There’s another round of these “tips for young games journalists” floating about at the moment, and they trouble me. Their core appears to be capitulation, rather than principle. So here are some tips for young journalists I’d like to suggest.
1) This isn’t the only job you’re capable of, and you’re not a failure if you choose to leave it. Writing about games seems, on the surface, a dream job. But there’s no such thing as a dream job, and it is of course a great deal of hard work, intermingled with the enormous pleasure of playing games. The industry is a mucky place, and the pay is invariably dreadful. There are many great things about it, but there’s lots that sucks too. Your life can be utterly brilliant without this job.
2) This job is a not a privilege. It’s something you got by being good at what you do – you earned it. Anyone who tells you it’s a privilege is trying to get something from you they shouldn’t have. That’s the language of those who want you to do just a little bit more work than they’re paying you for, or put up with conditions that don’t feel appropriate. If you’re getting work in this industry, the chances are it’s because you’re much better than most the people who try to get it. You need to know that, because the advantage is in your court.
3) Never work for free for professionals. This is a no compromise position. When you’re starting out, that’s when you must insist on being paid, or walk away. Sure, it may open doors, but they’re doors leading to unscrupulous scumbags who prey on the enthusiastic and the poor. And worse, and this is incredibly serious, not only are you cheapening – even devaluing – your own work, but you’re doing the same for anyone else in the industry. If you work, for free, you make words worth nothing, and that’s a disservice to everyone else. I’ve been doing this job for 13 years now, and I still piss people off by asking “How much?” when they say, “Can you do me a favour?” If they phoned a plumber and said, “It’s just one tap, can you do us a favour?” they would be hung up on. Hang up on them.
4) If you’re trying to get into this career because you love playing games, go away and play games. Seriously, you’re wasting everyone’s time. If you love writing, communicating, entertaining and infecting others with your passion, then you’re in the right place.
5) You have a choice. You can be the sort of writer who gains respect through your integrity, honesty, and excellence in writing, or you can combine any of those elements with sucking up to ads people, PRs, or publishers. It’s so tempting to do. If I do them this favour, they’ll do me that favour. But it’s optional, and it never feels good.
6) Stand up to PRs. Everyone is very keen to point out that they’re people too – well of course they are. Most of them are really lovely people – that’s why they get jobs in PR. But something has gone very wrong in this industry, where PRs are now the gatekeepers to information about games, selling it to the highest bidder, screwing over mags or websites that don’t follow their dance, and sending out embargoes from publishers that literally threaten to sue your publication for millions of pounds should you step outside of their rules. Rules they will inevitably not keep themselves. It’s a farce, and it’s only more farcical because all you’re trying to do is give their game some promotion. It only works because every bloody publication capitulates and obeys. Challenge them. Complain. Always be polite, but be firm too. They’re trying to see how much they can get away with.
7) Say no to review trips. I learned this one the hard way, and now will only consider a review trip if I have complete control. Review trips sound amazing – you fly somewhere, probably somewhere warm in America, and get to be the first person in the world to play a game! Except, you play the game in completely inappropriate surroundings, in far too short a time, inevitably accompanied by a PR or developer telling you over your shoulder, “Oh, that will be fixed when we release,” making the job completely impossible to do properly. I will now only say yes to review trips from Valve, because they leave you alone (to the point where you have to figure out how to get out of the building when everyone else has gone home) to get on with it, with no interference. Anyone else has to offer the same conditions.
8) Here’s one every one of these lists will include, but it’s massively important: read. Read and read. Because you’ll absorb, and learn. Reading a great writer who structures a great sentence is infectious. Noticing how writing is good is great for recognising how writing is bad. Actually study. Work out why it is that an article by Kieron Gillen is utterly compelling and entertaining. Absorb how Simon Parkin or Christian Donlan tells you a story. Understand what it is about Tom Bramwell’s writing that makes you feel like you’re his friend. And read the masters, study the all-time greats, the siphoned, hilarious anger of Stuart Campbell, or the astonishing eloquence of Jonathan Nash’s nonsense. Be a sponge to greatness, and then let it infect your own unique, distinct voice.
9) Honour yourself. If something feels wrong, it’s probably wrong, so don’t do it. Say no to it. An editor, a few years back, called me and said, “John, we want you to go to the South of France for a week. They’ll give you the code for the game while you’re there, and you can bring it back to review. We’re asking you because we trust you not to be corrupted by this.” My reply, grimacing in the face of rejecting a free holiday in the South of France was, “The reason you trust me is because I say no to trips like this.” Work hard enough to earn the money to buy a holiday in the South of France. It’ll be worth it.
10) Make a fuss. Good grief, the number of times I’ve not been paid for work, or screwed over in some way, is awful. It’s generally down to incompetence rather than malice, but it’s unacceptable. Don’t roll over. Don’t accept disguised pay reductions. Make a stand – contact your colleagues and have them join you. I’ve literally created temporary unions among freelancers to stand up to employers who have tried to introduce disguised pay cuts, and forced them to back down. You can too.
11) Move on. Everyone’s made mistakes in this industry. I’ve messed up on all the tips I’ve put above. But you can be haunted by your mistakes in very unhelpful ways. I famously screwed up the Force Commander review, twelve years ago, and people still mock me for it. It took me so many years to own that mistake, and it cost me terrible amounts of confidence, and still makes me feel sick, even though I can’t even remember how I got it so wrong. Everyone has a similar story, but don’t let it define you.
12) Care. If you care, all those vital things like an opinion, a voice, a style will come through. You can tell those who don’t care, the contrarians, the compromisers, the corporate copywriters. They’re wretched. Don’t be them.