Writers Guild Awards: Good for Games?

Writers Guild Awards: Good for Games?

Storytelling in video games has been going through a long period of maturation. Though there is a bit of a ways go to before games can consistently sell plots that are as engaging as the average work of literature, there’s no doubt that our favorite pastime is capable of drawing out our emotions. We’ve come a long way from chasing after princesses who are stashed away by giant turtle kings.

So when news got around about video games being eligible for Writing Award nominations by the Writers Guild of America, we couldn’t help but fluff up a little in pride. Here, finally, was an indication that video games are being taken seriously as a storytelling medium.

Alas, winning the WGA’s award for outstanding writing in the field of video game excellence isn’t as simple as penning a game’s story and having it noticed by the members of the WGA. To be eligible, the must be part of the WGA’s Videogame Writers Caucus (VWC). This requires a $60 annual fee. It’s not necessary to be part of the Caucus and the WGA in order to win the award, but Rockstar, BioWare, and other studios have refused to participate.

The head of the Videogame Writers Caucus, Micah Wright, has since backed up the WGA’s position. “The WGA is a Guild primarily supported by the mandatory union dues of our film and television member-writers,” he told Gamesindustry.biz. “A writer who works on, say, Pirates of the Caribbean 4, will contribute 2% of their salary to the union, which in the case of a film like that might be in the range of $100,000. The idea that anyone thinks the WGA is somehow getting rich off of $60 fees from videogame writers is laughable.”

Wright also clarified the reason behind the Caucus’ existence. “[We’re] a working group of professional writers dedicated to raising the profile of the videogame writer, improving the working conditions for all development crew, and setting industry standards as far as work and payscale and deliverables for game writers,” he said. “The VWC is a volunteer organization made up entirely of working videogame writers.”

Eligibility also requires that the studio hand in a game script with the writers’ names on it.

Regardless of whether or not you support unions or an organization like the VWC, it’s limiting to tell the industry, “Hey, we’re giving out awards!…But you have to pay $60 to have a chance at grabbing it.” Excluding others based on what is essentially an entrance fee makes for a rickety podium. The situation gets even trickier when you consider that BioWare and Rockstar–the studios that put together the beloved stories for Grand Theft Auto and Dragon Age–have refused to enter. Can you count an award as an all-encompassing representation of the industry’s writing achievements if two of the likeliest candidates won’t pay the necessary fees to enter? Shouldn’t Dragon Age automatically win a nomination based on the quality of its writing alone?

The WGA’s award is divisive for another reason. Video game development isn’t just based in North America. It’s based in Japan, Europe, Australia, and almost everywhere else in the world. The writing in a Japanese RPG is far different from what you’d find in a Western-developed FPS. Both scripts have the potential to be terrible, or excellent. Is the award limited to English-speaking countries only? Is there an award for masterful localization?

Wright does bring up a valid concern: It’s impossible to play every game made inside of a year and judge the quality of the writing within. That’s why he asks for studios to submit game scripts, which can be read within a few hours. However, some studios refuse to do so, and it’s not hard to see why: Reading a script is not the same as playing through it and experiencing it in context. A happy medium needs to rise up (video clips?) before any judge can wholly evaluate the quality of a game’s writing.

Until then, Wright’s intentions for the VWC are noble, but the Caucus should separate itself from industry-wide award ceremonies–unless it specifically indicates that its awards acknowledge good work done within the Caucus, and therefore don’t represent the entire industry.

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for 1UP.com, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is About.com’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.

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