It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
Ever since I picked up the issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly with the Metal Gear Solid 3 review featured on the cover, my life forever changed. I became enthralled by it and sister site 1UP.com as I got to know the different personalities that worked there and learned about all kinds of cool games I never even heard of. The 1UP Show and the many podcasts on the site pulled me in the most because, again, of the personal connection. What struck me most was the camaraderie, the shared love of games and the sheer enthusiasm to examine them with each other and their audience.
I wanted that. More than anything.
This was also the time you saw a plethora of different articles detailing how to break into games writing, and the gist was pretty much universal: Freelance, then get hired for a job once you prove yourself. I did so and then some, getting a staggering amount of articles promoted on Bitmob, a site for up-and-coming writers to hone their craft and get some exposure. Soon I was getting paid to write for big names like GamePro, GameSpot, and, yes, my beloved 1UP. I was on track to make my dream come true.
That’s how it was supposed to be, at least.
I’ve already relayed much of this story in this post, which also explains some of what was standing in my way – namely, my anxiety and agoraphobic tendencies. Since then, I started seeing a therapist about those problems, and I’m happy to say that I conquered them. I even managed to fly to San Francisco by myself with no issues! So naturally I could start putting myself out there and get some interviews for full-time jobs. After all, relocating was no longer a problem, and my six years of experience writing many, many articles for big sites should be enough to impress anyone, right?
The old rule of thumb freelancers are taught is to never write for free, to always treat your work like it has value, to make yourself a precious commodity that deserves payment. But there’s another kind of value you’re not explicitly told about, the kind that can’t be quantified: Knowing that what you’re doing is viewed as good and right.
The fact that editors keep giving you work is one form of this, a sign that management wants to see more of your work on their site. And let me be clear here that I’ve had awesome editors helping me and finding me work. But at some point, it feels like you’re just throwing words into the void and waiting for it to spit out a bit of cash. Unless you manage to hook up with the right group or live in the right area of the world, there’s none of the kind of camaraderie that I was craving to be found, just endlessly waiting in line for a job opening that won’t come.
Reality is there’s precious few openings in games media right now, which means every one is ultra-competitive. But more than that is just what a crap shoot the entire process seems like. I applied to an entry-level position at Kotaku recently, pouring my heart and soul into a cover letter and updating my resume. I figured six years of experience writing would at least get me an interview. My value should be indisputable.
I was quickly turned down two days later in a form letter.
Another thing writers are taught is to never read the comment sections on their stories due to the inevitable bile and abuse you’re almost sure to find there. These are wise words in general for preserving you self-esteem to some degree, but think about why we need them in the first place. Even if there are some positive comments too, the negative ones are what wound you. They’re a big, black blemish on what you do. After all, why do writers even want to read the comments on their stories in the first place? To get validation that what they’re doing is good and right.
Followings are very important for your long-term career as well. Want access to developers? Prove your reach is broad enough. But more than that, followings confirm that you have value because they’re essentially a large group of people who love what you do and champion you because of it. And in turn, we’re trained to measure our self-worth by how many champion us. If you’re good, people will naturally gravitate towards you, right?
Trying to convince yourself of conventional wisdom like this becomes commonplace in the world of freelance games writing, and if you’re not someone who has gained a following, you’re left to wonder what the hell you did wrong. Evidence begins mounting that you have no value after all. That job application you were incredibly hopeful about was unceremoniously and quickly rejected. Multiple outlets you’ve work for in the past ran out of freelance budget, or worse yet closed entirely. Nobody’s clamoring to read the latest feature you poured your heart and soul into.
What are you supposed to think of yourself after all that?
Freelance games writing can be naturally isolating – if you don’t live in San Francisco, you really are all alone with your work. You keep plugging away, sending words into that magical money void with no sign of validation, that what you’re doing is making any difference. You see you made $5000 freelancing and notice that you’d consider that a good year. It all begins to wear on you. You start to wonder what you’re doing wrong. The thoughts circle around in your head more and more the longer you keep at it.
Me? I’m freelancing at a couple of places, but still nowhere near enough to live on. The anxiety is mostly gone, but depression torpedoes me for weeks at a time. My psychologist just took me off some pills that were causing severe mood swings. I started a new public-facing Twitter account because I was getting too miserable on the one I had and people were telling me my tone was making me less employable. I’ve lost friends because of how utterly despondent I can get.
But I’m still here. Somehow, I still have a smidgen of hope that I’ll one day get a full-time games writing job. I’m so attached to this dream that I don’t see myself happy working in any other industry. I just love games and the awesome people surrounding them so much. I want to be a part of that world even as I feel eternally on the outside looking in. Is it worth the heartache? Probably not, but I’ve got nowhere else to look towards right now. I’m going to feel like a failure no one wants if I give up now – not that how I’m feeling now is any better.
As for solutions, I have none. Getting some kind of games writing job is getting more and more like winning a very meager lottery, and most of us are still left feeling isolated and without value. What you can do? Tell a writer that you loved something they wrote. Spread the word about them. Let them know that what they’re doing matters even a little. We’re starved for that kind of validation as things stand now.
After all, it wasn’t supposed to be this way.