Like many young video game fans, Geoff Keighley longed for the medium to earn the respect of more established art forms such as film or television.
So ever since he was a 14-year-old game-obsessed kid in Toronto, he’s made it something of his life’s mission to give the interactive industry an award show to call its own. On Thursday at Microsoft Theater, Keighley will oversee the fourth edition of the Game Awards, an endeavor he began by investing more than $1 million of his own cash — and one that now is streamed across most video game platforms and social media networks.
In an interview, the 38-year-old Keighley is keen to discuss some of the changes coming to this year’s ceremony including for the first time a full orchestra and a new category for the most innovative student game.
These simultaneously reflect Keighley’s ambitions to bring a sense of refinement to the event as well as his desire to better represent gaming’s more experimental corners.
But perhaps even more important is how the Game Awards are slowly evolving to showcase some of the industry’s long unheralded heroes while giving more modern developers a starring role. This year, for instance, the Game Awards will recognize pioneering developer Carol Shaw, who created works in the late ’70s and early ’80s for Atari systems, including the hit “River Raid.”
“It’s so cool to me that we’re going to have her at the show and find this sort of hidden figure of the video game industry who hopefully can inspire more people,” said Keighley.
Developers such as Hideo Kojima, the man behind the “Metal Gear” series, will present awards which are voted upon mostly by gaming journalists.
“Like the best books, movies and music, video games can have complex characters, tell interesting stories or simply provide fun, escapist entertainment,” said Reggie Fils-Aime, Nintendo of America’s president and chief operating officer. “It’s appropriate for us to step back and recognize the incredible artistic achievements that bring joy to millions of people worldwide. The Game Awards is our way of recognizing the fun and beauty of video games, along with the talented people who create them.”
But it wasn’t easy to get here.
Keighley had an early taste of award show excitement when he was a teen at 1994’s “Cybermania ’94: The Ultimate Gamer Awards,” the first-ever televised video game award show. It was something of a joke, as “Naked Gun” star Leslie Nielsen and “Home Improvement’s” Jonathan Taylor Thomas presided over a show with awkward rap breakdowns, live wrestling and an extended defense of hacking.
Keighley got an early start to his career. As a teen he was hired as an “interactive products specialist,” writing narrations of the nominations for “Cybermania” that were read by William Shatner.
“Twenty-plus years later, I’m still doing it,” said Keighley, who went on to work on gaming award shows for networks such as G4 and Spike TV (Keighley and the latter parted ways after an online-only award show in 2013).
“Imagine being a 14-year- old kid … at this event going with the guy who created ‘Doom’ and ‘Myst’ and all these big games in the early 1990s,” he said. “It made a real big impression on me. It made me feel like the start of something special. And it introduced me to the people behind the games.”
That’s not to say Keighley still doesn’t have to walk a fine line between award show regality and promotion. Key to the Game Awards drawing more than 8.6 million viewers last year was the fact that it offered previews of many hotly anticipated games.
Likewise this year, viewers may not be tuning in to see if “Super Mario Odyssey,” Nintendo’s re-imagining of its “Super Mario Bros.” franchise, can win the top prize. Keighley is already teasing a few reveals of new games, and those looks to the future are key to the gaming community, which has long prioritized bigger and better technology over narrative and character development.
But that’s changing, and the Game Awards reflect it. In fact, Keighley’s Game Awards are a much more serious affair than previous ceremonies on Spike TV.
This year’s show will recognize existential drama “Night in the Woods” and the latest “Zelda” title. A “games for impact” category looks at works with grand ambitions such as the mobile game “Bury Me, My Love,” which is inspired by the real-life stories of Syrian refugees.
Keighley is honest about how far he’s come, noting that the Spike TV trophy was “like a funky monkey with a joystick and a cigarette or something.”
“It was just like a different tone,” he said. “I took it seriously, and I think part of the thing with you all these other shows was that it was just entertainment. I get that, but to me it’s not about which comedian we can get to host the show. If you want to see comedy, you’ll see it elsewhere. Our show is about celebrating game creators.”
Keighley himself will host the awards. “My view is that gamers have left television and they’re not coming back,” he said. “They’re living in this digital world.
“Let’s treat it with a more little more gravitas,” Keighley continued. “If you look at the early G4 shows, they didn’t even let game developers on stage. Jenna Jameson accepted the award for ‘Grand Theft Auto.’”
The shift — and one that’s been happening industy-wide, in part due to the rise of independent games — means games are increasingly discussed critically as a work of art rather than a product.
“It’s important, especially with entertainment that is still coming of age, for the fans and creators to say to everyone, ‘Here’s our best. Look what games can be,’” said Bethesda Softworks’ Todd Howard, the veteran developer and executive known for such works as “Fallout” and “The Elder Scrolls” and a judge of the student game award.
“”There’s been some growing pains, but he (Keighley) keeps making it better,” Howard said.
The Game Awards
When: 5:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: Twitch.tv; Twitter; Facebook; YouTube; more
Follow me on Twitter: @toddmartens