About the WGA’s Video Game Writing Awards

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.

43 Responses to “About the WGA’s Video Game Writing Awards”

  1. Tom Chick Says:

    Interesting to hear about your experience with this, Jonathan. As someone who went through the whole ordeal of joining an entertainment union many years ago, I know how you must feel.

    However, I wonder how much of this is unique to the WGA. I suspect a lot of awards ceremonies are little more than a form of evangelizing. Doesn’t the AIAS expect nominees to jump through similar hoops? Unless you’re talking about awards held by media outlets, I’d expect a union awards show would exist largely to reward the members of the union.

    Similarly, their esoteric demands that writers be credited is probably part of their effort to protect writers in other mediums. Consider this is only their second year trying to recognize the videogaming industry. Just as entertainment unions have been slow to adjust to online media, I suspect they’ll experience similar growing pains with videogames.

    All that said, I sympathize with your frustration. You’ve been lucky enough to get lots of well deserved attention for Braid. Other indies haven’t been so lucky, and I can imagine how much more frustrating it must be for them to see the WGA’s doors basically closed to them.

  2. TheEggplant Says:

    Doesn’t really surprise me.
    The Oscars have always be about paying the academy to qualify a film and then spending loads of money on a PR campaign. This just seems to be how Hollywood works. That average entertainment consumers take any of this seriously is what I find baffling.

  3. Jonathan Blow Says:

    I don’t think the AIAS requires nominees to do anything — apparently Braid has been nominated in a category, but I only found out today when they announced it. Maybe Microsoft did something behind the scenes, but I would think they’d have talked to me about it (after all, that’s how I got the WGA thing — they sent it to Microsoft, who forwarded it to me).

    The awards that I am most familiar with, and feel have at least some legitimacy, are the Game Developers Choice Awards (at http://www.gamechoiceawards.com/). They do not require any kind of membership or sign-up fee for a game to be nominated or to win (they state that explicitly on the rules page: http://www.gamechoiceawards.com/rules.htm).

    I understand that they want writers to be credited, etc, but their submissions process makes fairly clear that they don’t understand video games very well to begin with. I may go into this further in a part 2 in a few days, but they are basically assuming that games are like TV or films. For example, they want a submitted script. But, what does the script to Deus Ex even look like? etc.

    In terms of indies getting attention, I think last year and this coming year are going to be really good for that. The IGF tends to have a lot of quality games now, and correspondingly people in the industry pay attention. If a game wins the IGF, I have a lot of faith that it’s an interesting game at some level. Of course there’s a lot more that can be done for the indie community to gain recognition, but I think most of that has to be originated from the indie community itself (including both developers and critics); I don’t think WGA recognition has much of a role to play there.

  4. Jeffrey Crenshaw Says:

    Even if the WGA fixes the problems you illustrate here, would it even make sense for an organization rooted in linear narratives to judge the quality of writing in an interactive medium? Just as the quality of a movie script can not be appreciated merely by how it reads on paper, the quality of a game script can not even be appreciated by watching a full walkthrough as this prevents the judge from feeling first hand how the dialog and events are scripted to lead the player and to phase with the difficulty pacing. The WGA can probably appreciate the humor in Portal, but can they appreciate the brilliant delivery of the “cake” inscriptions and how they unexpectedly circumvent the player’s assumptions of fruitful obedience, an assumption developed over years from thousands of other games? Certainly not if all they have is a “script”. For Braid, can the WGA appreciate how the narrative reflects the gameplay, or would they just get stuck on the literary devices as if Braid was just a novel with some colorful puzzles between chapters? Would the WGA even take the final level into consideration when judging the quality of its “story”, or will they trim it off as mere “gameplay” fat despite being one of the most impressively “written” portions of any game to date?

  5. Jaz McDougall Says:

    Break into the industry with an ice-pick maybe?

    So how do we make a Vidja Game Writer’s Guild? Can we harness the power and enthusiasm of an internet-habitating indie games community to do something no-one else could do?

    I say we, I mean as in “I could make muffins and hand out flyers,” not, “I’m very successful and accomplished at dem writings.”

    Go man! You know what they say, the squeaky wheel applies his own grease to himself, and then all other wheels, until they’re all doing it, and so on.

  6. Ian Underwood Says:

    Dude, ‘hilit’! Seriously? If that’s not hypercorrection, I don’t know what is.

  7. Matt Cramp Says:

    The theory about the video game industry being anti-union triggered another thought – video games, unlike cinema and television, is an industry extremely accomodating to hobbyists. It’s been possible for the vast majority of the existence of the video game for a single creator to make a game, and share it with a real audience. Television never once had that luxury, and cinema didn’t get much of a hobbyist period.

    While I think it’s ultimately important for the games industry to unionise — despite my distaste for unions in the modern workplace, it needs doing at least so people can work in the industry without the expectation of 80-hour work weeks — I think the industry’s disinterest in trade groups comes down to the fact that we’ve never needed one to reach an audience.

  8. Krystian Majewski Says:

    Thanks for explain!

    I have the same impression as TheEggplant – many awards work this way. I know that the Red Dot Design Award works similar. They nominate you but that doesn’t get you anything. In order for your work to appear in the catalog, exhibition, press releases etc. you have to pay them money. And you pay for each “service” separately.

  9. Ciaran Says:

    Interesting to see closed-shop stay-out-of-our-business unions like the hollywood guilds try to get into other industries. The WGA is so centred around the tv/film model that they have as much business handing out game awards as they do poetry prizes. They’d be better off doing youtube awards as that would target people more likely interested in what the WGA is about.

