the artistry and psychology of gaming


Reactions to the Spike 2011 Video Game Awards

Reactions to the Spike 2011 Video Game Awards

Well, that just happened. I watched the Spike Video Game Awards, and even now I couldn’t really tell you why I did it. Is it because I was hoping they would improve over last year’s abysmal broadcast? Is it because I like to drown myself in game-related media in an effort to keep my finger on the pulse of the industry? Is it just because I’m a masochist? I have no idea, but for some reason I decided to commit two hours to watching what, based on previous years, would probably be an embarrassment.

So what are my thoughts on the 2011 Spike VGAs?

Surprisingly, I thought there was a marked improvement. It’s definitely nowhere near where a video game awards show should be to be as relevant as the Oscars or other awards of its ilk, but it’s a bigger improvement than I’ve seen in the past. Baby steps, I guess.

Before going into the things they did right (and the many, many things they did wrong), there are a couple of questions I’d like to address first.

Why do we even need an awards show? There are definitely some compelling reasons, but to be perfectly honest, I couldn’t convey them any better than this video does. If you don’t care to watch through the video at the moment, here is a brief rundown of why a legitimate awards show would be beneficial to the art of video games:

1. It would “validate” the games industry, especially to non-gamers. This is definitely the least important reason. After all, we know how wonderful games can be. Why do we care what someone like Roger Ebert thinks? He gave that godawful Clash of the Titans remake three out of four stars, so he’s clearly out of touch with reality anyway.

2. Prestigious awards would help good games sell. Take a look at the effect that the Oscars have on the film industry, specifically the most recent winner. The King’s Speech is a period drama about British royalty. There are no explosions, or car chases, or shootouts, or kung-fu fights. There’s no nudity or violence; it’s rated R because Colin Firth drops the F-bomb a few times in a couple scenes. In other words, it’s the kind of movie that only ardent cinephiles are going to watch, right? Think again. The King’s Speech made over $414 million worldwide. That’s on par with most summer action movies.

This movie has no action scenes, slapstick humor, or sex. It still made more than The A-Team, Dinner for Schmucks, Get Him to the Greek, and Machete. Combined.

In fact, out of last year’s 10 Best Picture nominees, only three failed to break $100 million at the worldwide box office (127 Hours, The Kid’s Are All Right, and Winter’s Bone), and out of the remaining seven, The Fighter is the only one that didn’t cross the $200 million mark. If the Oscars have that kind of effect on nominated films, there’s no reason to believe that a similar awards show wouldn’t have similar benefits for quality games.

3. An awards show would facilitate the creation of great games. Again I’m going to turn to the film industry as an example. Every year from around October to December, we experience “Oscar season,” when a wealth of excellent movies are released, all gunning for a little golden statue. Even if there weren’t a concentrated “season” surrounding the awards (there isn’t really a “Grammy season” or “Emmy season” come to think of it), there would still be a number of films every year that wouldn’t have been greenlit if it weren’t for the possibility of winning an Academy Award. Which movie pitch sounds more interesting to you?

“We’re going to make a movie about a guy getting stuck under a rock for the better part of a week.”


“We’re going to film a gripping drama about a mountain climber’s true story of survival and sacrifice. By the way, the director, the producer, the screenwriter, the cinematographer, and the composer all won Oscars a couple years ago.”

“When I said that getting James Franco stoned would be good for the Oscars, this is not what I meant!”

Some sort of major recognition for video games would probably encourage developers to take more risks, and that could help the industry recover from the serious case of sequilitis it is currently afflicted with.

That brings me to the second pertinent question: why am I focusing on the Spike VGAs when there are two other video game award shows that take the medium much more seriously – the Game Developers Choice Awards at GDC and the Interactive Achievement Awards at the D.I.C.E. Summit? Simply put, the VGAs have one very important thing that the other two ceremonies lack: visibility. How many of you had even heard of those other two awards, let alone watched them? Like it or not, the VGAs are publicized much better and reach a much larger audience.

Of course, one of the other two shows could always put more effort into advertising their ceremony and become the gaming version of the Oscars. Then the VGAs could be like the Golden Globes, where the guests are allowed to drink booze and things like The Tourist get nominated.

