Flicker flames and haunted faces
Shuffling feet find empty spaces
Moving shadows, someone's hurting
Huddle closer, campfire burning.

Friday 13 January 2012

Writing About Games, Swimming Against the Current

This morning--as happens every other morning, it would appear--there’s a debate running between various factions of gaming journalists about ‘The Craft’--that is, the craft of writing, and not the Fairuza Baulk movie about teenage witches.

See that last--for want of a better word--’joke’ in the paragraph above? That’s the shit I have a problem with. At no point in that sentence did you think I was talking about some tawdry goth-angst flick; chances are you’d forgotten the film had ever even existed. Mentioning pop culture--especially retro pop culture--has become a cheap way of adding ‘comedy’ to reviews and features and, oh, you know, the whole rigmarole of writing. It’s surprising anyone does it at all these days, but they do. It might be a bottom-feeding cliché but some of us are innately bottom-feeders, and regrettably bottom-feeders need love, too.

This is the point in the article at which I should sneer down upon those unpaid writers foraging in fish shit on the ocean bed, yes? Bottom-feeders, I called them: the scum at scale’s end. Unpaid, unloved, writing reviews on whatever website will have them in the hope that some day their talent will be recognised--and if it isn’t maybe some kind games company will send them free XBLA download codes to ease their pain. How tragic they are. How we higher-ups pity them.

Except I’m not a higher-up; far from it. I was--and perhaps still am--one of the bottom feeders: the most miserable shark there is, swimming because if it stops just for a moment, it dies.

The truth of the matter is that I’ve been writing for a very long time, without recognition and often--mostly--without readership. I wrote for the pleasure of seeing my thoughts spool out before me. I think in type, in sentence and simile. I’ve spent a lot of time inside my own head without anyone to talk to; like many lonely souls I used the Internet as a crutch, a friend with multiple personalities, who were real people like me, but so distant, faceless and anonymous behind their screen names, they might as well have been ghosts in a desktop machine. I’ve surely typed more words than I’ve ever said aloud. If you were to talk to me in the real world you might notice a disconnection between us as if I’m lagging behind. It’s frustration at being unable to communicate over such a clumsy medium, a seething barrier of self doubt, lack of confidence and all the other mannerisms that make a person unpleasant to be around.

If my writing’s worth anything--and I’m not saying it is, mind you, although I do have my moments--it’s because of this: years of repression, uncorked, spilt and making a dreadful mess on the tablecloth.

That’s the story of my life. I expect you have one of your own, maybe even one that compels you to write whether or not you’re being paid. Good for you. Cash should never be an incentive to write, only one to write for other people.

I started writing for other people mid-way through 2010. I asked if anyone on Twitter would be kind enough to let me write a few words of ‘unpaid freelance’ for them and a couple gaming websites responded. One was an entirely amateur affair run by fans for the thrill--or hell--of it. The other was slightly more upmarket, what I think of as ‘a semi-pro’ website, staffed by people who are or were professional writers and are now eking out a living on the Internet.

The first of these sites was a blank canvas without any expectations of the kind of art I should be practising. Unfortunately whatever my art was didn’t lend itself to their canvas; with pretentious ideas of what gaming should be I never felt I fit in with people who preferred to think of games as, well, games.

The second site was what most aspiring games journalists might see as a leg up into the industry. For my first assignment I was sent an entire game--a collector’s edition at that--and without any further advice told to deliver some words to the editor by a certain date.

My words came in late; I know this now. They arrived well before the deadline but being fresh into the ocean I saw the deadline as the final reef before the drop-off, not as a marker some distance inland; I approached it as I might have approached a truck in a game of Chicken. You might have seen J. Jonah Jameson yelling at his staff that he wants a story written up ‘yesterday’; if you can complete and hand in your copy before your editor’s finished asking for it, you’ll have a happy boss on your hands.

There were a few sentences that needed re-writing, a few clarifications that needed to be made. After writing for myself for so long I’d forgotten how to write for others. I fretted over the returned copy but rewrote it, made it work, sent it back and a few weeks later it was published.