  10. Sande Chen Says:

    AFAIK, for a game to be considered as a nomination for the AIAS awards, publishers do have to pay and it’s a lot more than the $75 for a Caucus membership. As for the Caucus membership, some members prefer it to the full WGA membership because it’s much much cheaper annually. I do agree that since it’s based in L.A., you wouldn’t get as much out of it if you were not in L.A. I still am able to attend WGA East functions and go to any of the movie screenings. However, if you are in L.A., yes you can attend any of the informal and formal meetings of the WGA. You get invites to screenings and parties. There is a good deal of overlap in the membership of the IGDA Writers SIG and the Videogame Writing Caucus.

    As for the awards, I think it is understandable that the WGA awards are for WGA members. It’s the same with SAG. These awards are about celebrating the achievements of WGA members. WGA members vote on the nominations and they also select the nominees. It is usually not the case that you can sign up after you’re nominated or that a piece of work not written under the WGA agreement is eligible, but the WGA made the exception for the video game category because the videogame writers are in a Caucus. If videogame writers were not in a Caucus but full members, we would have been obligated to join the strike. My writing partner did walk the strike line in solidarity, as did others, but it was not necessary. We were still working on video games during the strike.

    Also, unlike the AIAS Awards, it’s mostly up to the writer to submit. After all, it is the writers who get the award, not the publisher, developer, or the game. It’s like the DGA and SAG awards, not the Oscars or Golden Globes. So, if the writers do not care to submit and I do see that there are Caucus members who worked on high-profile titles and just didn’t submit, then the game is not for consideration. One of the rules is that ALL of the writers credited must submit in one package, so if you can’t get all of them aboard to submit the script, then you can’t submit. Another thing: Sometimes, the script is written in Excel and converting it into screenplay form can take a month or more. Finally, if you are not credited as a Writer, but have a credit as a Game Designer, then again, this makes you ineligible. It’s the WGA, not the Game Designers Guild, so that makes sense. There are many reasons why scripts may not get submitted.

  11. Keith Nemitz Says:

    The WGA certainly is thinking of itself first with its awards. It wants to break into the video game industry like everybody else. It has a caucus for video game writers that is essentially steerage compared to top deck. So they hold video game writers to the same standards they hold every writer to. Big whoop.

    That does not imply anything about the quality of their awards. Only members of the caucus vote on the video game awards. And those members must be experienced video game writers. They don’t let anyone with $75 bucks in. Yes, they excluded you because you didn’t give yourself a ‘writing’ credit. Hopefully their petition system would accept you. But from their point of view, just because some guy has a design credit does not mean he did any writing. Hell, producers and directors in the movie biz often contribute writing to the script, but they aren’t allowed in the WGA either, unless they have a writing credit.

    I don’t know if the game industry is anti-union, but Ben Fritz clearly found that some companies simply refused to enter the awards. If better games missed out because of those companies, is that the WGA’s fault? They’re only being who they are, a union looking to expand their base.

    Finally, Jonathan’s comment, “indie games are out of their area of concern”, is so ignorant it reduces his entire bonfire to smoke. “Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble!” is about as indie as it gets. I am proud that my indie game is selected among four “large-team industrially-created games”. I paid my $75, submitted my script, and was respected as an equal to other applicants.

    Now the IGF is a fine event that brings many awesome games to the forefront of gamer awareness. I’ve been blessed twice by their judges. Unfortunately, DHSGiT doesn’t measure up to their metrics, compared to the competition. But it is a terrific indie game with awards and recognition from many other sources. I’ve written elsewhere that the IGF should consider adding as much recognition to story as they have to audio and graphics. Maybe they will someday. It’s a constantly evolving event, 10 years in the running. They are earnestly trying to do their best.

    The WGA has had two, count them, 2 video game awards. Opening their contest this year to anyone who joins is a big change from last year. Someday they might even ‘get it right’ according to the book of Jonathan. Currently, the WGA offers little value for computer game writers other than it’s awards. If I were them, to attract members, I’d make them the best awards around.

  12. Paul Visschers Says:

    @Sande Chen: I get what you are saying about the awards being about celebrating the achievements of WGA members. But why are they sending emails to non-WGA members like Jonathan? That just comes of as a ploy to get some more members (and money).

    @Jeffrey Crenshaw: You said “and how they unexpectedly circumvent the player’s assumptions of fruitful obedience, an assumption developed over years from thousands of other games?”. Can you expand on this, because it seems like you’re making an interesting point, but I’m not getting what it is exactly? I have played Portal, so feel free to reference specific events.

  13. Jonathan Blow Says:

    Keith, I agree that they should be making them the best awards around. And the way to do that is to nominate the games with the best writing (regardless of WGA membership status), which is exactly what they are not doing.

    I stand by my statement about them not even thinking about indie games. If you read the submission materials, it’s obvious. The fact that you got nominated as an indie game is great for you guys, but it doesn’t change the facts about the way the competition is formulated and presented.

  14. Keith Nemitz Says:

    Jonathan, the facts are the facts. Your conclusion, “indie games are out of their area of concern” is false.

  15. Jonathan Blow Says:

    WHATever.

  16. Jeffrey Crenshaw Says:

    @Paul

    Sorry, I was trying to be brief, trying to fit too many ideas into a sentence. Portal spoilers to follow for the 4 – 5 people who haven’t beat it yet.

    What I meant was that I found the first “rat man” hole to be brilliantly placed.

