GDC 2011: The Enigma of the GDC Awards

There I was, sitting in a chair at arguably the biggest awards ceremony for games of the year, listening to awkwardly worded acceptance speeches, and I couldn’t help but shake these waves of discomfort that were enveloping me. The IGF Awards had come and gone without these emotions, so why now? What was it about the Game Developer’s Choice Awards that was so off-putting, and that felt so fundamentally incorrect?

This was my first GDC. I had an Expo Pass (I wouldn’t have known what to do with an All-Access if I had one), and was simply honored by being able to attend, but everything I had learned about the conference and had experienced led me to believe in the developing power of games: avenues for artistic expression, new methods of storytelling, meaningful experiences, and innovative methods of interaction. Most of the games that were nominated didn’t fit this internal meaning I’d constructed: Mass Effect 2, Red Dead Redemption, Call of Duty: Black Ops? All of these were big-budget, AAA titles that I had began to despise. Not because of the nature of the game itself, but rather on principle of their creation and their popularity. I was damning games I had once loved before even giving them the chance to succeed. For a brief few horrifying moments, I had become a hipster of gaming.

Over the next few days my views changed: AAA titles are OK as long as they’re still good games, and since the divide between “mainstream” and “indie” is becoming so incredibly blurred (Minecraft?), it’s hard to maintain such a view for very much longer. And still my view on the GDC Awards remained. It took a while to reconcile with myself why, but I think it has to do with the nature of GDC itself.

GDC has two faces: the developers who are there to learn from each other, to interact, to network, and to attend their week-long developer camp, and the business side, who are there to woo developers into using their products and hire people into their companies. The Game Developers’ Choice Awards fit neither of these. It’s somewhat awkwardly shoe-horned into the middle of the week, and its enigmatic role extends to its purpose. Is it meant to award those who develop innovative and compelling games, no matter the initial barriers? Or is it meant to to remind us how successful these games were, as no game nominated for a GDCA wasn’t an economic success? The former seemed to be the role of the IGF, while the latter seems completely unnecessary. And then there’s the glaring fact that Minecraft became not only the first game to ever win an award in both the IGF and the GDCA, but the first one to win multiple awards in both ceremonies. Is this the start of a new era of gaming, where indie games have a much greater chance of standing on equal footing as those developed by large publishers? And if this is the case, how much longer will these award ceremonies be able to separate themselves?

I don’t mean for this to come off as a commentary on either of the award ceremonies. The IGF Awards seem to have found their place and their home at the Game Developers’ Conference. The GDCAs, on the other hand, seem to lack a purpose and thus, a reason to be.

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