|When a PR scandal reaches the stage at which it is seen as a fit topic for late night new journatainment you know you have a hot-button issue for sure...|
No, you want to get paid to play and review video games?
No no! You want to get paid to report on the goings on in the games industry?
No no no! Nooooo! What you really want is to get paid to play video games and write Walkthrough Guides for them!
Or perhaps it is some of the above? All of the above?
The Wages of Sin . . .
If so, it probably will not surprise you to learn that a lot of games journalists spend years working their way up the ranks from the bottom, beat-by-beat, with those very goals in mind.
The ones who attain those goals get there through hard work.
Their journey usually begins by writing in the trenches, where they pay their dues earning considerably less than a living wage and take any paid gigs that they can get.
Their journey usually begins by writing in the trenches, where they pay their dues earning considerably less than a living wage and take any paid gigs that they can get.
As their goal is to begin the process of honing their craft, finding their voice, and eventually building a legitimate portfolio to represent them to editors who might be interested in offering them a gig or, more likely, a freelance commission for a specific project.
The new freelancer must accomplish the above, all the while avoiding the plethora of traps and evil editors out there both online and in print who want nothing more than to obtain your services gratis - and they will tell you any lie that works to get you to write for them. Lies that include possible future pay based on the traffic your piece generates, or a share in the site revenue “once it is established” of course.
Among the more often told promises are help refining your craft, and editorial guidance in obtaining the sort of skills and focus that is required for these beats. Of course that guidance rarely appears in any other form than another assignment for which you are paid in experience only.
The inexperienced are unaware that this song and dance of writing for the experience or to build a portfolio is just that - a song and dance. The editors at the sites and publications that do pay for the projects and pieces that they commission know which publications and sites induce their writers to churn out copy for no fee and they don't consider a portfolio built around those pieces of any value at all.
At least part of the reason for that has to do with the quality - actually the lack of quality - that those pieces will possess. Because the “editors” for those sites and publications are not interested in helping you to create a high-quality piece that presents your skills in the best light -- they are only interested in generating volume to fill the pages of their site/pub in order to generate ad revenue and hits, gain a better spot with the search engines, and make money.
. . . are Swag, Free Meals, and Risking your Reputation
That duly noted, it will probably not surprise you that many writers just starting out seek and take advantage of any perceived shortcuts that they can find along their own personal journey towards getting established.
In fact that attitude and ignorance of the process and industry are what the unscrupulous editors use and count on to get writers to work for free! Have you head the expression you cannot con an honest man? Well the same thing goes for honest writers.
Taking shortcuts or working for free to build a portfolio rarely ever leads to legitimate gigs, because the editors you actually want to work for are not impressed by what amounts to barely edited first--and-second-draft pieces that are accepted by the fly-by-night editors who are all promises but never deliver on them.
Look at it from the legitimate editor's point-of-view for a moment: the work you are listing in your portfolio is not very good largely because the publication you created it for does not care about quality - only quantity. And then there is the point that if you are willing to work for free for those editors, why should a legitimate editor pay you? After all even you don't believe your art is worth anything - otherwise you would not be giving it away, right?
Never Work for Free
Legitimate editors understand the concept of “just starting out” - that is why they make allowances for newbies and offer them extra guidance in the creation of early projects.
A legit and professional editor will not accept what amounts to a rough draft from you as finished copy. They will instead kick it back to you with the problems noted, and a list of suggestions. Re-writing is a staple for the aspiring writer - get used to it. Well, get used to it if you are working for a legitimate outlet.
The good news is that there is method in play here. Once you actually come to recognize the common mistakes that get a piece kicked back for re-write, you will stop making those mistakes. Your quality in writing will go up, and you will find the process gets easier. It is a self-correcting process you know? If you don't learn from your mistakes that will not be a problem, since those editors will stop offering you gigs.
It's fair to say that a vast majority of the brothers and sisters of the gaming pen will consider any advantage they can to attain a boost - up to and including shortcuts, nepotism, or help from a sympathetic member of the Fourth Estate's Gaming Cabinet who has already secured elevation to the flag ranks of games journalism and so could - should they choose to - put in a good word for them.
Sadly that sort of advancement - jumping the queue if you will - rarely ever works out to be either in the benefit of the writer getting the unnatural bump, or for that matter to the editors who have been induced into providing it by someone whose judgment they trust.
The reason that I am writing this - and why this subject has cropped up yet again - is down to the fact that when I opened my mail client yesterday morning I discovered fifteen new email messages from aspiring writers seeking advice from me on how to break into one or more of the games beats.