    The game takes place in 19 sequential test chambers, each one testing the player’s abilities to solve puzzles using the portal gameplay mechanic. The player knows how many test chambers there are up front (it shows their progress at the beginning of each chamber). Along with GLaDOS’s goading, the player is lulled into the comfortable and familiar schema of “beat level X out of Y until level Y is reached, beat level Y, collect reward (cake)” that is the backbone of many video games. The player assumes they will receive a typical reward upon completing the game, and the fact that Portal is “merely” a simple puzzle game aids this lull (we expect plot twists in our RPGs and longer FPSs, so this lull might not be as obtainable in another genre). Even the pits of acid and aggressive turrets are shrugged off as “typical video game hazards”. It isn’t until test chamber 16 when the player can almost taste that sweet icing and they find a wall pulled out haphazardly and propped open by crates with “the cake is a lie” written a few dozen times inside that it becomes obvious there is something deeper to the plot of this game. An equally brilliant moment happens in the last test chamber where the player is betrayed by being dumped into a furnace and must quickly avoid death with the skills they have learned throughout the whole game. And then the second half of the game begins, to the delight of anyone who loved the game and was worried to be nearing completion.

    It is hard to understand the significance of events like these without understanding the player’s perspective as an active agent in the environment. That I could get out of the furnace myself instead of watching a cutscene of my character shooting a few portals and escaping is an incredible experience. This can never be appreciated on paper. How much of what I just described is “writing” versus “level design” is an interesting subject, and perhaps further proof of the complexity of judging game narratives.

  17. BrianBoyko Says:

    Sorry that this isn’t on topic – I couldn’t find another way to reach you.

    I just read your article on PC gaming, and I know it’s difficult for the port, but there are those of us waiting with baited breath.

    I actually almost bought an Xbox360 at Best Buy yesterday. Almost. But the problem was that I ended up thinking: If I bought this system, what would I play on it?

    And it came down to things like Bionic Commando Rearmed, Megaman 9, Pac Man Championship, and of course Braid.

    You can see my problem; if non-indie companies were coming out with Xbox 360 titles that would interest me, then I’d probably find the initial $300 investment worthwhile. But $300 for a few puzzle games seemed a bit off. The initial cost of the console couldn’t be justified by it’s very meager selection – the same few games redone over, and over, and over again.

  18. Zaphos Says:

    Regardless of their motivations, the whole ‘submit your script’ thing says pretty clearly that they have no clue what they are doing, and don’t care to …

    Anyway, @Keith — indie games can be “out of their area of concern” while still being permitted, so there was no factual error in Jon’s post.

  19. Joshua Dallman Says:

    Talk about seeing conspiracy where there isn’t one! As far as I can tell the WGA and IGF operate in exactly the same way — you pay to submit your game for consideration of an award — yet Jonathan calls the WGA slimy for this practice, while he himself has benefited from the IGF parallel. Braid wasn’t the best game when it won the IGF award, it was the best game submitted. And in that there is no conspiracy or corruption.

  20. SR Says:

    Zaphos, I’m not sure what alternative you would prefer to the “submit your script” option. Should the nominating committee – a group of writers volunteering on an unpaid basis – be required to play dozens or potentially hundreds of submitted games to completion? Does each member of the committee get access to every possible platform – console, PC, mobile, etc. – in order to play each of these games?

    And then once it’s narrowed to the final nominees, does every member of the WGA get a free copy of the games (and the hardware to play them) in order to make an informed vote?

    Of course it’s better to judge game writing through game playing. I recognize that the problems I’m pointing out speak as much to the flaws in the premise of a WGA game writing award as anything else. But if you grant the WGA the premise that maybe it’s a good idea for them to start to broaden their view from non-interactive, linear writing for the screen to interactive, non-linear writing too, then you have to cut them a little slack when it comes to how the material can be submitted, distributed and reviewed.

    Full disclosure: I’m not a member of any union, but I have a few friends in the WGA.

  21. Keith Nemitz Says:

    Zaphos,

    I see now how it could mean that. Thank you for being more polite than the author.

    In that case, being under the radar, this is a great opportunity for indies. Ignore Jon’s conspiracy rant (true or false). Look at what remains after applying Occam’s razor.

    1. Pay $75.
    2. Submit your game.
    3. Maybe win.

    Functionally, is that any different that the IGF?

    1. Pay $95
    2. Submit your game.
    3. Maybe win.

    About ‘submit your script’… The WGA was very clear they accepted a close approximation to a script, given the difficulty of linearizing branching narrative. The script I submitted would have gotten Scorsese thrown out of film school.

    Now, if you’re talking ‘gameplay AS narrative’ well, of course. But that doesn’t apply to a writing award.

  22. Jonathan Blow Says:

    My posting was not about the existence of a submission fee! Charging a submission fee is fine; charging a recurring membership fee, and counting you as a member, is the part that is not fine.

    I would feel these awards to be slimy even if the membership were free. So please don’t try to red-herring the discussion!

  23. Allen Says:

    Large ego you have on your shoulder’s there Keith, if you mean the script for the game that was nominated..then well, it’s a matter of opinion I suppose. It really appeals to a certain crowd, and I am definitely not apart of said crowd. I did not read the script you submitted, but the writing in your game was quite awful. Of course, like I said, it’s just not for me and there is nothing wrong with that. Strictly a matter of opinion.

    I agree the WGA is a great opportunity for indies, but only potentially. I’m sure, given time, that hopefully it would have independent games in mind. I don’t beieve Jon was throwing out a conspiracy theory, only sharing his observations. For some reason I think that if your game wasn’t nominated Keith you would have put in a different argument or similar thoughts. Because for the life of me I can not see why you are defending them so adamantly.

    anyways, I actually came here to see news about the PC version. I read your latest interview on uh…forgot the site, sorry. Seemed likely that it will be released on Steam, which is nice. But at the same time I would much prefer to give you money directly. Don’t know how that would figure out, regarding bandwidth costs..I have no knowledge on such a thing. Either way I can’t wait for this game and I hope it sells good on the PC so you would be more willing to release more games for PC..But I don’t blame you if you decide not to, that is if your game gets pirated to hell and back (crosses fingers).

