The Cult of Personality: Crowd-Funding My Post-Apocalyptic Bunker

by Maddy Myers

I've become a bit notorious for hating Patreon. I admit, on its face, the service seems pretty harmless. It's a subscription service for artists, a user-friendly funding model that simplifies and streamlines the process of putting out content for either your subscribers or the public or both, depending on how you set it up. It's not that different from Kickstarter or GoFundMe or any number of other crowd-funding platforms, except that it's subscription-based rather than focused on funding a single project in advance.

In a move that I will flippantly dub "transparent hypocrisy," I have decided to change my own Paypal donation button on this blog to be subscription-based rather than geared towards one-time donations. Why? Because people were asking for that option, and even though this blog is where I put all of my angry unedited content, folks seem to enjoy it. I need the money, because I'm a full-time freelancer and the hustle is tricky, so I'm not going to turn down your funds if you want to throw them at me.

So why do I hate Patreon, then? Clearly I've implemented a system that is almost exactly the same, and now I'm even writing a blog post to discuss it. Shameless promotion! Disgusting begging! How dare she!

My reasons for hating Patreon have nothing to do with believing that artists don't "deserve" to be paid, nor do I believe that selling one's work on the internet constitutes "begging." Patreon actually seems to obey capitalism's rules to the letter, rather than being the bastion of cultural Marxism that its most gleeful detractors would have you believe: the artist creates a product, and the subscribers pay to receive that product. Sometimes, people who don't pay for that product also receive it, but Patreon is not the first platform to offer a streamlined "pay what you want" model for creators. The one "socialist" aspect of the whole endeavor is that the art is typically made available even to people who haven't paid for it, so the folks with money are spreading the love even to folks who can't afford to shell out for the artist's work.

This is the aspect of Patreon that I see others emphasize the most: the idea that artists can be solely funded by their richest fans, while their poorer fans may still enjoy their work. There are some pretty significant problems with this model, namely that you need either rich fans or A LOT of fans if you really want to be successful. To get rich fans, your art needs to appeal to rich people, and rich people have issues. To get a lot of fans, you need to be accessible. I believe that's why the most successful campaigns on Kickstarter, GoFundMe, and Patreon are not the ones created by artists making work that pushes back against the status quo. On the contrary, the campaigns that succeed wildly tend to be the campaigns that play it safe.

Let's not talk about those huge projects, though. We can all agree and understand why mediocrity is a risk-free investment. What about the mid-tier and low-tier projects -- the weird stuff -- the artists who are scraping by on a livable wage but not necessarily making big bucks? What about the folks who've managed to use sites like Patreon as their best possible funding model, folks who despise working in a cubicle, and folks who have been freelance artists for so long that they probably couldn't even get a cubicle job again even if they wanted one? What about those folks? Am I trying to say they don't deserve to be paid????

On the contrary, I want those folks to have a lot more money and support than they do now. Obamacare has solved some of my own personal bugbears recently, but it's a new and relatively unstable development as yet here in America, and it doesn't help me with my long-term concerns about my current full-time freelance lifestyle: planning for retirement, 401Ks, social security, and all that other boring stuff that "real jobs" and "institutions" can provide (blech). I don't like that contractors have been relegated to scrambling for scraps here in the States, and that many institutions have turned on them. The number of friends who have not-so-jokingly told me that I should "marry rich" instead of continuing to date the drummer/barista/dog-walker with whom I have fallen in love ... shut your lovely pie-holes, my dear friends. I refuse to compromise my happiness. The grocery store-brand rice will do me fine.

I'm getting off topic.

I'm not really angry at Patreon specifically. But I am infuriated and frustrated and exhausted by what Patreon has come to represent, particularly in games journalism and criticism. Over the past year, Patreon has become a place for people (stereotypically, creators who are not men and not white and not cis and not straight ... but not always) who cannot get full-time or at least consistent contractual work at any games journalism institution, but who have independently gained enough of a fan-base to earn a couple hundred bucks per piece. No institution will offer them this rate, but their fans will, and so these individual writers soldier on, selling their pieces one by one to their fans directly.

There are some notable counter-examples that have arisen as recently as this year, such as Blizzard Watch and Kinda Funny. These are very different endeavors than the ones I described in the previous paragraph, however, because both are campaigns for a small editorial staff, as opposed to campaigns run by individual freelancers. Also, both of those campaigns have managed to succeed enough to more than pay out their contributors -- particularly "Kinda Funny," which by my math affords each of the four men involved a $67K salary per year. This is not a particularly impressive salary in other fields, but in journalism, it is considered good. After self-employment taxes, it will be significantly less, but these men will very likely be Just Fine.

