The former journalist has transformed into the video game industry’s ubiquitous booster, and the Oscars-inspired Game Awards are the heart of his hype campaign
In December 2021, the Game Awards opened with a moment of whiplash. Geoff Keighley, the show’s host, producer, and creator, took to the stage of the Microsoft Theater with the words, “We gotta be real, and we can’t ignore the headlines. … We should not and will not tolerate any abuse, harassment, and predatory practices by anyone, including our online communities.” For a statement referring to the alleged rape, sexual assault, and bullying at Activision Blizzard, it was strikingly generic. Indeed, anyone unfamiliar with the news likely would have been confused: What, and more precisely who, was Keighley alluding to? But just as quickly as he had dispensed with those words, the host was back in a mode he is more comfortable with: hype. “Believe me,” he continued during an awkward transition moments later. “The future you’re about to see looks absolutely incredible.” For a few fleeting seconds, it was as if reality had crashed the Game Awards’ party of pure imagination.
Now, the spotlight is set to shine on the Canadian Keighley once again as he raises the curtain on the ninth edition of what many consider the video game industry’s Oscars. The Game Awards, which will take place Thursday in Los Angeles, are but one component of Keighley’s ever-expanding media empire, which also includes E3 rival Summer Game Fest and Gamescom Opening Night Live. If you follow games, Keighley’s ageless face and unchanging haircut have never been more ubiquitous. His current role, best described as the games industry’s grand master of ceremonies, is but the latest evolution in a career that has seen him segue from highly respected games journalist to prominent television personality. Along the way, he has become a meme, both lionized for defending the medium against the American right and chastised for cozying up to big brands, emblematic at each stage of gaming’s biggest cultural concerns. Throughout it all, Keighley has doggedly focused on the beauty of games rather than any ugliness.
Over Zoom in September, bright light cracking through the blinds of his Pacific Palisades apartment, the 44-year-old talks me through his day’s schedule. Every single minute is accounted for: At 10 a.m, he is talking to a “big movie” that wants to be part of the Game Awards; 30 minutes later he is fielding a pitch for a video game whose publisher hopes to secure a world premiere at the show; then, at 11 a.m, he has an appointment with Intel, one of the event’s sponsors. From there, he has meetings with game publishers, TikTok, and Netflix, as well as a call with his “co-showrunner,” Kimmie H. Kim, the person who helps Keighley “translate” what is in his head to the glitzy production that’s become one of the industry’s most important events. He will end the day by driving an hour to Disney’s headquarters in Burbank to attend a preview event for the Star Wars television series Andor.
Show business has always been part of Keighley’s life. Both his parents were early executives at IMAX and remain the company’s “chief quality gurus.” With those roles came membership in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and, often, attendance at the Academy Awards. Keighley saw the reverence his parents had for the ceremony.
“My dad would always talk about the Oscars and how much it meant to him,” he says. “I always wondered, ‘Well, why doesn’t games have something that people care about that much. … What’s the Oscar equivalent for gaming?” In November 1994, a teenage Keighley found out. Courtesy of a hook-up from his father via producer Peter Hayman, Keighley, already writing for a magazine, was tapped to write the nomination blurbs for a new video game awards show. “I went to downtown Los Angeles and met with [the production team],” he recalls. “None of the writers on the show knew anything. … I was hired to basically tell them about games.”
Chaperoned by his father, Keighley flew to Hollywood from his home in suburban Toronto to watch the none-too-subtly-named Cybermania ’94: The Ultimate Gamer Awards. The teenager, wearing a tuxedo, took his seat next to famed pop artist Peter Max. “I remember hearing the words and just being proud,” he says. “It was really transformative for me to see my hobby, gaming, which is such a personal, independent, and sometimes lonely experience, in a big room.” For others, the show was likely less profound. Dwarves juggled and spun plates behind host Leslie Nielsen while jazz great Herbie Hancock performed an utterly forgettable electro-funk number titled “Cyber Generation.” In a damning review, Entertainment Weekly described it as a “low-rent whack at the MTV Video Music Awards without the faintest whiff of Oscar’s legitimacy.”