  24. Keith Nemitz Says:

    I’m sorry, Jonathan, I just don’t feel oppressed by the WGA’s membership. It lasts a year. I haven’t looked into the matter, but I assume if I don’t pay next year, I’m not a member any more.

    What is it, about membership in this caucus, that’s troubling you? Does the WGA sudden acquire Super-Villain powers by having me as it’s member? (Okay, my ego would like to think that. :-)

  25. Joshua Dallman Says:

    “charging a recurring membership fee, and counting you as a member, is the part that is not fine.” (Jonathan Blow)

    With a WGA submission I get counted as a member, thrown in as a bonus. That’s something an IGF submission doesn’t give me. I have to pay an additional $50 a year for an IGDA membership which is the same entity that runs the IGF. So if the WGA is giving me something bonus for free, what’s wrong with that? I wish the IGF would do the same! We should be so lucky.

    Right on the front of the WGA’s “how to join” page they’re up-front about the recurring membership, so if they’re up front about it, what’s the problem? They’re not sneaking anything in or cheating anyone. 3 years for $75 a year is not a deal-breaking price for any size developer. Again, to both submit and be a member of the IGF/IGDA, it costs twice as much! So what if you have to commit to 3 years of the WGA? They want sustainability, not people popping in and out opportunistically.

    Lastly, it actually helps indies that the WGA requires an explicit writing credit, as it’s the big studios that often have their talent go uncredited (and there’s still no standardization in this area), whereas indies can credit everything and everyone and are more likely to have an explicit writing credit to their game (because giving credit is often the best value proposition for a low budget game unable to hire big buck talent).

    Again Jonathan, you’re looking for evil where there is none — your arguments simply don’t stand up to any kind of reasoning. More than idle speculation, in a practical sense it’s sad to me to see standout work like “Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble” not get the full recognition it deserves from its WGA nomination due to conspiracy theories about the nomination process itself.

  26. Zaphos Says:

    @Keith — The whole idea of linearizing a branching narrative seems somehow fundamentally disrespectful of the medium … it doesn’t reflect the creative process of games, it neglects some of the most exciting potential of the medium, and the end result is you likely get something which is not even faithful to the original work.

    About the IGF/WGA comparison, I feel there is some difference between a festival submission and a ‘pure’ awards ceremony. Half the point of IGF is that the game will be on the show floor, which is a real commitment from the participants. It’s closer to a film festival. But a more basic difference is that the IGF already gets a good amount of participation in its category of interest (indie games), while the WGA does a terrible job of actually attracting submissions from the category of games it claims to judge (all games). Given the lack of participation currently, I feel the WGA award is almost meaningless to the gaming community. Addressing Jon’s complaints (removing the aura of desperation and disrespect from the competition) could go a ways toward fixing that.

  27. Sande Chen Says:

    @ Paul Visschers
    I do not know the recruiting methods of the WGA Videogame Writers Caucus. AFAIK, if you want to join or submit, you just download the forms you need and send it off. A lot of game companies will pay that fee for you and count it as a business expense.

    The reason why the writing credit is necessary is to promote the importance of writers and writing in games. It’s the same goal as the IGDA Writers SIG.

  28. Micah Wright Says:

    Hi Jonathan, Micah Wright here. I’m the chair of the WGA’s Videogame Writers Caucus. Contrary to popular theories about our membership, I’m both a caucus member AND a full voting member of the WGA. We -do- have a path to full membership for games-only writers into the WGA. It’s not currently on the website because the WGA(East) and the WGA (West) will soon be sitting down with the intention of standardizing our membership rules, so no changes or additions to the current rules will be announced until both sister-Guilds rules are the same.

    I’d like to confirm your most sinister suspicion: yes, our award’s first duty is to introduce game writers to the WGA. You feel that’s “slimy” — I think it’s a great tool for reaching designers who might not think of themselves as writers first and foremost. Let’s agree to disagree. We at the WGA feel that as an existing entertainment union, we have a lot to offer game writing professionals, from portable health care and pensions to arbitration of credits to eventually setting pay minimums and fair work conditions. Gone, for example, would be the 80-hour workweek, if we had a majority of game writers as members. Gone would be the days of writers not getting credited on their games. Gone would be the expectation that designer-writers be forced to only take one credit for their two jobs. Writers would lose their terror of a broke publisher shutting down their studio and then losing their health care because their WGA health care is portable from job to job (and unlike most of the big publishers, our health care plan doesn’t preclude writers or dependents based on pre-existing conditions). Similarly, writers would no longer leave a trail of anemic 401(k)’s in their wake as they move from job to job because the Guild’s pension plan is better than any 401(k) in the industry and it’s portable from job to job.

    I’d also like to counter some of your above comments with this simple fact: we have over 170 members in our caucus. To join, a writer must have written at least one videogame and be able to prove it. Some of these people were film and television writers before getting into games and joining the caucus, others are solely videogame writers, and others move back and forth. Moreover, as games get more and more complex and contain more and more writing, we’re seeing the videogame industry hire more and more WGA members. In other words, the WGA isn’t trying to “break into” this field, we’re here and rapidly growing in strength. Our belief is that since we’re here, we must make sure that our members are as protected in this field as they are in film & TV, and further, to ensure that other non-members aren’t allowing themselves to be exploited, either. I refute your characterization of union organizing as being about “union power” for its own sake. We are a member-run, democratically-representative guild made up of 8,000 currently working writers from many different fields. This isn’t some caricature 1950′s mafia-controlled dockworkers local, it’s an honest effort to better the lives of writers, and despite your use of loaded words like “corrupt” and “powerful” there’s no subterfuge or ill-intent to anything we do.

