Thursday, July 3, 2008

A Few Words on Awards

Tying in with my recent vacation the Origin awards were handed out while I was there and, as per tradition, board gamers and war gamers were instantly outraged at the selection. The hitch with the Origin awards is that the selection process (which is akin to the Hugo awards only with games) is terminally flawed and as a result will likely never be able to hold any merit for people interested in those categories.

Since the majority of this blog is about award winning books I though touching on the major categories of awards and their virtues would be worth a few moments. To do this I'm going to use examples of the three categories for movies: the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes, and the People's Choice Awards.

The first and most popular type of award is the peer award; people in the same field select someone from their group to honor. The Academy Awards function like this with only the people working in the specific fields voting on the award winner for that category. In other words if you don't edit movies then you're not eligible to vote for best editing. Another example relevant here is the Nebula awards.

In theory this should mean that people knowledgeable about the field would regularly select the best example from what they know. In practice awards given out in this manner usually suffer from politics: those who are popular, well known, or feeding the group's sense of self importance have a significant advantage. If those tendencies can be held in check then the quality of the winners is on average higher than for other groups but all too often it leads to things like Shakespeare in Love winning (a film I enjoy quite a bit but I also recognize that if you don't know you're Shakespeare you're missing half the film and wouldn't have a clue why a group of people involved in theatrical arts loved it so much).

The second option is the selection committee where a small group of experts review the category and then hand out the award. The Golden Globes use this method as does a minor award you might have heard of called the Nobel Prize.

The problem with this should be immediately evident. The less transparency in the process there is the greater the chance of corruption. The Golden Globes, for example, are handed out by the "Hollywood Foreign Press Association", a mysterious group with unknown members who don't seem to actually induct those in the "foreign press" and have been bought off several times in the past.

Finally there is popular acclaim such as with the People's Choice awards, the Hugos, and the Origin awards. While these awards rarely approach the "best" in a category (and that will always be subjective) they also typically do not select something truly awful. In addition the more narrowly focused the group is that selects the winner the better their selection is likely to be. The People's Choice award will tend to go to the popular films that the masses saw, while the Hugos use a self selecting group of fans of literary science fiction so that brings the average quality of the winner up a notch.

The problem when it comes to the Origins awards is that for several of the categories there are ten times as many RPG, CCG, and LARP players at the convention overwhelming the few thousand board gamers and wargamers voting in those categories. This means that selection is based on the handful of simple but pretty terrible games that they play (Muchkin, Fluxx) or by names that they know (Age of Empires III, Star Craft). It would be as if the Hugo awards were selected by the masses of Star Wars fans who never read a book (yes, you can like both but bear with me for the example).

I think if you know where an award is coming from and how it is selected then you can appreciate them for what they are even when you disagree with the selection. I wouldn't be trying to read and review all of these books if I didn't.