Getting into games writing
Part one in a short series of quick guides
Last week I tweeted a request, asking if there were any young writers looking to getting into games journalism who could use my help. I got lots of replies so I thought I’d take a break from writing about fiction on here and do a few posts on getting into games journalism. One of the key issues with games writing and criticism (and indeed culture writing in general) in the digital era is that young writers aren’t being trained anymore. In the past, there were countless magazines and journals where an inexperienced writer could get a job in a junior role and learn all aspects of journalism, from crafting features to carrying out interviews to basic law. But a lot of specialist magazines have closed, or are running on very low circulations, so that’s not how young writers are learning anymore.
Instead, we’re getting a lot of people pitching articles and reviews who grew up reading blogs and hanging out on social media, so they don’t have the technical skills they need. It’s not their fault, those opportunities are largely unavailable, but it means most of the pitches that come into the Guardian are op-eds and personal articles – essentially, “what [Game X] taught me about [Life Experience Y]”. These articles can be wonderful, but it’s unlikely you’ll build a career on subjective writing alone, and tbh, we’re seeing too many of them (and that’s not just in games – other Guardian culture editors are having the same issue). You need to be able to think beyond your own experiences; you need to research and write features that analyse and inform – you need to be able to interview people and gather points of view, then structure all of this into a convincing feature. I’ve had soooo many people pitching me articles that look interesting, but are solely based on the writer’s own life - when I email back and ask them to widen the remit and bring in other voices, they often disappear and I never hear from them again. This is no way to make a living.
Anyway, I thought I’d run a few posts giving some pointers on writing about games (and these will hopefully be helpful if you want to write about music, film or books too).
Before you start
Here are a few things to bear in mind before you start pitching at a website, news source or newspaper…
Read up on history and understand context
You need a good knowledge of video game history in order to write about it – even if you’re not writing historical articles, you need to understand if the game you’re playing right now has important precedents and influences. If nothing else, this reassures the reader that you have knowledge and understanding that extends beyond that particular game. So, if you’re writing about, say, Fortnite, you need to know about the history of the battle royale genre; you need to know a little ab out Epic Games, you need to understand the freemium economy. If you know all this you can place the game in historical and cultural context, and context is one of the most important considerations when writing non-fiction. You need to understand exactly where the game you’re writing about exists in the canon - what came before it, what is out there that’s similar. Context is everything. You need to think about every article you write in terms of the value it gives to the reader – what are they learning? What connections and comparisons are you helping them to make? Readers need to leave your article better informed than when they came in. Giving them context is a vital element of that. The Netflix documentary on the history of games was a decent starting point for learning about the industry’s origin, but there are dozens of books on the history of games, and even a cursory wikipedia search on a game will reveal something of its influences and predecessors.
There is a canon in games history, starting with Pong, working through the classic 1980s arcade machines, through the home computers and the consoles and on into the PC gaming era. You need to know the key platforms in each of these generations, and the key games. You definitely need to have played Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros, Doom, Tetris, The Sims, Candy Crush, Fortnite, Final Fantasy, Gran Turismo, Fifa, Call of Duty… and you need constructive opions on those games. You need to know the big developers through history, the big events - the video game crash of 83, the Sega vs Nintendo war, the arrival of CD-ROM and PlayStation because those things sent ripples through the industry that continue to affect new things in unexpected ways. Context is always key.
Become an industry watcher
You need to know what’s going on in the industry. For games that means, say, signing up to the gamesindustry.biz daily newsletter, following every game publisher and developer you can think of on Twitter, regularly checking IGN, Eurogamer, Gamespot, VGC, GamesRadar, etc, to see what’s being discussed, and what issues are emerging. I really like NewsNow which is a super old school aggregation site but it’s great for getting an immediate sense of what’s going on that day. Being topically aware is vital if you want to pitch timely news articles and features. Being on top of twitter conversations (and twitter fights) is a great source of ideas, and will also tell your potential commissioning editor that you understand and are up to date with the industry.
