Games journalism is a broken business

There’s been a huge, intricate, messy, interesting conversation on Twitter over the last few days among games writers. It’s been sparked in part* by Maddy Myers’ superb excoriation of the games journalism industry, and the place that freelancers and those peripheral to the few big outlets now occupy, especially minority writers.

I have no idea how anybody else survives in games journalism. Well, actually, I do know now. It’s that other people just get day jobs. They do what I’ve done. If they’re lucky enough to find one that they can do in addition to journalism without wanting to die all the time. Maybe they just give up and get a full-time job that has nothing to do with journalism at all.

It’s a great piece. Go read it. And then go read Jenn Frank, talking about why she writes:

I am answering this question at a strange juncture in my life, you know. I am almost 32, I hope to start a family, I live in a city of 15000 people, and it has become impossible for me to imagine a life where games writing, or any writing, is a real possibility anymore. So now I’ve arrived at a stage in my life where, instead of waking up each morning and picturing what I’ll write, I try to picture *not* writing. Instead, I try to think of, literally, anything else I could be capable of doing.

These are brilliant women, writing about how writing has become impossible for them because it does not sustain them as a career. The conversations on Twitter and Facebook and elsewhere are all about the money: there’s not enough to go around. Publishers don’t pay enough for writers to actually do the work, especially for freelancers; staff jobs tend to go to the people who can produce a lot of words for very little cash consistently, and those people don’t tend to be established games critics. They certainly don’t tend to be minority critics whose public work intersects with social justice issues.

Most of these people don’t believe, on any level, that they’re owed work. But they do believe – with justification – that they’re owed a fair price for the value of their work, which is specialised and difficult and time-consuming. They don’t need to pitch more, they need to be paid properly for the pitches they land. They don’t need bootstraps, they need a fair system.

There isn’t enough money. But that construction elides the fact that publishers aren’t making enough money, which elides the fact that journalism’s business model on the internet is completely broken and games outlets are struggling just as hard as everyone else when it comes to actually making money from the online economy.

It’s hard, as a business, to admit that your commercial team isn’t operating well with the realities of the internet. But for many journalism businesses it’s the truth: newspapers and magazines alike are struggling, and specialist and enthusiast subject publishing as much as generalist. It’s not just that print revenues are falling, for those businesses with a print arm; it’s also that the link between increased online readership and increased revenue is incredibly tenuous if you’re relying on traditional banner ads, particularly if they’re all served through Google.

It’s possible to make money online, even in the middle of all this disruption. But the sad fact is that most games publishers are not very good at it, and they pass on their commercial failures to their writers, because that’s the part of the business that can be squeezed the most without squealing.

There isn’t a simple solution, because it’s a systemic problem, and because if there was a simple solution then the problem would already be solved. The low pay and precarious situations of games freelancers mirrors freelance journalists in most consumer-driven niches, all trying to tackle the biggest upheaval in publishing since publishing became a thing. No one in publishing has the answers, here. Games journalism doesn’t even seem to be able to articulate the problem: the race to the bottom for writers is driven by lack of revenue and lack of innovative commercial approaches, at least as much as it’s driven by writers willing to write for free.

One truth remains: if you can’t afford to pay writers what they’re worth, then you’re not making enough money; that problem lies with you, not with the writers.

* Edit: @RowanKaiser points out on Twitter that @KrisLigman’s tweets and his own blog post announcing his Patreon came ahead of @samusclone’s piece, saying “I think what happened was that several simmering pots boiled over concurrently”.

Pocket Lint #12: service industry

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This title doesn’t work, but you’ll click on it anyway.

“Really, freedom of speech is beside the point. Facebook and Twitter want to be the locus of communities, but they seem to blanch at the notion that such communities would want to enforce norms—which, of course, are defined by shared values rather than by the outer limits of the law.”

The only way to keep user information safe is not to store it.

