Tomorrow is the second annual The Game Awards, an online-only evolution of the Spike Video Game Awards, which ended in 2014. They're one of the premiere awards shows for games (and big reveals!), along with the Game Developers Choice Awards and D.I.C.E. Awards. In the run-up to this year's awards, part of the debate has focused on the people -- mostly men -- who will be casting votes.
The Game Awards, like the Spike TV Video Game Awards, are produced by game critic Geoff Keighley. Some Kotaku staff members, including editor-in-chief Stephen Totilo, are friends with Keighley and have appeared on his shows -- myself included. Kotaku has voted in the past, as well, but turned down this year's opportunity for reasons unrelated to this piece. (We were too busy.)
Most of the winners for The Game Awards are not determined by the ballots of thousands on the Internet, but a small, hand-picked group of game critics, many of whom -- Jeff Gerstmann, Chris Kohler, Andy McNamara, Victor Lucas, -- would be familiar to those who regularly read about games on the Internet.
Nominees for The Game Awards 2014 are selected by a jury of 28 international media. In some cases the jury is provided advanced review code of upcoming games in order to meet the Game Awards 2014 judging deadlines. Games must have been commercially released by Tuesday, November 25 to be eligible for awards.
There's also an advisory board of game designers and executives -- such as Hideo Kojima, Peter Moore, Reggie Files-Aime -- who shape The Game Awards.
What both groups have in common is they're largely made up of men. With the advisory board, it's nine men and an ambiguous credit to Rockstar and Valve. With the game critics, there was only one women -- Mashable's Chelsea Stark -- among the 30 judges announced for the awards. Last year, there were two.
(There's also an "eSports Advisory Board" made up of 10 men.)
I say "was" because the judges lineup has changed in the months since -- but hold on, as we'll get there in a little bit.
It's not like there aren't women who come to mind in positions of power or media influence. The Halo franchise is currently lead by 343 Industries corporate VP Bonnie Ross. There are numerous fantastic female gaming critics.
Why aren't more of these people -- or people like them -- a bigger part of The Game Awards? Keighley declined to comment for this story, but a few publications chose to shift things around when confronted with the disparity.
The whole thing kicked off in mid-November, when a Huffington Post reporter emailed Polygon editor-in-chief Christopher Grant about how "an outlet that often championed diversity, find itself in a list -- namely, the jury list for the upcoming Game Awards -- of mostly, almost entirely, men." His response:
I didn't notice or think to ask.
Lots of men in positions of power, including yours truly, are guilty of this, only remembering how skewed things really are when someone finally points it out.
Grant swapped his voting slot with Polygon deputy managing editor Megan Farokhmanesh. Though Polygon's staff will collaborate on deciding votes, Farokhmanesh will apparently "ultimately decide how we cast our final vote."
"Diversity is important to us at Polygon," said Grant, "and while it's a goal we're actively working towards, we have room to improve. "Similarly, when we work with organisations like The Game Awards, we have to hold them to that same challenge. I look forward to working with Geoff and his team on how we can do better."
Polygon wasn't alone. Kill Screen, prompted by the same reporter, pulled out from the awards entirely. Kill Screen founder Jamin Warren was to cast the vote.
— Kill Screen (@killscreen) November 16, 2015
The Huffington Post, citing an anonymous source who participated in nominating, had an explanation for judges being ignorant on gender makeup:
However, a source on the panel, who requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the story, told HuffPost that judges acted independently of one another. They communicated with the Game Awards and made their selection for game nominations via email -- there wasn't communication between the judges, so the gender imbalance wasn't immediately clear to them.
That lines up with Kotaku's experience with previous awards shows.
Only a few days later, The Guardian's Keith Stuart took the same path as Kill Screen, deciding to remove his publication from the voting process altogether.
Just so people know, I have asked to be removed from the judging of this year's Game Awards. 32 judges, 1 woman. I can't endorse that.
— Keith Stuart (@keefstuart) November 18, 2015
When asked why Stuart didn't swap his spot with a woman from The Guardian, he explained "it's just me on staff. I'll think of something for next year but, for now, I'd rather pull out entirely."
There are 30 judges listed right now -- 28 men, 2 women.
Lots of different kinds of people play video games, so it makes sense that the writers, reporters, and critics who cover games should be (trying to) make strides to reflect that. It's not just about equality -- it's about fairly representing an audience. In that respect, everyone can do better. Kotaku, for example, is mostly staffed by a bunch of guys. We're certainly aware that's not ideal.
There are numerous insightful women critiquing games now. Off the top of my head: The Mary Sue's Maddy Myers; Offworld's Leigh Alexander and Laura Hudson; Feminist Frequency's Anita Sarkeesian; GameSpot's Alexa Ray Corriea; Not Your Mamma's Gamer's Biana Batti; the list goes on and on. Having more women help crown the game of the year would seem, to me at least, a worthwhile goal. Others may feel this is a non-issue and question whether being a man or woman should have any impact on who's picking the year's best games. I don't agree with that, but if you do, I suppose that's your prerogative.
There aren't easy solutions to the big questions about gender and racial inequality in games -- press, development, or otherwise -- but it's a conversation worth having. Games are enjoyed and played by men and women. Gaming culture can only benefit from more women talking about games.
The Game Awards will broadcast online tomorrow night from Los Angeles.