Editorial: BAFTA's Games Awards Have Failed Us

Last year, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, or BAFTA, announced it would from 2006 onward consider video games of equal importance to both film and television. In prior years, BAFTA had hosted fairly minor video game awards of some form, alongside their flagship British Academy Film Awards and British Academy Television Awards. As stated in the auspicious announcement, this would make the British Academy Video Games Awards "the most independent and valued awards in this arena."

It was an encouraging move from one of the most well-known recognizers of the world's art, lending legitimacy to the artistic merits of video games, merits long-deserved by an industry filled with terrifically imaginative world-builders and artisans of the highest degree.

This makes it all the more disappointing that in only their second year of supposed platform parity, the Video Games Awards have become a joke.

Things looked up after the 2006 awards, as the increased significance they gave the game industry's works with a televised ceremony and a unified awards show trumped BAFTA's previous attempts at honoring the art form. Sure, some of the nominations seemed to lack legitimacy--Ubisoft Paris' Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter snatched the Best Game award from contenders like Criterion's Black, Nintendo's Brain Age and Traveller's Tales' Lego Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy. And pretty much the same pool of six games were in contention for each award.

But as an industry advocate, it was tough to be too critical on BAFTA's newly revitalized recognition of the gaming industry. Ostensibly, wouldn't we want them to continue, despite being less than ideal? My opinion changed after this year's awards, which made obvious the superficial nature of the ceremony.

I don't want the BAFTA Video Games Awards to continue. Not in their current form, at least.

Looking at this year's list of nominations as well as the official rules for eligibility on BAFTA's site shows how the game awards have quickly become a sham. Eight of the titles nominated for awards this year had not yet been released in Europe, with seven of them unreleased in any territory, making it highly improbable that each of the category juries made up of seven to nine developers and publishers had played or even seen a significant portion of these games.

The reason for this is actually built into the eligibility process, as any video game released in the U.K. between October 6, 2006, and December 31, 2007, is eligible to be nominated for an award. This contrasts with the eligibility requirements for BAFTA's film and television awards: nominated movies must have been shown for at least seven consecutive days in British theaters during the year prior to the awards, usually held in February, unless a private screening has been set up with academy members beforehand. For the TV awards, held in April or May, a television program must have aired during the previous year to be eligible.

Juries similar to the ones appointed for narrowing down the nominees and deciding the winners of the Video Games Awards act on each of the categories for the film and television awards as well, but it's assumed the TV and film juries have actually viewed their respective artworks. In fact, it's a requirement for the film juries, as stated on BAFTA's site: "It is the responsibility of jury members to see all five nominated films (three for Animated Film and Short Animation) and, prior to the commencement of discussion, the chair will ensure that this requirement has been fulfilled. If not, the member(s) concerned must stand down."

To assume this same standard is upheld for the Video Games Awards would be ludicrous, considering the unreleased state of several of the nominated games. This fundamental difference, an unstated double standard between the judging of video games and other art forms, steals all legitimacy from these supposed "honors."

Because if a game isn't judged on its actual merits, as seen by a member of these juries, upon what is it judged? It becomes a popularity contest on par with the hideously obnoxious Spike Video Games Awards, but it's actually even worse because the Spike awards have never claimed to be "the most independent and valued awards in this arena." The Spike awards are a pitiful exploitation of their target demographic, using video games as a backdrop, but that's exactly what they aim to be.

It's fortunate that none of the seven (or eight for Europe) unreleased games came away with awards. But the issue remains that they were allowed to be nominated. It also doesn't make sense that unreleased titles would even need to be chosen, as there are plenty of titles released prior to the awards that would make much more fitting choices. The unreleased Kane & Lynch: Dead Men from Io Interactive somehow made it among the six titles to be nominated for Best Game. Nothing against Io, but I have played Kane & Lynch, and it will definitely not be the best game of the year when it eventually comes out.

And what happened with Bungie's Halo 3? Sure, it came out just a month ago, but I'd say the judges should have had plenty of time to play with the most anticipated Xbox 360 title since launch. Not only did the game not receive a single nomination, but it didn't even get nominated for its phenomenal multiplayer, a category with Realtime Worlds' Crackdown and Harmonix's Guitar Hero II in its ranks. Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Vegas, another eligible shoo-in for multiplayer released last holiday season, also failed to receive a nod from judges in this area. Though the title was curiously nominated--along with Wii Sports--for the Strategy and Simulation award. And Wii Sports ended up winning that category.

It would be foolish to think BAFTA would be able to force judges to play each nominated game all the way through before making a decision. But it certainly wouldn't be foolish to assume BAFTA could require jury members to at least play the games a bit and watch videos of them prior to making their decisions. If this isn't possible, perhaps the academy should call on knowledgeable parties with the time to experiment with and judge a multitude of video games--game journalists, perhaps--rather than designers and publishers busy with creating their own works of art.

The eligibility requirements could and should be changed, making only games released prior to the start of the judging process eligible for nomination. The fact that unreleased games are delayed all the time--as seen by this week's multitude of release setbacks--would make it even more ridiculous if an unfinished game were to win an award, and then not hit retail for several more months.

It would certainly be disappointing to see BAFTA discontinue the Video Games Awards, but it would be more disappointing to have them continue as they are today, a marketing charade with little respect for actual accomplishment. If video games were scrutinized in the same way as TV or film, more people would become privy to the fantastic worlds they make manifest, the indescribable sensations they unlock within the mind. Game designers and gamers alike would benefit from the Video Games Awards being a product of legitimate competition, a mark of true achievement. Because that's what great games are, and sometime soon, everyone will know.