Rowan Kaiser: About five years. There are some older things around but that’s how long I’ve been doing it as a career.
LC: And you’ve already covered how it goes for you full-time in some tweets and blog stuff, so I’ll move past that. So, recently a lot of tension has come to air about the lack of money in games writing, who’s getting those jobs, etc. I read you described it as a bunch of pots boiling over concurrently. My first question is, why did they all boil over now?
RK: Well, “why” is difficult to answer, specifically. But in the most direct sense, I suspect it’s that Jenn Frank had to go public with her lack of money. Most everyone loves Jenn as a person, and her writing is some of the best and most-shared around. So if she can’t make it, who can? This combined with Kris Ligman’s ongoing issues and me finally surrendering and making a Patreon as well. In the macro sense, I think there’s sort of a collapse of a generation of game writers
LC:Yeah, the macro is sort of what I’m trying to get a bead on, as nebulous and complicated as it surely is.
Rowan Kaiser: If you say that every five years a new generation comes along–I described this as self-website, blog, and there’s probably various forums before then but I don’t know for sure–you’ve got a Twitter generation. I started on Twitter in 2010 and it definitely seemed to be a bunch of energetic “new” voices working their way in. 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 those 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 or more than writing), or they leave entirely
LC: Yeah, I can definitely see that. Is that just the industry contracting, or is it maybe a function of simple fatigue with trying to make it for years on freelancing alone?
RK: It’s both. And other things. It’s always complicated.
LC: Of course.
RK: One of the ways I describe these generations is by their focus. So the self-website generation (Penny Arcade, Old Man Murray) was defined by a desire to talk about games in new, more personal, and more entertaining ways. The blog generation was sort of defined by a desire to treat games as similar or equivalent to other art forms.
The twitter generation has been largely about seeing games as they are, and wanting to improve them, often in social justice or identity politics ways, but not always. So it’s been very attractive to people who are traditionally underrepresented, well, everywhere, but especially in tech/games.
LC: Totally. I also see a desire to integrate more academic approaches to game crit with the more bloggy approaches. A lot of the more interesting writers– people like Brendan Keogh— seem to be coming from a place that has feet in both academic and gaming press worlds.
RK: And when industries contract, as a general rule, they tend to maintain people who already have power, and this harms efforts for diversity
So I think what people see is that when new games jobs come along, they’re not going to this generation of writers and critics, they’re going to people who had similarly powerful jobs five years ago. Same people playing musical chairs.
Meanwhile you have people like my peers and occasionally me who get praised, who get freelance gigs all over the place, whose pushes for social justice have huge influence on the industry, who get called the best critics working, who have “made it” socially but who are not making it at all economically.
And I think you’ll also notice that more recently, the people who have the ability to withdraw into academia do.
LC: Yeah, cause, while there’s not a lot of money in academia, there might be a tad bit more than in freelancing, it’s starting to seem.
RK: There’s also stability.
Academia as a whole is horribly unstable, but it still beats waiting on a freelance check to make rent.
LC: Right. It’s just slightly higher on the scale, as it were. So in light of this, people are starting to look to alternatives to that model– you and Jenn Frank with your Patreons being a prime example. Do you think crowdfunding is a viable way forward? How has the Patreon been working out so far?
RK: Patreon and crowdfunding are band-aids, but they’re good band-aids.
Part of the issue is that this is overall economic justice. Wealth gets concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, the “middle class” disappears, etc
LC: Yeah. It’s a problem in all of writing and all of society.
RK: So publishing is built on a model where people generally have money, can buy books or magazine subscriptions and take out ads and so on.
But when fewer people have that money, fewer people buy those things, fewer publications can pay well, fewer writers get paid.
LC: It relies on a middle class, yeah. The rise of the middle class is when novels and magazines became things in the first place.
RK: Crowdfunding is a way to bypass all those middlemen and find out if you have fans who are rich enough to support you.
JM: Yeah. The Renaissance painter method of funding art.
RK: 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. And we’ve created this whole ethical system around the idea that we should work through institutions for money and not beg people, and it’s really hard to break that, but at a certain point you need to be paid for your work.
LC: Definitely. If it’s a band-aid, though, do you have any ideas about what the salve might be? Do you think we’re coming toward a tide shift in the way games writing is funded in general?
RK: Economic justice overall is the best way. Raise the minimum wage. Or even push for a mandatory basic living salary.
More specifically for games writing, we need transparency about what people have and can do.
I wrote about my specific situation and how much I make in a year, etc, but that’s not entirely necessary as long as people know that their favorite “famous” writers aren’t actually comfortable. But 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.
