It’s been six years since I’ve been here, and a lot has changed.
I stopped being a full-time game journalist in September of 2016, when The Daily Dot laid off a slew of writers and editors in an attempt to revamp and stay in business. I knew that video game coverage was an experiment for the Dot, and I tried to make that experiment pay off. Thanks to a burgeoning relationship with Geoff Keighley, I was a year away from the Dot having access to Judge’s Week, the pre-E3 awards judging event. That would have been a feather in my cap.
I freelanced for a while afterward at the website Mic as an SEO writer which, at the time, meant writing a lot about Pokémon Go. I still know way too much about Individual Values (IVs), considering I somehow, as a hardcore, lifelong gamer, knew nothing whatsoever about Pokémon until the release of Pokémon Go in July, 2016.
In February, 2017 that contract gig ended, and I didn’t do much writing-wise until later that year when I wrote about my favorite video game in the world, the Destiny franchise, for Activision, the game’s publisher. When developer Bungie and Activision parted ways in late 2018, this gig also ended. I wasn’t fastidious about backing up that work but they were very short posts. I was pleased with the Diary of a Guardian series that my editor, Kevin Kelly, had come up with. I’ll post some of those images soon!
I had never thought about writing as a portable skill. I wrote about video games, I figured. When I started as an Associate Editor at Vision Systems Design, a trade magazine about machine vision systems, in November of 2018, I realized that not only was I now a writer, but I also knew something about the publishing business, helping to guide the development of a print magazine, of all things.
In my personal life, I got divorced amicably, and have since met the most amazing woman who’s ever been willing to put up with my nonsense and the size of my Star Wars collection. Things are very good. And I thought the start of this year might be a good time to get back to this blog, that I originally began just to build my brand and break into writing about games. I have plenty of other topics to write about.
So, welcome to 2020. This is going to be my best year ever. I hope you find something in the old posts to enjoy reading. You can also head to my portfolio page to see what I think were most of the best stories I wrote during my tenure as a game journalist. If you want to learn what machine vision is, you can check out my author page at Vision Systems Design. 🙂
In late April, I received an email from the managing editor of The Daily Dot. It was sent to me through the email address I advertise here on the “About me” page on Punching Snakes. I maintain that address specifically for the rare times when a reader wants to contact me, which is not very often, because who the fuck am I? People also usually reach out to me through Twitter, so I don’t check my Punching Snakes email very often.
The managing editor said they were looking for a full time gaming reporter at the Dot, and had been following my byline for a while, and wanted to know if I was interested in talking about the position. The email was six days old when I saw it. I, of course, freaked out and wondered if I’d blown the opportunity because they’d already started talking to someone else.
When my academic position at Simmons College was eliminated in October of 2012 I decided six months later, after it became clear that the IT position they had shoehorned me into was not appropriate for me, to give my notice and try to make a go at freelancing full time.
I also kept looking for new, traditional, full time work because as John Scalzi said, to paraphrase, you’re crazy if you leave a 9-5 gig with benefits to write full time. Writing is too tumultuous a business to give up the stability and health insurance of a traditional job. What you needed to do was to write on your time, after work, until if and when you were established. Then you might start making enough money at writing to do that, and that alone, to make your living.
John Scalzi is a wise man. After a year of working my ass off as a freelancer, not holding back any pitches I had to offer, and opening up some really tremendous outlets for myself like Salon, and NPR, and Polygon, and GamesBeat, and solidifying my presence on Ars Technica, the money still wasn’t right. I don’t know how full time freelancers do it unless their expense sheet is incredibly short and/or they don’t care about not having mad money.
I had kept looking for another, traditional job the entire year I’d been freelancing, and finally landed something. It was an administrative position that lacked the academic content of my previous job, but it was a steady paycheck and a union gig. I prepared to return to bill-paying work and writing on the side, as I had been for years.
The Daily Dot opportunity was as out of the blue as an opportunity can be. What followed were a lightning round of interviews with editors, and an offer of employment.
I was cautious. After a year of lacking steady employment at a stable gig, I had a better appreciation of the value of that stability. Did I really want to give that up to embrace the full time writing gig I had stopped dreaming about, after countless applications to open positions at game journalism sites, to the point where I wasn’t even bothering to apply for the gigs anymore when editors called for applicants? Did I want to trade stability, and a job I probably could have held for the rest of my life, for the tumultuous world of online publishing?
I still don’t know that I have a distinct voice as a writer, that if you read something from me not under my byline that you would know it was written by me. I have tried to establish a reputation as a reasonable voice, and someone that developers can trust not to screw them, and a writer who takes on social justice issues where he can.
I’ve gone out of my way to build relationships with writers and editors who come from traditional media backgrounds, and who could teach me old school ethics and standards to make up for my lack of any formal education in journalism. I found editors who would bust my balls and force me to do better, and who wouldn’t let me get away with anything, and I wrote things and took assignments that scared the ever-living shit out of me because I knew that was the only way I was going to grow as a writer.
I made a conscious effort to build a portfolio of clips that covered the gamut of everything I could ever be expected to write. Features, interviews, and op-eds are my stock and trade, but I made sure I also wrote previews and reviews wherever I could, and did as much event coverage as I could afford to as I paid out of pocket for travel. I wrote consumer-facing copy, and tried to write business-to-business content, and more recently tried to break out of strictly the enthusiast press and to get into mainstream media outlets, to embrace the challenge of writing about video games for a non-enthusiast audience because it’s hard.
It was after I looked back on all of that, that I decided The Daily Dot might be the perfect opportunity for me, my dream job at a dream outlet. The DD was founded by a man whose family had been in local newspaper ownership for six generations. He left the family business to create an online outlet that would treat the internet as the local community it would report on. The DD was born from the practices of traditional journalism, transposed onto digital publishing.
It was an outlet outside the bounds of the enthusiast video game press and therefore not limited by the expectations of the traditional video game journalism audience, with the freedom to decide what direction they wanted their video game coverage to take. They needed someone who knew the industry to help guide that coverage. They had an audience larger, in some cases by significant margins, than almost every outlet I’ve ever written for.
I don’t say that by way of rattling sabers, at all. For one, it’s not in my nature. My loyalty is earned by and given to individuals, not organizations. For another, the Daily Dot covers a lot more than video games, so of course they have a much larger audience than enthusiast press sites. I mention the size of The Daily Dot’s audience strictly and entirely by way of noting that when I realized this, I also realized just how large a number of people I could, hypothetically, crash and burn in front of should I fail.
The Daily Dot is some of the most fertile ground I could plant myself into for my first staff gig. It was humbling that they came after me, unbidden. It was also terrifying, but turning down this opportunity would have been fucking stupid, which is why I’ve been a staff writer at The Daily Dot since Monday.
I wanted to wait until I felt a little less clueless, and had some bylines and one heavy-ish story on the site, before I said anything. The new gig is exhilarating, and exhausting, because I’m learning how to do quick-hit, short turnaround, daily reporting for the very first time. This is the ONLY type of writing I’ve never done in four years of professionally covering the video game industry, which is another reason why I took the gig. It scared the shit out of me. That meant it was precisely what I needed to be doing, to keep growing as a writer.
I think I’m finally going to be able to establish my voice, because now I only have one outlet’s editorial voice to fit myself into, and ostensibly the DD wanted me because my work was already in line with that voice. It certainly feels that way, so far.
Now I’m going to drop the names of the people I am grateful for, without whom I would not be here, and pardon me for forgetting anyone:
Dan Hsu gave me my first platform to write on with Bitmob, and the conduit I needed to gain the confidence to try writing for an audience. I was extremely proud to be able to write for him a good deal recently at GamesBeat. It felt like coming full circle from April, 2010, when I posted my very first words in front of an internet audience for them to read. When Bitmob started promoting my pieces, I started to think that maybe I wouldn’t suck at this.
Susan Arendt gave me my first shot at paid work on The Escapist, and everything flows from your first, paid, published piece. She also gave me a weekly column, which forced me to start thinking quicker on my feet, and to look at the video game world in a more holistic sense so as to always have things to write about, even though I didn’t always.
Kyle Orland was my very first, genuine friend in this business. He gave me a huge opportunity by giving me page space at Ars Technica, and Kyle continues to be my go-to mentor for all things games journalism. Kyle taught me, more than anyone else, the importance of networking.
Gus Mustrapa has become probably my closest friend in this business. Maybe that’s because he’s never had to put up with me as my editor, and also because he only deals with me in very short bursts. But if I had an older brother, I think I would wish he were Gus because he is kind and teaches me things which have nothing to do with video games and makes me feel uncultured and stupid, but in the best way possible.
Leigh Alexander has been an inspiration for me. As I’ve charted the course of her career, I’ve pointed and said “That’s the direction I hope I can walk in someday.” Harold Goldberg is the one person I absolutely must visit whenever I’m in New York, because he is one of the best journalists in the business, who also helped set the bar I try to chin myself up to.
Jason Wilson has become one of my favorite editors to work with, and has been extremely supportive. I might miss writing for him most of all. Greg Cook at WBUR gave me a chance to write for NPR, and an opportunity to grow stronger roots here in Boston’s game development community. And Stu Horvath let me consistently write on Unwinnable some of the most personal work I’ve done over the past four years, which I think helped me grow, a lot, as a writer.
It’s not like I was writing here very often, anyway, even after rebranding Punching Snakes into a place where I could write about whatever I wanted, because I prefer to spend my time writing things for which I’ll get paid—Poppa always needs a new pair of everything—so I doubt even the slow trickle here will continue. I have some freelance assignments which still haven’t hit the page, which will trickle out, hopefully soon.
But really, if you’re looking for me, you’ll find me on The Daily Dot. Wish me luck.
Yesterday I published an essay on Unwinnable about what it’s like to live with bipolar disorder, set on the peg of an episode of The Walking Dead a few weeks ago.
It is deeply personal. It’s the sort of content that would probably never see the light of day anywhere other than on this blog, if not for Unwinnable, and I think that category defines a bunch of stuff on the site, not necessarily mine, which deserves a home alongside other awesome work by talented writers.
The uniqueness of Unwinnable’s content dictates the worth of the outlet.
So I would like to see you support the Kickstarter for Unwinnable Weekly.
I am much more likely to get a pitch approved if my story has a news peg. I could write a piece about the satirical value of Grand Theft Auto V at any point, but I was likely only going to get paid for that work if I pitched it in close proximity to the release of the game.
The business of web publishing dictates the news peg for most everything. Sometimes I want to write outside that stricture. I want to write personal essays, or wacky off-the-wall stuff. There needs to be a home for that sort of content so it doesn’t have to compete for page space with news peg/status quo content on traditional sites. There is value in outlets that make this sort of content their regular fare, versus only running content from fresh voices when the subject matter is topical, or there’s a news peg for controversial discussion.
Authors who focus on nontraditional writing about video games are turning to Patreon to crowdfund money for their writing, which is hosted on personal blogs. Writing on blogs is isolating, and it doesn’t support discourse the way contributing to an outlet’s community does. I also think it’s important for writers to earn some of their money through an outlet, rather than through donations. A paycheck inspires writers to up the quality of their work, to justify their paychecks.
Writing primarily on personal blogs also means the writers don’t have editors, and the quality of alternative content about video games absolutely suffers for a lack of editing. How you express your ideas is just as if not more important than the ideas themselves. It’s not for nothing that I opened up Salon and NPR after being at this for three years. I am much better now than I was when I started in 2010 because I’ve had editors who whipped me into shape. They told me when my ideas were weak, when my sentences were sloppy, when I needed to be more clear, and when I could just plain do better.
Supporting Unwinnable Weekly means giving editors a way to earn part of a living from their work at the outlet. No one’s going to get rich writing or editing for Unwinnable Weekly, but making *any* money from the work is important psychologically to editors as much as it is to writers. It makes it easier for those editors to justify the insane amount of work, above and beyond full time jobs or freelance assignments for paychecks, that goes into producing Unwinnable.
The inspiration for “I’m Not A Bit” came from my experience at the Game Developers Conference this year, and the realization that I’m not as much a part of the Unwinnable community as I would like to be.
If I can fit what I’m writing for an outlet which can afford to pay me, I’m obligated to pursue that opportunity, especially when freelance writing is my solitary source of income. I don’t mean to come off as some kind of egotistical douche by bringing this up, but I offer the point as a practical demonstration about why it matters to financially support outlets that want to host diverse content. I can’t be the only writer who has to crunch these equations when it comes to deciding where their efforts ought to be prioritized.
A cost of this necessity is that I don’t publish on Unwinnable as often as I’d like to, so it’s entirely on me that I’m not associated with the outlet as much as I’d like to be. When I see the list of authors cited on the Unwinnable Kickstarter, there’s a part of me that feels stung because I want to be on that list, and it’s no one’s fault but my own that I’m not.
When I went to the annual Unwinnable GDC gathering at the Hide Tide bar in San Francisco this year, I reveled in the opportunity to be with that crew, with Stu and Chuck and Ken and Steve and Owen. They’re so much fun to hang out with it. They’re warm and welcoming and humble and they work their asses off to make Unwinnable a reality.
Hanging out with that crew is always a jolt of badly-needed energy for me, a temporary break in the isolation that is freelancing, and I kind of made a fool of myself with over-enthusiastic entreaties to Stu Horvath about what I could do to help the Kickstarter. That’s what I mean about worrying about people not wanting to work with me, as I wrote about in “I’m Not A Bit.” That’s precisely how I felt at GDC last month in regards to Unwinnable, like I’m this person who isn’t around very often and then suddenly barges in the door wanting to help out like he’s been in the room the whole time.
I think offering them some more content, and writing this blog post, and promoting it on social media is the best I’ll be able to do for them, for whatever all of it is worth.
I’m obviously biased when I talk about the value of Unwinnable, but as someone who also has much less at stake in all of this than the other voices on the site, I hope you can take what I’m about to say with some belief that it’s not entirely self-motivated.
I wouldn’t feel the regret on such a personal level about not being more involved with Unwinnable if this was not an awesome group of people independently of any work they do as writers and editors. And they’re dedicated to delivering something that I hear so many people pining for when they talk about writing about video games and what’s missing from the landscape. They deliver variety.
Look at the connections the Unwinnable team has made with indie developers.This is not a small feat. Name indie developers don’t associate this closely with an outlet that doesn’t rightly deserve it.
Look at the fact that names like Chris Dahlen and Gus Mustrapa and Jenn Frank and Cara Ellison are associated so strongly with the outlet. If you don’t know who those people are, and if you really care about the state of writing about video games, you’re well served to look them all up. At the very least you’re find some awesome stuff to read. You’ll also understand what it means that they appear on Unwinnable.
This is not just another amateur website that publishes content on video games. It’s an outlet staffed by and featuring content from bona fide professional journalists and writers that is just as important to me as outlets like Salon and NPR, but it’s important to me emotionally as well as professionally. I would not feel that way if this wasn’t an outlet that is special.
The thing about Kickstarter users is they operate on the principle of accretion. You get a mass of supporters and they develop their own gravity, pulling other supporters in when they realize this is a project they want to get on board with, that they should get on board with, because they don’t want to miss out on something cool.
We’re all missing out on something if we don’t support Unwinnable. Check out the site. Download Unwinnable Weekly issue zero and pass it around. Make a Kickstarter account if you don’t have one. Give them five bucks or whatever you can. Add a so important +1 to the number of backers on the project. Tell your friends. Help build the accretion disc of Kickstarter users that gets the project funded.
And thanks for taking the time to read this. 🙂