The Future of Free

Hey everyone, I’m Joe and I’m talk to you about what it’s like to write about games without getting paid and to share my expertise in having not quite made it. The thing you probably don’t know me from is a little games culture magazine called Haywire that I’ve been running for the last year and a half. The idea behind it was to do the kind of games criticism I liked and see if that wouldn’t take off, if we had a shot at becoming the next big thing. I had this idea because it’s the idea everyone has when they’re coming into games writing. It’s also a bad idea, and the other reason I’m here today is to tell you how I came to see the error of my ways.

It’s no big secret that games criticism doesn’t pay well, and the situation only gets worse the further down the traditional hierarchy you go. There’s this site, I don’t know if you know it, called gamesjournalismjobs.com that does pretty much what it says on the lid and lists jobs in games writing. Except that’s not true that all, because the majority of positions listed there are voluntary, and the few paid gigs you see pop up generally list rates of five to ten dollars per article. These are the foundations of the system we all work in: unpaid work and untenable rates. I doubt I need to tell you it’s bad.

The reason it works is, well, because of people like me. People who are willing to buy into the idea, the myth of eventual profitability, of rising through the ranks and one day making it to the top, by climbing over a lot of other people. You don’t need to be compensated for your work now, because you’ll be rewarded then, in the glorious future. There are a lot of people like me, starry-eyed youngsters wanting to be heard, and as in any other passion industry, the structures of conventional games writing have found a way to exploit them for free work in exchange for promises, this story of someday making it big.

It usually goes like this: You start in news, then move on to do reviews, then features, maybe opinion pieces, before eventually doing editorial work. You start off as a freelancer but are eventually hired. Only that story is a lie, by which I mean you can do exactly what is expected of you and never ever make it, and you can also do something else entirely, and find some form of success for yourself.

I am alluding, obviously, to the existence of Patreon. Now, I’m sure you’ve already heard a lot about Patreon at the conference, and if not, you should definitely start by asking somebody who makes more than zero dollars on there right now, so that rules me out. I don’t think it’s a silver bullet for fixing games criticism so much as a tiny bandaid slapped onto this enormous, bleeding wound but, personally, I am glad it exists. I am super excited about the idea of connecting writers and other creatives directly with their audience. For all its problems, I believe it’s proof positive that the old model is becoming less and less important.

So we have the new, exciting crowdfunding model on the one side and traditional publications on the other, and pretty much all they have in common is that they don’t really offer much help or instruction in terms of breaking into the system. The old model is too concerned with making people part of its machine to be of great use to them, those sites can almost make you feel like a nuisance for having other people benefit from your work. Meanwhile, the spirit of envy and resentment this scarce environment created threatens to cross over to Patreon as well, especially considering the dominant approach on there is for everybody to fend for themselves.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to exist as an unpaid publication in this space, and how to avoid being gross and exploitative. I’ve also been thinking about better ways to help people get into games criticism, ways that acknowledge Polygon and Patreon as two equally valid, and equally unlikely end goals for success. And maybe trying to get people started in games criticism is a terrible idea, because, as we all know, it pretty much condemns you to a life of economic uncertainty and being yelled at by strangers on the internet, both to varying degrees, depending mostly on whether you’re as white and as male as I am. But then maybe it would be a good idea to at least have a starting point that doesn’t bullshit people and doesn’t sell them this lie of climbing to the top, because it’s not also desperately trying to climb to the top itself.

What I’m interested in creating is a shared space for critics, where new people come to benefit from writing advice and the attention we create as a group, while more experienced critics provide guidance and help promote the writing. Think of it as a training ground slash  peer mentoring program slash blog collective. It will be entirely not for profit, run by a board of voluntary editors and dedicated to helping critics, by helping critics help other critics.

I’ve already started transforming Haywire accordingly and a lot of exciting things are about to happen there, one of the first being bringing more people on board as editors so it’s less of me, myself and I. This is where my high-minded thoughts get entangled in the realities of what I can’t do and what I can do. I can’t change the top of the old system for instance. But I can stop propping up that system by refusing to take part in its big lie and shedding hope that we’ll ever be the next big thing. Maybe we can even knock down a few of its supports by offering an alternative to the traditional entry level sites, and showing that there is no reason to write without pay, and be treated like shit besides.

I also, on the other hand, cannot pay people. As much as it pains me to see people who are doing incredibly important work in this field struggle and fail to make ends meet, I’m in no position to work all that out. I figure the least we can do, in that case, is to not stand in the way of people making money other ways, by making them the exclusive owners of anything they write, so they can repost it, sell it, whatever. You could, for instance, rely on us for editing, proofreading, hosting, sourcing images and all that, and still use the resulting text for your own Patreon campaign, and I really hope this is something people would be interested in, cause it’s also something I am currently trying myself.

I realize that what this all comes down to is offering experience and exposure, which is our industry’s way of profiting from work that really deserves compensation. But I also think that a lot of why that’s gross is in how the offer is being made, usually with the implication that the site is doing you a favor by picking you up, and that’s not how it should work. That’s an abusive relationship, but it can be and it should be mutually beneficial. I believe the first step towards fixing it is to realize how little we are offering critics in exchange for their invaluable work, and to see ourselves as curators and service providers more so than gatekeepers and bosses.

If you can’t pay people, you are already of pretty limited use to your writers and it’s going to be a slow crawl upwards from there. Because of their inherent interest in getting ahead themselves, most publications have been treating them badly. There are wonderful exceptions like Five out of Ten and The Arcade Review, but most places almost can’t help it if they are still betting on ad revenue, and entry level sites are the worst when it comes to that. This is why I believe the future of getting people into games criticism lies in something else, something more respectful. Shared space.

I am far from working all this out, and I’d be so glad if somebody else could beat me to it and take over, but until then, this is what I’ll be working on. I’d really appreciate your input on the matter of how to best serve critics with this, you can find me on Twitter @JohannesKoeller or just ask Zoya for my email and I’d love to hear from you. Until then, thank you so much for listening and have fun at GDC ❤

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