    I also dispute your contention that being a member of the Videogame Writers Caucus is some sort of punishment or slight… that we’re deliberately tricking people by not making them full union members when they submit for an award. This is ridiculous. We are a federally regulated union, which means that federal law dictates who is and who isn’t a member of a union. To legally become a member of the WGA, a writer must earn 24 guild units by writing a specific amount of work under a WGA-negotiated contract. In film, writing one full movie is 24 units, in TV, it’s 12 weeks of employment at 2 units per week. In games –currently and only for the WGA(West)– it’s writing one full game under a Guild Independent Production Contract. Until a writer has earned 24 units under a guild-covered contract, we are FORBIDDEN from making them a full member of the Guild. Much as I might like to wave my magic wand and wish every videogame writer into my Guild, that’s just not possible, especially in today’s union-unfriendly workplace where so many employers won’t sign a Guild IPC (despite it not forcing them to become signatory to the Guild or costing them a single penny). The Videogame Writers Caucus (and the Guild’s other organizing caucuses, such as the Animation Writers Caucus, and the Non-Fiction Writers Caucus) was created so that non-member writers who wish to participate in the WGA’s games-related actions and decision-making processes can become Associate Members and attend our meetings and have a voice. We italicize and bold that section of the submissions rules about how you don’t get to vote and don’t have all the responsibilities of full members specifically because the largest publishers in the games business were terrified that allowing their employees to submit for our games award would somehow force them to go on strike. It doesn’t and it won’t because Associate Members don’t have those requirements. That wording is there to pacify employers, not to freak out writers like yourself.

    As for your other comments, I refer you to Sande Chen’s excellent post above about why other, more famous games may or may not be in our final found of contenders. I will say, however, that your assertion that we’re ONLY interested in “large-team industrially-created games, and that indie games are out of [our] area of concern” is belied by the fact that last year’s winner was “Dead Head Fred,” a game from a new developer/publisher and created by a team of 6 or so, and that one of this year’s finalists is “Dangerous High School Girls In Trouble,” an indie game created by, I believe, one person. Just as we don’t discriminate against independent films in our film awards (I believe 7 of our 10 nominees for original and adapted screenplays would be considered an “indy” film this year), we don’t discriminate against indie games. As for why games without specific writing credits can’t be nominated, well, suffice it to say that for the nation’s largest group of working writers to give an award for writing to a company which doesn’t respect the craft of writing enough to actually credit a writer… well, that would be a bit much to swallow, especially considering the history of our Guild which was initially founded in the 1920′s to demand proper writing credit arbitration from Hollywood’s producers. The fact that we’re fighting over the same exact issues in the videogame field just goes to show how backwards certain Publishers are. :)

    -Micah

  29. Jonathan Blow Says:

    Thanks for the comments, and I’m glad you could post your explanation of things here. I’d like to reiterate that I am not pro- or anti-union and don’t seek to paint your organization as corrupt or anything like that.

    It’s just the awards that I think are slimy. It’s insulting to pretend to give someone an award, with the ulterior motive of using their membership to expand your sphere of influence. Even if in your view you plan to do only good things with that influence, it’s still disrespectful of the person you’re inviting to be nominated, and of video game writing in general. Since you disagree, well, that’s just a disagreement that we have!

  30. Keith Nemitz Says:

    Jon,

    I’m okay with us disagreeing. However, full debate requires assertions to be tested.

    You use the word ‘pretend’, but the WGA really is giving an award. So they are not pretending. The quality of the award is based on the effort of judges experienced in videogame writing. So it’s not slimy either. If those judges lack sufficient skill then the award will be of lower quality. I submit that you do not know what level of skill these judges have.

    Zaphos,

    Your first point was excellent. I understand your perspective and I agree. From another, equal perspective, this is a writing award. To judge for it from your POV, the judges would have to play all possible combinations of the game to read it. The IGF judges typically play a level or three and assign points. Corners must be cut. In my pseudo script, I annotated it heavily with branch notation to give the best idea of how the dialog works in parallel. I even noted the the types of actions/events a player would be performing/experiencing between dialogs. As a veteran gamer, I think I could get a good sense from my script of how the game incorporated the written dialog into its full experience.

    There is an entire spectrum of narrative games that use more or less writing. So yes, some games will have more difficulty than others to present to the WGA its writing in its most favorable context. Yet some wonderfully narrative games with peripheral text probably shouldn’t be considered for the WGA’s award. ‘The Sims’ would be a prime example. I can’t speak for the WGA, but I think their award is biased towards videogame writing that conveys most of the narrative. To cover the ‘game as narrative’ part of the spectrum is one the reasons I urge the IGF to add a writing/story award.

    Point two. I’ve been on the GDC floor as a IGF finalist, twice. So far, as a WGA nominee, I have had more exposure and interest from news media and game companies than both of those experiences combined. As much as I was thrilled to be a finalist, I am quite content with my nomination. Now, to be fair, the IGF started from scratch, and this year’s floor show will be more visible than the last, yet again. I recommend indies apply to both contests!

    My only worry is, since the IGF moved to Moscone Center in SF, the IGF booths have been placed in a dark corner of the expo. That may change this year, as CMP will be renting the entire Moscone facility. The IGF use to be prominantly placed, I hope for this year’s finalists they will be prominent once again.

  31. Jonathan Blow Says:

    I submit that it doesn’t matter what level of skill the judges have, because (in line with what Zaphos was saying) you can’t effectively judge video game writing from a linearized document of an inherently nonlinear experience. How are you going to judge the well-writtenness of an NPC bark, say, without knowing the context in which it occurs?

    I submit also that, because the WGA’s competition is not open to non-caucus-members, the results cannot be particularly meaningful unless viewed in exactly that way (“the best-written games out of a small subset of all the games of the year”). But I’ve already said that enough.

    I consider it a “pretend award” because I think a “real award” would put quality first. The WGA’s award puts membership first.

