to change in the way those who hold the purse strings play with life and working conditions in the studios.
While we’ve all been busy enjoying endless excellent titles, 2023 is actually one of the worst years in video game history in terms of labor rights and worker protection within companies. It is estimated that nearly 9,000 people have lost their jobs in the industry in the last twelve months. We have seen a roadmap put in place to reduce the biggest cost of development, namely personnel. Or so Serkan Toto told GamesIndustry in October. Not a word was said, not the slightest form of solidarity. A speech calling for respect for workers and their skills, in a world where creatives are increasingly threatened by recent technological advances, would have brought a form of moral grandeur and respectability to the ceremony. If we look at the world of cinema, it’s not uncommon to see artists speaking out on these kinds of issues at awards ceremonies. Of course, not everything is perfect or tasteful, but issues such as feminism, public funding and representation are never swept under the carpet. Unfortunately, we understand that giving developers a voice is not Keighley’s priority.
Hurry up, it’s time for the ads
It’s hard to know whether the event organizer realizes what a bad joke his ceremony has become. In fact, there isn’t even really a celebration anymore. As mentioned above, the industry and its issues are passed over in silence, but so are the games and teams lucky enough to be named among the potential winners of these coveted titles. For form’s sake, we let them express themselves for a few seconds between two trailers or two advertising inserts, but not too much either, because we mustn’t fail to honor our commercial partners. The latter are, after all, far more important than the artists responsible for the works that enable this onanistic evening to exist for the sole glory of its organizer. We give them thirty seconds, not one more. When the countdown on the prompter is over, it gives way to an elegant “Please Wrap It Up” which was preceded by a musical cue to let the artist know it was time to cut it short. Everything was done to nip in the bud the slightest hint of discourse. As soon as a creative set foot on stage, the pressure from the organization to leave as quickly as they had arrived was particularly palpable. The order of the evening was clear: we have a marketing agenda to keep.
Geoff Keighley ended up doing his mea-culpa on Twitter, trying to explain that adjustment efforts were made during the evening, but that he and his teams will do better next year. The effort is commendable, but is he really capable of changing his ways? In the light of the ceremony, we’re not so sure. Let’s not forget that we’re talking about an evening during which winners were dispatched to the assembly line without even having the opportunity to get up on stage to lift the award and say a few words to the audience. Isn’t it shameful to announce the winner of Best Soundtrack or Best Indie Game with as much consideration as if it were asking someone to move their car into double-parking? Yet it would have been enriching to hear Masayoshi Soken talk briefly about his relationship with music, and the Olympian task of composing music for a major single-player Final Fantasy. A speech from the Sabotage Studio teams could also have added a little emotion to the ceremony, especially when we bear in mind that Sea of Stars owes its existence to a Kickstarter funding campaign.
Over three hours, including the pre-show, the Video Game Awards teams had the opportunity to truly honor the winners, if not the industry as a whole. Unfortunately, the winners of the various categories only had to share 11 minutes of speaking time, a mere 9% of airtime. By comparison, the time allocated to commercials and trailers accounts for almost half of the ceremony. The rest is split between Geoff Keighley, music and celebrity time. The sad thing is that even the winner of the most prestigious award was treated with the same disdain. There was something distressing about seeing Swen Vincke, founder of Larian Studio, being asked by the prompter to scram as he paid tribute to those who passed away during the development of Baldur’s Gate 3, in particular Lead Cinematic Artist Jim Southworth. Hideo Kojima, on the other hand, was given around 9 minutes of speaking time with Geoff Keighley, all accompanied by Jordan Peel. While the winners are asked to keep their mouths shut, the master of ceremonies’ friends are entitled to the most beautiful curtseys. No amount of justification or promises can erase this profound sense of disrespect.
Some might also question the need to always invite movie stars in order to gain some form of respectability in the eyes of the world. Let’s be clear: video games have long since gone beyond the stage of the small challenger who has to win the sympathy of the big boys. For several years now, the video game sector has been the most lucrative cultural industry, far ahead of music and cinema. In France alone, Sell’s annual reports show that the number of gamers as a proportion of the population continues to rise, and that the associated sales figures are increasingly impressive. With all due respect, our industry doesn’t need Timothy Chalamet, Matthew McConaughey or Kermit the Frog to be respectable. It’s time to grow up and truly give a voice to the people who make our video games, to them and not to advertising agents or movie stars. After all, don’t these people do more than make games? The answer is, of course, yes. They create works that help us escape reality or transcend it. They create worlds in which we enjoy losing ourselves, the better to discover ourselves. Without them, I wouldn’t be writing this article, and you wouldn’t be reading it. They all deserve much better than just thirty seconds before being sent back to the corner between a trailer and a novelty ad.
So, what do we do now?
