A few weeks ago, John Oliver ran a piece about FIFA on his new show, This Week Tonight. In it, he aired FIFA’s dirty laundry, invoking by way of warning what he called “the sausage principle”: if you love something, never learn how it’s made. In matters regarding hot dogs and Taco Bell, I tend to agree with him (beef is in the mouth of the beholder), but the implication of the piece is that the principle doesn’t precisely hold up. Oliver’s satire suggests that one has a responsibility to pay attention to the way things they love are made, that the means of cultural production are an inherent part of the product itself.
Now, I love video game journalism, and whether you’re a big gamer or not, I think you should, too: it’s a blossoming field of arts writing devoted to one of the most culturally significant entertainment fields of the present day. These are great writers writing about interesting things. And so far as the quality of content being produced goes, I think games writing is the best it’s ever been. But a look behind the curtain reveals the state of the medium is a bit more complicated.
On the production side, things are… tense. The reason is simple: there’s not enough money. A couple weeks ago, there was a small explosion of tension and frustration on Twitter and other dialogue spaces for games writers, centering largely around the lack of compensation for the freelancer. Jenn Frank and Rowan Kaiser, two popular and respected voices in games criticism (Rowan Kaiser writes regularly for the AV Club and has also written for Joystiq; Jenn Frank has written everywhere), both got Patreons and went public with their struggles making a living as freelance writers. The amount of conversation and agitation in the field since then indicates that they are not alone in their struggles (for a more detailed recap of what’s been talked about, the third section of this post has a great summary of precisely what went down).
“I started on Twitter in 2010 and it definitely seemed to be a bunch of energetic ‘new’ voices,” Rowan Kaiser told me. “And they—we—got a lot of praise, have hooked up with assignments, and so on. But in the last year or so, I’ve seen a lot of these people hit a wall. They can’t make a go of it with freelance writing alone, so they take other jobs (PR, or out of industry), they start Patreons (often for making games as much as for writing), or they leave entirely.”
The video game writing world has a few major publications with paid staff writer positions—sites like IGN, Joystiq, Polygon, Kotaku—but outside of that, freelancing is king. And as Kaiser and Frank and many others will tell you, that’s not a great way to make a comfortable living. Another critic I talked to, Charles Webb, who has written for Paste among other outlets, flat-out admitted that he couldn’t make a living if he relied on games writing alone.
This problem isn’t unique to games writing, of course. “You’re describing the media landscape in general,” Webb pointed out to me. “Not enough money for the best talent, and a mindset among managers that people will simply do what they love for free (or nothing at all – see Entertainment Weekly’s recent move to fire their film writing staff in favor of unpaid bloggers).” Journalism in general is suffering an ongoing crisis in the age of new media: most monetization relies on advertising, which as a model privileges only the biggest, most mainstream outlets with the most middle-of-the-road coverage. This leaves the major outlets strapped for cash and unwilling to take many risks, and they pass that problem onto the freelancers who rely on them for a paycheck.
As with other journalists, it’s an situation that puts a heavy burden on games writers. It not only makes it hard for the best, most daring writers to make a living, but it hamstrings the writers who do get those coveted staff positions: games writing already exists in a liminal space, balancing between enthusiast culture, media criticism, and the need to follow a the video game industry’s PR schedule of promotion and release for material to cover. Balancing those competing interests with the need to make a living means games writing is often a nasty tightrope act, trying to please important people while also courting an audience and trying to earn a living wage.
What’s worse, this scarcity contributes to another ongoing problem in video games writing: the lack of diversity. The medium has historically been dominated by nerdy white guys, and, while there are fantastic voices in games writing from all backgrounds, genders, and sexualities, the industry as it exists does them little favors. “When industries contract, as a general rule, they tend to maintain people who already have power, and this harms efforts for diversity,” Kaiser suggested. “So I think what people see is that when new games jobs come along…they’re going to people who had similar jobs five years ago. Same people playing musical chairs.”
And people who are familiar with gamer culture know that the community itself is often hostile to pushes for more diverse hiring practices. Gamer culture is dominated by fandom culture—Charles Webb called the games writing climate, like the comics one he also knows well, “ a weird F.R.E.A.M. situation where Fandom Rules Everything Around Me”—and that’s a culture that loves what it loves and can be incredibly hostile to any criticism. Recently, fabulous progressive critic and writer Samantha Leigh Allen criticized (in a manner that was, it’s worth noting, friendly and playful) the hiring practices of Giant Bomb. The response was immediate and horrifying: “fans” of Giant Bomb emerged from the internet woodwork, bombarding her with abuse and death threats on Twitter, email, and everywhere else (I’m not linking to that stuff here, you can look it up if you’re that interested in reading the abuse). Allen has since stated that, due to the sheer hostility she’s encountered time and time again from some members of the community, she’s decided to leave the games writing space entirely. It’s not the first time something like this has happened, either.