Relevant to the Assassin’s Creed: Unity controversy this week over the lack of women: “what happens when our perception of historical accuracy is entirely at odds with real historical accuracy? What happens when we mistake our own limited understanding of culture – or even our personal biases – for universal truths? What happens, in other words, when we’re jerked out of a story, not because the fantastic elements don’t make sense, but because the social/political elements strike us as being implausible on the grounds of unfamiliarity?”

This is the Blue Shell of collapse, the Blue Shell of financial crisis, the Blue Shell of the New Gilded Age. This is the Blue Shell in Facebook blue, where anything you’d do with it already will have been done anyway on your behalf without you knowing it.”

On Matter, here’s an incredibly long interview with Buzzfeed’s Jonah Peretti, which you won’t read. On sites that aren’t Matter, here are a couple of good summaries, which you probably will. Serve your readers, or they’ll go elsewhere.

Tumblr of the week: When Women Refuse

Poem of the week: And Still I Rise, Maya Angelou

Free game of the week: The Last Tango

 

Assassin’s Creed: women in games are not a technology problem

Assassin’s Creed: Unity is not going to have playable female characters in multiplayer, because it’s too much work. As per Polygon:

“It’s double the animations, it’s double the voices, all that stuff and double the visual assets,” Amancio said. “Especially because we have customizable assassins. It was really a lot of extra production work.”

Here is an incomplete list of things that Ubisoft decided, as a company, were less work than playable female avatars in multiplayer:

  • Two special missions, only available as pre-order bonuses.
  • The ability to render AI crowds of 5,000 people.
  • Customisable assassins, but only male ones.
  • A 1:1 replica of Notre Dame cathedral.
  • A crouch button.

This is a tongue-in-cheek list, of course, because the allocation of resources doesn’t work like this, and if it was the multiplayer team’s job to make multiplayer on a budget then it’s their budget from which multiplayer assets must come. The idea behind the four-player co-op mode seems to be that everyone sees themselves as the main character from the single-player game – Arno, who is male, obviously, because it’s not like playing a female assassin in the French Revolution would be an excellent and historically-relevant choice – and their three friends are his male buddies.

Which leaves open the question of why, exactly, two of those friends couldn’t be female, if the team had decided that was a priority? Or why all of them couldn’t be female? Why not cut Arno from multiplayer, or design a multiplayer system that works without him? Why not, if you have to, take the FemShep approach and make masculine women, acknowledge the problems with their animations, and say that you thought it was more important that the game had playable women than that the jiggle physics was perfect? And, most importantly, why wasn’t making it possible to play as a woman in the game a core goal for the multiplayer team, instead of a nice-to-have extra that got dropped?

To be fair, we don’t know yet whether any modern-day assassin elements are going to star a woman. But the fact that Ubisoft has cheerfully announce beard-filled multiplayer without mentioning the possibility suggests either the modern-day office-wandering secretarial bit isn’t finished yet – in which case there might be a sudden reverse ferret and a female avatar might suddenly appear, rendering all excuses about the difficulties of rendering women completely null and void – or that it’s not going to hold many surprises on that score. Or that they’re dripfeeding PR to provoke, of course, which I guess we can’t rule out, because that’s one of the more unpleasant ways the games PR machine works.

Meanwhile, apparently Far Cry 4 came “within inches” of a playable female character. Which is not good enough; the dev says they “did their best” but that older assets, studio culture, planning and technology got in the way. Goddamn technological women, with our complicated hips and our weird walks and the way we’re just so difficult to model that a 1987 NES game has better gender representation than this next-gen console one can apparently manage.

Look, technology is not the problem here. Thinking of male characters as “default” and female characters as “extra” is the problem, as is a history of poor representation in games meaning there are fewer existing assets that can be reused. You fix that by recognising that it’s not a tech issue. You fix it with planning, with remedial work so that you have as many stock female assets as stock male ones, with processes that don’t place the ability to fiddle with a character’s weapon loadout ahead of their gender. You can’t fix that with polygons. You fix that with people.