Firstly, it’s worth considering that the Game Awards ceremony is not a celebration of the industry.The Keighley organization likes to sing this narrative from the rooftops, and no doubt its members must be convinced they’re doing things right, but, given how little time is devoted to the winners and the creatives, the simple removal of those 11 minutes of words, as well as renaming the evening Winter Game Fest, would change absolutely nothing. We’d still have the same number of videos designed to whet our curiosity about what’s to come. As for the Master of Ceremonies, he would be able to focus solely on communicating with all his friends. After years of sounding the alarm, this 2023 vintage has confirmed that a new major American ceremony must emerge. In Europe, we have the BAFTAs and the Pegasuses, but only an event from Uncle Sam’s country can hope to have an impact that reaches the whole world. Combining an awards ceremony with an E3-type conference is doomed to failure. The two aspects cannot coexist, and this is unfortunately to the detriment of the awards. Nothing could be more logical: a flamboyant presentation of a game will always generate more excitement than an impassioned speech, but, above all, it will be more likely to attract people who, generally speaking, have no use for this type of ceremony.
If our industry is to be taken seriously and earn the same degree of respect as other art forms, we can no longer be content to use the biggest awards ceremony of the year as a mere marketing event to entice gamers to pull out their wallets. Given that it would be foolish to think that the Video Game Awards will deny their nature, there remains a gap to be filled.Earlier, we mentioned Pegasus. The first step in creating a major American ceremony would be to set up an academy. France can count on the Académie des Arts et Techniques du jeu vidéo to manage the ceremony. This kind of organization is commonplace in sectors such as cinema and theater, so why not do the same? This would avoid the eternal debates about the connivances that certain editorial teams or influencers may have with certain publishers involved in certain categories. What’s more, given that those who have already criticized the games during the year find themselves having to judge them again during the voting, there’s virtually no surprise as to who the winners will be. After all, the media outlets aren’t going to go against their previous judgment. An independent jury, made up of individuals from different sectors of the industry, seems the best solution.
Some have put forward the idea that players should have a greater impact on the election of winners in the various categories. While the introduction of an audience category wouldn’t be totally meaningless, like what the César Awards were able to do between 2018 and 2020, it seems obvious that giving more importance to gamers’ votes would lead to numerous problems. Just look at the review-bombing campaigns on Metacritic whenever a game tackles sensitive subjects, or simply because it’s exclusive to one of the three manufacturers. The Steam Awards 2023 ceremony confirmed this kind of fear, as evidenced by Starfield’s victory in the Most Innovative Gameplay category. This is not to criticize Bethesda’s latest game, but the win was enough to raise doubts that gamers’ votes were organized to mock the Todd Howard-directed RPG.
It would also be a good idea to do away with all forms of distracting trailers and commercials. Great ceremonies have never needed to be overloaded with video clips to generate interest. The Oscars have aired a single trailer in recent years, and this has not failed to provoke discussion as to whether it should serve as a marketing relay for Disney. However, this spotlight on The Little Mermaid Remake had the decency to come late in the broadcast, taking the form of an intermission to allow attendees to breathe during the long evening. If our industry were to follow this model, it would not only give much more speaking time to the winners, but also organize exciting exchanges between the different artistic teams. Many gamers would be able to enrich their understanding of the issues involved in creating a game, but above all put a face, a voice and a thought behind the works that fascinate them enough to want to watch this kind of event in the middle of the night.
It’s obvious that such a turnaround would attract fewer viewers, and that we couldn’t hope to break the 100 million views barrier. Would this be so serious? The Oscars, the Césars, the Venice Film Festival or the Molières have never attracted as many curious onlookers, yet this does not prevent them from proudly embodying the greatness of the art these ceremonies celebrate. They have built their reputation on poignant speeches. These speeches are often emblematic moments, which end up inspiring viewers and creatives the world over. Unfortunately, there are sometimes unfortunate slip-ups, such as Will Smith’s disgraceful slap in the face to Chris Rock, but the need for speeches is unquestionable. If we asked people to spontaneously name one of the Game Awards 2022 trailers, chances are they’d struggle to name one, whereas many will remember Christopher Judge’s lengthy speech for God of War Ragnarok, whether as a joke or because they were moved by the winner’s triumph over his battle with his many health concerns.
The money generated would certainly be less, and it probably wouldn’t be possible to rent a venue as expensive as the Peacock Theater, but it would be an opportunity to go in search of a venue with more history and prestige, all at a lower cost. We have to accept that Geoff Keighley won’t change, and that there’s no point in waiting for what he’s built to be overhauled. Despite all he’s said since the wreck of 2023, his primary motivation is to please the fans, not the developers. The Game Awards can never be a reflection of our culture, because they’re impersonal and owned by the publishers. It’s owned by companies who certainly don’t want the spotlight on the issues facing the industry. Their one and only wish is to keep us in a consumerist dynamic, and to ensure that we never outgrow our status as consumers trapped in an endless cycle of adulescent enthusiasm. All we can do is turn our backs on them with disdain, and get together as people of good will. To elevate our art, we cannot continue to support enthusiastic, consumerist adulescents.
I have to admit that, following the waves of indignation against the ceremony, I had cherished the hope of seeing a global awakening that would finally allow the industry to move in the right direction. It’s now February 8, 2024, and after the numerous reactions from gamers to the Palworld affair, whose motto could be summed up as “I don’t care how the game was made as long as I’m having fun”, but above all with the 6,000 or so layoffs of workers in various studios, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s still a long way to go. Doesn’t the problem ultimately lie with us, the gamers? By continuing to support publishers ad vitam aeternam, without ever really questioning the political meaning of our act of consumption, are we worthy of a healthier industry? In absolute terms, decision-makers and financial chiefs are simply responding to the signals we send them.