Charles Webb: I’ve been writing about games since 2010 or so after MTV resurrected the MTV Multiplayer blog following a few month’s dormancy (and lots of agitation on my part). My background is as a writer and narrative designer for games and since I was between projects at the time, it made sense to be writing about ’em if I wasn’t writing fer em, largely as a critic with some reportage thrown in for good measure.
Is it my current 9-5? Not so much. I freelance for several outlets and run one of my own, covering games, films, and comics, and frankly, given the pay, I couldn’t survive on games writing.
LC: So, the central conceit on a lot of people’s minds lately seems to just be that the way the games writing landscape is these days is just broken. Not enough money being made by the major publications, not enough money going to good voices, the best voices not getting the exposure or credit they deserve. Do you agree with the thesis, that there’s a serious problem in the way things work? What would you say the games writing landscape looks like these days?
CW: You’re describing the media landscape in general: 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).
So it goes with game writing, which – for all intents and purposes – remains a still-new platform. Like comics journalism, I spun out of fandom and like comics journalism, there are more than enough people willing to blog about something on Tumblr while there are plenty of trained professionals (or professional-ish) types looking for a paycheck.
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. And those of us who make money writing about games (both critically and as journalists) haven’t quite figured out how to keep it steadily monetized in the new media landscape.
LC: These tensions really came to a head almost two weeks ago now, when a lot of people– Rowan Kaiser, Jenn Frank, Samantha Allen– just all spoke out at the same time, fed up with the state of things. Any idea why this is happening now? Has it been a long time coming?
CW: I can only speak for myself on this front, but we’re a little under a month since E3 wrapped which was kind of a great Team Games moment if you were on the floor checking out all of the interesting stuff for 2015 and beyond. But as press, as a critic, [it forced you to] realize that this isn’t really a cycle that exactly needs us.
We are expendable – 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.
Who cares if I want to write a 800-1,000-word review or preview which reflects on race/gender/culture questions – how does the damned thing shoot? And what are the maps like?
Criticism and actual news (behind the business and creation of games) is far less important to our audience than the games themselves. Again, the comics analogy holds, and it’s a weird F.R.E.A.M. situation where Fandom Rules Everything Around Me.
LC: The other issue tied to these is diversity, the tension whereby progressive and minority writers are pushed to “fight the good fight” and keep putting out work, regardless of whether or not it pays, and that many in the mainstream community seem hostile to working to include minority writers in the conversation (I almost don’t want to invoke the ugly response Samantha Allen got from the Giant Bomb fan community, but it’s the pertinent example here). Have your experiences lined up with this? Have you or your friends felt pressure in your writing or in the acquisition of writing work based on your race or gender?
CW: I don’t actually know how many of my readers are aware that I’m black, but I’m sure most would insist emphatically that it doesn’t matter, as long as I’m mainlining their Nintendo stories to them. There was a recent story about how a lot of today’s youth have grown up in a bubble where they don’t see as much overt racism and therefore assume it no longer exists. So they’ve formed this idea that racism and sexism are some things we’ve largely abolished, and that online commentators are simply generating “faux outrage” (my new, least favorite term). It’s a curious atrophying of empathy.
Now I want to be clear so there’s no sense of equivocation or whatever: fan audiences are often terrible, largely toxic things which value intellectual property, corporate characters, and brands over actual flesh and blood human beings. So, you know, death to the new positivity and all of that nonsense.
And why shouldn’t we invoke the ugly response Ms. Allen received from the Giant Bomb community? It’s part of the same mess: a white, straight dude has not experienced her specific struggles and therefore can’t conceive of anyone not being able to succeed if they just work hard enough (never mind the pernicious institutional and casual ways that we, as a culture, minimize minorities and edify the bootstraps notion of social and economic mobility).
I’ve never felt any pressure to be the black writer writing about games, but it’s possible that I’m oblivious. I think I’ve simply been fortunate to write for outlets (MTV included) which have not balked when I wanted to write passionately about a potential third-rail issue like race, gender, and sexuality. I guess I’ve never seen myself as part of some monolith of “blackness” where I have been compelled/impelled to hold court on my race. I’d be terrible at it because being black and growing up lower middle class in South Florida is different from being black and poor in the Bronx or black and well-to-do in Beverly Hills. But I can speak to history, patterns, and the often grotesque ways various media have portrayed people with similar skin tones and I can offer commentary on that and try to explain why a lack of representation on both sides of the industry is not okay.
