So, you love video games and you want to write about them professionally, and maybe you’re looking at the shuttering of so many projects over the last couple of months and wondering about how to break into the industry given all the turmoil. My advice to you is this: give up.
I don’t mean that you should give up on the idea of writing or making work about games — though more on that later. What I mean is that the games media industry as it has existed for the last couple of decades is on its last legs. Many of the biggest sites have gotten that way by paying bottom-barrel rates for guides and other SEO-driven formats and are totally at the mercy of Google. Legacy outlets increasingly rely on free user-generated content and wikis. And several of the most interesting experiments of the last few years have been shut down as publishers and parent companies realize that there just isn’t a market for most writing about video games.
“But I’m willing to do anything!” you say. “I’ll crank out guides for $5 a pop!” Fantastic. There is someone younger and hungrier and willing to work for less behind you, and as soon as you start asking for more, you’ll be out — likely with no additional prestige to your name given the status of guides work in the industry. There are currently about three jobs in games media that pay enough to live in a major US city. Everything else pays practically nothing, and the few remaining outlets who pay a semi-reasonable freelance rate for reported pieces are likely buckling behind the scenes. “We’ll unionize!” Sure, unions help. But when outlets are drawing on a seemingly endless supply of people willing to work cheap to get into what they see as their dream field, there’s increasingly not even a regular staff to unionize.
So, what is the prospective games writer to do? There are a few options. The first is to go into PR, the tried-and-true career path of games writers throughout history who have realized there’s no money in it but know the industry well enough to want to stick around. Some writers might balk at the notion of doing PR as beneath them, but let’s be honest — a lot of games writing is effectively PR already. Whether you’re talking up the positive representation of a new release or writing a scathing trending piece, you’re generating hype for a product. Shouldn’t you at least be getting paid well for it?
Another option is to go independent. The problem here is that platforms like Patreon and YouTube are full to bursting of people all trying to do the same thing. Still, the best time to start a YouTube channel was ten years ago, but the second best time is now. There’s also the option of simply spinning up a blog or newsletter where you can write what you like without worrying about whether an editor pressured to drive up traffic will be able to commission it.
But let’s get back to the question of why you want to do this in the first place. Is it because you love games? Just know that tying something you love to your income is a pretty good way of sucking the joy out of it. Is it because you want to share your thoughts and opinions on games? That’s great, but unless you’ve built up an audience already or have an exceptionally interesting way of presenting your ideas, it’s unlikely that people are going to want to hear them.
Of course, there will always be bold, scrappy projects out there, some of which manage to pull together a little money, that will publish interesting writing on games. And there will always be individual writers self-publishing their work, some of whom will break through to a bigger audience. But right now, it seems like the games media ecosystem is collapsing, and it simply isn’t a viable career path for most people. If you like games and you’re a skilled writer, learning about another subject — business, fashion, or politics, for example — might be a way to make a living writing while supporting your ability to produce work about games.
Anyway, if you love games, why not make your own? I hate to be the person who says “learn to code” on the subject of media layoffs, but learning even the basics of how to put even a game together is not only a useful skill to have, it will increase your understanding of the medium. If I had to do it again, I’d put more effort into actually developing coding ability back when I was making haphazard art games in the early 2010s.
That isn’t to say that writing isn’t valuable. But how much writing about games do we really need? How many thinkpieces on the latest blockbuster, how many reflections on Dark Souls, how many personal essays about how a game helped you redefine your identity when it was simply something you happened to be engaging with at a critical time in your life? Maybe we actually do need this kind of thing, but the spaces that will pay for it are drying up. If you feel that writing about video games is your calling — and I would seriously investigate whether that is truly the case — you are better off finding another way to support it, at least at first, for now, without making yourself dependent on the whims of investors, executives, or Google.