John Walker's Electronic House

12 Tips For The New Games Journalist

by on Jan.11, 2012, under Rants, The Rest

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.

:,

29 Comments for this entry

  • Emma-Jane Corsan

    Thanks for being the first person in the industry to offer honest and sincere advice. You’ve just given me the little confidence boost I needed!

  • Dave

    Great advice. I’ve made many of these mistakes myself and will probably continue to.

  • Simon Munk

    Good list – and unlike Colin’s, I agree with everything (frankly, his attitude towards freelancers/freelancing is rather strange) here. Ultimately, I’d add one point – don’t assume it’s all playing games or writing. Frustratingly, videogames journalism seems to always involve far more doing “other stuff” – like commenting on websites for free etc. ;-)

  • Aaron D

    I think that many of these points are actually applicable to young’lins who would like a career in the games industry in general, be it programmer , designer. I found the note about valves practice of “leave the man alone” to be particulary interesting.

  • James Campbell

    But John I read in the RPS comments that you hate reading!

  • Azarul Carlyle

    Bravo! I tip my hat for you sir!

  • Xercies

    Number 4 applies to a lot of games designers as well, I have seen many people who get into games designing because they like playing games. No! It is not the same thing

  • Pace

    I always wondered about review trips, who pays for them? Does the games company pay for everything?

  • George

    Point 4 interests me; it should be on all lists of this sort. I like playing games, and I “love writing, communicating, entertaining and infecting others with your passion”. But the idea of writing about games for a job is abhorrent to me. The hideous torrents of abuse that I see being regularly directed at games journalists are enough to deter me for life. So I massively respect anyone who does step up and endure such awfulness, in order to do something they love.
    I raise my glass to you, John Walker. Your writing is an inspiration to me, and makes me smile – but perhaps more importantly, think – daily. Cheers.

  • Duncan

    While I broadly agree with most of your points, John, I’ll disagree with two.

    The first is your assertion that there’s no such thing as a dream job. I think there is, and I count myself enormously lucky enough to have one. Sure, there are times when it’s not as dreamy as other times, and my dream job will likely change as I get older, but right now, there’s no other job that’d I’d rather do than mine. That’s dreamy enough for me.

    The second is that you should never write for free. I wouldn’t have my current dream job if I didn’t write for a month or two for free. Not full-time — I was holding down another job elsewhere at the time — but there’s no chance that my application for the job I’m in now would have been considered as strongly if they didn’t know that I was a solid writer, able to hit deadlines, with a passion for the subject. You can only communicate so much in a CV, a sample article and an interview — a professional relationship says far more about a person.

    On the other hand, what I would say is that you should never write for nothing. There’s a lot of things you can get out of a writing job — experience, fun, exposure, contacts are all among the things that aren’t money. If you’re getting nothing out of it, don’t do it. But if it’s worth it to YOU, then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t do it.

  • sinister agent

    @Duncan

    “there’s no chance that my application for the job I’m in now would have been considered as strongly if they didn’t know that I was a solid writer, able to hit deadlines, with a passion for the subject.”

    You can show all of those things with a consistently-updated blog, and that way you’re not being exploited. I’m sure there are other success stories from people who’ve worked for free, but it simply shouldn’t be necessary. Anyone who can publish your work should be willing to make it worth your while. It’s simple professionalism on the employer’s part.

  • AJ Johnson

    Hopefully this is something that aspiring and up-and-coming journalists will read and take to heart. Except for #9… You should always, ALWAYS, accept a free trip to the south of France.

    An excellent and much needed article. Thank you for sharing this.

  • Jambe

    Bravo to #9, sir. Bravo!

    They were all very thoughtful, though, and I appreciate your… humbleness? That seems the correct word. There’s much advice out there which is incredibly arrogant — “here’s a style that always works, here is a person you must contact”, and so on. You know, the writers who think of themselves as infallible auteurs (cue Ebert on games). You clearly don’t think that way, and it’s very, very nice.

  • Jenn

    “If you work, for free, you make words worth nothing, and that’s a disservice to everyone else.”

    Words about videogames ARE worth next to nothing, let’s face it. What video game writers do for a living hardly has any significance.

  • sdf

    I’m constantly amazed how much self-affirmation games “journalists” seem to need constant nourishment from.

  • Colette Bennett

    Thank you so much, John. This was wonderful.

  • Han Cilliers

    Thank you.

  • Coccyx

    Being a journalist has long been my ambition, as I’ve stated before on these hear comments before. Ok, I’ll come out and say it – I’m 16. John’s writing captivated me several years ago, as well as his appearances on the pcgamer podcast, and ever since I’ve been sett on doing what he does; writing a constant stream of witty, intelligent content which always has some sort of quirky twist to it. Don’t be so quick to cut yourself out of the greats – after all, your website is the only blog I’ve ever been interested enough to read.

  • Duncan

    @Sinister Agent

    Perhaps. But that doesn’t necessarily put your work directly in front of the people you want to work for. As for “Anyone who can publish your work should be willing to make it worth your while”, – I don’t think money is the only way something can be worth your while.

  • Lorna

    Simply, thank you.

  • Andy Vulhop

    @Duncan

    “But that doesn’t necessarily put your work directly in front of the people you want to work for.”

    0) Write in your own blog consistently with good content.
    1) Copy blog url.
    2) Open email client.
    3) Type email address(es) of potential employer(s) in the To: field.
    4) Paste blog url into body of email, along with some friendly text.
    5) Attach CV/resume to email.
    5) Click Send.

    Ta-da! They can read that just as easily as the slave labor you gifted them for the chance to maybe be considered for a job. Extra bonus if you have monetized your blog, because they are generating money for _you_ by reading your blog during the pre-screen before deciding to interview you.

    On a serious note, this is important because you have to consider scale. How many people try to get into these jobs? Now, imagine if each of them sent in 1 article for free for their potential employer to run on their site. Just imagine the amount of free labor that site has coming in at that point. (Do it; actually think of a number) Now that you have that many articles written for free, why do you need to pay staff to write as many articles? Most game journos I know of are not salaried unless they are close to the top of the site/mag that employs them. Thus, you have shifted the supply/demand to such a degree with the influx of supply that the price an employer is willing to pay if lower than it would/should be if all this free labor wasn’t being introduced into the system.

  • Nick Mendez

    Thank you thank you thank you.

  • Edgar the Peaceful

    John – you’re a lovely man and I’m glad you exist. I may have had 5/6 pints but the point remains valid. Nick will be pleased you’ve re-invigorated the blog too.

  • unacomn

    Good list, reminds me why I quit my last job… twice.

  • Fatikis

    This man is an idiot.
    Beginner writers should write for free. It is how you make a name for yourself.

    You earn a name in the writing community before you demand pay. You show everyone that you know what you are doing. Show them that your first good review was not a fluke.

    You do some free freelance, and if you are good enough you will quickly earn your way.

  • Neurotic

    I want to read your Force Commander review! Was it a PCG job?

  • zipdrive

    Thanks for this, John, and all the other stuff, too.

  • Mike L.

    Well here is a woman who makes hundreds of dollars per articles and she doesn’t even have a college degree:
    http://www.makealivingwriting.com/2011/07/29/write-15-blog-post

    Why can’t this be possible related to gaming but is related to other more niche topics? You would think a billion dollar industry has enough of a reader base and audience to support nice pay?