Last year I became the proud recipient of a Games Media Legend Award. It was also my 25th year since I began working in games journalism. So I felt the weird urge to write 25 tips for the young games journalist, based almost entirely on the mistakes I’ve made over the last two and and a half decades, and which I continue to make. I hope these are useful. You can send me feedback via Twitter.
1. You’re a Journalist - Deal With It
Games journalism is journalism. We write about something that really matters to lots and lots of people. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that “journalism” has to be about exposing dodgy deals in D.C. It’s also about making the effort to get the facts right about a new Pokemon game. Journalism is there to root out pomposity, corruption, stupidity, and there’s plenty of that stuff in the games business. Get your hands dirty. Even so, lots of what we make has a shelf-life that would embarrass a nectarine. Don’t expect to be taken too seriously. Don’t take yourself too seriously.
2. There is No “In”
You landed a job? Congrats. Now the hard work begins. No, I don’t mean the hard work of writing about games. I mean the hard work of keeping your job. Because sooner or later, it’ll be gone. Some fatheaded fool will be given the keys to the spreadsheet, and will slice a pen though your name in order to snaffle his crummy bonus. Some sales whizz will become your boss and, having never been paid to write a single article, will insist on telling you how it ought to be done. No-one survives forever. Always know where the emergency exits are.
3. It’s Tough, But Be Cool
Your career depends on understanding that you have lots to learn. Process criticism without whining. Don’t ever lose your temper.
4. Power Has Influence
Your job is to inform and entertain readers. Your job is not to please corporate interests like console manufacturers, retailers or games publishers. Don’t ever allow yourself to become confused about this. Because, by means subtle or crude, they really will try to turn you to their agenda.
5. Books are Friends
Read lots. Writers who don’t read are like athletes who don’t exercise. I once knew an editor who said there was “no point” in reading newspapers. I couldn’t fire that dull dog fast enough.
6. PR People
PR people have a tough job to do. Return their calls and be polite. Take them to lunch for a change. Don’t be an asshole.
7. Freelance ‘Opportunity’
Beware the lure of your house-coat. The freelance life is boring and precarious. Only hustlers and weirdos survive for any period of time. The relationships with editors you believe will keep you working forever will be gone within three years. So might you.
Write something funny. It is almost impossible to resist hiring a writer who makes people laugh.
9. Don’t Work for Those Guys
When an employer tells you her company is “like one big family”, run like hell. This family means to kidnap and brainwash you. Then they’ll turn you out onto the street because of “a temporary softness in the advertising business”.
10. Get an Alarm Clock
Don’t be late. When it comes time to lay talent off, the lazy bastards who regularly saunter in after 10am are the first to go. Last in, first out. Bye-bye sleepy-head.
Industry parties are not ‘parties’. They are opportunities to make lifelong contacts and connections. Have fun. Get mildly drunk. But don’t get wasted. Don’t be the slob who pukes on Will Wright’s loafers. He doesn’t like it.
12. The Advertising Team
Hang out with the ad sales people. They will teach you how to deal with difficult people (aka ‘clients’), they will improve your tolerance for alcohol, they’ll make you laugh. Despite appearances to the contrary, they are not aliens.
Avoid public debates on ‘The Dismal State of Games Journalism’. You think you’re smarter than everyone else? How fascinating. State your case through your work, not through tiresome, self-aggrandizing editorials.
The readers who send you letters do not represent your audience. Be nice to them but always keep in mind that people who write to journalists or send reporters goofy gifts are unusual. Most of your readers couldn’t care less about you. That’s the natural order of things.
Sometimes companies will give you a free goodie. If this ‘generosity’ makes you feel weird, send it back, or take it to the charity shop. But don’t act like a dick about every free drink and tchotchke. It’s just business.
When you fuck up, own it. Don’t make excuses. Just admit that you fucked up and move on.
17. Make Friends, Not Enemies
If you are still working in this business in 20 years time, your ability to feed your children will depend on the relationships you make right now. Everyone I have worked for in the last five years, I knew in either the mid-1990s, the 1980s and in one case (true story), the 1970s.
18. Negative Norma
You are employed to produce content. You are not employed to find reasons NOT to produce content. Every news room has a pudding who’ll tell you why each and every story isn’t worth covering. Don’t be that bore.
19. Computers are Useful
When I began back in the 1980s, it was all typewriters and galleys. Now those things appear in antique shops and historical novels. Learn to use new tools. If an old goblin like me can write HTML, use Photoshop, edit audio files and shoot video, so can you. Get involved in anything video-related. The writers who really get this stuff are the future.
20. Learn to Negotiate
Journalists are chronically underpaid. If you are really sure you are under-valued, ask for a pay-raise. Most journalists I have worked with are extremely poor negotiators, so learn the basics of dealing with tight-fisted bosses.
21. Know Your Business
Guess what - money talks way, way louder than you do. So take the time to understand how the news business works. When the time comes to decide whether to fight your corner, cave or compromise, you’d better know where you stand and what’s at stake.
22. Words and Punctuation
Admit to yourself that you don’t fully understand how verbs work or where colons live. Buy a book and try to figure it out. This stuff matters. (I still don’t get it, and I’ve been learning for decades.)
23. It Won’t Bite
Use the telephone. Seriously. Pick that fucking thing up and call someone. The telephone is a magical box that’s full of stories.
24. Play Games - Lots
You are paid to write about games. Play them. Think about them. Talk about them. It’s really too easy to get bogged down by process, planning and writing.
25. Don’t Forget - You are Incredibly Lucky
Tell yourself this, every day. ‘I get paid to sit in a comfortable room, with smart, agreeable people, talking and writing about video games. There are millions of people who would love my job.’ Celebrate your good fortune. Be great at what you do. Have fun.