The Money Problem in Video Games Writing

A few days ago, Alan Williamson wrote an article for Nightmare Mode where he claimed to be a “murderer” who has been “killing games journalism” because he has been writing about video games for free for the past decade or so.

This is a ridiculous statement. There are fan writers for every genre, and because of those fan writers, the community grows. That is the nature of the way an economy works. Are there problems with video game journalism? Yes. There is the problem that many games journalists don’t understand how to write beyond a surface-level response to a game experience. How many times do we have to read the article style where the first paragraph is a shitty short story of a small experience in the game followed by “and that was when I knew that Game X was amazing!”? Additionally, lots of video game writing is caught up in the economy of video game sales–the difference between comics writing over the past 30 years or science fiction fandom and the video game writing community is that the latter is very concerned with making sure that you buy another bullshit iteration of the same manshooter mechanics or 3D hack-n-slash every six months. Publishing houses don’t send out promotional materials that cost more than a game itself does in order to publicize a new book, but that is common in the games industry (so common that journalists received Darksiders II tombstones. Why? Who fucking knows?)

So this gets me to my proper point.

Rachel Helps responded to Williamson’s initial article.  After frontloading some arguments about Williamson’s cognitive dissonance when it comes to his own stance on video game journalism, she writes (this is long)

For game reviews, the wisdom of the masses is more useful than the opinion of a rushed journalist. When I’m thinking of buying a videogame, I overwhelmingly trust things like Amazon reviews, which have little vested interest in maintaining a relationship with a PR contact for more review copies. Amazon reviews have a great variety–people who are fans of the series, people who play lots of games casually, and people who bought the game for their offspring. Basically the only thing professional game journalists have over Amazon reviewers is that they get to have the game sooner, and have an excellent grasp of the politics surrounding the publication of certain games.

Really good game criticism is hard to find. I’m not talking about “yes! you should rent this game!” I’m talking about criticism that makes me appreciate a game I thought was terrible, or that helps me see the world in a different light. To me, reading really good game criticism is almost more fun than actually playing games. I think big game outlets are gradually realizing this, since they’ve been snatching up my favorite bloggers. Free games journalism isn’t killing paid journalism; it is revitalizing it.

Most of this is not journalism. Neither journalism nor criticism should ever have a relationship with telling a consumer what she should buy.

The argument made at the end is where we need to look. The fact that bloggers are getting jobs, for Helps, means that games journalism is being revitalized. But that isn’t the reality. Instead, these people are getting picked up and assimilated into the video game media outlets because they a) come with an audience and b) require no effort to integrate into the system.

Bifo writes about the notion of the cognitariat, a new kind of laborer who is exploited because she or he has a certain technological skillset that can be adapted into the workflow of different industries–having a good handle on the basics of computer technology makes a person qualified for lots and lots of different positions. The games journalist is a prime example of this, with image manipulation, social media experience, and knowledge of various blogging platforms constituting a body of knowledge that is valuable for the games media outlet.

Helps’ favorite bloggers aren’t being snatched up and paid because they are doing amazing work. They are being assimilated because they are the best adapted, and already used to, their immaterial labor being consumed.

Obviously, I write for free on the internet, but I consider this as part of my workflow. If no one read it, I would still do it–this is a way to force me to make my thoughts more concrete before they hit other channels. I’ve also written for various game blogs and even done some paid work from time to time, so I’m not outside of this assemblage. But I’m not comfortable with either side. Things are both profoundly shitty and pretty alright in the video game writing world, at the same time even. But lets not go around saying everything is beautiful or that everything hurts. Lets have some nuance.

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2 Responses to The Money Problem in Video Games Writing

  1. Rachel Helps says:

    hey I just saw that you responded to my blog post! I agree that I had some logic leaps… like, well, if my favorite bloggers are getting paid now, they aren’t writing for free! But I’d be interested in understanding your argument… so, good writing isn’t necessarily the determining factor of success, but rather, this familiarity with the website machines that churn out content?

    • kunzelman says:

      Thanks for commenting, Rachel. I totally read your blog.

      Yeah, you have that right. There is a skillset that the gameswriting machine needs their content-creators to have. Bloggers are used to making no money for their content, and any offer of money is a boon to them. They’re precarious, in a word. The writing itself becomes secondary to that skillset–the best fit in the machine goes into the machine, rather than the best qualitative addition, if that makes sense. And of course there are exceptions to this rule; the blogs need tastemakers, and that only comes from recruiting from the echelon of writers who are truly great at what they do. But the schmoes, the people who are writing a blog post or five a day for the larger websites, they’re not there because they are brilliant. They are there because they fit in perfectly.

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