Geoff Keighley just unveiled the categories and nominees for The Game Awards 2022. Like any other year, one of those categories is “Games for Impact.” I don’t have anything against the “impactful” games that were selected this year, like I Was a Teenage Exocolonist (which I reviewed favorably). It’s that the award itself imposes a limiting view of what thoughtful games can be.
Here’s how Keighley defines the category: “Games for Impact recognizes a thought-provoking game with a profound pro-social meaning.” The nominees include A Memoir Blue, As Dusk Falls, Citizen Sleeper, Endling: Extinction is Forever, Hindsight, and I Was a Teenage Exocolonist. I’ve only played one title out of the six, but I’m sure they’re all fine games. That doesn’t change how insulting the category feels.
Take “pro-social,” for example. What is a pro-social game? Let’s assume that it refers to nonviolent games. I’m clear-eyed about how video game violence is evaluated. The game with more murder is often considered more serious, prestigious, and game-like. If the award body thought that Teenage Exocolonist is a marvelous game for not simulating human murder, then it should be in the Game of the Year category. Otherwise, It just feels like our industry is trying to say “Our medium isn’t solely war crime simulators! We have non-violent games too!”
Does it mean that a game has LGBTQ characters? If so, then I think that’s even worse. As I’ve written previously, all video games should be held to some basic standards where representation is concerned. Especially if they have multi-million dollar budgets and access to global talent. We shouldn’t be recognizing a fraction of games for attempting representation. We should expect it from God of War Ragnarök and Horizon Forbidden West. It’s telling that those two games both feature diversity, but no award body would ever attempt to nominate them for “Games for Impact.” Because it’s the consolation award category of The Game Awards.
I also don’t think “Games for Impact” is flattering to big blockbuster games either. AAA games force me to have big meaningful thoughts all the time. It’s not just indie games that are capable of simulating my brain into having an opinion about the world around me. I worry that if we limit “thought provoking” mechanics to indie games, then it might be harder to criticize big-budget games because they’re not considered the right “type” of games to scrutinize for “pro-social” themes.
I know why this category exists. The Game Awards is a popularity contest in which the most well-known games or titles with the largest budgets typically sweep the awards. But to maintain a façade of meritocracy, the awards need to give some recognition to the most prestigious indie games. I just wish they could have done it by letting Citizen Sleeper be a GOTY contender or by nominating Teenage Exocolonist for “Best Role Playing.” The awards would still be uneven. But it would give smaller games a better chance of being considered for artistic and technical achievements, rather than sequestering them to the kiddie pool.