I'm not sure I could say the same for many of the people I know who've struck out on their own with Patreon. There are some examples of folks who have managed to get a decent salary on Patreon, but when I add up the math as to how much money they're making yearly, I tend to feel concerned, especially if these are folks who are also expected to reside in SF (often mandatory for folks in games), travel to conventions, and pay for other costs incurred by being a games journalist (consoles, games, and so on cost quite a hefty sum).

Ordinarily one's institutional publication would pay for costs like travel fees, games, consoles, and so forth -- not to mention other basic needs like health insurance, dental insurance, and so on. Plus you likely wouldn't have to file taxes as an independent worker, which is more expensive. In other words, Patreon looks like a very bum deal to me, but it's also being painted to me as a "last resort" for people who cannot get full-time jobs at journalistic institutions, and who haven't been able to negotiate a comparable rate for their work from any of these institutions either. What's more, many of these people feel betrayed by those institutions, perhaps because they had their application turned down too many times in a row, or perhaps because many of those outlets seem to operate on a "musical chairs" hiring system by which you can only get a job if you already have a job at a nigh-identical institution.

I'm extremely sympathetic to these feelings. So sympathetic, in fact, that this past week I've almost been angry enough to create a Patreon of my own. Instead, I just made a Paypal link that I largely have not publicized. Why haven't I made a Patreon as well?

It's not solely because of the financial concerns that I've denoted above, since most of those concerns apply to me now even though I don't have a Patreon. I've spent this past month trying to live solely off of selling my creative work, which I have tried to do on and off for years. This month, I almost managed to break even, so my goal feels possible at long last. I've been working my part-time contract position at Paste Magazine, as I have done for over a year, and I've supplemented that income with multiple freelance contracts for three other publications. All of that income will be taxed and unsupported, just like any income that I get on Paypal (or from a hypothetical Patreon), as well as the untaxed income that I get from selling my music on Bandcamp.

So, the difference for me is not a financial one -- it's all about editing and teamwork, for me. I think there is a possibility that I could make more money on Patreon, but I also believe that my work would suffer if I chose to do that. I enjoy being edited; I like getting feedback from smart, experienced writers. I like meeting other writers and working on projects with them. I like collaborating with people, discussing one another's work, and feeling like everybody is on the same team and part of a big editorial and creative family. It's a sentiment that I've longed for ever since the Phoenix closed its newsroom; I miss having a physical office where everybody trades punny subheds in real life. But if I have to settle for Skype, email, and gchat -- I will.

Paste Games has a small family of writers. We don't produce or work together enough to allow for the camaraderie that a physical newsroom and a more demanding editorial schedule would necessitate, but nonetheless, I love the people who we have there. I've been honored to convince several talented people to pitch this year. I've been equally honored to edit them, talk to them about their ideas, and watch them become amazing writers -- and to accept their help in my own work.

This type of teamwork has been invaluable for me, and it's one that I don't see happen often enough in games journalism, especially for critics who've been marginalized and rejected by institutions many times over. I can't speak for others, obviously, but I did write once before about how the system pits us against one another and attempts to paint us all as interchangeable. To be more specific: a lot of women that I know haven't been able to work together, and I can't blame them, especially given the types of sniping that I see happen in private ... and in public.

I see white women saying ignorant racist comments; I see cis women saying ignorant transphobic comments; I see EVERYONE making ableist comments -- and no one wants to hear about how they've hurt someone else, because we're all hurt every single day, in public, by external detractors who would love to see us all fail and/or jello wrestle one another. Rather than listening to one another's experiences, we defensively argue that no one understands how hard it has been for each of us to succeed. The white woman who clawed her way through the glass ceiling and kicked the ladder away behind her, even if unintentionally, does not want to hear the masses below complaining that she stood on their heads to do it. "Can't you see my hands are bleeding from all of this GLASS I just broke," she will snap. "You should be GRATEFUL that I broke this for you." (Please, friends, if I ever become this person, I give you permission to scream "stop stop stop" in my face until I snap out of it. Or you can just stop talking to me. I'd deserve it.)