Pocket Lint #10: wrapped in plastic

A pick of the most interesting things I read this week. If you’d like to get Pocket Lint as a regular-ish weekly email on Fridays you can sign up here or using the form below.

Gunshot victims to be kept in suspended animation, to buy time for doctors to fix their wounds.

The pointlessness of unplugging: “We are only ever tourists in the land of no technology, our visas valid for a day or a week or a year, and we travel there with the same eyes and ears that we use in our digital homeland.”

The pseudoscience of Alcoholics Anonymous, which only has a 15% success rate, and the problems with “Cadillac” rehab.

The overprotected kid, the junkyard playground, and the importance of risk-taking play. ‘The problem, says Ball, is that “we have come to think of accidents as preventable and not a natural part of life.”’

Silicon Valley’s brutal ageism: “an extra burden of proof on the middle-aged to show they can hack it, on a scale very few workers of their vintage must deal with anywhere else.”

What happens as children grow up a little: “Like characters in Dungeons and Dragons, the little ones—with their distinct clothing and high dexterity—can’t carry heavy weaponry, but they can be dispatched to pick locks and fetch magical rings from small places. Sometimes they can heal during combat.”

Australia’s Guantanamo problem: the asylum seekers indefinitely detained on secret evidence without hope of release.

How to use game preorders as a bank.

Women don’t want to work in games, and other myths: perhaps the first piece I’ve read about women in the industry that’s actually, unapologetically, aimed at a female reader.

How we won the war on Dungeons and Dragons.

Tumblr of the week: Shit Private Eye Says

Poem of the week: Louis MacNeice, Snow

Free game of the week: Sleep

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Pocket Lint #9: outsiders

Back after a short break: here’s a pick of the most interesting things I read this week. If you’d like to get Pocket Lint as a regular-ish weekly email on Fridays you can sign up here or using the form below.

Nate Silver and the diversity problem
“What happens when formerly excluded groups gain more power, like techies? They don’t just let go of their old forms of cultural capital. Yet they may be blind to how their old ways of identifying and accepting each other are exclusionary to others. They still interpret the world through their sense of status when they were “basically, outsiders.””

Do psychiatrists think everyone is crazy?
“Though many object to psychiatry’s perceived encroachment into normality, we rarely hear such complaints about the rest of medicine. Few lament that nearly all of us, at some point in our lives, seek care from a physician and take all manner of medications, most without need of a prescription, for one physical ailment or another. If we can accept that it is completely normal to be medically sick, not only with transient conditions such as coughs and colds, but also chronic disorders such as farsightedness, lower back pain, high blood pressure or diabetes, why can’t we accept that it might also be normal to be psychiatrically ill at various points in our lives?”

Why personal change does not equal political change
“I’m not saying we shouldn’t live simply. I live reasonably simply myself, but I don’t pretend that not buying much (or not driving much, or not having kids) is a powerful political act, or that it’s deeply revolutionary. It’s not. Personal change doesn’t equal social change.”

The era of Facebook is an anomaly. The idea of everybody going to one site is just weird. Give me one other part of history where everybody shows up to the same social space.

5 myths about how we use the internet

An illustrated book of bad arguments

A preliminary phenomenology of the self-checkout

Frog Fractions 2 has a Kickstarter, which promises not to give you the game until someone works out what it’s called.

Tumblr of the week: Animals Sucking At Jumping

Poem of the week: Shrinking Women

Free game of the week: 2048, which is essentially Threes, only more so.

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Spirits Walk

masked person with caption 'spirits walk'
It’s been a busy few weeks. This coming weekend Grant and I are headed to Melbourne to run Spirits Walk with Pop Up Playground. We’re headlining at the Fresh Air Festival, a yearly extravaganza of interesting live games, street games and creative play, and I’m hugely excited about it.

