Debates over whether or not video games can be considered art feel like a thing of the distant past. Yet it took until 2022 for Peabody — one of the most prestigious curators of excellent storytelling in entertainment, documentary, journalism, podcasting, arts, and more — to begin officially recognizing the medium through its own designated category.
“As an institution, Peabody probably should have done this a decade ago,” said executive director Jeffrey Jones of the first-ever Digital and Interactive Storytelling Peabody award winners announced March 24. “But we needed to set up the proper framework.”
In the past, Peabody made some scattered efforts to honor boundary-pushing stories through its established, traditional structures. Aside from awarding buzzy VR documentaries, like The New York Times’ Snow Fall and the Canadian Film Board’s High Rise, it even honored a website called Transom.org. all the way back in 2003. Then in 2015, Jones helped organize a Futures of Media Peabody award co-sponsored by Facebook, hoping it might serve as a beta for formalizing exactly the kind of award category it debuted today
“As an institution, Peabody probably should have done this a decade ago.”
“This is a much more intentional effort to signal that we, as an institution, believe that stories in this space have always mattered, that you haven’t needed the confines of traditional broadcast media to tell amazingly powerful stories,” said Jones. “We just weren’t able to recognize them until now.”
Dedicating its inaugural year to long-overdue recognition, Peabody’s new board of venerated jurors with eclectic backgrounds in digital media unanimously chose to honor a total of 12 legacy projects. The winners (which you can explore on Peabody’s interactive website) capture a wide breadth of seminal yet also surprising turning points in tech-forward storytelling. There are video games like Journey and Papers, Please; experiments in digital journalism like Phil Yu’s 2011 Angry Asian Man blog and The Washington Post‘s interactive police shootings database “Fatal Force”; MIT’s groundbreaking ELIZA computer program; the crowd-sourced, fan-made shot-for-shot re-creation project that became Star Wars Uncut, and even obscurities like The Beast, the online marketing campaign for Spielberg’s 2001 A.I. movie that accidentally invented the alternate-reality game.
While the novel 14-member Interactive Peabody Board is separate from the jurors who select its more traditional media categories, the institution’s same high standards still apply.
“No matter what, it’s a Peabody. Therefore our North Star is Peabody’s North Star: Stories that matter,” said Diana Williams, chairwoman of the Interactive Board and co-founder of Kinetic Energy Entertainment. “But our Northeast Star, shall we say, is to look for projects, practitioners, artists who find ways to meld technology and storytelling. It’s about how the technology pushes story, and how the story pushes technology.”
With interactivity, the question isn’t just whether the story matters. You must also evaluate how meaningfully it engages with the audience, and how well the technological form fits its contents.
“Creators need to figure out how to best make that tech work for the story, rather than the other way around,” Williams said.
In these digital mediums’ relatively short histories, terms like “interactive” and “transmedia storytelling” have too often been co-opted by gimmicks and commerce. You can be sure, for example, that somewhere in a pitch meeting, some marketing bro sold the cross-promo of Marvel superhero skins in Fortnite as a way audiences can “interact” with the IP through “transmedia storytelling.” So curating a legacy that’s truly representative of the expansive category was a challenge in more ways than one.
Merely regaining access to some of these groundbreaking interactive stories was a challenge compared to the passive consumption of traditional mediums. On more than one occasion, Williams said, the jury needed to hunt down long-forgotten floppy disks. Technology’s ephemerality forced the jurors to rely almost exclusively on institutional and muscle memory alone, as folks who watched entire genres of this storytelling be born out of thin air — then disappear into obsolescence.
Credit: Lucas Pope, 3909 LLC
In part, Williams hopes that the Legacy Awards will not only serve as an archive, but also as an industry-wide wake-up call on the importance of preserving even the most outdated of digital narratives.
“We need more thought around the question of where our history can even be housed.”
More than anything, though, Peabody’s embrace feels like a definitive declaration of legitimacy for some of society’s youngest mediums.
“Across its 82 years, Peabody recognizes a really strong cannon of deeply meaningful storytelling. So to be able to put video games or interactive documentary, or maybe even social video alongside winners like Norman Lear, Rita Moreno, Carol Burnett, Sam Pollard, it says that the producers behind these mediums aren’t frivolous. That it’s not just about commerce,” said Jones. “From an institutional perspective, it’s sending a message that this media has long since arrived. So it’s up to us, as citizens, to discover the power that’s already been there. That’s what Peabody does so well: We spend a lot of time and money deliberating, face to face, to unanimously decide on the stories that we as citizens should be paying attention to. And it doesn’t make any difference if it’s a damn video game.”
“We spend a lot of time and money deliberating…on the stories that we as citizens should be paying attention to. And it doesn’t make any difference if it’s a damn video game.”
What was once seen as disqualifying — like the fact that digital media tends to be predominantly made for and vociferously consumed by young people — can now be seen as a testament to its importance. With each passing year, interactive storytelling continues to expand its impact and richness. And now that Peabody is throwing the full weight of its gravitas behind recognizing excellence in the field, the hope is that even more pioneers will be inspired to meet the institution’s high standards.
“The thrust of the Legacy Award is to show people just how much was built in the dark before us, and that we now have the chance to honor that and to build from it,” said Williams. “These people were tinkering by themselves with nothing but pieces of tech and stories to tell. And they were pushing it out when sometimes the market wasn’t even ready, when the tech wasn’t ready, when audience weren’t there.”
But today, Peabody is at long last more than ready to recognize them all.
Moving into 2023 and beyond, the Interactive Board will switch to selecting contemporary annual awards just like every other Peabody category. Starting as soon as June 2022, creators will be able to submit projects in interactive, immersive, and digital storytelling from the past year for consideration.
While jurors likely won’t need to hunt for floppy disks ever again, the future of this curation process comes with its own unique obstacles, too. The Legacy Awards allowed the Interactive Board to choose the cream of the crop from decades-worth of history-makers, with the benefit of hindsight to guide them toward the truly innovative titles with lasting influence.
“We are now stepping into the known unknown,” Jones acknowledged. “But I’m optimistic. I like to improvise and we’ll make it up as we go along.”