In time, the editor sent me another game and asked for a few words on that one, too.

This was The Dream: playing free games before anyone else and having the world listen to what you think of them.

Except dreams never play out quite so neatly, do they? There’s always a Freudian nuance spoiling the sexy ones, a forgotten childhood horror spoiling the pleasant.

When writing about games to a deadline for other people, you play them differently. You rush through them looking for faults. Ingesting a game in such large quantities--caned for hours, maybe days at a time--leaves it lumpen in your digestive tract. The sweetest parts dazzle your taste-buds while the slightest disagreeable morsel on your tongue tastes like the foulest shit you can imagine. Those websites rewarding big games with endless ten-out-of-tens don’t do so because they’re being bribed, but because when playing a game you quite like for ten, twelve, eighteen hours at a time, if you can play it for so long without feeling bored it becomes a game you love.

That’s what happened with Dragon Age 2. I’m not saying I’d have reviewed the game any differently if it fell on my plate tomorrow, but in my non-stop run through to deliver one of the first reviews of the game onto the Internet, the half-finished, identikit dungeons and limited locations didn’t have time to become an issue for me. There was so much about the game that I liked, so much that felt different to every other epic RPG out there that I enjoyed it in a way I mightn’t have if given time to reflect upon it. It’s easy to gorge one’s self on chocolate ice cream in a single sitting, but have it every meal for a month and you might come to loathe it.

This is only a small part of the dim reality of playing video games as a profession. One of my favourite gaming stories read when I was young concerns the testers testing (I think) Time Scanner on the Spectrum, who spent hour upon hour launching the pinball and recording the angle at which it hit the first flipper. As a kid to whom play-testing was something St. Michael might reward you with in Heaven, this story of a beleaguered QA department forever put me off moving into the play-testing field. As someone who likes games, the idea that the joy in playing them might be wrung drop by drop from me is terrifying.

So it’s not the dream job some people think it is. But then, it’s not exactly my job, either.

When describing my occupation I say I’m a freelance writer. When pressed, I go on to say I largely write about games. I know games, you see: video games and board games and a few other kinds in between. Given the chance, I’ll write about TV, books, movies--and stuff that actually matters. I spent a year penning articles daily with the soft proviso I didn’t resort to talking about the media I was in the process of consuming. I’m glad I did it; you might say this article--the one you’re currently reading--is an extension of that. I mean, it concerns games in a roundabout way, but it’s not 1,500 words about why Shenmue is the best.

Strictly speaking, it’s not my occupation. Strictly speaking I’m unemployed; as soon as I have a social security card I’ll be looking for proper work stocking shelves or serving coffee. But I have been paid for writing about games and I’m not quite sure how that happened.

Affecting a pseudonym might have helped. Campfire Burning might be one of those silly names everyone uses on the Internet but it’s also brand recognition. Nobody ever confused me for another Daniel or another Englishman because I’m known by an appellation I gave myself, one that perfectly describes my narrative style. It’s a calling card as much as it’s a name: a description of what I do, where I can be found and who I am.

Writing for free might also have helped get my name out there, as it were, but having a Twitter account certainly did. @campfireburning, updated several times a day, served as a hub for anyone who wanted to reach me, as well as a place to disseminate my work and make contacts. It’s what got me my first regular--though still unpaid--column, with a podcast that was starting to make waves in the world of board games. I got a handful of free games out of that. Life was good.

Except life doesn’t revolve around board games: you can’t pay your TV license with a copy of Axis & Allies. The best reason I can see as to why I was offered money for my writing is that there just aren’t many people writing about board games. We tabletop gamers have little identity; we have little journalistic history. Things are starting to turn around now with likes of Rob Florence and Quintin Smith blogging about how brilliant board games can be, but they’re still small flounders in an endless ocean. Nobody outside the hobby gives a shit about them; it’s only until you force them to watch Shut Up & Sit Down or read Cardboard Children that they might say “Hey, that game sounds fun”. Even then, never will it cross their minds that it’s the writers that made the game sound fun, who conveyed their experience playing it so well it made the reader want to play it, too.