The games industry is huge and complicated and editors are extremely relieved when they find a writer who has clear expertise in a fundamental area. That might be esports, indie games, copyright law, rogue-likes, game engines, cutting edge graphics technologies, etc - whatever you’re interested in, and whatever you can exhibit specialist knowledge of, will be of interest to editors. So if there’s an area of games that you’re fascinated about, find out more, gather contacts and deepen your knowledge.
You need visibility in the industry. Not everyone can afford to attend events (when they eventually start running again) and not everyone has the extrovert qualities needed to introduce themselves in person to key contacts. But you do need to be a presence. You should definitely be joining games-related subreddits, discord servers and other online groups. You can sign up for games webinars and other online events. You can attend AMAs with developers, you can look out for Bafta and UKIE events. Twitter is a tough one, but if there are instances you can interact with developers in a respectful way, then that’s brilliant for building contacts – and contacts are vital. Getting to know a developer’s community manager and PR contacts is a really good idea - just knowing the people rather than the job titles is a start. Open a spreadsheet and start making a record of everyone you know at every game studio you’re interested in; list every publisher and developer and note their generic press emails (these are usually easy to find on their websites) - ask to be put on mailing lists for press releases, or apply for access to their media sites. Use sites such as GamesPress and PressEngine to find out the key press contacts for each publisher and developer. Don’t be a nuisance, but do know who to talk to when the time comes.
Read, read, read
You have to devour the journalism and feature writing you love. Read everything on your favourite game sites and learn how to dissect the features you find interesting to see how they work. Better still, just devour good journalism, good feature writing and good criticism, regardless of the subject matter. Read long form pieces from The Guardian, New Yorker, Wired, Forbes, Atlantic, etc - it doesn’t matter if you don’t agree with the articles, but all of these places carry out very thorough editing and you learn a hell of a lot of technique from them because they are crafted and re-crafted to hell and back. Read good essayists too: Samantha Irby, Joan Didion, AA Gill, Caitlin Moran… look at how they structure their stories, look at how they use speech, rhythm, tension and release.
I recently ran a feature on the Guardian of great games writing - you should read all the books on there.
Think about style
No, I mean really think about it. If you’re pitching to editors as a newcomer, they will want to know that you have knowledge of the industry, but they’ll also want to know that you have a voice, a singular style of writing, and that you can bring life and energy to the subject. You’re not just pitching ideas, you’re pitching yourself. And when you write, you need to be writing each article in a way only you could do it. That’s not to say there aren’t conventions and rules to follow – don’t pitch ANYONE until you understand the specific needs and house style of the publication. But you need to bring something else to the game.
Structure is the number one concern. A lot of new writers construct features sort of like academic essays - they start with an introductory argument then work it through in quite a mundane way, and that’s fine for a university essay, but that’s not going to cut it in journalism. You’ve got to think about attention span - your reader will have countless other diversions vying for their focus and you need to hook them and keep them hooked. At the Guardian we have a platform called Ophan which tells us how long people have been reading articles, and at what point their attention starts to drift, and I can tell you it’s very quick. You can lose a bulk of your readers in seconds. Anything that requires more than two minutes of attention had better be bloody fascinating. Or at least a list of old games consoles.
So you need to learn about journalistic style, you need to know how to use a cold open or a drop intro, how to bait a reader, how to build and defy expectations. If you’re writing news, you need to understand how to load the opening line, how to get the whole story into the first para, how to use quotes, how to bring in context. If you’re reviewing a game, you need to understand how to convey the experience of playing a game, rather than just listing its attributes as though you were reviewing an inkjet printer. You need to always think about the experience of reading the article – are you surprising the reader, are you giving them facts, details and statistics they didn’t know? Is every paragraph driving the story forwards? Everything you write has to be grounded in a fact, an example or a quote - everything needs back-up.
Structure and motive are the guiding principles – why are you writing this, and how are you going to convey that in every single sentence you type?
These are the things you need to be thinking about and doing waaaay before you even think of emailing a commissioning editor.