As a character animator for video games, I find it gratifying to know that players appreciate the hours of hard work it takes to bring their favorite characters to life. Animation is a crucial part of an immersive gameplay experience. Game animation rewards the players’ effort, provides feedback that their actions were consequential, and enthralls the players in deeply gratifying and emotionally challenging narratives. Game animators such as myself are rewarded with the players’ appreciation because let’s face it, there are very few other awards that exist for game animation.
There is no shortage of awards for passive animation media. A search of film festivals and events on Filmfreeway.com with animation categories will get you 7347 results as of the writing of this post. However, for interactive animation, the field is limited to game awards that will sometimes have a single animation award category for all of the games published that year. The Annie Awards, which specifically focus on the world of animation, have a “Best Character Animation – Video Game” award category for the entire video game industry. There are a few niche’ categories in film festivals for interactive storytelling such as the “New Frontier Projects” category at Sundance for VR, XR, and immersive experiences. Recently, BAFTA, DICE, and SXSW created separate animation categories instead of including them in generalized art categories. Even with these additions, there is significant competition for the few existing award opportunities considering 10,263 new games were published on Steam alone in the year 2020.
As a college professor, I am also an educator for a future generation of animators. This lack of awards means that academically-recognized peer-review opportunities of my chosen creative activity are very rare. Academics who paint, create photography or sculpt have opportunities to exhibit their work in galleries and submit to juried shows. Academics who create animated films have the previously mentioned abundance of animation film festivals to submit their work. Academics who study media and the history of the art of animation have journals and publications. However, academics who choose to work in interactive media must compete with the entire industry for a very small number of coveted and highly-competitive awards.
The alternative for academics in interactive media is to simply create work that they can shoehorn into one of the existing peer-reviewed opportunities from other media or focuses of study. Although there is nothing wrong with any of those options, it begs the question of the purpose of academic peer-review if it is not to further the research and creative endeavors of academics in their specialized field of study. From an academic standpoint, there is not much incentive to create immersive experiences of interaction purely for its own artistic merit. In fact, it is punished because that time was not spent on creative activities that have the potential to be peer-reviewed. How can we criticize games for not pushing the boundaries of creative arts when as a creative community we are not willing to recognize those artistic merits with awards?
Overall, games as a creative media are certainly making progress in this regard, and the number of recognitions for games is increasing as well. However, the recognition of the individual elements of the media still falls short. It is a symptom of a far older debate regarding the artistic merit of games in general. Thankfully, this debate is on its deathbed, and games and interactive media are taking their rightful place in the world of the creative arts. However, this has stunted the recognition of the individual elements of the media. Although this post is specifically interested in the lack of recognition for game animation compared to film and episodic animation, it is worth noting that sound, effects, and many other game elements are also limited in the recognition they receive
Game animations for cinematics and cutscenes have an emotional resonance that can be profoundly impactful due to the player’s interaction with the story. In addition, in-game animation provides the player with a sense of real-time immersion into the action and the resulting emotional impact. Game animators become renowned amongst their peers on social media for the amazing accomplishments in interactive animation that they share with each other. But until we, as an animation community, make more effort to officially acknowledge these accomplishments, game animators will have to be content knowing that their audience still appreciates all their hard work.
Gregory Marlow is an assistant professor at East Tennessee State University’s Department of Digital Media where he teaches animation. He has worked in the animation and video game industry for ten years. He spent nearly five years at Firaxis Games (2K) in Baltimore, MD, working as a Character Animator for the Civilization and XCOM franchises. Some of his published titles include Civilization V; Gods and Kings; Brave New World; XCOM: Enemy Unknown Slingshot DLC; XCOM: Enemy Within; Bioshock Infinite; Civilization VI; and The Pathless. In his free time, he continues to work as a contract animator for various animation and game studios.