Here’s the kicker: nobody wants to admit they’re swayed by reviews, podcasts, writers, whatever. I asked my Twitter followers if they were influenced by these outside factors and their responses varied from ‘No’ to ‘Hell, no.” They are, of course--they have to be. I suspect the factor most likely to make someone play a game is good word of mouth, but with gaming media casting its net ever wider to find hidden treasure, somewhere along the line that obscure J-romance title you’ve just started playing was discovered and written about by someone who was paid to do so, and not your mate Trev who told you it existed.

The operative phrase in that last paragraph was ‘paid to do so’. Unpaid writers don’t have the resources big websites with healthy salaries do. I think people overestimate the amount of free stuff writers are given, and a lot of what they are given is awful: it’s all the stuff you and your friends never hear about because you ignore any review that scores a game under a five.

“Oh, what hard lives gaming journalists have. Cry me a river.”

If we have to use the phrase, a lot of the best ‘gaming journalism’ hasn’t required much in the way of playing games at all. Aside from a few cases concerning faulty hardware and publishing colossi, there isn’t much serious journalism to be done in the field of games. After all, we’re talking about games here: Israeli athletes are never going to murdered at Mario & Sonic at the 2012 Olympics. The stories that stand out for me are those like the rediscovery of Soviet-era arcade machines, painting an alternate gaming universe bunkered in concrete playrooms. A trip to play the latest Call of Duty could have read like a preview with a load of fawning slap on it; as it was, Simon Parkin viewed the media event aslant as an exercise in marketing spun wildly out of control.

Such stories don’t fall pre-written into writer’s laps; they take a fair amount of talent and dedication to get to the heart of the matter.

Should Parkin et al’s undeniable talent be taken for granted, just because we’re jealous they got to play Mass Effect 3 a month before release?

Good writing is worth paying for. If you’re writing for free and you think your writing’s up to scratch, don’t you think you should be paid for doing so?

Or think of it another way: if you’re not being paid and you are good enough, why should the person you’re writing for make money off your talent?

I feel a lot of unpaid writers are disgruntled they don’t get the pay or opportunities those in the business do. Paid writers, on the other hand, are disgruntled that there are people willing to do their jobs for free in the hope it’ll lead to bigger and better things--or, just as likely, access to the latest games.

Not everyone can be a writer, just as not everyone can be a professional sports person. Maybe you’d love to join your favourite team on field for a kickabout, but do you really want to do it week in, week out, for free when all the players around you are paid? More than that, what if you can’t kick a ball to save your life? What if--even if you all love playing footie--everyone else on the team is just as inept as you are, because the manager sacked Zidane, Giggs and the others in order to keep all the cash your team makes to himself? As a fan, is that the kind of football you’d want to watch at home: you and your mates arsing about on pitch like Subbuteo pieces in an earthquake?

You know if you’re good enough to write professionally, and if there’s someone willing to hire you with the means to pay for your work, don’t you deserve to be paid?

Don’t let people take advantage of your talent, don’t eat their shit and don’t be a bottom-feeder.

Because if I can swim, so can you.


  1. From a commissioning point of view, and this is purely personal opinion so I can't say I speak for the majority, I found your stuff through the LMD site, of which I had no idea if you were being paid for or not. It was the quality of the writing *combined* with the knowledge of the subject that drew me to you and Idlemichael. And that's the thing, I'm far more likely to want to commission paid work from someone who is writing for free on a blog of their own devising than from a commercial site that is 'filling the numbers', as they usually show more passion for the subject at hand.

  2. This was a really good read for me personally, having only started a blog this year. Still not quite sure what I want to do with it and how serious I'll take writing as time goes on. When you mentioned being so accustomed to writing on the internet it made me think about the fact that I'm always more of a lurker in forums and such, only posting something if I feel really strongly about it (though probably writing a lot stuff that I think better of and discard).