LC: Yeah I’ve noticed that, as a young writer getting started in this field myself, that the inside workings of these publications are really fairly nebulous most of the time.
RK: When we had out little freelancer uprising, a bunch of editors came out and said “pitch me! I have work!” but the problem isn’t lack of work, it’s lack of money. And if they don’t say “Pitch me, we pay $300 per feature” then I don’t know if it’s worth my time. Pitching takes time and energy and can be extremely stressful, especially at a new outlet. And to do that and then discover they pay $30 for a day’s work, or $150 for two weeks’ work, that doesn’t help.
LC: Right. If they can’t pay more than the working relationships you already have, pitching to more places isn’t the problem here. It’s not a matter of hustle or whatever you want to call it.
RK: Exactly. And I think a lot of this goes to a sort of quality vs quantity thing. We’re praised for quality, but quantity is required to live on these kinds of wages. And even if that’s doable, it’s exhausting.
LC: Totally. I’m running a tad short on my time here, and I don’t want to keep you any longer than I need to, so the other thing I’m interested in getting your opinion on is the issues related to diversity in games writing, which, as you already noted, is tied to the problems with compensation. What are your thoughts on the state of diversity in games writing? Do you think there are actions that need to be taken to spur on and encourage a diversity of voices by writers and publications?
RK: Sam Allen wrote a piece about people pushing for diversity as comets, who burn bright briefly then disappear. It’s a fairly normal sort of activist burnout, but this doesn’t make it a good thing to see. But yes, more should be done. I hesitate to say “needs to be” because I don’t know all the details and I don’t want to put all the onus on a single publication or a single hire. But there is a lot more that CAN be done–Idon’t think you can look at the games journalism from a macro level and say it’s got enough women or people of color–and if more people want to improve that there are a lot of little things.
First is just to listen. I saw a lot of editors, when we got vocal about this stuff, immediately get defensive. And they say “Well, we do the best we have with what we have” and you know, if that’s the case, then we’re not complaining about you! We’re complaining about the institutional nature of the beast. So if they describe the things that they do, and if people describe other things that can maybe be done and they listen to that, then there’s been a good dialogue with no need for hard feelings.
Second is to understand the invisible institutional issues and work against them.
LC: Right. People always get really hesitant about having those conversations when these issues come into play.
RK: For example, if your publication has unpaid interns and/or hires using unpaid internship experience, then you’ve automatically tilted the hiring field toward people who can afford (or their families can afford) unpaid internships for months at a time or understand that general community sexism makes women not want to apply for jobs, so if you want more woman applicants for a job at your site, it helps a huge amount to try to clean up your own community.
Finally there’s personal, unexamined reactions that people should try to work against. For example, if I see an LGBT writer talking about Gone Home, my initial reaction can be “how predictable” and that’s not a good thing so I try to swallow that. It’s not terribly difficult to do, though it can be difficult to admit that you have those gut instincts.
So in Maddy Myers’ piece , which is probably the one that kicked the whole fight off, she talks about how as a woman she’s often commissioned or has an easier time pitching pieces on womens’ issues and then when she applies for jobs she gets told that she only seems to write about women’s stuff? Yeah, that’s exactly the sort of internal reaction that people should work to avoid.
LC: Yeah. It can be hard for us supposedly socially conscious, well educated writers to admit we might be a part of the problem.
RK: Yeah. And there’s an amount of time/energy thing here, too. Like yes, a lot of conscious people will acknowledge that there’s an overall problem. They’ll spend one or two tweets on that but then if they follow that by getting in a 20-tweet argument defending each and every individual instance of hiring, the message that sends is not “I’m on your side.”
So a really good way to tell people that you’re doing your best is to show how you’re doing your best. Show the articles you’ve written on those issues or describe how you’re maintaining a quality community and so on.
It can be hard for people in power to hear the complaints of those with less. And certainly people with less power can be annoying. But working toward diversity of personnel and writing and focus is a good thing, and I think most say that it is, then all you have to do is listen, try, and show that you’re doing both.
LC: Absolutely.I think that’s about all I have for you. I appreciate you taking the time to chat. One more question: Any advice for younger writers like me coming into all of this?
RK: Don’t. You’ll be overworked and underpaid, slowly driven crazy/to alcoholism, and start to hate things you once loved. And if you see that and say “I have to do it anyway,” then keep at it. Talk to people and editors, build clips, try to maintain some semblence of self-respect. And try to hold down a day job if that’s viable. Also build skills and patience for video editing
LC: Yeah, video is everything nowadays. Well, thanks very much, Rowan. I appreciate the time and the honesty.
RK: Thanks for talking to me!