    Having been an IGF judge a couple of times, and had games in the festival a couple of times, I can say that IGF judges will play through an entire game if they find it interesting and well-made. Games that are not so good (or that don’t appear to be so good) will not get as much attention. In an ideal world you would of course want all games played to completion, but I don’t think the way the IGF does it has significant problems in that regard.

  32. Zaphos Says:

    @Keith — Glad to hear you get a good amount of attention for the award! Nice to know it is working better than I thought. :)

    I do see what you’re saying about the difficulty of designing a writing award, also … but I think if corners are to be cut, I would prefer judges simply not see all possible combinations.

    Good luck with urging for an IGF writing award — I’d appreciate something like that as well!

  33. Tim Langdell Says:

    I’ll chime in here and hopefully clarify a few more things. I’m Vice Chair of the WGA Videogame Caucus and I was Chair of the Videogame Writing Award Committee which (due to the hard work of Micah and Jay) got approved through the many internal hoops of the WGA. As CEO of EDGE Games which was founded in 1979, I clearly come from the videogame industry, and while I now have some involvement in film and television, it is my ~30years in the game industry that qualified me for membership of the WGA. The WGA Videogame Caucus has many members who are game industry writers, so to characterize this award as being given by people whose primary expertise is linear narrative is completely wrong. This award is judged by peers from the game industry who happen to be members of the WGA.

    I have to disagree slightly with my colleague in that the original goal of devising this award was first and foremost to honor excellence in game writing, with the writers getting that honor (unlike many other game industry awards where either writing is not honored or the publisher/developer gets the award not the actual writers). And yes, because WGA awards are granted to WGA members, that means candidates need to at least join the caucus to be eligible to submit for the award. But as others have pointed out above, you can do that at the time of submitting your entry — there is no question here of the game needing to have had to have been created under the WGA or with a WGA contract in place. So I would say a by product of the award is that we bring the existence of the WGA to videogame writers’ attention and thus of course hope to grow our membership. I for one would love to see the videogame writers membership start to rival that of film and television membership, and there is no reason long term why that should not be the case. But recruitment is a by product, and one that is of course of interest to us for the obvious reason that the more videogame writers join the WGA then the more representative the award will be of all game writing in a given year. But we have to start somewhere, and to lambaste us for having started at all when this is clearly a process still in the making, is both inaccurate and unfair.

    I co-founded the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences, I am on the steering committee of the IGDA WritersSIG (its entertainment industry liaison), sit on the Board of the Producer’s Guild of America’s New Media Council (and yes, surprise, we are working on a PGA Videogame Writers Award that might eventually become an Oscar), so forgive me for being passionate about the game industry at last getting the respect it deserves via a plentiful array of peer-awards which have widespread recognition beyond members of the game industry to the wider public.

    And at the sake of repeating what others have said above, you absolutely can become a full member of the WGA but frankly for many people having all the rights you get with just the caucus membership for $75 is a sweet deal given it gives you full access to the Videogame Writing meetings, the right to sit on the VWC Steering Committee, access to the WGA health and pension plans etc. No you don’t get to vote on WGA matters, but if that is your interest then converting to full WGA membership is indeed possible and will shortly become even easier.

    Last, I hear what people are saying about the requirement to convert some key story/narrative from the game into a linear form for consideration for the award. But trust me this went through extensive consideration over a course of many years and is open to change in the future if someone active in the WGA caucus can devise a better set of requirements. They core issue here is that we decided it was not fair to the candidates to require the judges to play hundreds of hours of the submitted games before judging the quality of writing. That just isn’t practical, and where that approach is taken for other awards it opens itself to criticism because how can one know all judges actually played the game sufficiently to appreciate the full story which may, in some cases, only reveal itself tens of hours into play? Similarly, to accept non-linear materials where it might take tens of hours for someone to get even a vague feel for the quality of writing is not practical and again not fair to the candidates — worse, as hard as it would be to look through thousands of pages of Excel spreadsheets, in many cases the non-linear story is created in proprietary tools which the developer or publisher is very likely not to permit the WGA access to. Believe me, before coming up with the requirement that candidates submit something at least comparable to a linear script “walk through” of some core story from the game was only arrived at after hundreds of hours of discussion and debate. And is even now open to further debate within the caucus — another reason to join if the way this award is offered in future interests you.

    (The above is my personal opinion and does not necessarily represent the views of the WGA or any other organization I am a member of).

  34. Micah Wright Says:

    Hi, it’s Micah again. I just wanted to chip in again on a few points and then I’ll slink off for good.

    I’m sorry you think our award is “slimy” because you think it’s first and foremost a membership recruitment tool. It’s truly not… I know I said our award was first and foremost to introduce writers to the WGA, but when I wrote that, I was admitting to the benefits to the WGA of having an award, not thinking of our purpose for giving out the award in the first place. The purpose of giving an award is to award the best writers in the field of videogame writing, whereas the first benefit to the WGA of that award is introducing the submitting writers to the WGA and our benefits. I’m sorry I misspoke and I’m glad Tim corrected me.

    Once we got this award approved, we set out to create the fairest awards possible. We have gone way out of our way to make it possible for non-members to submit for our award (including permitting work not performed under a WGA contract to be submitted, and allowing non-members to join upon submission). I hear your concerns that games where people don’t submit might be better than ones which did submit, but frankly, we’re giving out an award for BEST WRITING, not for best game. Dislike it as much as you may, believe that games are somehow inherently different that all other writing as you may, the fact is that writers write SCRIPTS. All of them, whether it be a list of barks in Excel, or a multi-chain branching dialog tree in Bioware’s proprietary engine, it’s all typed into a computer and therefore, those computers can be forced to disgorge it in the form of a script. Converting some key story/narrative from a game into a linear script for consideration for our award is quite simply the reverse of the process by which most writers submit their work to get paid: Writer don’t hand in completed, finalized, recorded and programmed games, they turn in scripts. So far, it hasn’t been too difficult for most people to submit their work in a readable format.

