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Just not into that awards game

The videogame trade has a tough time getting members to leave their computers and play celebrity for a night.

February 16, 2007|Heather Chaplin | Special to The Times

In 1998, when the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences hosted its first award show for videogames, it laid down a red carpet to add Hollywood glamour. Confused game makers, not knowing what it was for, carefully skirted it. Ten years later, they know what it's for, but they're still not sure they like it.

Flashy awards shows may be a popular way of conveying legitimacy and status on our cultural chosen ones, but not all culture makers were created alike and not all were meant -- or want -- to get in front of the camera and play the celebrity.

"When the academy was created, it was to have a platform to showcase great games each year in a manner similar to the Oscars, Emmys and Grammys," said Joseph Olin, the academy's president. "And I think there was a certain level of naivete about how easy this would be."

Last year, game-of-the-year nominee David Jaffe e-mailed Olin to find out if he could wear jeans. (When his game "God of War" won, his acceptance speech included a heartfelt wish to smoke some pot.)

"How hard is it, one night a year, to dress up and pretend we're grown-ups?" Olin lamented.

Indeed, over the years Olin and his predecessors have struggled not only with people refusing to dress up but no-shows, heckling of presenters, boos from rivals and attendees choosing the bar at the back of the room rather than their tables by the stage. And then there are the deeply divided feelings as to whether this kind of Hollywood-style event was even for them.

"For celebrities, being in public is what they do," said Alex Rigopulos, co-founder and chief executive of Harmonix, which was nominated for four awards this year, including game of the year for its hit "Guitar Hero 2." "But game developers sit in dark rooms working at their computers all day. That's what we do. So we're kind of out of our element when you ask us to do things like walk a red carpet or get up on stage."

Though it has finally penetrated the mainstream consciousness and can boast retail sales that surpass Hollywood box-office take, the videogame industry is still relatively young and is still suffering the growing pain of making that shift from being a technology industry with roots in the toy business to entertainment juggernaut.

This year's awards took place Feb. 8 at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. The 725-plus attendees started with a pre-party at Body English at the Hard Rock. They were welcomed by women in leather short-shorts, fishnet stockings and leopard-print vests. Not exactly Nicole Kidman and Kate Winslet in Chanel and Gaultier, but there were raw oysters and sushi displayed around an ice sculpture of the AIAS award statue.

"We're always apologizing for what we do, and it's stupid," said Phil Harrison, president of Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios. "We have our own ground to stand on, and that's the art and technology of what we do, and a fan base that is not insubstantial."

As Harrison spoke, Richard "Lord British" Garriott, creator of the "Ultima" series, last year's inductee into the Academy Hall of Fame, was nearby doing card tricks while wearing a satin pin-striped tux, with faux diamond buttons and cufflinks.

For this year's ceremony, Olin and his team of organizers took steps to forestall the kinds of problems they had had in years past. Assigned seating was introduced, and waiters were instructed to keep the alcohol flowing to the tables so that the game makers wouldn't have any reason to wander.

Much to the delight of the audience, host Jay Mohr roared with off-color comments. Winners -- including Cliff Bleszinski, whose "Gears of War" dominated the show -- were stewarded off stage for media interviews. And while there were only three news crews, mostly for websites, and a handful of reporters sitting on folding chairs along the edge of the room, they were pushed up against the logo-laden backdrop where the cameras' bright lights made them glow as if they were celebrities.

The swag bags may have contained flannel pajamas and a 512k-megabyte USB drive rather than Cartier watches and digital cameras, but they were provided by Target -- not exactly Moet & Chandon but at least a mainstream retail brand and not a game company sponsor, a first for the AIAS.

Olin was so pleased with this year's show, in fact, that he's reconsidering the importance of TV coverage, once the academy's holy grail. In part this has to do with a dawning awareness that TV is no longer the be-all and end-all for either cultural legitimacy or communication. (And if anyone should know this, it's the head of the AIAS.) But it's also as if Olin has finally been beaten into recognizing that no amount of shoving and cajoling is going to get game makers to act like happy celebrities.

"You know those family occasions where there's a kids table and an adults table?" Olin said. "Well, what I'm realizing, and this has been a slow realization, is that maybe we're better off at the kids table eating ice cream for a main course. It's certainly more fun, and you know, I guess that's who we are."

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