You will see no such cringe-inducing entertainment at the Game Awards, a fastidious black tie event carefully calibrated to propel gaming to an even broader audience. If Keighley is an evangelist for the medium, then the Game Awards is his gospel. Tune in to the event, not on traditional broadcast television but YouTube, Twitch, or at an IMAX theater, and you will bear witness to tasteful orchestral performances of cherished soundtracks and a veritable cavalcade of trailers showcasing the most exciting upcoming titles.
Herein lies one of the show’s ongoing grounds for criticism: Is it a glorified advertisement for future titles or a genuine attempt to take stock of the past year’s interactive excellence? Regardless, Keighley’s pitch is persuasive: Even if you remain unmoved by the past 12 months, here is a promise of what is to come, curated by the best-connected man in the industry. “He’s the meta-marketer, the marketer of marketers,” Stephen Totilo, gaming reporter at Axios, tells me over Google Meet. “He’s the person who takes everybody’s marketing plan and tries to see if you can put it all together into these very exciting looks at the future.”
Born in 1978, Keighley’s perspective has always tended toward the future. Growing up in suburban Toronto with affluent parents, he took computer lessons when he was a child, learning to type before he could write. Keighley and his brother enjoyed cutting-edge home consoles of the era, including the 3DO (which retailed for close to $1,000 in Canada, Keighley recalls). There was a Sega Genesis and an NES plugged into the television in the downstairs of their spacious family home, and Keighley and his younger brother imported Japanese games before they were released in North America. However, Keighley was most enchanted by point-and-click adventure games of the kind made by Sierra Entertainment. His imagination was fired to such a degree that he mailed a letter to the company asking how they were created. Two weeks later, he was invited to become a beta tester, racking up a host of credits on titles such as Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist before he was old enough to drive. Then, in 1996, still only a teenager, Keighley launched GameSlice, which he calls “one of the first gaming sites on the internet.”
Amer Ajami, a former editor of Keighley’s at GameSpot, recalls the quality of the writing on GameSlice compared to other enthusiast publications of the era such as Voodoo Extreme, Blue’s News, and his own site, Cyrellis 3D. “It was one of the few websites among the group that didn’t follow the formula [of entirely posting aggregated news stories],” he explains over Google Meet, adding that the site “primarily lean[ed] on its own original written content, and it was really high quality … especially for an independent, small website with an unknown number of editors.” Indeed, Keighley believes the internet is one of the reasons why he was taken seriously so young. “It’s like the old New Yorker cartoon where you see a dog and it’s like, ‘On the internet, no one knows you’re a dog,’” he explains. “On the internet, no one knew I was 13 years old.”
The enterprising writer began to amass an enviable list of contacts, scoring previews of highly anticipated games like Tomb Raider and Jazz Jackrabbit 2. Reflecting its enthusiast form, the coverage was cozy rather than provocative, dependent on the goodwill of publishers for access. In a post published before the 1996 Christmas holidays, Keighley refers to a preview of the first-person shooter Hexen II, which included new screenshots and video, as a “special Christmas present” from both GameSlice and its maker, Raven Software. The teenager started to solidify other relationships. Laura Miele, chief operating officer at Electronic Arts, who worked in marketing at Westwood Studios in the mid-’90s, remembers speaking with Keighley for hours over the phone. “I would talk to him about marketing campaigns, I would talk to him about competitive products, I would just ask him about the industry because he was so knowledgeable,” she says over Zoom. “He played everything, he knew so many people, and I just found him to be honest and transparent.”
“[Geoff Keighley is] the meta-marketer, the marketer of marketers.” —Stephen Totilo, Axios gaming reporter
By 1997, despite having only just started a business major at the University of Southern California, was making a name for himself. Inspired by VH1’s Behind the Music, he pitched GameSpot a series of making-of features in an bid to move beyond the era’s journalistic “pom-pom waving.” GameSpot agreed, and so he penned “Blinded by Reality: The True Story Behind the Creation of Unreal.” The piece focused on the tumultuous development of Epic Games’ 1998 hit Unreal and in-house engine of the same name (now one of the most commonly used in gaming). His prose is pulpy and propulsive, not gonzo but rich with the kind of incidental detail that stems from bedding in with your subjects, from fostering a sense of intimacy. In the introduction, Keighley summons a striking image of a mariachi band playing in a drab apartment block at 5 a.m as programmers wrap up the mother of all-nighters. How did Keighley earn these game makers’ trust? In the case of Epic Games, he knew cofounder Mark Rein from Toronto. As youngsters, they used to hang out at their local GameStop.
