If you've ever seen me speak on a panel about games writing, you've heard me joke around about sleep deprivation. "All the game reviews you read have been written by someone who hasn't slept for a week," I say to anyone who raises their hand to say they envy the life of a video game critic. "You think reviewing games is easy? You try it."
I say this in a joking tone so that I don't scare people, but it's not really a joke. I think reviewing video games is fun. I do not think it is easy. And I do think you should try it.
Try playing a game as fast as you can right after it comes out, so that you can pitch a piece about it during the brief window of time that the game's still "relevant" to a fast-moving, on-to-the-next-one audience. Try writing for a place that can get you an advanced copy, maybe two weeks in advance, maybe one week, and try racing that embargo. Try canceling all your plans that week so that you can play a game for 15-30 hours in addition to your full-time 40-hours-or-more-per-week job, and then take however many hours you can afford researching and writing the review and editing. You'd better hope the game itself is fun.
But you're getting paid for this work, right? Of course, of course! That all averages out, right? Can you imagine the huge bonus that awaits you upon completion of this intense whirlwind of activity?
I spent thirty hours playing the new Tomb Raider. I even bought two old Tomb Raider games on Steam ($10 each) and played those for a few hours each to immerse myself in the feel of the old Lara Croft. I spent hours reading about Lara and her conception, from her early days to the reboot. As I played the game, during pause breaks, I scribbled down my ideas. After I'd played the game, formed my opinions, and written the bulk of my thoughts down in unedited garbled piles, I spent more hours reading dozens of other pieces about the reboot. I had gotten my review copy later than everyone else, so I didn't manage to finish my review in time for the embargo. So, because I was already late, I wanted to contribute something new instead of just adding an echo to the chorus ... which meant I put even more self-imposed pressure on myself than usual. It goes without saying that, throughout all of this, I canceled plans and forewent sleep, as well. For my troubles? $30. Of course, I already spent $20 of that on old Tomb Raider games. And, of course, I could have spent all of that time working a completely different part-time job that might've paid me more.
But I didn't. You know why?
I just wanted to write a decent Tomb Raider review. Something I could be proud of, something good. And it is good. I think it is good.
In this case, I enjoyed the job, because I enjoyed Tomb Raider. But would I have chosen to play TR at such a breakneck pace had I not been reviewing it? OF COURSE NOT. I would've still had a good experience with the game, albeit a different and less stressful one. But that's all right. I chose this job.
Sometimes, the game plays like shit and you have to bang against its walls for 30 hours anyway, because that's the job. And when your friends call you and ask you to hang out, and you have to say, "No, I have to play this terrible game for cents on the dollar because I LOVE VIDEO GAMES," you may begin feel like you've been had.
The pay-out depends on where you write, of course. The Phoenix and Polygon both pay 25 cents a word, which is about as good as it gets. (I've written for the Phoenix before, but not Polygon; Polygon list their rates online, so that's how I know the payment.) That means they'd pay you $150 for a 600-word game review that took you, let's say, 40 hours to create. That's $3.75 an hour. That's almost as much as a waiter makes, right? No? Not even? Hmmm.
But, of course, I'm lucky to be paid at all, right? Think about how many inexperienced youngsters will review a game for free, these days. You just keep on thinking about them, and thinking about them, as you hit 11 PM, 12 AM, 1 AM, 2 AM, solving that weighted block puzzle and turning the volume on your TV down lower and lower as the rest of your apartment building falls deeper into sleep.
I don't do this for the money, although my parents keep waiting for me to stop saying that and get a "real" job so they can stop worrying about all the supermarket brand minute rice I'm eating. I do this because I love thinking about games. I love reading, about games or anything at all. And I love writing. I'd keep writing if I didn't get paid for it, so I may as well try to sell it if I can, since it's work I enjoy.
I also do it, at this point, because people ask me to. In my early days, no one did this, and I still wrote anyway (albeit badly). At this point I do have a handful of "fans" (ha ha) who ask me "What do you think about xyz?" I like being able to study and think hard about the answer and then tell them.
It warmed my heart to see strangers tweet at me, "I can't wait to hear what you think of the new Tomb Raider." I have my share of haters, too, of course. But some people do like the way I string words together. And that, on its own, almost justifies all the rest. Almost.
This isn't even about me. It's about how unattractive freelance writing actually is, as a career choice. Video game criticism in particular, given the time investment required, seems to have gotten the short end of the stick in a bad way. Reviewing a movie or a TV show? That probably won't require 40 hours of your time. But a video game? Your Skyrims, your Dragon Ages, your Fallouts?
I'm not saying I prefer shorter games, or that I prefer free indie games, or ... any of that. I prefer games that are good, games that create a space I want to inhabit.
But I do see a lot of hard work get devalued in this business, mostly by readers who don't know the deal. Editors do fine; editors would pay more if they could, and I know it. But readers want to go on paying nothing at all, all the while complaining that every big games publication is "in the pocket" of whatever super-corporate video game company we're all mad at this week. And maybe some publications do hang around in rotten pockets ... but that might be because readers aren't paying. And somebody has to.
Readers, respect those writers. They're doing it because they love it. That's the only explanation for why anybody would do this. It's certainly not for the glamor (what glamor?!), or the internet comments (ha!), or the money (sigh), or the free games (lots of publications can't net these in the first place).
I hope you think about all of this the next time you leave an angry comment on a video game review. And I hope that game reviewer is getting a good night of sleep right now.