The diversity issue is more complicated than simply economics—a lot of people with more insight than myself have written on the entrenched systems of prejudice at work in nerd culture and the tech industry—but the environment of scarcity complicates it, making all of these conversations that much more contentious. And all of these factors are conspiring to force excellent writers like Allen out of games writing, through poverty and fan toxicity and sheer fatigue.
It’s ugly, and a lot of writers are fed up with it, looking to alternative means of publication and funding, with crowdfunding being a primary venue for exploration at the moment. “Crowdfunding is a way to bypass all those middlemen and find out if you have fans who are rich enough to support you,” said Kaiser. “‘Cause, you know, one person who’s willing to give you, personally, $25 or $50 a month, because they like your work or you or your cats or whatever, that’s a lot more efficient than them clicking on a link for $.0001.” It’s certainly a start.
Look, I’m a young writer, and I’m only now getting into writing about games on a regular basis, but I’ve been following gaming media for a long time, and it feels to me like the medium is in the process of transitioning. The realities of economics and representation are forcing so many of the best talents away from the major outlets, and those outlets themselves are less emphasized than they used to be, with the internet providing tools for the video game industry to speak directly to their audience without the aid of the press at all. Consider, in that vein, this past Electronic Entertainment Expo, where Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo all broadcasted their own press conferences and news feeds directly to the public online, sidelining the press at an event that used to be almost exclusively press oriented.
“We are expendable,” Webb told me. “Incredibly so. The game industry is still relatively young and the audience that follows game press, younger still. They’re more interested in what the game looks like, when it’s coming out, and the PR teams for the major publishers are becoming increasingly savvy about sidestepping the press and delivering this content straight to their prospective audience’s eyeballs.”
So that’s the state of the games-writing sausage factory (to continue my terrible, terrible analogy). It’s messy and poor and not everyone can get in who wants to get in. I don’t think this is an intractable state, though. “I reject the ‘games journalism is broken’ line because frankly, it’s still in a sort of (arrested) infancy. It’s not broken, it’s just not yet mature,” Webb told me. I tend to agree with him. As games mature, I hope and believe that games journalism is going to mature as well. But for that to happen, I think it’s absolutely necessary to be aware of the challenges behind the production of this content—that the internet-famous writers you love the most are probably barely getting by, that the talents who speak out to criticize games and their attendant culture are often smacked down brutally by fan communities, that the world of games writing is often stressful and unrewarding.
It’s also necessary to do what we can to fight these problems, to encourage good work and open conversation. Even if you’re just a casual reader of this stuff, you can do things to help. Read and share the work of good writers. Investigate how these writers finance their writing, and if you can contribute to them, do so. Read diversely. Check out writers like Leigh Alexander, Jenn Frank, Tina Amini, Samantha Leigh Allen, and outlets like the Border House and curators like Critical Distance that promote critical, smart voices. Promote the voices that matter to you and don’t take part in communities that dismiss them. Leigh Alexander wrote a very valuable piece about combating sexism in online spaces that is a must-read, also.
And if you’re representing a games publication, Rowan Kaiser specifically recommends “transparency in what people have and can do… If games publications want to help, they’ll make how much they pay, what kind of pitches they like, and so on public and clear.”
“But [if] working towards diversity of personnel and writing and focus is a good thing,” he continued, “and I think most say that it is, then all you have to do is listen, try, and show that you’re doing both.” I think I agree. I’d also add that games publications need to work to foster supportive, inclusive communities.
“A healthy moderation system of comments is one solution, avoiding false equivalency, not giving voice to the uninformed, and not feigning an objective stance when someone says something shitty and it’s actually newsworthy,” suggested Webb. “Making stories about race, gender, sex, discrimination, and inclusion a normalized part of reporting (‘Ask a black game dev’ or something like that) and not simply covering those issues when either the press or development side of the industry does something harmful.”
I think video games are worth talking about, that the ways we choose to entertain ourselves are meaningful and interesting. They’ve allow me to explore spaces and take on identities I never would have been able to otherwise. They’ve significantly shaped me, and I write and read games writing in order to better understand the space video games have taken up in my life. As such, I want games writing to be a viable and inclusive profession, one that pays its workers and involves as many voices as possible. If you care about gaming, I think you should, too.
Jake Muncy is a freelance writer, editor, and poet living in Austin, TX. In addition to writing for Loser City, his writing appears on Ovrld and anywhere else he can convince people to post it. You can contact him by email or twitter, where he tweets regularly about video games, the Mountain Goats, and sandwiches. He has very strong feelings about Kanye West.