Keighley also recounts the time he visited Valve, the Seattle-based studio behind the Half-Life franchise, only for company cofounder Gabe Newell to literally give him a key card with the instruction: “Go around, talk to people, see what you find, do what you want.” Keighley spent days interviewing developers without a publicist in sight. “They would always tell me afterward, ‘You were kind of like a shrink that came in and did these exit interviews with everyone at the end of the project,” he says. Yet despite Keighley’s desire for a deeper, more investigative kind of journalism, the resulting features sat firmly within a realm of marketing acceptability. Keighley often commented on the physical tiredness of developers, like John Guthrie, a young designer at Valve, who hadn’t “had time to sleep, much less shave.” If the story were being written today, Guthrie’s “18-hour days with no weekends” would be a labor scandal.
Still, not all of Keighley’s journalism was plain sailing. In 1998, the college student made it onto the so-called “debits” of first-person shooter Blood II: The Chosen, an alternative credits reserved for people who had pissed off the game’s producer. A few years later, he was threatened with a lawsuit by Todd Porter, cofounder of Ion Storm, while writing a piece on the famously rocky development of 2000’s Daikatana. “It caused a little pause,” Keighley says. “It was high stakes and I’m a kid covering video games just wanting to get to the truth of the matter.”
As Keighley grew older and accumulated insider knowledge, he became more confident. Totilo remembers Keighley “holding court” at industry events in the early aughts. “You’d go as press and there’d be developers, there’d be executives, and Geoff would be there, knowing everybody, knowing all their secrets,” Totilo tells me. “I feel like one of his tactics was to kind of provoke people by telling them half of what he knew. Maybe some of it wasn’t even correct—he’d tease out of them that urge to respond. … As a young reporter myself, newer to the beat than him, I was like, ‘Wow, this guy is so clued in, he’s so networked, he’s so connected.’”
For Ajami, Keighley was “always business.” In 2001, on a press trip to Tokyo for “The Final Hours of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty,” Keighley, according to Ajami, was utterly focused on “extracting as much value” as he could from his time with the game’s director, Hideo Kojima. “It doesn’t really matter where he is, what the setting is, Geoff is the consummate professional,” his former editor says. “That can be taken a number of different ways. Geoff was only ever looking after Geoff. I always got the sense he was laser-focused on what the next step in his career was.” Even when the pair hung out for drinks in Los Angeles, which happened frequently in the early 2000s, “Geoff was always on,” Ajami says. “I always got the sense that you would get 95 percent of the authentic Geoff. … We would cut jokes, we would laugh at whatever, we’d make fun of people that were worthy of making fun of, but I would never crack that last 5 percent and get to the point where I’d go, ‘OK, this is the authentic person I’m dealing with.’”
As any video game journalist or critic will tell you, there is a hard limit on the prestige and remuneration such professions offer. Despite no shortage of excellence, neither field has yet produced a Pulitzer-winning writer or journalist. When Keighley was wrapping up college, he says, he decided it was time to “figure out a career … like, ‘This gaming stuff’s been fun, but what am I gonna do with my life?’” He was enrolled in law school when, at 2001’s E3, he was approached by an editor at Time magazine who hoped the journalist would write about both games and the wider world of business. Around this time, Keighley also started working for Entertainment Weekly (which he’d devoured growing up) and Fortune, penning sizable features on diverse subjects such as Cirque du Soleil and internet news entrepreneur Matt Drudge. But almost as quickly as Keighley began writing for these outlets, his attention was piqued by the possibilities of the moving image, another new avenue for his storytelling.
Victor Lucas, creator of Canadian gaming television show The Electric Playground, is the man Keighley credits with bringing him to the screen when he hired him as a host in 2002. Whereas Lucas says Keighley’s brash cohost Tommy Tallarico “wanted to be famous,” Keighley was more reserved. “He’s serious,” Lucas tells me on a video call from his Vancouver studio. “I don’t think he’s a goofy personality. I asked him to do things that stretched him.” In a segment on 2004’s Star Wars: Battlefront, Keighley interviews the game’s senior marketing coordinator, Chris Susen, in some woods as a skirmish plays out between local cosplayers dressed as Rebels and Imperials. A year later, Keighley and Lucas would film a similarly action-packed follow-up for Star Wars: Battlefront II at the Pandemic Studios office. “Geoff was already cooking at that time,” Lucas recalls. “And he’s like, ‘I got until two o’clock.’ So I’m madly scrambling to put all of the shots together.”