    Because our award is for Best Writing, I ask you how are we to judge this Best Writing without a script? Should we expect three rounds of judges to own 3 game consoles, 2 handhelds, a mac, a windows pc, and an iPhone? Should the WGA go out and purchase 6 copies of every single game that comes out each year for our judges? Should the WGA expect our judges to play a game like Fallout 3 from start to finish? Who has the time for such a labor of Hercules simply to judge the writing in the game? Especially since first round judges would have to do this for up to SIX games!

    Additionally, such “play all the games to get the story” requirements would eliminate any judge without the requisite thumb-twitch skill necessary to get all the way to the end, of, say, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. So if a particular judge failed out midway through that game because she can’t overcome Darth Maul’s lightsaber skills, then how likely is she to judge that to be the best script? SHE JUST MISSED HALF OF IT. When we’re judging scripts as scripts, we don’t have these worries. Writers submit their scripts, and we read them. The only games not being considered by us for this award are those games which won’t submit a script for whatever reason, and any company not willing to submit a script can’t really complain that they’re not being considered for our award. The reasons you see some companies (and games) not submitting are multiple, but as time passes, we’ll see those reason begin to disappear and hopefully all games will eventually be submitted… but we have to start somewhere. I’m sorry Dan Hauser wouldn’t return our calls this year when we invited him to submit for GTA IV. I’m sorry EA wouldn’t allow their writers to submit scripts. I’m sorry that Portal didn’t list a writer last year. I’m sorry those games weren’t considered, but we’re not changing the rules… because if we hold our ground, then I’m sure by the 5th year of this award, we’ll be getting every game out there submitted as more and more companies discover that our award isn’t a union sneak attack. :)

    As for your complaint that submitting a script for this award costs $75 and mandates membership, well, if a professional game writer (or worse a team of 4-10 writers) can’t find $75 to submit for an award, I frankly wonder how they’re paying their rent. Are they writing games for free? I mean, most film script contests have a similar submission fee, and there’s no chance of getting an internationally recognized award for writing at the end of the process. Furthermore, the free DVDs our members get when Awards Season rolls around more than compensates for that whopping $75. I think I got 28 free films this year on DVD & Blu-Ray, most of them weeks before the films opened in theaters. I don’t know many members, Associate or not, who complain about getting free copies of each year’s best films, and that’s just one (really cool and easily cost-estimated) perk of being an Associate member of our Guild. There are others, Jon… join us and see!

    This brings up my last point: our judges are GAME WRITERS. No one is better qualified to judge the writing in games, in my opinion. Even though playing the various games is not part of judging, many of us have played some or even all of the final nominated games simply because we’re gamers, or because we’re deliberately playing all big releases in order to stay current on the state of the art in our field. As a game writer, I read game scripts all the time, and I write them as well, in any number of different formats. Judging how well-written a series of random barks might be is actually quite easy if I simply know the context… and since when a writer turns in an Excel spreadsheet of 100 “Funny Things for Hero To Quip As He Shoots Random Terrorists” it usually has a title on it, it’s generally not that difficult for me to figure out what’s going on when I read lines like “Say hello to your 72 virgins!” :)

    Please don’t judge our contest too harshly simply because it’s attached to our union. Our first intent is to reward great writing, and I think that two years in, we’re doing a pretty good job of it… and we’re getting bigger every year. That said, I’m NEVER giving an award for best game writing to a developer who won’t respect their writer enough to credit her. NEVER. I don’t care if that game is the Bladerunner times Citizen Kane to the Casablanca power of videogame writing. :)

    (like Tim, my screed = my own opinions, not those of the WGA, etc.)

  35. Zaphos Says:

    “Dislike it as much as you may, believe that games are somehow inherently different that all other writing as you may, the fact is that writers write SCRIPTS.”

    Writing a script for a computer is quite different than writing a script for a human — this sort of naive “a script is a script” equivalence just won’t do. It’s also clearly the case that sometimes writers do write complete games.

    “I’m sorry that Portal didn’t list a writer last year.”

    I’m pretty sure they did … just didn’t put ‘writer’ next to the names. That’s not a respect issue, just a different culture.

  36. Jorge Castro Says:

    Hi there:

    I have some question:

    “our judges are GAME WRITERS” who?.

    Sorry but game writers DON’T EXIST, just like @Zaphos say, usually there are script, other times there aren’t any dedicated for such task, in fact even for a big project, is pointless to left a specific person to write some text script.

    And now, i want to be harsh:

    *Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3.
    *Star Wars: The Force Unleashed.
    *Tomb Raider: Underworld.

    I must say one word :D OH!. I played those game and (in fact im still like to play command and conquest) but still i must say that they haven’t a real write you must value.

    Awards credibility :zero!.

    WGA just don’t do it again, game business is out of your scope, you screw it big time and i don’t think any game developer (indie or big publisher) will give any crap about such award.

  37. David Ellis Says:

    One minor correction to Micah’s comments–Dead Head Fred did actually have a larger team (around 40 or so at the peak of its development), so we don’t qualify as independent and small, but we WERE a low-profile game by comparison to a lot of the games out there in 2007.

    I’m not quite sure I understand why there’s so much opposition to the WGA awards. I think it’s great to have good game writing recognized. If it’s the qualification of the judges that is a sticking point, as Micah said the judges have video game experience. I was one of the judges this year. In addition to being a writer, I’m also a game developer who has been in the business for 17 years and I play a TON of games.

    This year’s entries were a good representation of the games of the past year. And, as was previously mentioned, if a game isn’t submitted for consideration, it cannot be expected to win. It’s a simple process, and if you don’t want to remain in the caucus after the first year, you can simply not renew your membership.