Spirits Walk is going to be a strange game. It’s a game about transgression, about crossing lines in public, about deliberate strangeness and feeling uncomfortable and doing interesting things anyway, because you want to know what happens next. There are spirits hidden in plain sight around the city, and each of them wants something from you: each has a task, and if you complete it you get a token of their esteem, or approval, or even affection. Your tokens open doors to another world, hidden just behind the real one: a place of symbolism and pageantry and a little bit of magic.

It breaks some new ground for us as designers and game makers, and we’re relying a lot on Pop Up Playground’s resources: craft and art and costuming, and the awesome actors who’ll be bringing our spirits to life. The game’s also very much Grant’s baby, in the same way The Trial was mine: he’s taken the lead in crafting and creating it, working with Rob and Sayra at Pop Up to make the whole thing happen. There are lots of moving parts, lots of elements working together, and it’s going to be an interesting challenge to make it all cohere. It’s also going to be a great deal of fun. It’s free to take part, and if you’re in Melbourne and you’d like to come along, you can reserve a space here.

After that, we’re going to try and be on holiday for a few days. It’s been a busy few weeks, after all.

Pocket Lint #8: things that live under bridges

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Where have all the workers gone?
“Whether as victim, demon, or hero, the industrial worker of the past century filled the public imagination in books, movies, news stories, and even popular songs, putting a grimy human face on capitalism while dramatizing the social changes and conflicts it brought… With work increasingly invisible, it’s much harder to grasp the human effects, the social contours, of the Internet economy.”

Netrunner as life hacking for perfectionism
“It was Netrunner that crystallized for me the uncomfortable fact that in real life I’ve always run away from any space I couldn’t see completely, from any challenge I might not be able to win, and from any situation where I struggled to succeed.”

The Blood Harvest
“Each year, half a million horseshoe crabs are captured and bled alive to create an unparalleled biomedical technology.”

Do invertebrates feel pain?
“We know next to nothing about whether or not these animals – or invertebrates in general – actually suffer. In Elwood’s experience, researchers are either certain they feel pain or certain they don’t. “Very few people say we need to know,” he says.”

The internet is fucked (but we can fix it)
Forensic look at what’s wrong with the internet in the US.

Partners as patrons
“I am essentially “sponsored” by this very loving man who shows up at the end of the day, asks me how the writing went, pours me a glass of wine, then takes me out to eat. He accompanies me when I travel 500 miles to do a 75-minute reading, manages my finances, and never complains that my dark, heady little books have resulted in low advances and rather modest sales.”

This machine kills trolls
Anti-vandalism bots on Wikipedia: complex tech solutions to complex human problems.

Remember the human
“Try to be courteous to others. See someone having a bad day? Give them a compliment or ask them a thoughtful question, and it might make their day better. Did someone reply to your comment with valuable insights or something that cheered you up? Send them a quick thanks letting them know you appreciate their comment.”

Tumblr of the week: Things Called Jazz That Are Not Jazz

Free game of the week: Into The Box

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5 things that made Journey to the End of the Night awesome

Runners preparing for Journey on the steps of the Powerhouse Museum
Runners preparing for Journey on the steps of the Powerhouse Museum

Last night I joined Grant and Bill Cohen in running a city-wide chase game called Journey to the End of the Night. It’s a US system, and it’s the first time it’s been run in Sydney, so we started off fairly low-key; in the end we had about 20 crew and about 60 players, which suited us pretty well. I ran & walked (mostly walked, admittedly) somewhere in the region of 7 miles around the city, coordinating runners by text message as we hunted down the players, and in the end we had 11 survivors who got round every checkpoint without being caught. It was enormous fun.

This is why it worked well.

The system

Journey is a very efficient system. It’s a simple, clear, uncomplicated ruleset that you can explain in a few words: run around all the checkpoints in any order, then get to the endzone, without being caught. If you’re caught, you have to chase the players. Catch three, and you can respawn back as a runner. Clean and crisp.