By 2005, Keighley had landed a gig at the recently launched Spike TV, a network aimed squarely at a young, male audience. Spike had plans for its own annual video game awards, and Keighley’s show (initially called Game Head and later rebranded to GameTrailers TV With Geoff Keighley) was intended to supplement it. The rate of work was furious, 30 to 40 shows a year for the best part of a decade. If Keighley felt any frustration about its air time, a graveyard slot late on Friday nights, he doesn’t show it now. On the contrary, he’s effusive about the experience. “I got to see the world through that show,” he says.
While still hosting his own program, Keighley started to become more heavily involved with the Spike Video Game Awards, by 2008 playing a key role in producing and cohosting the show. Watch what’s available of the Spike VGAs on YouTube, and you will likely be struck by the extent of their machismo, which was intended to cater to what Keighley characterizes as network executives’ “mythical mainstream viewer.” (In 2008, for example, acclaimed adventure game designer Tim Schafer was wheeled on stage in a chariot by scantily clad women.) Although the show helped Keighley learn the technical intricacies of production, he’s aware of its shortcomings. “You look at it now, even me, and you sort of cover your eyes,” he says. “You’re like, ‘Wow, was that what was done on television?’ But that was the cultural era. … When I reflect back I often think about that. I’m like, ‘Well, was that worthwhile?’ I thought trying to change the way that show was done within the system, the confines of what it was, was an interesting challenge. I don’t think we got all the way there, but I do think it got better over the years.”
“To turn the show into a referendum on what’s going on in the industry, I don’t think that’s right.” —Keighley
The Spike VGAs weren’t an aberration, a mainstream network’s mischaracterization of a wholesome, nerdy community, but a reflection of a broader cultural sensibility present in both the games industry and the games media. Games journalist turned game writer Leigh Alexander remembers the landscape being “extremely sexist,” revolving around large trade shows she describes as “thinly veiled, adult male playgrounds.” “It felt to me very immature,” she tells me over a video call. “I, as well as others I knew, felt sort of hostage to the demands of an incredibly toxic consumer base, and no one seemed willing to acknowledge it. We were just amping up the power fantasies year after year.”
With seemingly every other trailer featuring a man blowing shit up, the content of the Spike VGAs arguably fed such power fantasies, but in a personal sense, Keighley set himself apart. “It was very rare for a consumer guy of that caliber to treat me with the kindness, professionalism, and respect that Geoff did,” Alexander says. “It’s really horrible to say, but it was a games industry where that stood out to me.”
By this time, Keighley was transitioning into a new phase of his career, that of media personality. In early 2008, he appeared on Fox News for a segment on the role-playing game Mass Effect that was headlined, “SE’XBOX.” In the exchange, Fox News anchor Martha MacCallum and psychology expert Cooper Lawrence argue that the game (described as “Luke Skywalker meets Debbie Does Dallas”) is essentially pornography that objectifies women. Keighley coolly retorts: “Have you ever played Mass Effect?” Neither of them had. At one stage, Lawrence sarcastically says, “And the young boys are going to be choosing not to have sex, that’ll be what they choose.” Again, Keighley calmly responds: “But Cooper, it’s not a simple choice. … It’s through the evolution of a relationship with characters and the fact that this game has incredible artificial intelligence. You can actually fall in love in this game. It’s like modeling your life, and I think that’s a much more powerful form of media.”
On NeoGAF, a popular forum of the day, Keighley was heralded as a hero for cutting through Fox News’s snide condescension. “Geoff Keighly [sic] did pretty awesome. I could see the rage in his eyes,” wrote one user. “Thank you Geoff for standing up for our hobby!” another wrote. Keighley even responded: “Thanks for all the props guys! ... I’m glad I was at least able to go on and set the record straight.”
