Everything an amateur critic needs to know about the pros and cons of writing unpaid.
This is a sort of follow on from the last blog entry in which I talked about some of the skills every games journalist, aspiring and otherwise, should be honing as part of our diverse craft. I skimmed over the aspect of writing with a curt sentence or two to the effect of, ‘if you can do it that’s great, but it’s not enough.’ And now I think that idea deserves some scrutiny, particularly when it comes to the subject of reviewing games and what amateurs can expect to get out of this process.
Anyone can review a game. Seriously… anyone. Go and look at N4G.com; it’s essentially the Wikipedia of the games industry, with articles submitted daily by sites both professional and amateur, big and small, with the understanding that the community will endorse the ones worth our time and ignore the ones that aren’t. A nice idea that fails, mind you, as soon as it’s understood that this ‘community’ is about as savage a collection of anonymous young people as we’re likely to find anywhere else on the internet.
The video counterpoint to N4G is YouTube and there are similarly hundreds of thousands of channels where games are ‘reviewed’ and talked about, and again a community that is rife with reactionary discourse (that’s a polite way of describing two or more people who are shouting, “You’re a FAGGOT”, along with other mixed expletives, at each other).
So, bearing in mind that anyone can review games and the outlets are numerous, this is a good and easy first step for someone looking to break into the journalism side of the industry. However, I’ve been writing reviews for sites and online magazines for nearly two years, and I’ve made quite a few steps since. Enough to have more than a couple of reasons to stop doing them.
The first reason I won’t be doing game reviews for free anymore is probably the most obvious: it’s unpaid work. Of course I’ve done plenty of reviewing in the last two years I’ve been involved with the games industry, and writing for free does have benefits in the beginning. It proved that I was serious, that I could work to deadlines, that I could break down and analyse the subject matter and that I was able to cobble some entertaining critiques together about mashing buttons and watching pretty things on a screen. I’ve reached the stage now where reviewing games at the request of various editors does little but detract from my learning in other areas, such as the ones I covered in the last blog entry.
As an iconic villain once said, “If you’re good at something, never do it for free.” Obviously aspiring journalists must take this with a pinch of salt, because they’re going to have to write for free at some stage or another, but the general point is to go this far and no farther.
The second reason I’ve stopped is because it takes far too long and the benefits are outweighed by the difficulties. Sure, playing games and writing about them is fun, but when working to deadlines on top of a full-time or even part-time job the fun factor has a habit of dying faster than a basic infantry unit in an RTS.
When first starting out, reviewing was the way to gain a lot of sceptical editors’ good graces. I could be sent something small – a code for DLC, an indie game, whatever – and demonstrate that I was reliable and capable of producing the goods, and this opened the doors to other opportunities. Interviewing leading industry figures, attending events and games previews, and generally circulating throughout the industry, which as an aspiring journalist is exactly what I needed to be aiming for. Aside from that, reviewing games gave me a solid grounding in what should be expected of me across the professional spectrum, from adhering to deadlines to being unbiased in my critical approach. It was a means to practice and hone my writing.
Now it’s a slog through approximately upward of ten to twenty hours’ worth of work, probably much more if I account for the game being something like an RPG or RTS where segments of gameplay can take hours upon hours to finish. This is before I even touch a keyboard to type my first draft of the review itself.
My third reason is that I can still review whatever games I like, as and when I want to, and put the material to better use through a YouTube project. Having a library of competent video reviews that belongs solely to me is an advantage, unlike diverting my time to write professional standard articles I’m not being paid for (at least I can make money from monetised videos). I have essentially proven my skills as a critic and will continue to do so through other means. If I were to continue to take game after game, writing free content for sites, it would demonstrate a lack of both business sense and imagination on my part which would probably do my potential career more harm than good.
If amateurs need to find an arena in which they can get to grips with their inner critical and writing abilities I would endorse the idea of writing for free without hesitation, because it is good practice and it will train them to become better writers, which is what we all ideally want to be doing anyway. For those who have already cracked open a few doorways, though, who can be putting their time to better use by attending events and mixing with professional media workers regularly, I would say it was time to focus more on other areas of development. Interviewing skills, feature writing, getting to know the various active companies and PR groups; these are the rungs on the ladder any amateur needs to be aiming to climb.
It all boils down to the Art of Being Taken Seriously, and nobody takes someone seriously if they’re doing what they’re good at without payment or any apparent career benefits. Other aspiring journalists would do well to bear this in mind.