Why would anybody want to "network" with sexist, racist, transphobic, ableist people? Well ... I guess because the alternative is to work with no one but yourself, which means that you're literally never going to have the opportunity to learn about anyone else's experiences. I've been called out for racism by people who've used sexist and ableist slurs. Doesn't mean they were wrong. To say I am "grateful" for this experience sounds strange. But it is true.

I feel like Patreon is a symbol of what has happened behind closed doors in gaming spaces, especially the nebulous cliques of marginalized folks in games. It is so much easier to stop trusting other people and create work completely alone. That way, no one will ever let you down.

I don't actually have a solution for this feeling, because it's something that I have begun to feel more and more, particularly over the past couple weeks. About a week ago, I criticized a popular online forum for "SJWs" in gaming, and faced a lot of blowback for critiquing it. The rest of that week, by complete coincidence, I saw other people getting into discussions about the internal politics of other social justice spaces in games. I saw a lot of people making really good points about how many of their attempts to create spaces for themselves and their work and their networks had so often been co-opted or misunderstood or straight-up ruined, sometimes by people who were only trying to help and expected others to be grateful.

The hard part, though, was that all of these conversations happened in public and an audience of thousands watched, with delighted fistfuls of popcorn in hand. They voted for their favorites. And how do the masses decide which Woman In Games they will support? When two women you've never met before are in a public fight, how do you decide which one is more trustworthy? Do you just keep following whoever's tweets strike you as the funniest? And do your winners usually end up being the "safest" ones -- the least angry, the whitest, the most conventionally attractive? All by accident, I'm sure?

I know, I know -- what's any of this got to do with Patreon?

Everything. It has fucking everything to do with Patreon, and Twitter, and the way that these spaces are designed to pit us against one another. Patreon allows the public not only to "vote for their favorites," but to proactively decide who gets to eat this month, whose career shall continue. Patreon, and Twitter by extension, encourages direct comparisons between gaming's figureheads. It's not that I have a problem disclosing my own salary publicly, because I don't care -- but I do have a problem being directly pitted against my peers in open battle, and I just don't see how to prevent that from happening.

One way that I tried to prevent it, at least for a little while, was to not get a Patreon.

It hasn't worked at all. Now, everybody just asks me why I don't have a Patreon. Or, worse, they say, "can I have a link to your Patreon?" They assume I have one! I am a woman in games, after all. Don't we all have Patreons? Aren't we all little lost souls, independently contracting our hearts out because none of us can work together on anything? No one will hire us -- we're all so very difficult, you see. We're all so very demanding, such catty drama queens.

I used to think there was a way out of this. That people with similar experiences in games would find ways to get over their own horrible biases -- and, heck, their own horrible experiences, which have trained us all to become stubborn and bitter and mistrusting as hell -- in order to create art together. I wanted to believe that we don't all have to go it alone. But at this point I've been burned so badly by so many people who I believed in that I think I finally understand why people build a bunker, hole up, and ignore the rest of the world. It looks a lot like "Fuck you, I got mine" from the outside. But from the inside, it's mostly just "fuck you, I'm running out of rations in here, but I'll be damned if I'm going to ask for help from the bitch who stole my soup last week."

It doesn't really help to blame the apocalypse, in that situation. It doesn't help to point out, "hey, we're all fighting the same enemy! Damn The Man!" It feels silencing to hear that, and it feels reductive to say it; the bitch stole your SOUP, and you need that shit to LIVE. I'm never going to be a person who says you shouldn't call out your peers when they fuck up. Even if you lose them as friends, even if they aren't willing to hear how they've hurt you. It's always worth trying. Your experiences matter. A good friend, a good colleague, a good peer will listen.

I just worry that we no longer have any idea how to do that for one another, anymore. I worry that each of our individual Cults of Personality -- and the system that rewards us for creating our islands -- has a negative effect on the work that we create. Our peers with jobs at institutions are reaping the benefits of structural support, and editorial support, and even the emotional support of a "work family" -- we have none of that.

Maybe you don't need that. Maybe your work is already perfect; maybe your life has somehow included the full range of all human experience; maybe you are a literal rainbow. I am not.

In conclusion, I am hiring an editor (or two, or three, or ten) for this blog. How much I pay for that will be entirely dependent on how many Paypal subscriptions I get. Because frankly, I'm just not that interesting, and my experiences are pretty god damn limited. If people want to pay for this place to exist, then the least I can do is open up the door to the bunker. Even if only a sliver.