For a lot of people, Keighley’s rebuttal was cathartic, coming during a period when gaming “felt like it was under siege,” says Totilo. Doom and the Columbine school shooting still loomed large in the cultural imagination, attorney Jack Thompson continued to proclaim that games were “murder simulators,” and the Entertainment Software Association, the lobbying group for the games industry, was playing defense against congressional hearings. “At every turn,” Totilo says, “there would be a media story, a new horror about the content of video games.” Keighley’s polished positivity made him the champion that the maturing but still widely dismissed and misrepresented medium needed.
“He’s happy to be the voice of the industry. I don’t think it would be that hard for him to also be the conscience.” —Totilo
As industry revenues skyrocketed and gaming gained greater mainstream acceptance as a sophisticated form of expression (partly because of boosters like Keighley), some gamers wanted watchdogs more than Pollyannaish promoters. Venerated by the online games community in 2008, Keighley became the object of its ridicule less than five years later. In October 2012, an image surfaced of Keighley sitting between Doritos chips and Mountain Dew while filming a segment about Halo 4, the latest installment of Microsoft’s sci-fi shooter. It quickly circulated on the internet—evidence, according to his critics (including Eurogamer columnist Rab Florence), of a lack of standards in games journalism. Keighley acknowledges the image is “garish,” but stresses that he had, by this time, “transitioned from being a games journalist to being a host, and a sort of personality.” Alexander strikes an understanding tone in her assessment of what came to be known as “Doritosgate.” “I think it’s unfortunate that Geoff personally came to be the face of our resentment for the marriage between advertising and the consumer industry, for which he’s not responsible at all,” she says. “He’s working as a presenter. We all work in different parts of the industry. It’s a big industry. There’s commercial, there’s independent, there’s a wide range of sectors that people can be working [in], just like Geoff presenting the shows.”
However misguided the vitriol ultimately was, Doritosgate represented a wider “inflection point,” per Alexander, a moment of scrutiny for the ethics of games journalism and the close relationship between games and their marketing machines (which later became the ostensible basis for Gamergate). Spurred on by a new wave of artistic indies and ambitious blockbusters, conversations about the medium’s legitimacy were also taking root, advancing the “notion that we were on the vanguard of a conversation that was going to elevate the medium in some sophisticated and accepted, HBO-ass, New York Times way—not like Spike TV,” Alexander says. “There was a lot of self-examination going on within the industry at that period.”
Keighley, of course, went through his own process of soul-searching. In 2013, the Spike VGAs changed name and format. Previously a bombastic, energy-drink-fueled spectacle, in 2013 they transitioned to a relatively low-key livestream called Spike VGX. Keighley cohosted alongside an, at times, unpleasant and sneering Joel McHale, who ridiculed both the show’s guests and its gaming audience. GameSpot called it a “disaster.” Forbes described it as a “new kind of mess.” A year later, Keighley launched the Game Awards.
The Game Awards, then, represent Keighley’s vision of a more respectful video game award show, one that meets the medium, its creators, and its fans on their own terms rather than via B- and C-list celebrities and agonizing comedy skits. Launched in 2014, the show was initially funded out of his own pocket, and he retains creative control. “The buck stops with me,” he says. “We’re just going to cover great games in the right way.” In an important sense, Keighley says, the show is made possible by the connections he’s fostered since his early days as a journalist and has continued to nurture over his television career. “I’ve earned that trust over decades,” Keighley says with pride. “It really is the product of 20 or 30 years of working with all these different studios.”
For all Keighley’s connections, producing an awards show for video games poses a set of idiosyncratic challenges, not least how to devise its categories. Speaking to me on a video call from his New York office, Sam Barlow, director of Immortality (which is up for three awards at the show), draws attention toward the nebulous meaning of genre—for example, the way a “survival game” can be either a real-time strategy title like Frostpunk or a top-down action-adventure game like Don’t Starve (Keighley categorizes genre by mechanic rather than plot or tone). A bigger omission is that of technical categories beyond the most conspicuous to players, such as art and audio design. “Where are the awards for programming? That is 70 percent of your game. That’s half of your team. We make things out of code,” Barlow says, adding, “Given how focused the Game Awards tend to be on third-person action-adventure games, there should be a level design category. If there’s an editing category for movies, level design should be in there.”
As for the actual awards voting, Keighley stresses his lack of involvement. “One of the biggest misperceptions about the show is that somehow I’m picking what wins. … I see that on social [media] all the time,” he says. “And it’s like, I have nothing to do with that. And for a very good reason. It’s very church-and-state in that I’m involved in the show, working with all the game companies, the sponsors, [but] I have nothing to do with that. What gets nominated, what wins, is based on the jury and the public.”