But I will only watch if this man hosts them.

So how did the VGAs improve this year? How did they fall flat? And how can they be improved? Let me start with the nominees.

In 2010, the nominees were, to put it mildly, terrible. The titles up for Game of the Year were Call of Duty: Black Ops, God of War III, Halo: Reach, Mass Effect 2, and the eventual winner Red Dead Redemption. While I agree wholeheartedly with the last two games being nominated, and I’ll even accept God of War III’s nod, there were many games that could have taken the spots of Halo or CoD:BlOps. Games like StarCraft II or Bayonetta or Donkey Kong Country Returns. I could even see a case being made for Heavy Rain, Super Meat Boy, Civilization V, or Limbo earning nominations, despite being fairly niche titles. But the biggest snub was Super Mario Galaxy 2. It is currently the third-best reviewed game of all time, but apparently Spike TV felt that it wasn’t good enough to even be nominated for Game of the Year.

Now take a look at 2010’s nominees for the horrendously-titled Best Performance by a Human Male category:

  • Daniel Craig (James Bond) – James Bond 007: Blood Stone
  • Gary Oldman (Sergeant Reznov) – CoD:BlOps
  • John Cleese (Jasper) – Fable III
  • Martin Sheen (The Illusive Man) – Mass Effect 2
  • Nathan Fillion (Sergeant Edward Buck) – Halo: Reach
  • Neil Patrick Harris (Peter Parker/Spider-Man) – Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions (winner)
  • Rob Weithoff (John Marston) – Red Dead Redemption
  • Sam Worthington (Alex Mason) – CoD:BlOps

Notice something? With the exception of Rob Weithoff, those are all people who are known for things other than voice acting. But I’ll let that slide; I have a hard time disagreeing with Gary Oldman, John Cleese, Nathan Fillion, or Neil Patrick Harris being nominated for anything. What really irks me is that last nomination. Sam Worthington should never be nominated for any acting award, ever. In fact, his complete inability to cover up his accent has led me to conclude that he should also never again play any character that isn’t Australian.

The 2011 nominees, on the other hand, were this year’s biggest improvement. All of the Game of the Year nominees – including Batman: Arkham City, Portal 2, Uncharted 3, and the winner Skyrim – are legitimately excellent games, and Skyward Sword even got a nod, despite being released for a “kiddie console.” Also, check out the nominees for Best Performance by a Human Male/Female:


  • J.K. Simmons (Cave Johnson) – Portal 2
  • Mark Hamill (The Joker) – Batman: Arkham City
  • Nolan North (Nathan Drake) – Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception
  • Stephen Merchant (Wheatley) – Portal 2 (winner)


  • Claudia Black (Chloe Frazer) – Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception
  • Ellen McLain (GLaDOS) – Portal 2 (winner)
  • Emily Rose (Elena Fisher) – Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception
  • Tara Strong (Harley Quinn) – Batman: Arkham City

In particular, look at the nominees in the Female category. They are all outstanding performances to be sure, but the only nominees that come anywhere close to being a regular celebrity are the two women from Uncharted, who are known primarily for appearing in various shows on the Syfy Channel. The other two are honest-to-goodness professional voice actors. While Arleen Sorkin will always be my preferred Harley Quinn, Tara Strong is damn good at what she does, and it’s great to see someone like her get nominated for this.

From left to right: Tara Strong, Tara Strong, Tara Strong, Tara Strong, Tara Strong, Tara Strong, Tara Strong, Tara Strong.

However, any good will earned from the competent nominating quickly evaporated into the ether during the actual telecast. You would think that an awards ceremony would focus on recognizing the greatest games of the year and rewarding the men and women who create them, but this only accounted for about 10% of the show. The rest was filler. I understand that no one wants to watch an award show that consists of nothing but name-reading, suspenseful pauses, and acceptance speeches. A little bit of fluff every now and then is good for pacing. But what happened last night was ridiculous.

Every so often, the cameras would cut to a game show-type thing featuring Felicia Day and various presenters. To begin, I’d like to say that I totally support the fact that they were raising money for Child’s Play. I respect the hell out of that. And I really can’t say that my life would be as complete as it is now if I hadn’t seen Felicia Day cut a flying watermelon in half with a katana. However, throughout the night, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was perhaps not the correct venue for that sort of charity drive. And even that would have been fine if it was the only source of filler material.

