The Writers Guild of America recently announced the nominees for their 2nd annual Videogame Writing Awards. Anyone familiar with the games of this past year, though, will consider this a very odd and deficient list. Conspicuously absent are most of the games that stand out as well-written.
Ben Fritz at Variety recently wrote a column wondering why there’s so little industry participation in these awards, and postulating that it’s because the industry is anti-union. After all, to be eligible for the awards, game writers only need to join the Video Game Caucus and pony up some cash ($75 a year). No problem, right?
Being self-employed and having no employees, I have no reason to be pro- or anti-union. But I am definitely anti- these awards; they are insulting to game developers and serve no real purpose for anyone else except the WGA.
The problem is that it’s not really an award ceremony. It’s a membership drive masquerading as an award ceremony, and that’s a large part of the insult. You can tell it’s not really an award ceremony because of their decision to exclude most people from qualifying! So, here’s what’s going on: they are giving out pretend awards, in order to get people to join their caucus. Implicit in this action is the message that we are too dumb to notice what they are doing, or else vain enough that we don’t care what’s going on as long as we get some awards. I don’t take either of those as a compliment.
I would not mind participating in an award ceremony that is honestly trying to recognize the best in video game writing. When the WGA sat down to create their awards, they could have made this their priority: that the awards would go to the people most deserving, and over time would build a reputation of respectability, giving game writers something real to aspire to. Along with the award nominations they could have sent out a letter saying “Hey, please join our guild; guild membership does not influence the awards in any way, but we feel that we have a positive contribution to make to the game industry.”
Instead, they mandate caucus membership, with the obvious effect that the awards probably won’t go to the best games. So the structure becomes this: you give them a little something by making their guild more powerful, they give you a little something back by maybe giving you an award. It’s just slimy, and if the public were to assume that these awards were chosen based only on quality, then it would be fundamentally corrupt.
I said that all this was just part of the insult. The rest of the insult is that, apparently, by joining the caucus you are not even a real member of the WGA, because hey, just because we are giving you an award for outstanding video game writing doesn’t mean you are a real writer. This is made very clear on the first page of the application (see the sentence that I’ve hilit in yellow):
Video Game Writers Caucus membership does not provide the right to vote in WGAW elections, to run for office or to attend WGAW membership meetings for the Writer’s Guild of America, West Inc.
The bolding and italics are theirs. They want to be very sure about this point!
Suppose a video game writer felt very pro-union and wanted to join the WGA. After reading this he might feel a little miffed, and wonder, okay, if this doesn’t make me a real member, what does? So he goes to the WGA’s web page to find out. What he sees is that he has to accrue a bunch of points by doing radio, TV and movie stuff. In other words, there is no path available to him for actual guild membership.
But wait — what about authors of books, short stories, poems, and whatever else? That’s writing, isn’t it? Oh, those people join the Authors Guild, a completely separate entity.
Since the writing in Braid is patterned after book writing, not TV or movie writing, I then feel especially out-of-place in this whole arrangement — hey, I should be submitting the game to the Authors Guild Video Game Writing Awards, except that those don’t exist.
Braid also has problems with the WGA awards because the game contains no explicit writing credit, which one of the documents says very clearly disqualifies Braid immediately, though a clause elsewhere says that maybe I could petition them. But this, and other parts of the application, make clear that the WGA is targeting large-team industrially-created games, and that indie games are out of their area of concern; this reinforces to me the notion that this is about business, and money, and union power, rather than being about quality. (I guess to appease them for my next game, instead of saying “A game by…” in the credits, I can say “Designed by Jonathan Blow, Written by Jonathan Blow, Programmed by Jonathan Blow, Business Development by Jonathan Blow, Producer: Jonathan Blow, Key Grip: Jonathan Blow,” and try to put my name in there as many times as I could before I get to David Hellman, Edmund McMillen, Sean Barrett and Harry Mack. Yeah, that would be a lot more elegant.)
Anyway, that’s why I didn’t participate: I do not feel that these awards are worthy of respect. This has nothing to do with my feelings about the WGA as a whole; I don’t know anything about the WGA, so I can’t form an opinion. But this was a horrible way for them to try and make a first impression with an industry they’d like to break into.