“Gaming is a massive industry but it’s only going to get bigger, and I think we’re going to see gaming and gaming technology power all entertainment.” —Keighley
However, as with any mainstream awards show, what wins at the Game Awards mostly reflects what boasts the biggest marketing budgets, which becomes conspicuous as Keighley introduces each new slickly produced trailer. A game’s hype-filled life cycle can both begin and end at the Game Awards: Keighley introduces its existence with a razzle-dazzle trailer one year, then crowns it the winner of an award a few years later. The event, then, almost functions as a closed loop of publicity, with Keighley sitting at its center, the star whose gravitational pull everything revolves around.
It’s for this reason that Ethan Gach, a senior reporter at Kotaku, describes Keighley as a “linchpin” and compares him to the ESA. “As that organization has waned over the last decade, he has come into prominence, more as a human face but with a very similar project,” Gach explains over Google Meet. “He’s obviously not lobbying Congress, people, and state legislatures to try and create laws that are helpful or amenable to copyright interests, labor interests, or whatever of studios. But in terms of trying to make people proud of the industry, and think positively about gaming, he’s become the frontman for all of that.”
But Keighley’s relentless focus on the positivity of video games, the very same kind of “pom-pom waving” he railed against as a younger man, has led to awkward moments. Gach says 2021’s introductory speech, which briefly addressed the abuse and sexual assault at Activision Blizzard in all but name, “did not meet the moment. … If he had just not addressed it at all, I don’t necessarily think that would have been better, but I also don’t think people would have been shocked. I think it’s one of those things where, if you do choose to address something, are you going to do it in a way that feels true? Or a way that feels like you risk something in some way? You have built up credibility and cachet in this industry, especially with the power brokers who run the studios, who make these decisions, and are you going to expend some of that to give a voice or call out something in a way that other people who are shouting about it on Twitter don’t have the same chance to do?”
Keighley, however, is satisfied with his handling of the situation. “It’s such a systemic issue across the industry,” he says. “Everyone’s like, ‘Why didn’t he mention Activision by name? It’s like, no, there are issues at Ubisoft and Riot. All these companies have specific issues, and I think it’s a larger industry issue. … Should you bar people from nominations, or ban people from the show? That’s the thing I wrestle with: Are we judge, jury, and executioner on specific companies? We don’t have time or the resources to investigate every individual issue and decide what’s the best way to address this with company X or company Y. … In many ways, it was a debate to even say anything in the show because it’s sort of a downer to open the Game Awards.”
Keighley continues, “I think a lot of people play games and tune in to a show like the Game Awards because they just want to escape their daily life, to just enjoy games and celebrate that. So to me, it’s like, to turn the show into a referendum on what’s going on in the industry, I don’t think that’s right. But you also need to be conscious of the zeitgeist of the things that are out there. I was happy that we said something.”
As Totilo points out, however, Keighley has shown himself willing to be specific when so inclined. “It’s conspicuous that Geoff, while doing some positive initiatives like the Future Class, has not used his platform to the extent that I think possible,” he says. “It’s possible to put a spotlight on or to call out injustices within gaming, within the industry, within the very companies whose products are often featured in his shows. And he’s invited that contrast by showing, quite publicly, the lengths he will go if he chooses to, in the case of the efforts he took several years ago at the Game Awards to highlight what he felt was the unfair treatment of Hideo Kojima, the celebrated developer who is very obviously, publicly, his friend.”
Hideo Kojima and Geoff Keighley at the Tribeca Games Festival in 2017
Totilo concludes, “He’s happy to be the voice of the industry. I don’t think it would be that hard for him to also be the conscience.”
It’s precisely Keighley’s reluctance to engage with wider issues that Todd Martens, video game and entertainment columnist for the Los Angeles Times, finds disappointing. “I would like to see the Game Awards get better at addressing industry cultural issues, allowing people to show a bit more of their personality and a bit more of their voice,” he says. “That’s where you get into whether or not the promotional aspect of showing upcoming games is really a good thing, or if it comes with some drawbacks. The games medium as a whole is still very bad at talking about politics, even when they’re in their games. … I think Geoff has to walk that line of if the show started to present more opinions, or different perspectives, you may lose some of that promotional aspect.”