That's fifteen emails in ONE day. It happened to be a Friday, but still. That's a lot.
Fifteen emails is the total I would normally receive in an average week, so getting them all in one day? Unusual is the best word to describe this.
I've noticed that email of this sort tends to arrive on Mondays or Fridays - the same days most CV's are revised come to think upon it - and I doubt that is a coincidence.
If I dig hard and deep enough what I am likely to find is that online somewhere on a chat board for writers and writing my name was mentioned along with a bunch of other journos, in a completely unrelated thread, and this was the result.
I write this on a Saturday morning in the middle of preparing for a bad storm that is rumored to be coming our way.
I live on what amounts to a very large island off the coast of Massachusetts and bad storms like this are not to be taken lightly. There is concern that the storm may become what we call a “Nor'Easter” -- and in New England that is not a good word to hear.
That type of storm forms on average around three times a year, building up along the East coast as warm air from over the Atlantic smashes into cold arctic air masses to the north and west, with the result being northeasterly winds that blow in ahead of the storm.
While this type of storm can occur any time of the year they are most common between the months of September through April, and when they choose to arrive during the winter months the northwest side of a nor'easter will often contain very heavy snow combined with hurricane-force winds.
So it is not only very cold to start with, the windchill combined with the heavy snow makes for a miserable - and often very dangerous - time.
The roads freeze, the snow gets deep and can form an ice cover, and that makes it difficult for the removal crews to get rid of it. Forget salting the roads, that only works for regular bad weather. Think in terms of hunkering down for the duration of the storm plus two to four days, and if you live in New England, you can expect to lose power during some or most of that period.
So naturally my mind is occupied by thoughts of deep wet packed snow and the likelihood that we would lose power and I would not be able to work on the four projects that I am presently working. I am also concerned that we may not have sufficient firewood to keep the fireplace burning for more than three or four days, and I have mentally reviewed how much food is in the larder as well as the levels of other essential supplies and the conclusions are not good.
Before this storm arrives we will need to get at least a cord of wood, and hit the grocery, hardware, and pharmacy. It would be a good idea to visit the library and check out some good books so that if the power does go out - and the Internet with it - there is at least something to entertain all of us.
I'm sure you can imagine that, under the circumstances, happy replies to unsolicited email of this sort is not likely. But that's actually not a concern thanks to the twin lessons of experience and history.
Here There Be History!
Having been on the receiving end of this particular type of appeal via email for nearly a decade -- or about the time that my status as a games journo was officially recognized (and bear in mind you don't actually have to be a successful OR a popular games journo to be on the receiving end of this sort of thing) -- I now have a policy for handling these.
I admit that, at first I was drawn to them. The idea that someone at a stage I used to be at was seeking out my guidance was pretty flattering. I definitely gave them more time and attention - and effort - than was good. And I gave what I thought was good advice too - in fact it was a lot more verbose but if you distill it down it's the same advice I give today but in the form of a tinned reply I can paste into the email I answer with.
Now I know better
In the past I assumed that anything I had to say both had value to the recipient and would be advice well-received and followed.
It turns out that is rarely ever the case; they were not looking to hear me say “work hard, never work for free, write the best you can, and find your voice.”
That wasn't what they were looking for when they wrote me. What they were seeking were any tips, tricks, or shortcuts I could offer because there is this belief on the part of new writers that there ARE such things.
What I was offering instead - in my ignorance - was a road map for how the rest of us AWs actually began, undertook, and completed the journey under discussion.
No, what they want is for me to explain to them how they might become a professional games journo without actually needing to put in the effort of becoming a professional games journo.
I've corresponded with more than a few - at length - and eventually what I learn is that they just want a fast track to success so that they can score gigs that will pay well, offer them prestige, ensure a steady supply of free AAA games, and pay expenses for and offer creds to the big three game expos - E3, TGS, and Gamescom.
I was gobsmacked to learn that today a lot of gamers who are looking to become games journos have this twisted idea that the life of the typical professional games journo while on assignment is something like a cross between Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas -- and the the more excessive of the stories told about the bad-old corruption days when PRs and studios would almost literally hand games journos bags of cash, or whisk them away to all-expenses-paid game briefings in Tahiti and the Bahamas during the dark of winter back home!
Today reputable gaming publications and sites have ethics policy that is very similar to those used by newspapers - in fact the reform process for games journalism in many ways mirrored what the newspapers experienced during the height of their reforms.
The reason that such policy is successful is that the journos themselves understand it is in their best interest to comply with them.