Instead, the ceremony was dominated by trailers. There were announcements for new games, as well as new trailers for games that had been announced back in mid-2010. This is quite possibly the only award show where you’ll see this sort of thing. They don’t show trailers for upcoming movies at the Academy Awards, and I doubt that musical artists spend half the running time of the Grammy telecast talking about albums they’ll release in six months. I suppose it’s a necessary evil, though, as the video game industry does not have an event dedicated to announcing future games.

I have no idea why this picture is here. It can’t possibly be related to the last sentence of the above paragraph.

Many of the “world premiere” trailers didn’t even show anything new. As you may know, BioShock is my favorite game of all time, so of course I’m excited for the next game developed by the same studio (BioShock 2 was not made by the same people), but there weren’t any revelations in the BioShock Infinite trailer that were momentous enough to warrant a viewing at the VGAs, rather than a quiet distribution to various gaming websites at some other time.

There were of course some completely new games that were revealed. Naughty Dog’s new project, The Last of Us had me intrigued from the get go. At least until it turned out to be another zombie apocalypse game. (However, I do appreciate the Enslaved-style “reclaimed by nature” post-apocalypse, rather than the same tired, dusty post-apocalypse from Fallout, Borderlands and Rage.) Cliffy B also showed up to announce Epic’s new intellectual property, Fortnite, which had an uncharacteristically cartoonish look that proved rather charming. At least until it turned out to be another zombie apocalypse game.

And of course, I can’t rightly discuss filler in an awards ceremony without mentioning the gimmicks. The “augmented reality” from last year returned, meaning that people on stage would occasionally point out floating holograms or talk to computer-generated characters that weren’t really there. I can only imagine sitting in the audience, watching Zachary Levi talking to Atlas and P-Body (read: talking to himself) and thinking that it was the stupidest thing I had ever seen.

Surprisingly, that problem fixed itself. As the night went on, people stopped calling attention to the “augmented reality,” and it became a tool to supplement the broadcast (via some visually impressive nominee introductions) rather than a gaudy interruption.

Still, when all is said and done, that is a crapton of filler. It even got to the point where Hulk Hogan needed to introduce a montage of winners in categories that they didn’t have time for. This. Should. Not. Happen.

Speaking of Hulk Hogan, that brings me to the final bullet point on my list of things that the VGAs messed up: the celebrities. As per usual, there were a number of famous people ranging from movie and TV stars, to music artists, to well-known athletes. But very few people involved with making video games. To be fair, Shigeru Miyamoto made an appearance, as did (a visibly nervous) Hideo Kojima. And, as mentioned before, Cliffy B was there too, but honestly, it seems like Spike TV would invite him regardless of whether or not they were making a conscious effort to include more actual game developers.


I really would like to see more people from inside the industry. It’s not like there’s a dearth of charisma. Tim Schafer, Reggie “The Regginator” Fils-Aime, and the Penny Arcade guys are extremely entertaining. I know that Warren Spector, Jade Raymond, and Dr. Greg Zeschuk are extremely eloquent. And bringing Suda51 onto the show would be… an experience. Hell, David Jaffe seems like the kind of person that would have no trouble at all fitting it at Spike TV. They could feature voice actors too. How is it that Nolan North and Jennifer Hale seem to be in just about every video game ever (not necessarily a complaint, especially regarding Jennifer Hale), but their ubiquity doesn’t extend to the Spike Video Game Awards?

However, there is a silver lining. I’m not completely against a video game awards show featuring celebrities from other media, as long as it seems that they actually have an interest in gaming. With a couple of exceptions, the famous faces this year all seemed to enjoy video games. Despite the huge man-crush I have for Neil Patrick Harris, I think Zachary Levi was a better host, mostly because he’s a geek and hosting a show about games seems to come naturally to him. Even this year’s “obligatory hot chick”, Brooklyn Decker, appeared to be comfortable announcing her category, so at the very least, she’s better at acting than last year’s Denise Richards.

