There are a lot of reasons to not write about video games. For most of my career, I’ve written for mainstream publications unconcerned with the games industry. I was offered a job at Kotaku because I had figured out a way to do games criticism outside of the sphere of games journalism. I rarely had an editor that understood what I was talking about, and most of their bosses did not consider games an essential area of coverage.
I contorted to find angles I didn’t think were possible, took advantage of narrow assumptions and exploited them to sneak things that wouldn’t be there otherwise. The leadup to Fallout 76 was a big deal for people who play video games. For editors who probably don’t have a console and will never play a PC game...it’s a reach. What do people in mainstream media care about these days? Podcasts? Sure. Then you convince them it’s only a few steps away from that.
To this day, I do not know if many of said bosses were aware of the video game coverage I wrote for them, or that I was doing it. They would’ve been fine if I had abandoned games entirely to write about movies and TV – which was fair, because that’s what I was hired to do. Writing about games in this fashion, acutely aware that your editors do not care and that said writing is effectively inessential to the publication’s existence disabuses you of a lot of bullshit.
There is no real incentive for the world to pay attention to video games. You can completely check out of the gaming world, pay it no mind, and get by just fine – no one will baulk at you for not knowing Final Fantasy the way they would if you’d never heard of Game of Thrones.
In my opinion, this is bullshit. That does not make it untrue. But there are consequences for ignoring video games – the culture and the industry around video games are often a petri dish of people and technology colliding in miniature. There are people out there who are clueless about streamers, YouTube, or the online culture wars. A project of my career is suggesting that, had they paid a little more attention to games, perhaps they would know more about culture.
Games culture and the “wider” culture are not separate entities. The only reason they exist that way is because we still live in a world of gatekeepers: media companies run by a stodgy old guard unwilling to allow games on their platform, marketers who have chosen to sell video games aggressively to a narrow (mostly white, mostly male) demographic, and number crunchers who would rather milk that same crowd for more money than widen the base of people who played games.
Of course, games culture as it exists shares in this folly. In the way it has allowed the excesses of a loud, toxic minority to characterise it, in the way that the games industry and the games community have largely been content to exist in isolation, and now the mainstream press frequently wonders if video games are a breeding ground for white nationalists. Video games have to be learned, and no one wants to teach anyone.
There is an odd, alarming thing that happens as you get older: People stop explaining things. It’s quiet – so quiet you might not ever notice. You may think you’re doing something wrong, that it’s your fault. It’s not. This happens to everyone. It’s maybe the saddest part of growing up. The world loses patience for you.
An open secret about the modern journalism business is that no one really teaches you how to do it. There’s journalism school, but it is costly, and all of its lessons pale in comparison to firsthand experience. But media companies, gutted by private equity firms and short-sighted management, are perpetually overworked and understaffed, do not have the resources to formally train inexperienced new hires the way a restaurant would, say, a line cook. You have to deserve the job before you’re even considered, and do work that makes an editor envious in order to maybe land a job.
Good luck if you want to learn how to be a critic. Want to be a games critic? You certainly won’t make a living off it. For a little while, I did. It feels like cheating.
Do you know how many reasons there are to not write about video games? The most obvious ones are practical: There are no jobs, there is no money, and what few opportunities there are mostly circulate among the same set of people who have been doing it for a long time, many of them friends. But there are others, call them occupational hazards: an often hostile subset of commenters and internet trolls, a smug contingent of content creators dedicated to stoking that hostility, and an industry culture so entrenched in white masculinity that it is still more likely to chase away diverse voices than it is to welcome them.
All of this weighed heavily on my mind when I first got offered a position at Kotaku, and honestly? It’s overwhelming, even with all the cool shit, like getting to write about video games for a living and doing it alongside people like Luke Plunkett and Heather Alexandra. I knew what this corner of the culture was like, and I knew that I wasn’t the kind of person or writer that it ever made a lot of space for.
I have decided to leave. My reasons are simple: These publications are currently owned and operated by a destructive management team that refuses to engage with its employees in good faith, despite their clear and stated desires to make some of the best and most rewarding websites on the internet.
You hit publish and hope for the best. You take your lumps if there are any to be given, listen to those who have articulated what lies in your blind spots. You form another question. You start again. You have to write like the floor is going to go out from under you at any moment, because it will. Someone who does not care about indulging you, no matter how good the writing is, will eventually become your boss. Someone will eventually tell you to stop. And so you must write with urgency, because the whole project only has a pulse for as long as you’re working on it.
The world is going to lose patience for me. The universe tends toward entropy; progress is not the natural arc of our culture. It must be advocated for passionately, with superhuman stamina and stubborn persistence. The media industry is collapsing, and with collapse comes retreat: to safety, to what is known, to what has worked before. You know what didn’t work before? A diverse industry full of queer and brown reporters and critics, paying attention to the sort of things their white colleagues would never have noticed, speaking to those communities in their own language. It’s never worked because it’s never been allowed, and therefore it’s a risk. Risks are hard to come by in a time of crisis.
The men in my family love Rocky Balboa. For a white guy, there was a lot about him that we could relate to. He wasn’t one for school. He didn’t have much of a support structure. His world could be measured in blocks; his ambitions didn’t reach much further than keeping his turtle fed. But he gets this idea: Maybe he can take on the heavyweight champion of the world. Not win. He can’t win. But 12 rounds? He can hold on for 12 rounds. Maybe. They call that going the distance.
I think I read once that Stephen Totilo, Kotaku’s Editor-in-Chief, got his start at a boxing magazine. It’s funny we never got to talk about it, although I’d probably quickly out myself as a fraud, remembering almost none of the fights I watched with my grandfather and almost everything from movies. I suppose I thought I’d have more time.
Here’s a conversation I did have with Stephen, one that eventually led to the writing of this piece: I write like someone who doesn’t belong because I never did, not the way this industry is set up. But I also believe that journalism must be a field full of people who do not belong, who are perpetually uncomfortable, resistant to cyclical discourse and the notion that they deserve to be here. It’s the only way we can have the next conversation, the one that comes after the diagnosis: about a severe lack of representation in the industry and in the publications that cover it, about exploitative labour conditions, about sustainability and widening the notion of who gets to make and write about games.
I still don’t feel like a Kotaku writer, although I am one, I’ve been supported as one, and, were circumstances were a little bit different, would remain one. I don’t know if I achieved anything in my time as one. I won’t feel like I did until I see what happens next: if this publication and others go on to hire people both like me and very different from me, people who are willing to kick at the support structures of our assumptions and stubbornly look for other answers, ways this all can be different, better, more like the world of people who play games, not just the ones that comment about them on the internet.
That’s all too big of a goal for any one person. Progress is a game of inches, and setbacks are measured in feet. But that’s OK. I was never looking to win. I just figured I could go the distance.