    I think that the solution here is for more developers to get involved in the process. Trust me, folks…it’s painless and not at all slimy. Just because the game industry didn’t initiate this doesn’t mean it doesn’t benefit us.

  38. Zaphos Says:

    “This year’s entries were a good representation of the games of the past year.”

    No, they weren’t — this was what prompted all this (the initial article and the response here). And it’s why coverage of the award looks like this (quoting joystiq):
    “As much as we enjoyed Dead Head Fred (it even made one of our Best of the Rest ’07 lists), there’s still that part of us that says it wasn’t a fair fight. In a year that included some of the best video game writing we can think of, the fact that the WGA’s nominees didn’t include titles like Mass Effect, BioShock, or Portal leaves us feeling … well, uneasy.”

    “if a game isn’t submitted for consideration, it cannot be expected to win”

    Sure it can, just consider all games in the first place. Problem solved! (ha ha)

    “I’m not quite sure I understand why there’s so much opposition to the WGA awards.”

    Overall the process — broken judging process, major omissions in the included games, designing the rules to exclude Valve — is fairly absurd. I’m not sure why there’s so much acceptance of the WGA awards, really. (Though I’m happy it got Keith some good PR!)

  39. Matt Cramp Says:

    EA not crediting a writer seems like a different proposition to Valve not crediting anyone. There is a conflict here, it seems, and I think it comes down to this statement from Sande: “The reason why the writing credit is necessary is to promote the importance of writers and writing in games.” The problem that I can see is that the skillset of writers that make them important to a well-written game are actually the skillset of a designer. A good writer without those skillsets will deliver a lifeless script that doesn’t have anywhere near the sparkle of a Bioshock, while a designer who isn’t a writer can bang out something that’s going to be awful but will feel to the players like a better fit (players have become conditioned to ignore truly awful writing thanks to the majority of early games coming from Japan). And there’s plenty of games that get by just fine without any writing. So how important is writing, then, when separated from design?

    I guess I understand why the WGA would be so down on Valve’s crediting practices, though (which I understand come from Microsoft). We “know” that Marc Laidlaw and Chet Faliszek are Valve’s writers on Half-Life and Portal, respectively, but if they leave and go to another company, they don’t have any record that they worked on Portal in the specific capacity the company is interested in. The question that raises is, well, part of the story came from design requirements, and the character of GLaDOS was invented because of positive responses to early playtesting. The rest of the team had a hand in the scenario design, so to credit Chet alone because he wrote the dialogue sells the rest of the team short. Valve’s crediting practices come from software development, where people might well have written just the network code but everyone’s credited equally because it’s easier to do that when the team’s working together and trading ideas. That field seems to muddle along just fine. (Valve’s website actually does credit their entire team in the field they work in).

    Hypertext seems promising as a written form for a game script. Descriptions and action sequences important to the plot can be rendered as stage directions, as they are in movies. A hyperlink to another part of the document can easily stand in for “the player makes a decision”, so the decision points can be preserved in the script and dialogue that is punctuated by the player exploring, as in Portal, can be rendered as a series of jumps instead of having to continually state “the player explores”.

  40. David Ellis Says:

    The only award I know of in the video game industry that allows anyone (any game developer, anyway) to nominate ANY game is the Game Developers Choice Award. And that’s a good thing, for sure. The one problem is that even game developers don’t play EVERY game out there, so the nominations will tend to be for games that are high-profile, high-exposure games that the majority of the nominators have played.

    By requiring a game to be submitted for consideration, anyone who submits has a shot, whether it’s a high-profile game like Tomb Raider or an independent game like Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble. It helps to level the playing field by putting games that people might not be familiar with in front of the judges.

    Requiring submission for consideration isn’t limited to the WGA…it’s true of pretty much every entertainment industry award. In our industry, for example, awards like the IDGA Interactive Achievement Award (which charges $1000 per title submitted) and the Game Audio Network Guild award (which doesn’t charge, but requires the nominator–but not the nominee–to be a member) require games to be submitted–they don’t consider every game.

    On a side note, would you say that the IGDA puts money before quality by requiring submitters to pony up a grand in order to be considered? From my point of view, it certainly seems more exclusionary than a $75 WGA membership fee…especially for independent/small developers.

    As for “making rules to exclude…”, some kind of standardization of crediting in games is something that the game industry has been striving for. What’s so wrong about requiring someone to be credited as a “writer” in order to win an award for “writing?”

    One final point–the assertion that the WGA awards are “pretend awards” and “don’t put quality first” is not only inaccurate, it is also rather insulting to the writers who have won and been nominated for the award. Everyone is entitled to their opinion on the award process, but it belittles and denegrates fellow game developers when it is implied that their work is sub-standard just because they weren’t up against some of the more popular games out there.

  41. Jonathan Blow Says:

    If anyone finds objective reality insulting, then that person has a problem, not me. It is a plain fact that anyone who has won a WGA award was competing in a pool that excluded most of the industry’s better games.

    I am not raising this point to insult anyone, and I don’t even think any of the award winners would dispute the fact!

  42. MrD Says:

    > “Key Grip: Jonathan Blow”

    Hey, somebody’s got to keep the camera in the right place, right?

  43. David Midgley Says:

    I saw this recently on the writers’ SIG mailing list. I was tempted to pay the (rather steep, for me at least) dues and submit a couple of games to the guild, on the basis that yes, maybe the competition isn’t that fierce — but in my case, the submission process was such a hassle that it wasn’t worth it, ignoring any question of ethics. But the ethical angle is a valid one, too. Having said that, the reduced competition may mean that paying for membership and then getting the award (and thus effectively paying for an award) is a good self-promotion strategy.

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