First there is the whole issue with the Federal Trade Commission and other government agencies having finally recognized that both the traditional and new media were rife with corruption and needed to be brought in line so that they were operating under full influence and disclosure just like the traditional media is.
Some time if you are bored and have an hour free to read check out the Endorsement Guides for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) as they apply to games journalists. The contents of that site section have been helpfully packaged as a PDF document that you can download and read at your leisure too.
After you get familiar with that, go check out the updated valuation rules for things like game review copies and swag over at the IRS website. When you get audited how the IRS auditor treats the review and preview copies will depend on how they personally interpret the law.
Some auditors apply the tax law of Publication 531 (undeclared tips), while others choose to apply the same set of tax laws that are applied to gambling winnings by professional gamblers.
So for instance just like a professional gambler a professional freelancer is held to the requirements to file as a self-employed business using Schedule C -- and review copies as well as swag is treated just like the value of "comps" that are received from casinos by gamblers - and thus are considered to be gaming winnings that are taxed at the highest level allowed by law.
Some have interpreted the games as being worth their declared retail cost as their real value - so the typical AAA game will be counted as $59.99 in real value for the purposes of assessing the income amount you are being penalized with.
Say you average two games a month - though really that is a low-ball figure since during the run-up to the Christmas Holiday you can easily have a dozen or more games dropped on you.... But let's day throughout a typical year you only accepted 24 video games. That works out to just over $1,400 in what the IRS considers undeclared income!
And that does not even begin to estimate the income value for swag you received from PRs - including free meals, beverages, and even the thumb drives they gave you the press releases and media content on! Yeah, the IRS considers that income if it gets to the stage where you are being audited.
Tax lawyers suggest that just like professional gamblers the professional games journo should keep a personal journal in which they keep track of what they receive from PRs, studios, and publishers, as well as what they spend out-of-pocket. Keeping receipts for the games you bought as well as logging that in your journal is recommended - because the IRS auditor might decide to Google all of your reviews for the previous tax year and assume you received review copies for every game you reviewed.
Bearing in mind that none of the game studios or PRs - or publishers - issue Form W2-G to freelance games journos, that personal journal may be your first and last line of defense against this!
That will quickly add up - because even if the total amount doesn't push you into a higher tax bracket, once they tabulate the total value for all of the games - $1,439.76 - plus the swag and other income - they then start applying the fines, and then total all of that together and begin factoring the percentage of late charges and so on. It can quickly get bloody - and your employers will not be happy with you either - there is that to consider.
If you are an aspiring journo I very strongly urge you to carefully study the documents referenced above because government agencies like the FTC and IRS do NOT have a sense of humor. Claiming ignorance of the law pretty much amounts to an outright guilty plea!
If you read the game and hardware previews and reviews I write you will notice a few things consistently throughout: at the end of each preview or review I disclose how I obtained the copy that was used for that piece even when I actually paid for it myself, and I never retain preview or review copies for my personal game library.
Unless the game needs to be held onto for coverage of future DLC and expansion content, we give away all of the review copies as part of our regular trivia contests - with the details appearing at the end of the preview or review right beneath the disclosure.
Another helpful tip - when we know for certain that a game will have future content we will need to cover we will actually try to insist on being given a code rather than the retail boxed edition - since game codes have no intrinsic value and thus are not declared income.
Sorry we got off track here a little...
If a PR manages to compromise you ethically they can (and many will) hold that over your head. Believe me the risks associated with being outed for accepting a bribe far far outweigh any blip of a few seconds of bad publicity on their part for offering it. So you see there is a very real risk of being “owned” by the PR or studio that bribed you -- and what you have is a recipe for disaster that most assuredly has a “sell-by date” attached.
Science Fiction author Robert Heinlein is well-known for promoting the expression and idea of TANSTAAFL - There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch - which features heavily in the personal ethics and philosophy of the protagonist Lazarus Long, and to a smaller degree with characters like Valentine Michael Smith from Stranger in a Strange Land and so on.
Once you get owned the day will come when they demand payment for that bribe -- a demand that most often comes in the form of a positive review for one of their games.
When you -- and the handful of other journos who they entrapped -- give a game that the rest of the world recognizes as a real stinker a positive review, do you truly imagine nobody will notice?
Forget the fact that by giving that stinker a positive review you have essentially betrayed your audience - those audiences are NOT stupid. They will figure out that you had a reason for writing what you wrote mates.
So following the publication ethics policy is not just a good idea - after all those policies are there for your protection as well as to protect the reputation of the publications itself.
