I published something on Stu Horvath’s gaming and geek culture blog Unwinnable last week. They do themed weeks over there and the themes have been resonating with me, and I really like Stu and his crew so I participate whenever I can. I don’t get paid for any of it, but I think the stuff I’ve been contributing to Unwinnable is some of the better content I’ve been writing lately. And I think there’s a connection between the lack of remuneration and the nature of the work. My reasons for writing on Unwinnable are different than when I take professional assignments elsewhere.
Part of it has to do with how I perceive Unwinnable. It’s a place where I can take some risks I can’t take elsewhere. Unwinnable is much more a potpourri of different perspectives and lenses, whereas when I write for commercial sites they have established voices at the outlet level and part of a freelancer’s job is to learn how to write to that voice. The fact that I’m writing for free does seem to matter, though. I’m writing this stuff purely because I want to share something with an audience, not to try and further my career or make new inroads at a new outlet, and I suppose that’s why anyone ought to be writing.
If one wants to make a living at this, though, they’re going to have to take gigs that have nothing to do with self-expression or the craft of the writing, or have less to do with either due to the nature of the assignment, and those pieces are inevitably, I think, going to be of lesser quality. I’ve seen this in my own writing, I’ve heard my wife saying as much as she moved from blogging to full-time writing and editing, and I’ve seen it happen to numerous people who have moved into paid positions on game journalism outlets. That isn’t offered as a revelation or anything, but it isn’t something I really thought about until recently, and realized how often I’ve seen it happen.
Of the many charges Ben Kuchera levies against game journalism forced output cycles shines brightest to me. A forced output cycle can be having to post work at a certain time on a fixed schedule throughout the day, or a quota of number of posts to make in a given time period. Both systems force writers to fill page space however they can and quality of work suffers.
One of the writers was a blogger known for publishing very substantive pieces on a key issue in game journalism, and came up often in online conversations on topics of weight and depth. Then this writer was hired by an outlet and placed into a forced output cycle. Now I don’t hear about this person very much anymore because they’re writing pretty much the same stuff everyone else is. One writer was a voice calling out for change, who wanted to see the game journalism industry improve the way it went about its business. Now the writer has a steady gig on an outlet and is writing the same sort of material that everyone else does, in essence becoming a cog in the machine they formerly criticized.
It’s not a criticism of either writer to say any of this. They’re on forced output cycles. They have no choice but to play the game the way it’s played or forget about making any money and go back to personal publishing. My wife may kill me for saying this, but she’s also acknowledged the problem. Lesley used to write substantive analyses and essays almost exclusively. That’s what got her noticed. Now she writes full time and is responsible for a much higher quota of content on a regular basis. As a result she can’t exclusively publish thoughtful, well-researched essays because that’s just not scalable. Good writing takes time and research and editing and fact-checking and, well, craft. A forced output cycle simply does not allow for this as often as work needs to hit the page, unless perhaps you’re completely brilliant, I suppose.
(My wife would like me to note that she loves her job)
To a point I’m reacting to a comment on my last post about “Why don’t you find a different way to talk to a different audience?” The short answer is: I would prefer to have some paying work right now. If and when I ever decide that my motivations for writing have completely changed, i.e. if I decide that I’m no longer pursuing a career in game journalism but rather am just writing for the fuck of it, then I’ll have oodles of room for experimentation. For now, I’m thankful for outlets like Unwinnable that allow me to pen a eulogy to my friend Rufus because I can’t imagine a mainstream site’s willingness to publish the piece.