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The Publicity Game

What part does mainstream TV have to play in the continuing battle for a positive message?

This week's BAFTA awards ceremony was an interesting event for the games industry on a number of levels.

As a placeholder mainstream event that generates mass-market publicity and some relatively high-profile TV attention, it's managed to step on from last year's first attempt, and work on a stable platform to promote the videogames industry.

Key broadcaster Channel 4, one of the five free-to-air channels available across the UK, once more signed up to film the ceremony, and it's clear that there's more interest from that quarter in the concept of the BAFTA Video Games awards than last year.

By getting Channel 4 on board again, sponsorship for the event would have undoubtedly been appealing, and exchanging the smaller Camden Roundhouse for the much larger Battersea Evolution this time around, which was able to accommodate around 700 of the industry's great and good, was also a smart move.

What's more, lessons learned from the judging process last year yielded a much more sensible cross-section of panel judges which arguably produced a very respectable set of winners on the night.

Clearly the headlines were stolen by Nintendo, with its bucketful of golden masks for Wii Sports, and while some corners of the industry might adopt a rather snobbish attitude, it's impossible to argue that the recognition isn't well-deserved after a year of success few truly predicted.

It's rather a shame that the acceptance speeches were brief and devoid of emotion - maybe some innovation shown by Nintendo's other products will make its way to the speech-writing department for next year - but the accolades were well-earned.

Another deserving winner on the night was Crackdown, which picked up two awards — including best action and adventure — and the RealTime Worlds team seemed rightly delighted with that.

Also heartening to see in an industry that's become so distracted by the drive for revenues were the two trophies for Okami, and vindication here for the decision to keep the majority of the awards judged by industry experts.

Happily, the results will send the right message to the public on the whole, and it's fair to say that generally the winners were logical and justified - which is what the vast majority of people who will experience the BAFTA Video Games awards will see.

That said, for anybody who was at Battersea Evolution on the night, the impression was somewhat different, as the audience was treated less like an awards audience, and more like a Channel 4 studio audience.

While the broadcaster's franchises were represented time and again — Hollyoaks, Shameless, etc — the numerous videotaped sections that featured throughout the evening had no relevance to the assembled luminaries whatsoever.

Additionally, everybody seemed to have issues with the autocue, and as the evening went on, the audience became less and less engaged with a show that very much felt aimed at the Channel 4 and E4 youth audience, and not at the people who had forked out for tables on the night.

Nevertheless, those assembled on the night did come together for two much-deserved shows of appreciation — one for the memory of Colin McRae, the other for Will Wright's Fellowship award.

But while it's easy to snipe, there's actually a bigger picture here that must be appreciated.

The videogames industry craves mainstream social acceptance - that much is undeniable. People are all too ready to complain about how they feel misunderstood, that there are never any positive stories in the mainstream press, that all the headlines focus on controversy.

The greatest advantage that BAFTA's association with the games industry brings is the mainstream penetration and the alignment with a prestigious, universally-respected brand.

With that in mind, the only people who are going to complain about being asked to applaud on cue and put up with a lesson on the qualities of multiplayer from L'il Chris will be those 700 people who attended the event - and they surely don't need convincing about the merits of the industry?

For a very long time the dynamic between publishers and press in the games industry - in the UK at least - has been one of dominance on the part of publishers, and this over time has led to all kinds of problems, not the least of which is a reticence to bite the hand that feeds.

Breaking out of that mould, and establishing a positive mainstream image won't be so simple, but events like the BAFTAs can contribute a great deal.

And really, that's worth remembering.

When our reaction to a ceremony that's interrupted by stage re-sets and requests for applause begins to lurch into cynicism and regret, perhaps we should remember that this is a small price to pay for a break in the violence/obesity/addiction agenda that permeates society on a more regular basis.

The industry will need to be prepared to buy in to the concept more fully, even if it's not such a comfortable and convenient ride than it has been to-date.

After all - the much larger and longer-lasting impression of the awards will be that provided by television, so let's not sabotage the vehicle that could do us all a lot of good.

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Phil Elliott

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