The core of the game is uncomplicated fun. It’s enormous fun to run around the city after dark with your friends hiding from people, especially when you know you have support nearby if you need it. It’s fun for fit people who enjoy running, and it’s also fun for people who like hiding and sneaking or thinking laterally about the logistics of things – it’s not always the best runners who win, it’s those who can avoid being caught. It’s a solid system that lends itself to all sorts of locations, and – because of the exponential nature of the catching system – it scales very well between small and large groups. Most of the success or failure of the game is down to the route you pick.

The route

We spent a lot of time ahead of the game scoping out potential checkpoint sites and creating a good route. There’s lots of variety in the areas we eventually picked – even if you don’t see a chaser for the whole time, you run through a mix of heavily-populated areas where anyone might be a chaser, and quiet back streets where there might be one around any corner. We picked checkpoints that weren’t easy to chain with public transport, though a couple of guys took an unorthodox ferry-and-tram route to save themselves some time. (I’m still impressed they did that.)

The checkpoints themselves were sometimes a little tricky. Two in particular gave us problems with spawn camping – player chasers lurking on the obvious entry and exit routes and ambushing runners, which wasn’t massively fair. It’s almost impossible to make rules to mitigate that sort of behaviour, so you have to rely on level design; when you don’t have the ability to manipulate levels yourself, because you can’t actually remodel traffic intersections just for your own games, sometimes you’re stuck with less-than-ideal areas. A good checkpoint is one that’s small but completely open on all sides, rather than large but with only one or two useful ingress routes. The best checkpoints are in the middle of huge open spaces with lots of potential cover, so players end up ducking in and out of hedges, trees and play equipment just in case there are chasers around.

Andy

Andy, aka the Terminator
Andy, aka the Terminator

Speaking of which: our star chaser, Andy, was a one-man army who managed to create exactly the right feeling of paranoia and fear right from the start. He’s a long distance runner. He went running before the game started, for fun. By the end of the night he’d acquired the nickname ‘Terminator’. One man hid under a car to escape him. Another vaulted into a construction site. Some people recruited passers-by as camouflage to help avoid his gaze. He was so fast and had so much stamina that hiding or outwitting him were your only options as players: simply outrunning him would never work. He was astonishing.

And from a crew perspective, he was invaluable too: he was checking in at regular intervals, letting us know which way players were scattering so we could set up less-manoeuvrable chasers to give them a good run. He was happy to go where he was needed most, and responsive to instructions. And, despite being the scariest thing in the game, he only caught two runners: the rest just had very near misses. Andy was incredible.

Froth

It’s been too long since I ran the sort of game that finishes up with froth. At the end of the night, we set up a couple of tables on Observatory Hill, a tricky-to-reach but beautiful park with gorgeous views across the harbour. By the time I got there most of the survivors had arrived and crew were still trickling in from across the city. I walked in to be surrounded by stories: the making of mythologies, happening around me. Many of them about Andy.

Froth is a LARP slang term for discussing events during a game, but out of character, afterwards. It lets you process what’s happened during an event, collaboratively building a single story out of the most exciting moments, turning what can be quite a disjointed experience into a coherent narrative.

GIving people space to froth after a game is one of the most important things you can possibly do. And lots of sporting events do it too: Tough Mudder, for instance, has a superb back-slapping and beer session once the race is over, which is all about frothing over what’s happened to you during your run. You make friends, you meet up with folks you lost on the way, you get to hear the stories of other people’s miraculous successes or so-close failures.

The view from the end zone
The view from the end zone

When I walked up to the hill last night, before I’d managed to get a bottle of water and say hi to the other crew, four different runners had already told me a little story of how they escaped a chaser or how they caught one of their friends or what happened when Andy showed up.

The players

People are amazing. People turned up last night to a random free event, excited to see what happens next, willing to suspend their disbelief and explore and create together. People turned up happy to play – playing to win, playing to have fun, playing to see what happened next.

