5 Truths About Games Journalism

zeldapuppet

It’s not as much fun as you think.

Inevitably, readers on the Internet always seem to subscribe some incredible attributes to games journalists. Usually these have to do with the exorbitant checks we must be receiving from publishers and developers to sway public opinion. I figured today I’d take a minute and clear up a few misconceptions about the glamorous life of playing games for a living, for your edification.

5. Playing video games is work

I know, you think, “Play video games and get paid?! WHERE DO I SIGN UP AND TO WHOM SHALL I GIVE MY MONEY?” Let’s clear this up: it’s not playtime. It’s work time.

Yes, you enjoy playing video games in your spare time. But this is not the same as playing video games during your work time, and often the two meld together. Playing whatever game you want, whenever you want, is fun: playing games you must play, with a critical eye, taking notes, that you might not like — it can get old.

What’s more, there’s a high degree of time management involved. I’ve played games for review that I’ve absolutely loved, but in my own little “marathon mode” — Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Mass Effect 3 in recent memory — and it’s hard to really enjoy a game or get the most out of it when you’re ripping through it as fast as you can in order to get a review done on time. And while I definitely enjoy the work I do, thinking critically about games and writing about it, it’s still difficult — which brings me to Point No. 4.

4. Playing video games as work is hard

Hey. Stop laughing.

I’m not saying it’s back-breaking, sun-beaten labor. But it is important, if you want to do this job, that you recognize it as a job that requires effort and discipline. Ever play a game when you didn’t want to? Ever play a game you didn’t want to play to completion even though it had already revealed itself as sucky? Or try to find a way to turn playing that game into some form of income? None of those scenarios are fun, and yet they are a large part of the whole “playing video games for a living” scenario.

Then there’s getting your ass handed to you on your taxes, struggling to get ahold of games early enough that you can do the work in a reasonable amount of time, racing deadlines, pulling all-nighters, and struggling to get interviews and comments from industry sources, who are often nigh impossible to reach or pin down. Writing all the time. Sitting all the time (that part sucks, believe me). Being passionate about the pass-time at the center of it all helps immensely, sure, but there’s no reason to downplay it: this is a job, like any other job. It’s can be a fun job, definitely — better than many or perhaps most, to be sure. But it’s still a job, and if you want to do it for a living, you need to respect that aspect. Self-discipline is key.

3. Journalists actually kind of suck at video games

This isn’t really helpful to anyone, but it is an interesting observation. I’ve been to quite a few events in which I’ve played games against my colleagues and contemporaries. By and large, they’re terrible. Like, awkwardly so. It’s actually kind of weird.

On more than one occasion, I’ve seemingly been among the “best” gamers in the room at press events. I’m not really sure why that is, except for maybe the years of walkthrough work and multiplayer experience I bring along with me, but it is a strange occurrence when it happens. I’ve had people tell me I’m the first to finish their convention-floor demo, and I’ve trounced people in multiplayer games I’ve never tried before.

I think it has a lot to do with my being relatively new to the field, having only worked this sector of freelance for a couple years. I’m certainly not great, either, or competitive on any sort of upper-class level. But I tend to be better than journalists, because they tend to suck, and I think it’s largely because they never have time to play anything. That’s an interesting side-effect of writing about video games for a living — you rarely get to play what you want for very long. It’s not often you want to spend your off hours playing video games anyway (most days I just want to get the hell outside for a change), so you never really build up any long-term skills.

2. It’s not a flood of free video games

It can be very nice to get review code both before release and within enough time to do your job properly and have a review available to your readers at the launch of the game. This is somewhat atypical, however. Smaller releases, indie games, and people who are working hard to get attention to a lesser-known project are often very forthcoming with review code, and if those games are good — by and large they are at least decent — then it’s nice to be able to write something positive about a game made by excited people.

Just as often, however, it’s nearly impossible to get ahold of people, and PR firms working with larger developers and publishers can be both super-great about review code and extremely stingy with it. When you work at a mid-level, up-and-coming site like I do, there are media contacts who will often write you off, if they respond to you at all. You’re not that important, and these public relations-type people often have a lot of public to which they must relate. I imagine if you work at IGN, it really is just a flood of free video games hitting you in the face at all hours of the day and night. In the rest of the regular world, however, you pay for stuff fairly often when you’re excited about it, usually to get reimbursed, if you’re lucky enough to work regularly for a site.

For a freelancer, though, generally what you’ll be doing is painstakingly making PR contacts, begging them to help you out, and then hoping you can sell a review. Or you’ll be buying games and hoping you’ll be able to squeeze some work out of them.

1. Nobody pays us to give their games good reviews

The myth that journalists are afraid to give bad reviews is an oft-perpetuated one, and I can tell you that in my experience, it is false. At least where I work and among the people I know, there is no pressure to award good reviews. If you are pressured to give a good review, you should quit in a loud and righteous huff, because you’re better than that. Ethics, man.

I can’t say definitively how things work everywhere, obviously. But I can say definitively that at Game Front, no one has ever pressured me to tone down a review. No one has ever counseled me to be nice to a particular developer or publisher, lest they withhold review copies or code from us in the future. We don’t make deals with people for advertising. It doesn’t happen. I wouldn’t work where I do if it did.

Every time a review comes down that readers disagree with, somebody will make the argument that there’s a corporate shill around someplace. And it’s just not the case. Maybe it happens once in a while to people who matter more than me, but I severely doubt it.

It comes back to reputation. First off, you don’t want to be known as the publisher that threatened people who gave you bad reviews (or who bought them). You certainly don’t want to be that developer even more so. PR folks who take that stance get their asses fired. It looks awful to the public, it gets leaked a lot, and it’s just not worth it. Pushing for good review scores would seriously require you to buy off everyone, especially in a Metacritic world where individual scores matter much less. That’s not to say that there’s not a lot of money or marketing put into making journalists happy at certain events, and big games like those in the Call of Duty franchise reportedly have “review events” to which journalists are taken — which are essentially mini-vacations. I don’t know anything about that. I’ve never been to such an event (although I’ve gone to preview events and traveled for them; food is often provided but we always make our own travel/lodgings arrangements).

But day to day, for the majority of this industry? Publishers aren’t handing out money. It just doesn’t happen. Furthermore, especially when freelancing but even when you’re not, as a journalist your reputation is your meal ticket. Printing a bought review and getting caught doing it is akin to setting yourself on fire for a small amount of money. It’s seriously not worth it, especially just for the promise of free games in the future. And even if you get “cut off” from review code, there are work-arounds — I know of stores who sell games ahead of street date. We can subsist without free games, and we do it all the time.

I’ll call it quits there, as this has gotten way longer than I expected, as usual. Got any questions you want me to throw a post at? I can always use help generating ideas. Let me know in the comments.

Quick unsolicited recommendation: One game I am enjoying and have not been paid to give a good review is FTL: Faster Than Light. Good times. Review forthcoming on Game Front; I’ll post the link back here when I finish it.

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Phil

He's like, you know, the guy.

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