The old gods are dying.
I used to fall asleep on the UK games magazine PC Zone when I was eleven, a time at which I didn’t really know much about videogames, except that I liked playing Lemmings on my next door neighbour’s NES. I loved reading that magazine. I just liked the stories, the jokes, the worlds it described. I liked the writing. It was sarcastic and loving. I didn’t know I would end up writing about videogames for a living when I trawled Charlie Brooker’s prose for turns of phrase. But because of that magazine I started to think games were fascinating. I started to boot up PCs and install the games that the voices of PC Zone evangelised and made fun of. Everything in PC Zone read like the writers were having a passionate love affair with a medium that they also thought was ridiculous, bourgeois, and funny. They made them sound exciting. They were angry young men who wanted everything to be better and were entertaining, even muscle-achingly funny, about resenting the profundity of feeling they felt. Some of this attitude bled into sites like Old Man Murray, leaked into Insert Credit, perhaps it’s also somewhat preserved in Rock Paper Shotgun. And yet, PC Zone died in 2010, leaving the knob jokes to Old Man Murray and a lot of games journalists unemployed.
But something else is being born. And it needs an audience to survive.
Currently there are three main ways for individual games journalists to become visible and attain an audience. The first is being employed by large-scale specialist games press: this includes print magazines like PC Gamer and Edge that are expensive to produce, and so will probably slowly migrate to being online properties. Game Developer Magazine recently ended its run, though Gamasutra still performs a similar online function. There’s Kotaku and Polygon and Joystiq and Gamespot and Gamesradar and all sorts of other sites that begin with ‘game’. These sites subsist on news writing, which brings in the readers but also takes up a lot of staff writers’ time. Newness is how they survive. The quick turnover of games information is necessary, but often doesn’t reflect the pace at which people actually consume games, which is a slower more contemplative one than is reflected in the huge volume of output. I guess this is something that Kieron Gillen brought up when he wrote his infamous New Games Journalism post.
Then there’s the smaller games blogs, sites that produce usually only quality, in-depth articles but are much less likely to turn a profit because of their subsistence on those long-form essays: sites like Unwinnable, Medium Difficulty, Insert Credit, Border House, Hit Self Destruct, Midnight Resistance, and a number of places like Old Man Murray and Nightmare Mode which have sadly since stopped updating. These places are all excellent places for games criticism, but without that daily churn of the news run they don’t draw as big a readership as the larger sites. However, some of the best games criticism over the years has come from them, and if you write there for long enough you can become a cult writer in your own right.
The third way?
I like to call it the Bogost-Parkin continuum. I refuse to look up the word continuum so I am just going to pretend that makes sense. This is when critics have a sensibility in their criticism that translates very well to the mainstream press, and so writing about games in the mainstream press becomes possible for those writers.
The biggest problem for me was that most of the writing that reflects the way I feel about games exists in the smaller games blogs, like Unwinnable, because they will take a risk on publishing unusual or personal content. So a year and a half ago, though I was broke and was temping for money, what I ended up doing was to do a lot of work for free, just to get an audience who knew about my work and wanted to reflect on it and discuss it with me. I continually wrote things I felt like I was gouging out of my soul because I wasn’t seeing the kind of honesty I wanted about games or the conversations with developers I wanted to read. I worked my ass off for it. It worked: people wanted to read what I wrote, and I am proud of the work I did at Unwinnable. In fact, it gave me enough confidence that I eventually pitched my weird stuff to Rock Paper Shotgun and hey, they didn’t hate it, and it kickstarted my career in the regular games press. I maintain a weird column about sex and relationship games at Rock Paper Shotgun right now and I couldn’t be more grateful to them for paying me regularly for the odd things that come out of my brain.
However, full time freelance games critics can’t afford to just write features for a living, particularly not the off-piste sort of shit I do, and not at the rates that are available. You either need a salary from a publication in some form, such as an editor-at-large position like Keza Macdonald did recently for IGN UK, or you start writing the sort of articles that the larger games sites want. These include interviews, previews, reviews, and doing runs of news writing. Basically, in HBO’s The Wire terms, you have to do the shitwork before you get to do what you want, and even that requires flexibility and time. For many games critics to even survive they eventually had to do a news writing position that enabled them to earn the right to produce features, although plenty of excellent journos are innate newsies who kind of just want to stay writing news forever. And even those news gigs are few.
However, I am a stubborn SOB and I really dislike writing news posts. I also haven’t yet psyched myself up to pitch big-ass mainstream press to do higher paying features. So to supplement my income I wrote reviews for The Guardian, Eurogamer, Rock Paper Shotgun; occasionally I did interviews with Steve Gaynor pretending to be a paper mache duck. But there still weren’t enough hours in the day for me to make rent doing just this. And I still felt like there was something more, in between the cracks of what was already being reported, that wasn’t really being said. And I had racked up an audience of 10,000 people on Twitter just from writing across these platforms. It was frustrating to think that people thought I’d ‘made it’ when I was barely making my £500 rent each month.
Patreon is a subscription service where people can pledge a dollar upwards towards each individual creator’s writing per month. My friend and excellent critic Aevee Bee already had one of these to fund her criticism and told me that she thought I’d benefit from it. So, I set up a Patreon to fund my extra writing each month. I was also somewhat tipsy when this went up, which explains my stretch goal, that if it got over $1000 I’d visit games developers and write about them. I wanted to fund the kind of criticism that was slipping through the cracks, the kind of stuff that I wanted to write, and the kind that people wanted to read. I knew they wanted to read the unusual stuff, because I’d already done it on my own time. It sort of looked like this:
I wanted to treat games developers like they are creators and not machines for content. I wanted to treat the people who make the stuff we love with respect. I wanted to ask them about their lifestyles and cultural backgrounds and their problems and their politics. I wanted to have conversations with them that weren’t just the pragmatic interviews I was usually forced to do that lasted a 30 minute slot, and felt like pulling teeth or like press junket ravens picking at a body. I wanted to have games developers become human beings that the internet couldn’t possibly hold at arms length any more. In order to actually be able to afford to spend that time and to travel, I needed some sort of funding, and it turned out that the internet wanted that writing to the tune of about $2000 a month. So I guess here I am in San Francisco, starting that project. The amount of money is something that I’m still baffled about and grateful for, but it’s for something that I know that I like doing. It’s something that I’m passionate about. And all the traditional forms of games media can’t afford to pay me to do this; even the days of embedded rock journalism are largely over.
I don’t expect that Patreon will become the best mode of funding for authors; it might be, it might not. It’s not a fix for the structures that are already in place. But what it does do is allow for new writing to appear and be sustainable to a point, and that will serve as inspiration for other pieces of writing about games that are new and interesting. Perhaps it will even serve as evidence that there’s a readership that the traditional models are not serving, that it will eventually change to accomodate.
Hopefully in years when I’m no longer relevant some kid will say they fell asleep on a keyboard reading about my stupid adventures, and become interested in games, and will start to write something not quite the same as before. And I think that’s a good enough offering to the old gods, as far as I’m concerned.