Since #GamerGate brought up the topic of corruption in game journalism, and now that it's in the forefront of everybody’s mind, I thought I’d write a few article about the corruption I see. Note, that this corruption really has nothing to do with Zoe Quinn or Anita Sarkeesian, of whom I still support. This is corruption that I have lived for my entire career as a game journalist. This is corruption that is holding game journalism back in profound and unsettling ways. Also, it’s corruption that #GamerGate hasn’t really touched on, so in the hopes that they can do some good, I bring to you “Real Corruption in Game Journalism.” If you guys need something to fight against, here it is.
Today’s topic is something that all game journalists and online journalists of all types have experienced at some point in their career: working for free. Just go on to http://gamejournalismjobs.com/ and search for jobs that actually pay you. There are very few, most sites advertising “free games” or “experience” as their major form of payment. Those that do exist are charging ludicrous rates, like half a cent for each word. All of these examples are problems, and I’ll tackle them one by one.
First of all, let’s tackle the half a cent rate. Most journalists would kill to have a rate per word. But let’s look at average rates for writing (based off of writersmarket.com) the lowest rate for a “book review” in a newspaper is 10 cents a word, or 15 dollars an article. The lowest rate for web page writing is 35 cents a word or 100 dollars an article! Half a cent a word means you have to write 1000 words just to be able to make 5 dollars!
Now I’m going to compare this rate with the federal U.S. minimum wage, which has recently come under fire for being too low, so keep that in mind. The minimum wage rate is $7.25 an hour. That means you need to write 1450 words an hour to be making the same amount you would be making at a Burger King. The average human words per minute rate of typing is 19 words per minute for composition. If a person typed continuously, with absolutely no breaks, no editing checks, no time to play games to write articles about, they would be able to write 1140 words an hour that rate. Not that’s BELOW THE MINIMUM WAGE! Factor in the fact that most places DO require you to edit your own work, and you start to see a problem. Even at professional typist speeds of 50-80 words per minute, and that’s for transcription, not composition, it’s difficult to earn a living wage at these rates.
Now let’s look at word count. To make up the minimum wage, you’d need to write 1,450 words an hour nonstop. That means you’d write 11,600 words in a week! According to Amazon, the average book length is 64,000 words. That means at 58,000 words written a week to get minimum wage pay out of this game journalism job, you’d almost be writing a full novel EVERY WEEK OF YOUR LIFE! I hate to break it to you, but the human mind just does not work that way.
So we see that these criminally low rate jobs are really just a way for some companies to use freelancers to break minimum wage standards, which is not only amoral, it’s borderline criminal. But what about the other promises of game journalism jobs? What about being “paid in games?”
There are a couple problems with this actually. First of all, games that you review as a game journalist are a business expense if they come out of your own money. They are a thing you need to have to do your job. When doing your taxes, you can deduct business expenses from your income, and this isn’t just for game journalists. This is for pretty much every job in the U.S. So you really can’t count games as “income.”
Furthermore, 90% of the time your publication isn’t actually paying for these games. Review copies tend to come from publishers or developers and are sent to review outlets for free. No money has been spent on letting you review that game, at least not by your place of employment.
Finally, the ability to keep these games is also kind of a scam. Most game journalists get to keep the games they play. Publishers don’t ask for these games back. If your place of employment asks you to return the games that publishers sent to them for review (for the sake of giveaways or promotions or whatever), and they pay you less than the cost of the game in the store, they are actually making more money on you than they would if they just bought the game! They have received a copy of a game, and paying less than retail price for it, AND getting a review out of it which will bring in ad revenue, and what did you get? 20 bucks?
Then there are outlets that cause you to pay for your own games to review! First of all, unless these outlets are flat out paying you more than the cost of a game for these reviews, you are losing money. Second of all, if you are just reimbursed for every game you buy, you are barely making minimum wage at 60 dollars a day. But that assumes you have a game to review every single work day of your life, and not only are there just not enough games in the world to make that happen, when will you actually find time to play them for your reviews!?
There is the problem of experience. The assumption is that working for free will make your resume more impressive for the well-paying game journalism job down the line. Unfortunately, these jobs don’t exist. There are a limited number of positions at big outlets like IGN or Gamespot, but there are TONS of “work for free” game journalism websites out there. Not everybody is going to manage to land a job at one of the big boys.
Heck, many of these jobs don’t actually come from inside the gaming industry. I got my job here at Cheat Code Central moving on from a movie review site. Many game journalists come from tech sites, or copywriting jobs, or creative writing jobs, or even acting jobs if they primarily do video. This isn’t a wholly internally hiring industry.
The promise of “experience” is kind of a scam in any industry, when that experience comes with 0 pay. You earn the same amount of experience with a paycheck as you do when working for free. Experience is just a way to try and make a job not seem totally worthless, even though they are literally pricing your work at 0 dollars.
I’m going to leave you with a piece of advice for all aspiring game journalists: DO NOT WORK FOR FREE! Never. Period. Your mantra should always be “pay me.” You see, the game journalism market is flooded with people willing to write for free right now. The allure of being able to write about video games for a living is enough to make any gamer jump at a chance to be published online. But as long as so many people are willing to write for free, there is nothing motivating outlets to actually pay us. Why keep a writer on a paycheck when you can let him go and just cycle in the next overexcited gamer for free?
Many journalism outlets counter this by saying, “We need people to write for free or else we couldn’t survive.” Well, that’s the point! You see there is a huge chain that goes down a line of money here. Because game sites don’t pay their workers, they don’t demand more from advertising companies. Thus advertising companies sell ads at ludicrously low prices, usually just enough to keep the owner of a small site going and not its writers.
But if writers started demanding fair wages and good pay, suddenly that dynamic changes. Suddenly, all those sites that don’t pay their writers go under. Suddenly you can’t just find gaming websites all around the internet. The websites that DO exist need to bring in more money to pay their writers, and since they are the only places you can get gaming info, advertisers have to value them more in order to reach the gaming audience. This leads to higher payouts for advertising campaigns, which leads to higher and more stable wages for game journalists.
So fight against corruption. Say no to game journalism websites that abuse their writers with low or no pay. Fight back and say it loud, say it proud: “PAY ME!” Senator Bernie Sanders said “Nobody who works 40 hours a week should be living in poverty” and yet, that is unfortunately the reality for many game journalists out there.
Former Contributing Writer