Unlike most other media beats, in games journalism a writer who has demonstrated that they have a price and can be bought loses all trust and credibility from their audience - and since their audience IS the gold-standard by which their value to an outlet on their chosen beat is measured - well you can easily figure it out for yourself.
The PRs and games publishers know all of this - that's why you don't see them trying to slide by with overt bribes anymore -- and why you never see them offering the sort of overt perk like flying journos to warm tropical destinations in the middle of the winter to be briefed on a new game or have their preview play in a luxury resort in California (that stuff really did happen).
I should also emphasize that unlike in a court of law, there is no presumption of innocence in the court of public opinion. Even just the appearance of culpability is sufficient in most cases to cost a journo their career.
|Don't you just bet that this is one image he really regrets sitting for?|
And we don't need examples like 2012s Dorito-gate or the travesty surrounding 2007s Gerstmann-gate to make that all too painfully clear do we?
In a nutshell Dorito-gate was a debacle that was pretty much created by the PR firm representing American sugar-water and cheese-flavored corn-crisps manufacturer Mountain Dew and Doritos (which means parent company Pepsi-Co and subsidiary Frito-Lays).
Toss in GTTV host Geoff Keighley, an unfortunate promotion involving Twitter, Microsoft's (then) new hit game Halo 4 and its primary advertising scheme, and games journalist Lauren Wainwright, who may or may not be litigious in the grandest traditions of American culture (despite you know, she being British and all of this taking place at a European awards show)...
So um, yeah, that's Dorito-gate - an unfortunate event that would have been prevented by a handful of games publications and sites having adopted and clearly indoctrinated their writers with the same basic ethics policy that most American publications and sites use. Because 'Merica! Hell yeah!
Then we have Gerstmann-gate - which I don't mind saying still leaves a bad aftertaste.
Considering that despite his innocence - and he was innocent - nobody is arguing that games journo Jeffrey Michael Gerstmann was dismissal from GameSpot -- where he had worked for over a decade -- for any reason OTHER than having written a fair and accurate review of the Eidos Interactive title Kane & Lynch: Dead Men.
Bearing in mind that Gerstmann was assigned to review that title, and bearing in mind that the only basis for his dismissal was the fact that he wrote a negative review of the game and then later refused to re-interpret his review or re-cast the numbers for the rating he gave the game - in the end his career as a games journo was permanently damaged.
So that was two very simple examples of a clear ethics question (Dorito-gate) and a completely innocent journo trapped in a pissing contest (Gerstmann-gate) between the games press and one company who has an alleged unfortunate policy of pimping its ratings to its advertisers.
In both cases while there were no clear winners there certainly were some clear villains, but games journos - and to some extent the gaming community in general - really did get hurt.
Every Time You Turn Around, There You Are!
So I need to hit the door and get to the grocery - Pete's going to deliver a cord of wood - I have a short list for the hardware store, and I'm getting my scripts filled two-days early. That being so, and the weather waiting for no man (or woman, or dachshund despite the fact that Calvin is a very persuasive dachshund) I want to sum all of this up by providing you, erstwhile aspiring writers and games journos alike - with the following advice.
Follow it. Don't follow it. Reject me. Endorse me. I don't actually care. But here we go:
My formal and official advice to new aspiring writers wishing to break into the games beats (any and all of them) are really very simple.
1. Register a custom Internet Domain Name (ie, www.yourname.com) for your working name (for example my domain is boots-faubert.com) and obtain hosting for that domain.
Create a personal websites to showcase your work and help potential sources and editors to contact you, and for editors to get to know you and your work.
You can find excellent examples - and ideas for what to include on your site by checking out the long list of sites created by other journos at the Journalists Personal Websites page at Street Tips.
2. Register and properly set up an account/profile with about.me.
3. Sign up to and add your articles to Journalisted.
4. Create a LinkedIn account and be sure to keep your LinkedIn profile up-to-date.
5. Create a Portfolio of the best examples of your paid work for each of the beats you write on.
6. Do NOT write for free. You can find paid gigs - you just have to put in the effort. That is not to say that you will be making loads of coin for that effort - but that is not the point. The point is that you are creating portfolio content that shows off your talents (and hopefully your voice assuming you have found it) that fit within the desired constraints of the industry.
You may find that following the advice listed below will work:
(a) Use the website Games Journalism Jobs
The job postings on this site tend to be low on pay - but when it is a paid position they usually make that very clear. It should be understood that this is not the sort of gig clearing house you go to when you are looking for a permanent job to earn a living wage. That is very unlikely.
On the other hand you CAN find gigs here that are paid gigs and thus allow you to honestly add the output to your portfolio of commercially successful work. And that IS the point.
