Video Game Journalism: Lacking the First Step

Chances are, you might have heard about the immense backlash at Brash Games. It goes to show that the entry level of video game writing and journalism really isn’t friendly. It is a system that exploits people who wish to be writers and does all manner of horrible things. While Brash is not the first, there seems to be a constant question of why people get exploited, as well as a plea from others to make sure up-and-coming-writers aren’t tricked into working for free.

The problem is that these people have no first step.

Personal Experience

This is not the first website I’ve written for, nor will it be the last. Before this, I had written for two small-time websites: Splitpush.net and Fortis Core. Let me be clear that Fortis hasn’t paid me but I do it because I know those who run it and I have high hopes for it. Splitpush, conversely, paid me for my work albeit it wasn’t all that much money in hindsight.

Perhaps what frustrates me most about others who insist on finding a place that will accept me and pay me a fair wage is that those places don’t truly exist. Paying writing jobs are often contract work or throwing your resume into a giant pile in hopes that someone will pick it up. I would love to get paid for the articles I write here but I doubt that is going to happen. They need editing and I’m not the best when it comes to editing. I could use eyes on my work but beyond posting on twitter and sharing with other sites, I can’t get that “exposure” that I need.

In the grand design, people often ask how anyone could write for exposure. The answer is simple: It’s all you can get. I was shocked when I was being offered about ten dollars for what I wrote at Splitpush because I had never been paid for my writing before barring some commissions. Often, new writers will take anything they can get because we don’t have that much available to us. So we either start our own websites and hope to garner a following or we go where they’ll take us.

Stairs Without a Step

This comes back to the problem that there is a lack of a clear, first step. Most writers will have a cavalcade of stories with how they got noticed: Some went to college, got a degree and worked at small time places for cheap. Others wrote a lot on the net and eventually got noticed. Some might be able to even leverage the horror story they had into job offers and being a spokesperson about the industry. Yet in terms of an actionable start to a career in video game journalism, there isn’t much.

This, in turn, leads to the abuse situations one can see on the net. Yes, exposure isn’t great and exposure can’t pay bills…but in terms of a first step, sometimes that is the best you can get. It feels dreadful because now you’re working for free but with the hopes that this can transition into something that will pay bills and let you work. It also doesn’t help that the pool of people who wish to write about games is enormous. Competition will shut out a majority of these people, which will lead them into taking less fair work and more painful jobs.

Perhaps this sounds like whining from someone who can’t find work, which is fair, but I’d hardly say my experience is unique. Outlets like Reddit aren’t well-suited to article sharing because of the format of content that shines while people will chastise you for spamming and posting your own work as opposed to reading about it.

Paving the Cracks

I think the best question to ask is if this is a problem that can’t be fixed. Honestly, it’s probably not something you can fix. Game journalism is just like any other media and breaking in is the hardest part. Sure, we can advertise and work with companies who treat up-and-comers right but those are limited jobs and there are a lot more questionable groups than admirable groups.

The earnest, best thing we can do to help those who wish to get ahead is to try and get more of those companies who can treat writers well. The more helpful groups there are who seek to nurture writers, the better the talent pool grows and the overall industry improves. It also means shady situations are avoided and left to rot. So long as there is more positive construction than negative exploitation, there will always be a net gain.

Overall, the worst thing I see being done is the posturing that “you’re worth money” and “find a place that will pay you for your work”. If that were as easy as it was said, situations like Brash Games wouldn’t happen. There are struggling writers who don’t have a place that will pay them, making them resort to working at other places for the great reward of exposure. There is so much talk about it yet very little in the way of offers of places to go.

Everyone wants to pay writers fair wages but it seems that when that young upstart comes knocking, the wallet is empty and they’re told to get to the back of the line.

Review Culture and How It Hampers Video Games

This is a seven out of ten game.

What image does that conjure in your mind?

Unfortunately, it probably doesn’t give you a great view. An OK game, likely plagued with bland segments and problems, that never really goes anywhere and isn’t worth your time. Movies and television suffer from similar problems but I feel that it is much worse in the game sphere…why is this?

To understand this, we have to go back to the advent of video game journalism. We have to look at reviews and how people consumed media. Video games appeared right when written media began to become a little less important. People wanted to know about how good or bad a game was but they didn’t want to really sit down and read an entire article about whatever the game was. People wanted a quick, concise measure about what to expect from a game. Writers saw this and knew the best way to capture an audience was to cut down the entire review into something that could fit into a single sentence. Thus, we moved to a system of numerical basis. We would rate out of five stars or ten points. Sometimes more, sometimes less.

Yet most video games cost more money (at least the console or PC versions) than your standard book or movie ticket. They’re pricey purchases by comparison. The counterpoint might be that video games offer longer experiences by default than a movie or book but a game is still a hard purchase for someone whose entertainment budget might just be a hundred dollars a month, for example. We’ve slightly moved away from this with things like Steam, the indie market and free-to-play games but your standard AAA title will still set you back a pretty penny.

This had the unintended side-effect of skewing the game’s review weight. When we think about games, our views on what a ten-out-of-ten game is versus a seven-out-of-ten game are further apart than the T-rex and the stegosaurus. A perfect game that cannot be missed versus a meh experience that might be worth a rental at best. In truth, this is a growing problem with metacritic sites as well.

Take, for example, Rotten Tomatoes. An aggregation of all reviews might sound good on paper but the line gets blurred when you consider not all movies fall under “flawless masterpiece” or “garbage we filmed for two hours”. Media that lands in the middle suffers the most because of this; a five-out-of-ten film or game can have redeeming qualities about it but we are too quick to dismiss it as not worth the time. Likewise, we praise things that hit the higher echelon of gaming too highly. That eight-star game might be decent but those glaring flaws ARE glaring flaws.

But how we respond to reviews also dictates an immense amount of what we consider a good or bad score. Jim Sterling recently gave the new Legend of Zelda the score you see at the top. By all means, not a terrible score, but the fact that it was not a perfect was seen as a besmirching of the series. People thought he was viciously attacking the franchise and spitting on what they thought a perfect game was…for an “It’s pretty good” review. It goes back to the point that we’ve skewed the review system too much.

So what can be done about this review system? Using my own experiences, Fortis Core uses a different brand of scoring; rather than stars or numbers, its recommended in the form of a “yes/no/maybe” system. It’s not perfect but it does encourage reading deeper when you get to the “recommend with exception” rule. The flaw there is that you might be pigeonholing games even deeper. I’d rather recommend/not recommend a game though. Giving it an arbitrary score might actually hurt a game I genuinely enjoyed.

Review culture has become too caught up in TL;DRs. We focus too much on the end result and not on the nuances. While it is understandable due to how reviewers often have to try a lot of games over a year with only a few hours for each, this style of reviewing has polluted the idea of the review. Good games are slipping through the cracks into the trash because the crack has widened. While I wish that we could take a step back and earnestly give each game the time and review it deserved, we live in a world that is increasingly concerned about the “now”, not the “later”. If you take one thing away from this; Don’t let flaws dissuade you. That seven-out-of-ten game might be perfect for you.