LC: I guess one thing I’m wondering is, do you think there is a way for us to steadily monetize video game writing (or fandom-related writing in general, gaming, comics, etc) in this landscape? I know you can’t really Nostradamus this one out, things could be totally different in a year or two, but are there any ideas floating around that seem promising to you? The primary idea seems to be crowdfunding, which I’m a bit on the fence about myself.
CW: Patrick Klepek at Giant Bomb had a wonderful piece recently about the future essentially being in video. And really, I have to agree – it’s the most readily “monetizable” system available (as long as none of the other game publishers follow Nintendo’s lead and start constraining who can use footage from their games). But I don’t think there’s a quick and easy answer beyond that – getting readers to pay for content is a challenge in this day and age.
Crowdfunding sites like Patreon are fine if you’ve built up a dedicated audience, but it’s less dependable for up and comers or writers like myself who are less “name” talent and just freelancers trying to make a living. I think I recall Mattie Brice – a smart and talented writer who hasn’t really been embraced by any of the mainstream sites for a regular gig – converting her social media presence into a way of funding her career writing about games. So it can work, but it’s as much about spending the time doing the necessary promotion as it is actually being in the business of putting together readable work.
Maybe there’s some hybrid subscription model a la Patreon/Kickstarter that could work? Feel free to steal this, guys, but the old comics subscription or GameStop model of using the free stuff/bonuses as a way to get consumers to pony up money on the regular? Essentially, backer rewards for regular users who would also get exclusive content like videos, beta codes, etc.
LC: Next, I like what you said about the timing and the expendability of video game writing. How do you approach that awareness when writing? How do we navigate that divide, between what critics tend to be interested in and what a lot of the consumers and crazy fan communities want?
CW: I… try to ignore it. Note the “try.” As a writer I’m terribly vain: I want eyes on my work, even as my ego says that my excellent, lengthy essay on sexual agency and Bayonetta is an essential read for all and sundry. As a result, there’s no formula to how I pick the subjects I write about.
In cases like that, you have to trust your editor when pitching stories and trust your own gut when you feel like something absolutely, positively, deserves coverage.
LC: I also appreciate your comments about the diversity issues. I hesitated to bring up the Giant Bomb nastiness only because it’s so utterly disheartening. Do you have any thoughts on how the games writing community should respond to mess like this? Are there things we need to be doing, both from the outlets and from the people in the community in general, to encourage diversity or fight against the utter shittiness of some fan communities?
CW: I sincerely wish there was a magic bullet. Ignoring the shitty segment of the audience isn’t a solution, but I respect David Brothers (I think it was him) who noted maybe a year or so ago that gleeful posts highlighting bigots in the audience are themselves just gross, kind of congratulatory crowing. “Look at how racist we aren’t, but enjoy this vile nonsense,” seems to be the message. Which, you know, fuck that too.
It’s playing to the other crowd, the detached crowd. That doesn’t generate outrage or movement to fix things – it just makes the original posters look stupid and those writers reposting the reactions look petty. It’s an all around bad look.
So what can we do: 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. 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.
Frankly, I don’t know that you can encourage the community to do shit or be any particular way. I’m fascinated with Valve and Riot’s respective approaches to using positive reinforcement to promote socially friendly gamers while using a kind of soft negative reinforcement to dump disruptive players into low-speed game lobbies. Shaming doesn’t really work (and it just makes the shamed feel like a victim), but disrupting access and limiting their voices can. And I’m being very deliberate with my choice of words when it comes to limiting voices: I think as a community, we can and should circle the wagons and keep out those who would prefer to use abusive language and general cruelty to defend Team Games.
If you haven’t already done so, be sure to read the piece this interview was conducted for, which examines the issues Charles brought up about games criticism’s evolution as the medium it covers also evolves. And our interview with Rowan Kaiser is here.