That goes for the crew, too. We had a superb volunteer crew, all happy to take hours out of their Saturday nights to run around, sit about, sign papers, chat to players, and chase them around the city. We quite literally could not have run the game without those people, and they all made it better for the players by being so committed to maintaining the playful nature of the evening.

One woman got caught early on and then tried to head her friend off by taking a shortcut to where she knew he’d have to go. Then they had a tickle fight – he won, and left her giggling on the floor as he sprinted away into the darkness. With players like that, the game can’t help but be fun to run.

What’s next?

We’re going to be running Journey again in Sydney, I hope – there’s definitely appetite for it. But first, Grant and I are running a new game, Spirits Walk, in Melbourne in collaboration with Pop Up Players, on March 7, 8 and 9. You can reserve a space here.

Pocket Lint #7: glitch mobs

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We have known boys, but none have been bullet-proof
“We are replanting our underripe fruit, graveyards becoming our gardens, and tending far more memories of boys than moments with full-grown men.”

The founder of 4chan on anonymity
“It’s incredible what people can make when they’re able to fail publicly without fear, since not only will those failures not be attributed to them, but they’ll be washed away by a waterfall of new content.”

Twitch Plays Pokemon, in which 80,000+ people simultaneously play the same game of Pokemon Red, creating a sort of giant ongoing metaphor for the evolution of internet community. And the miraculous progress of Twitch Plays Pokemon, which explains the importance of the Helix Fossil.

How the potato changed the world

The construction of a Twitter aesthetic
“You’re trying to find a way to state contradiction. You’re writing a cartoon caption for a cartoon that doesn’t exist”

For 700 years, the people of Geel have taken in people with psychiatric illness and cared for them as family members
“My father always said, ‘These are the best children. They must sleep in the center of the bed.'”

Dismantling the five silliest responses to calls for more women in videogames

Games by humans
“If a games journalist is interviewing a developer about a game, they typically only have access to the lead developers, the ones in charge. Usually, the journalist’s access to these developers is through the publisher that is bankrolling the game. The dozens or hundreds of men and women actually making the game are hidden from the public behind the doubly thick wall of their employers and their publishers. We can’t speak to them and, more often than not, their employment contract means they can’t speak to us.”

A worldwide registry of roller derby names

Finishing, beating, playing through, bursting out: worldwide ways to talk about completing games

Automatic Guardian comment generator

Tumblr of the week: Sorry, Asylum Seekers

Free game of the week: You Have To Burn The Rope

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Pocket Lint #6: in the dark

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Georgina Henry obituary
I was privileged to work with George, albeit briefly, and she will be very much missed.

How colleges flunk mental health
“Colleges are very accustomed to accommodating learning and physical disabilities, but they don’t understand simple ways of accommodating mental health disabilities”

Climate change is happening, now, and could lead to global conflict
“Delay is dangerous. Inaction could be justified only if we could have great confidence that the risks posed by climate change are small. But that is not what 200 years of climate science is telling us. The risks are huge.”

Good Samaritan backfires
Arrested and detained naked in a solitary psych cell after calling an ambulance to help injured cyclists.

The rise of the Facebook truthers
“Something about Facebook makes journalists lose their minds. How else to explain the seemingly unending procession of stories based on wild speculation and implausible conspiracy theories?”

Unnecessary surgeries to correct male babies
“In contemporary American culture, much is still demanded of “real men”: To be commanding and composed. To be courageous and chivalrous. To be rugged, strong, and low-voiced. And to be able to pee standing up.”

Listen to the purring, electromagnetic weirdness of mushrooms

Our Flappy Dystopia
“We, as global, national, and artistic communities, justify a lot of shitty things on the premise of making money. This industry justifies sexism, racism, and all forms of discrimination and oppression because of some unwritten right to make money. Why can’t we have equal representation of minorities in our media? Because someone wants to make money.”

Tumblr of the week: Flappy Bird Think Pieces

Free games of the week, Flappy Bird edition: Flappybalt; Maverick Bird; 171 other Flappy Jam games

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