For the last seven years, I’ve made my living as a game journalist. To a lot of people this sounds like a dream; staying at home, playing videogames all day and espousing my opinions instead of punching a clock. But becoming a game journalist takes a lot of hard work, sacrifice, and persistence, and most of those who try to get their foot in the door will be deterred before they ever make a living doing it.
If you’re a talented writer, you can make more money writing about something else. Get into marketing, learn copywriting, proofreading, specialize in law or medicine and you’ll be making several times what a successful game journalist makes in the same amount of time, and you’ll have an easier time finding work, too. If you want to write about games, do it because you love to do it; because you really don’t see yourself doing anything else, and because you know more about games than anyone else you know.
It took me a long time to recognize that this was the right path for me. I should have realized this earlier, since games have been my hobby for as long as I can remember. I grew up in Philadelphia, and my family didn’t have much money, so much of what we owned was either scavenged from other people’s trash or came from flea markets, which we visited religious every Sunday morning in lieu of church. We would set out at 6:00 in the morning in order to get there before the best deals were snatched up. My father, a carpenter, was usually looking for tools or other practical items, while I had my sights set on one thing: games.
All I had was an allowance of $2.00 a week, but shopping for used, unwanted games on the cheap turned me into the student of obscure and retro games that got me work down the road. I didn’t own an NES, with its $50 games, but I had a Microvision, an Odyssey, a Sega Master System, and all manner of Ataris. For a dollar, I could usually snatch up a game, oblivious to the fact that it may have cost 40 or 50 times that new. Before long, I had shelves full of games when my friends were lucky to get a game or two on Christmas. I bought books, old magazines, and I learned everything I could about games. I was building the knowledge base that would eventually become a job skill.
I always liked writing about games, but I didn’t realize I could make money doing it until fairly late, and I always regretted not approaching it as a career sooner. I went to college not knowing what I wanted, and fell in love with the philosophy program at RutgersUniversity. Not finding many job openings for philosophers in my area, I graduated in crisis. I recognized that I had a knack for writing, and decided that I wanted to do that, no matter what the subject was.
That’s an important lesson that many need to learn early on: If you want to write about games, you need to be a writer first and foremost, not just a gamer. Anyone can have an opinion, but only those with an exceptional ability to communicate that opinion and provide insight will ever get paid to do so. I threw myself into it, writing for just about anyone that would publish me. I wrote about kitchen remodeling; I wrote about stand-up comedy; I wrote for anyone that would help me become a better writer. I took every bit of editorial advice I could get, and I pored over any style guide I was given.
But it turned out that the encyclopedic knowledge of gaming I had amassed was actually a bankable skill. At first, of course, I was simply writing for free; a necessary step in the path of any writer. Writing for free is a tricky concession; if too many people do it, then nobody gets paid. The important thing to remember about writing for free is that it affords you the opportunity to be selective.
A lot of publications will promise you exposure in exchange for your service. This is a lie. A small site without a budget can offer you valuable experience, but almost never will they offer you the kind of exposure that will get you noticed by the big boys. If you’re going to write for a site for free, make sure of two things: First, the site itself shouldn’t be making any serious money off your work if they aren’t going to share those profits, and second, you should be in the company of quality writers and professional editors that will reflect well on you. I found such a fan site early on, and I threw myself into becoming a better writer. Before long I was editing other writer’s work, and eventually became Editor-in-Chief of the site.
After about a year of this, I hadn’t yet managed to make enough money to quit my day job, nor had I landed a full-time position in the field. With college now some months behind me, I decided to move on to the next chapter in my life. I accepted a job in South Korea, bought my ticket, and packed my bags. It was around this same time that I applied on a whim to a job at IGN. One of the editors hiring for the job knew my work from the fan site I wrote for, and wanted me to interview – in San Francisco, 3000 miles away, at the same time I was supposed to be leaving for Korea.
It was a major crossroads for me. On the one hand, there was a done deal; an adventure that would take me to the opposite side of the globe. On the other hand, there was a major risk, a chance at a highly competitive job for which I was, perhaps, barely qualified. But one was my dream, and the other was not, and the choice to me was clear. I never used that ticket to Korea. IGN sent me a plane ticket to San Francisco, and I flew to the West Coast, instead of to the Far East.
I didn’t get that job, but I learned another important lesson: networking is everything. I only got that interview because the editor knew me from the site I wrote for, and even though I didn’t get the job I was hoping for, he offered me an ongoing freelance position instead, writing strategy guides for their Help Channel. I made sure to work hard, and always ask if anyone else needed anything. If there was a chance to write a review, or help on a feature, or even do some tedious database work, I jumped on it, because it was one more chance to make a contact. When IGN decided to launch their Retro Channel, and they needed someone to keep it supplied with content, I was their go-to freelancer.
IGN was keeping me very busy, and paying me enough money that I never looked elsewhere for work. But after a few management changes, their freelance budget was cut, along with my workload, and I leaned another important lesson: a freelancer can’t depend on one publication. To make up the difference, I ended up branching out, writing for everyone that I could. Even if one site didn’t pay as much as another, there was value in staying busy, making contacts, and keeping my game sharp. I interviewed for more positions, and that in turn led to more contacts and more opportunities.
As I got older, I eventually stopped writing about games exclusively, delving into the mundane-but-lucrative areas of copywriting and graphic design in exchange for more pay, but always supplementing that income by writing about games. I sometimes hesitate when people ask me how to get into the business, knowing it isn’t the best way to get paid or find a stable, long-lasting career. To be honest, I don’t know many who have done it for more than a decade without retiring into PR or marketing or some other aspect of the gaming industry. I’ve seen many editors and long-time veterans drift away after years of long hours and meager paychecks in order to spend time with their families or just make more money. But in the end, I do it because I love it, and if you love it too, don’t let anything discourage you.