Some of this tension manifests in the Games for Impact award, a distinction reserved for “thought-provoking” games with a “pro-social meaning or message,” according to the Game Awards site. Previous winners include That Dragon, Cancer, and Celeste, games with deep, emotional stories told with craft and elegance that nonetheless felt as if they had, in some sense, been relegated. Indeed, Barlow, nominated in 2015 for the award with Her Story, sees it as “slightly condescending,” saying, “If a game is having an impact, if it’s doing something interesting, it should be up for best game, right? No one’s [suggesting] Parasite, an exploration of class struggle, should be called out as ‘movie for impact’ because it’s dealing with social themes.”
In spite of such criticisms, the Game Awards’ viewing figures have risen astronomically since its debut in 2014. That year, the show pulled in 1.9 million streams. Last year, the number rose to 85 million. The so-called “world premieres,” trailers for upcoming games, are the lifeblood of the show, and arguably the primary reason why it’s able to command an audience of such size. Big-budget blockbusters like Death Stranding and Hellblade II have debuted extended trailers at the Game Awards in recent years, and while their inclusion might be an opportunistic ploy to drive up viewership, they also speak to Keighley’s deeply held beliefs about video games. This is often the subject of his and Kojima’s conversations.
“We talk about games, but honestly, we talk more about life, media, and futurism,” he says. “It’s not necessarily like, ‘Hey, what did you play this weekend?’ It’s like, ‘Where is the industry going? What’s this coming crossover between games, entertainment, and how these worlds are going to intersect with each other?’ My view is that gaming is a massive industry but it’s only going to get bigger, and I think we’re going to see gaming and gaming technology power all entertainment.”
“That’s one of the reasons why I’m so thrilled to do the Game Awards,” he continues. “Every year the games get better, the technology gets more interesting.” For Keighley, the Game Awards’ world premieres aren’t advertisements but something more profound: “I see them as the state of our art,” he says.
The counterargument is that these trailers represent the state of video games as imagined by corporate marketing departments, occupying a realm more akin to fantasy and projection. The hype of these trailers is aspirational rather than tangible, at odds with the real and now. In 2014, during his tenure as Kotaku’s editor-in-chief, Totilo penned an editorial titled “The Future Of Kotaku’s Video Game Coverage Is The Present,” which Totilo describes as “part of an editorial emphasis [on] trying to revert focus toward what’s happening in gaming … what players are actually doing.”
For Totilo, the Game Awards can be hype-filled fun (with potential for live, viral mayhem) while speaking to modern, social-media-driven doubts about authenticity and performative posturing. “When somebody’s hyping something, where’s the truth and where’s the falsehood?” he asks. “And yet I would say that the Game Awards is one of the most honest, if not the most honest award show out there. … [The Game Awards] say, ‘We know you’re here for the hype, we know you’re here for the circus, we know you’re here for everything around the awards. That’s why we promote world exclusives.’ … You show up for the commercials. Maybe then you can’t tell what is show and what is commercial, because they blend together, but it’s a more authentic, true version of marketing. … The Game Awards does not bullshit you. Whether that’s by accident or design, you have to credit Geoff for having a more honest awards show.”
Indeed, Keighley has found a formula that works so well he believes the Oscars—which, like most awards shows, have suffered from declining ratings—should take a leaf out of his book. “If they showed a first look at the next Avengers film or something, I think they’d get more viewers,” he says. But on some level, it seems as if Keighley is indeed aware of publicity’s limits. Perhaps that’s why, when I finally ask him what he’s most proud of in his career, he opts for something tangible: the awards statue itself. The artfully sculpted piece of metal, which designer Weta Workshop describes as an “angel rising to the heavens,” is undeniably real. So, too, is the pride of place it occupies in the offices or homes of its winners. For all the show’s pomp and pageantry, and in spite of the fact that the award winners arguably reflect hype of Keighley’s own making, the statue is substantial.
“I always think about my articles, things that are kind of ephemeral. People would read them and then forget about them,” Keighley says. “But that statue is hopefully going to stand the test of time, and hopefully outlive even me.”
Lewis Gordon is a writer and journalist living in Glasgow who contributes to outlets including The Verge, Wired, and Vulture.