In summation, this year was a step forward for the show, and it’s definitely come a long way since the time when they would announce the winners via body paint on naked women. (Yes, that really happened.) But the VGAs still have a long way to go. It wouldn’t matter as much if it wasn’t, by far, the most visible video game awards show on television, but that is the reality we live in. So Spike TV, I know you listen to your viewers (especially if they swear a lot while drenching their cameras in saliva). Here is my wishlist for next year’s show:

  1. Continue making intelligent decisions when determining the nominees and winners. Popular games are usually popular for a reason (many of them are quite good), but try to avoid nominating something just because it’s popular.
  2. Cut out the filler, or at least cut enough of it out so you can show all of the categories. Stop showing trailers.
  3. Bring in more celebrities directly involved with the industry. You can have some movie stars and musicians too, but more developers, artists, and voice actors would be nice.
  4. Like I said, non-gaming celebrities are okay, but make sure that they all actually like video games. And that they know how to speak into a microphone without sounding like a robot. (Addendum: Daft Punk is exempt from that second bit.)
  5. Feel free to bring back Felicia Day, but try to make sure she’s doing something more relevant/interesting.
  6. Keep the “augmented reality” but stop making as big a deal out of it. The announcement of Arkham City’s nomination for Game of the Year was awesome. Talking to the Portal 2 robots (who don’t speak English anyway) was not.
  7. That thing about tea-bagging anyone whose acceptance speech went over the time limit… actually, you know what? Keep it. It’s definitely juvenile, but oddly hilarious, especially since it only happened to the Call of Duty guys. And it’s good to keep acceptance speeches under control.


  1. I only disagree with one part of your article- King’s Speech is a popularist movie through and through. You don’t need car chases and explosions when you have cheap drama and elevation of an evil monarchy.

    However, though I would welcome gimmicks like Spike awards, I think what our industry needs are REAL awards like Cannes and Berlin and not porn shows like Oscars and Golden Globes, and we have none.

    • Even if it was a popularist movie, I still think The King’s Speech benefited greatly from its Oscars. Of course, I can’t prove that, but I do believe that it wouldn’t have made nearly as much money if it hadn’t at least been nominated for those awards (partially because it wouldn’t have been re-released into theaters for a second run). I think this sort of highly-publicized awards show could benefit the games industry. While a developer’s motivation should definitely not be entirely money-based, if the money’s going somewhere anyway, it might as well go to the good games.

      Regarding your second comment, I think that the Game Developer’s Choice Awards and the Interactive Achievement Awards as they are now are pretty similar to the Cannes and Berlin film festivals (at least here in the States, I can’t speak for other parts of the world). That is to say, an award from the GDCA or IAA will bring some recognition within gaming circles, but because they aren’t very visible, they won’t have much effect on the perception of the general public. The phrase “winner of the Best Picture Oscar” can make a film a lot of money from a wide range of demographics; the phrases “winner of the Palme d’Or” or “winner of the Golden Bear” will only generate extra revenue from ardent cinephiles.

      Of course, I don’t think a gaming awards show should copy the Oscars completely. I half-agree with your comparison of the Oscars to a porn show. And I have a hard time calling anything ideal that awards Oliver! over 2001: A Space Odyssey, or even entertains the idea of calling Avatar the greatest movie of the year. The Gaming Awards should be their own beast, striving to distance themselves from the Academy’s pseudo-nepotism and tendency to reward people for average performances just because they forgot to give them awards for great performances *coughAlPacinoinScentofaWomancough*. I think that the gaming industry’s youthful exuberance could also go a long way towards fixing the Academy’s problems.

  2. I agree greatly with what’s been said here. Spike TV isn’t really the proper venue for an awards show for our medium. I don’t need the overdose of testosterone, nor do I need reinforcement of the notion that gaming is a male-dominated medium. I especially agree with the idea of having only celebrites (or even non-celebrities, for that matter) that care about gaming involved with the ceremony, too. I’m a gamer; I couldn’t possibly care less about what Denise Richards has to say. It’s just further and unnecessary elevation of these hollow dolls to their god-like position in our society, and it sickens me. I am glad to see that it’s improving, though; last year was a total joke, and made me glad that I don’t have TV.

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