When you do get a gig, give it 100% of your effort and ability - treat it as if this was a job paying three times industry standard rates. Your goal here - in addition to getting paid for your writing - is to create work that showcases your writing abilities and (hopefully) your voice.
When you finish a gig here that you feel qualifies as representative of your best work, be sure you add it to the publications or projects section of your LinkedIn Profile (whichever is appropriate), and then add it to your Journalisted profile.
(b) Work for yourself
While you can be harshly judged for accepting unpaid gigs from sites and their editorial staff well known (infamous) for conning aspiring writers into producing production-level content for them, no self-respecting editor will look down on you for creating your own games blog and then populating it with quality features, game and game industry news pieces, game reviews, and even walkthroughs or game strategy guides.
While the contents of a self-made, self-run publication such as this won't really qualify as portfolio samples of paid work, the entire site/pub itself and everything on it DOES qualify as sample work. More important than that - assuming you can successfully pull it off - is its value to show consistency as well as quality.
The easiest path towards accomplishing this goal can be found at free blog hosting sites like Wordpress and Blogger - but if you can afford it you might want to go with a paid hosting site with a custom domain name like the services offered by GoDaddy (we use them and like them but are not being paid to recommend them).
GoDaddy is representative of the services we are talking about - so do the math: registering a new domain in the .com space with them is around 12 bucks and site hosting for it - with the blog software - runs around 7 bucks a month.
Or you can go with one of their on sale annual hosting plans that will get you:
- 1 Website
- 100 GB Storage
- Unlimited Bandwidth
- 100 Email Addresses
- Free domain with annual plan
For just over $160 you get the above for a prepaid 36 months.
You then just go into the hosting admin section, pick the blog front-end you want, then either choose a free or a paid design, customize it as needed and begin writing.
Once you are at the ready to write stage, set a schedule for yourself. Send emails to the various PR firms requesting to be added to the PR mailing lists for the various studios that they rep and that gets you the news and press releases. Google is your friend here for discovering who reps who.
Here is a sample schedule - you set aside Wednesday and Saturday for game news coverage, since that will get you the Monday/Tuesday and Thursday/Friday releases to work from. Now you perfect your ability to summarize news coverage and perhaps add a little character, entertainment, or humor to the process.
If you want to eventually cover game reviews, decide on doing one or two reviews a month then do them. Pick your games and try to get your reviews out in a timely fashion. Create a review format that not only makes sense, but is easy to understand and helpful to the reader.
Every other Friday you publish an original feature piece - I am not talking about regurgitating standard feature topics mind you - but developing your own takes and approaches. Write about what interests you as that will make it easier. Maybe you are wild about zombie games - so write a feature article that compares the current crop of zombie games with an eye towards the average number of zombies you kill per game, per hour. Or reviewing the different types of zombies in a game and the best strategy for making them chopped meat.
You get the idea. If you stick with your schedule, six months down the road you have not only created an impressive site/blog/personal publication, with any luck you now have an audience that is large enough so that you can start requesting review copies of upcoming games. You will know that is a success when you actually receive more than half of the games you request.
There is nothing mysterious about this process - this is what is known as paying your dues.
Oh, and in case you are curious - this posting is now my default tinned reply to those emails from aspiring writers - so when they email me asking how to break into the games beat, I will be sending them the URL for this post as my reply :)
Since we covered briefly the whole ethics in games journalism subject it is a good idea for you to think about voluntarily adopting an industry standard ethics policy and then following it strictly. Doing that will never hurt you - and building a solid and ethical reputation will help you on these beats.
A Simple Set of Ethical Guidelines for Games Journalists?
Games Journalism is both a very large and widely followed set of beats, that naturally enough (when you consider the topic) includes a small nexus of professional writers followed by a very large crowd of gamers who also write about gaming.
Our interest in promoting ethical games journalism -- along the same lines as the voluntary ethics system adopted by newspapers during their struggle throughout the 1980s to achieve an ethical baseline for their industry -- is a keen one.
In that spirit we have voluntarily adopted this simple set of ethical guidelines for games journalism governing the ethical behavior and standards of games journalism based upon ten simple but important foundation points and their underlying specific rules and policy.
These Ethical Guidelines are adopted by the members of the International Brotherhood of Games Journalists, and are originally based upon ethics guidelines set down by the Canadian Association of Journalists.
We encourage you to adopt them yourself whether you are a well-established voice on a game beat or are just starting out. When you are ready to learn more about ethics and policy in games journalism, follow this link: