There are days when in order to maintain my sanity I have to remind myself of the division between video game journalism and the actual world of video games. Otherwise I can get so wrapped up in my desire to make it in this business that I completely lose perspective. I was given a healthy reminder of this on Tuesday when I had lunch with a buddy of mine who I play games with on Xbox Live most days of the week, a friend I used to work with but who, since he moved to New Hampshire many years ago, I hadn’t seen in the flesh since.
I was telling him about the “Screw Your Criticism, I Want A Review!” panel I’m moderating at PAX Prime this year. The panelist list has changed somewhat – Jim Sterling can no longer make it, but Arthur Gies of Polygon and Jeff Gerstmann of Giant Bomb will be joining us. I’m pretty stoked about it because I think it’s going to be good fun with Kyle Orland and Kirk Hamilton still on the panel as well.
My friend had no idea who the fuck any of those people are. I was shocked that he didn’t even recognize the name of Jeff Gerstmann after the Kane & Lynch firing, an event so widely discussed online that it solidified Gerstmann as one of the most recognizable names in this industry. Yeah, no, my friend had no idea who he was. I don’t think my friend had ever heard of Polygon, either. He knows what Kotaku is but after a few reads decided he fucking hated it and I don't think he's ever gone back, and if he knows Ars Technica it’s probably because I’ve linked him to stuff I’ve written over there.
My friends and all of their friends on Xbox Live are the grown-up portion of the core video game audience. They're almost all married with kids, in their mid-30's, and precisely the kind of audience that the new, grown up video game journalism outlets are aiming for. And most every member of the grown-up core video game audience I know has no fucking idea who anyone in the video game journalism industry is and hardly recognizes the name of any video game journalism outlets save the giants like IGN and GameSpot.
Hell, most of them don’t know who Cliff Bleszinksi is. If you’re reading my blog you’re probably a member of my small audience or were otherwise directed here by someone else who reads video game journalism and the idea of not recognizing Bleszinksi's name is probably insane, right? How the fuck do you not know who Cliff Bleszinksi is? Or Ken Levine? I don’t mean to put those two on a pedestal but as far as recognizable names in game development go I think those two are at the top of the list for all their willingness to speak to the press and being real characters.
My friend from New Hampshire and all our friends from Xbox Live don’t know who Bleszinksi and Levine are and furthermore they don’t give a flying fuck when I try to tell them. And that goes for my friends at the tabletop wargaming club, many of whom are video game addicts as well. They don’t know and they don’t care. And that goes for friends of mine at work who are hardcore gamers ready to talk the endless minutiae of games all day. They don’t know Newell and Molyneux, Miyamoto and Kojima, Wright and Spector or any of the myriad names I would personally consider it insane not to know as someone who plays video games…but then I remember that my knowing these names has absolutely nothing to do with being one of the most devoted people to video games in almost any circle I’m a part of.
It has everything to do with the fact that I’m a video game journalist, which has fuck-all to do with being a gamer, and realizing that makes it a little easier to deal with the stress of trying to break further into the industry and the inevitable drama one has to bear witness to along the way.
September will mark my two-year anniversary of being a freelance video game journalist, measured by when my first professional pitch was accepted, and my experience has been paradoxical. It was much easier to break into freelance video game journalism than I thought it would be. There are lots of people who want to be video game journalists, but very few people who know how to write, just like there are lots of people who would love to be rock musicians but they don’t know how to sing or play an instrument.
Freelancing as a point of fact means nothing more than getting something published that you're also paid for on a semi-regular basis. I don't think that's too difficult to do if you know how to write and are diligent and have the requisite people skills and the ability to take criticism and learn from it. The hardest part, I think, is drumming up the courage to pitch stories and being willing to face the rejection until something sticks. I still sometimes hesitate to send pitches to outlets I would really like to be published in!
I also sometimes still feel a little uncomfortable referring to myself as a freelance video game journalist or a freelance writer. By virtue of the Escapist column and the regular work I still do for G4 it's technically true but often I just feel like a piker, someone picking up work on the fringes of the industry but not someone who actually lives there. The people I know who do this gig full-time are online between eight and ten hours a day, on work chat rooms and surfing the web for stories and ensconced in the world of video games. That, to me, is what it means to be a video game journalist. That, to me, is what it means to be a member of the club, and why it's fair to think of it as a club. Any time you have a closed-off space that is difficult to get into and admits a very specific type of person that is fairly referred to as a club, and this is where the paradox comes in. It's easy to get in the entrance, but it's difficult as hell to get into the private rooms in the back.
Full-time freelancing seems reserved only for those who can afford the uncertainty by virtue of either having a partner who can supplement their freelance income or otherwise being able to tolerate not making a lot of money. I know only one full-time freelancer who only writes about video games, and they were recently lamenting about their inability to afford much more than a bag of groceries for their household for months on account of invoices being paid late. Most of the full-time freelancers I know diversify by writing about things other than video games.
The actual, salaried, stable full-time positions are precious and rare and the line to get one is very long. Every once in a while you might see an aberration. A friend of mine got hired to a full-time gig at Kotaku, which I would argue is one of the plum gigs in this business and something that people likely fight for for years, hired strictly off content written on a personal blog, an audience accrued thusly and nary a single paid, professional credit to their name. It’s likely the kind of thing I will never see again, and does in part speak to their reaching an audience that not many others do – Gerard Williams, otherwise known as “The Hip Hop Gamer,” also achieved whatever it is he’s achieved by purportedly reaching an audience no one else does- but by and large you pay your dues, you wait for a chance to land a steady or full-time gig, and there are a whole lot of people who have been doing this for much longer than you have and who are already in line for those spots.
What got me thinking about the game journalism club and my two years trying to break into it was the teaser trailer for the Polygon documentary that was shown for the first time on Tuesday. My official stance on the teaser and the longer trailer is I don't give a fuck, which sincerely is not meant in a hostile way but rather a bluntly honest one. I approach those teasers the same way I approach game previews or movie trailers or book excerpts, which is to say I don’t give a fuck until the release of the product is actually upon us such that I can view the hype material and thenview the finished product and see whether there was anything to the hype or whether it was all complete and utter bullshit. You get used to doing this when you're a video game journalist and are inundated daily with press release hype.
I'm much more interested in the reaction to these trailers than the trailers themselves, because the reactions can tell us an awful lot about how the game journalism club operates if you know how to unpack those reactions.
There’s a reason I love meta-questions about the video game press. Getting the answers is my way of learning the business. One of those meta-questions is how seriously video game journalists should take their jobs. Let’s sketch out the poles here. One side says “We’re just writing about toys so let’s not get all full of ourselves,” and the other side says “We’re writing about one of the most important forms of art in the 21st century so how dare you say they’re just toys?” Most people fall somewhere in the middle.
The Polygon crew is clearly taking their work seriously, and I don’t think you can make a full-time run at this career without doing so. I think you have to be a little bit crazy to want this, and if you achieve it I think not taking it seriously is a little bit even more crazy. It’s difficult work with long hours, dealing with a video game industry that is often intransigent in its unwillingness to grant access to development figures for features, an audience which is more than ready to spear games journos and rotate them on a spit over internet flames, and a general perception that video game “journalism” is anything but and you’re an arrogant fuck if you dare to think and declare otherwise (and this is a sentiment that can be issued by games journos themselves).
The documentary in question is going to be about the construction of the Polygon website because technically Polygon doesn't exist yet. They publish content under the banner of The Verge but have been hyping the new technology that's going to be running under the hood of their site proper, which is still being built. Some of the reactions to the teaser trailer for this documentary have been venomous. Accusations of runaway ego and bloated self-importance abound.
If the name of your game or the name of your game journalism outlet isn’t on lips and minds you’re not going to cut through the static. Polygon can’t just rest on the laurels of their staff, they need to make sure everyone knows they’re here. They already have the attention of their peers, but I’m not so sure they have the attention of the audience, which I would personally lay on the fact that they’re running a lot of long-form content which is atypical of the industry’s output. I’m sure they grabbed another good share of attention with that teaser trailer though, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the venom was not only expected but welcomed because, well, this is the internet and hate spreads across the electronic highway faster than anything else and not everyone who gets exposed to the teaser by way of taking interest in the hate train is going to react negatively to the teaser.
Besides the if you take this seriously you're an ass crowd, I bet plenty of the ire is coming from people who aspire to be video game journos and they’re jealous of the Polygon crew because of what they collectively represent. They are the most perfect representation of “the game journalism club” that I could ever imagine. When the outlet makes a statement like “We’ve hired the best team of editors ever,” or words to that effect what that effectively translates into is “We’ve established the most perfect representation of the old guard ever assembled.” I mean no disrespect by that but you have former writers and editors from Joystiq, IGN, Kotaku, The Escapist, Destructoid and Game Informer all under one roof. It’s a who’s who of mostly men who were either fortunate enough to be a part of this industry at its nascent internet stages or who broke into some of the biggest and most established game journalism outlets in the business. Many of them are the people who defined the club's territory.
One easy misinterpretation of the club metaphor is the mistake of thinking that once you’re in it's just a bunch of good ol’ boys guffawing and patting themselves on the back and helping each other like Freemasons hiring new employees and then they get the secret handshake and the deal's done. That’s not the case if my observations of my colleagues are accurate. I figured that once I started getting published I would have broken through the barriers that separated the fan sites and the wanna-be blogs who are often feted or granted review copies by publishers but who rarely publish anything meaningful other than those reviews, meaningful inasmuch as those review scores influence Metacritic averages, and so I figured that once I graduated from the amateur leagues and started selling work professionally I would be a member of the club.
I was wrong. Dead wrong. Just getting a published piece doesn’t mean shit. What matters is doing so over and over and over again at a level of quality that others recognize and respect. What matters is knowing how to network with your peers and to be humble and to learn and I fucked up plenty at this early stage by thinking I was a member of the club on account of having one professional clip! I had bought into this disdainful, common misconception of what the club might mean, and so I came off as arrogant as fuck and wanting to argue with established journos like we were all equitable peers and two years later I still worry about the potential damage I’ve done to myself and my chances, although in all likelihood the people I’ve offended have probably forgotten about my earlier imbecilic behavior. But I always remember what I’ve been told, that this is a very small business and you cannot afford to make enemies.
Club membership for me was the recognition and respect of these people. These were the editors who controlled the page space and the budgets, who assigned the reviews and approved or turned down the pitches, these were the people one had to get in with if they wanted to be a video game journalist. There's no magic formula to breaking into game journalism but networking with the right people sure does help, and most of the folks at Polygon either jumped the hurdle of resonating with and establishing audiences or managed outlets that collectively jumped it together. Could we look at the teasers as ego maniacal flotsam? Sure. Has the Polygon crew collectively achieved enough in the game journalism industry to warrant it? Also sure. If you hold official club membership that none of your peers would question you worked your ass off for it.
Some of the venom is coming from other members of the games journalism community. There’s plenty of camaraderie in game journalism but there’s just as much or more competition, with everyone trying to out-do everyone else on scoops and original features, and page hits and unique users and other metrics. Polygon, then, being such a collection of veteran club members, and backed by the financial stability of The Verge, is not only hefty competition but also competition that is likely to be here for a long while, and I don’t care what anyone says, when you’re fighting over such a small audience there’s always going to be resentment when a new kid moves in on the block, even if it’s staffed with mostly old writers.
You still see vestiges of this kind of resentment through the way people talk about Destructoid sometimes. Yanier Gonzalez showed up at E3 in a suit and a homemade robot helmet as Mr. Destructoid and thus founded one of the juggernauts of modern video game journalism, and industry veterans were pissed. How dare this dancing clown muscle in on their territory? The phrase to pull a Destructoid wouldn’t have any meaning without this underlying message of upstart-ism. Dtoid went toe-to-toe with giants like Kotaku and Joystiq and from a certain point of view won by even being in the same caliber as those sites to this very day in terms of the size of the audience and the industry access they command, and as evidenced by the home-brewed media empire that Gonzalez continues to expand.
You can see the competitive spirit in the Polygon sales pitch – the best group of editors ever – which is also what’s pissed off some members of the games journalism community. There’s an inescapably-dismissive air to that statement which can lead journos who continue to work at the ex-outlets of the Polygon staff to feel like the quality of their work is being trodden upon. Some game journos are irked with Polygon the same way they were irked with Ben Kuchera, formerly of Ars Technica, who left Ars to join Penny Arcade. Part of Kuchera's mantra is “Games journalism is broken. We can do better,” a statement which impressively indicts the whole of the games journalism industry in its wake.
Polygon’s sales pitch does carry an inevitable air of “We used to work at other sites, but now we’re working for a much better one,” but again I take this as mostly hype and not in a bad way. Just because the members of Polygon are members of the club now doesn’t mean they always will be. If Polygon crashes and burns the ill will generated by that sales pitch could burn some of them, but I imagine they are going to be around for a while, which means they’ve established one of the most sought-after Grails in the game journalism community: Stability. That, in and of itself, is likely to arouse jealous sentiment from some corners.
I personally like the metaphor of the club because it helps me visualize how I can raise my personal bar. I wanted into the club, and I made it happen. Now I want to be doing this full time, and to follow the metaphor, those are the private rooms in the back. To get there I need to challenge myself with different kinds of features or trying to land more original stories from events. The pursuit of the goal always leads to improvement if you're doing it right, I think, but anyone who tells you that trying to keep up a consistent portfolio of good clips while working a completely unrelated, full-time job is not being honest with you. It can get exhausting, but that's just part of this game. The more a writer challenges themselves and produces better work the better their chances of getting noticed at the right place and at the right time, because luck is always a frustrating but inescapable factor here, as well. It has been for me several times, and has led to successes.
I get really tired of the constant sniping and competition and snark and bullshit I see from the inside of this industry, though. Getting ensconced in all of that constitutes a forgetting of our collective place. Most gamers have no idea who the fuck the biggest video game developers are much less who the few, big names in video game journalism are. Maybe they know Geoff Keighley because he’s sometimes on those infernal promo videos that run in GameStop. But in the grand scheme of the video game industry and in the grand scheme of the wider journalism industry we are ALL small fry, even the greatest of us. Our EICs and well-known names are big fish in a very, very small pond.
Is there an aspect of losing this perspective in the Polygon trailers? Absolutely. But in the end, I think those trailers are meant for the other club members as much as anyone else. I have to imagine that other game journalists, as much as they might protest to the contrary, want to command the attention and respect of their peers. Polygon might not have everyone's respect right now, but they sure as fuck have everyone's attention. If their website delivers the goods these trailers might be looked upon more kindly when all is said and done.
In the interim, if Polygon wants to have their fun with these trailers so what? If their website doesn't deliver the Polygon crew will pay the price for these trailers, not any of us. Can’t we all just be really fucking happy that we’ve managed to do something that so many other people would kill to be able to do? We get paid to write about video games.