EDIT: I regret writing this.
The problem with a piece like this is that its target audience will never read it. Over the past few months, I've met people who are interested in getting into journalism and have no desire to better themselves. These are the people to whom I'm writing.
But if they're not trying to get better, they're obviously not going to read this blog post, now are they? So my anger seems misdirected, and it comes across as though I'm accusing everyone else of doing something wrong. Which is clearly what I don't want to do. I'm talking about a specific group of people here. I stand by my message, but I don't stand by its delivery. I should have just told these people what I say here, or at least, print this off and give it to them, or something.
In this post, I come across as arrogant, and entitled. That was not my intention. I was writing from a place of frustration, and that means my words are dripped in bitterness. I should have waited 24 hours to post. Instead, I hit "publish". I won't make that mistake again.
So please, read this post, but with caution. Chances are good you're not who I'm talking about, as the people I'm concerned with won't ever read this post.
I live it here as a memorial. A lesson in what happens when you write from anger, and let passion override your better judgement.
The eruption of games journalism over the past five years or so has been a great thing, in many ways.
Especially lately, we’re seeing more people from different racial, socioeconomic or sexual backgrounds writing about games and their personal experiences. It’s often very good. We’re seeing games being given proper criticism and fact-based reporting that can hold its own against other genres. It’s a good time.
But there’s something still holding us back. It’s a claw at our feet, slowing us down from achieving the great writing we’ve seen in other entertainment categories, like sports or television.
Our genre is still filled with a huge amount of journalists who want to do nothing but write about games. They have no love for journalism. They just love the idea of being a part of the industry they love so much. They don’t love writing, you see. They don’t daydream about a perfect sentence, or keep a journal of ideas. They liked Modern Warfare and want to write news for IGN forever, and maybe attend E3 and get some cool t-shirts. (That isn't a dig at IGN, or any other news site. I have no beef with them).
It’s to these people I say: Please, get out of this industry. You are ruining us.
As I’ve been interviewing people for my podcast, one topic comes up again and again. These journalists loved writing before they started writing about games. Oh, they love games. Definitely. But they didn’t even think about writing about games until much later. The writing came first.
If you speak to any professional journalist, you’ll hear a common story. They just knew they wanted to be a writer, often from a very young age. They spent their childhood years writing silly plays and little books, and reading. Always reading. Not just fantasy novels or bad fiction, but classics. Books that twist prose and character into forms they had never seen. The combination sent them on a path towards writing they could never leave behind. After all, writing is a part of their DNA. You can’t just cast aside a part of yourself so easily.
Which is why it’s so disappointing – almost offensive – to see people entering the games space who don’t want to be writers at all. No, they just want to write news about games.
It’s insulting. If you ask about that new Matt Taibi piece over at Rolling Stone? A dead look. Or maybe the debate over at the Atlantic about getting paid for free.
Nothing. You ask about these topics, and you’ll get nothing back. And why? Because these journalists aren’t interested in bettering the medium. They just want to have fun. I only use these examples as examples - who cares if you don't read Rolling Stone. The point is the disengagement with any form of journalism at all.
This isn’t always a problem. If you want to start up a little games website and write about news, or your opinions, then go for it. Not everyone has to be a journalist.
But if you sit and think to yourself, “I really want to be a games journalist”, and you think about it every day, night after night. You really need to ask yourself – why? Why do you want to write about games so badly, at the expense of all else?
Can I suggest it may be a sign you’re taking games and games coverage way too seriously?
Where is the love for writing? For the form, for the written word as an art? Where is your time spent reading classic journalism, or the Pulitzer winners from years gone by?
Let me put it this way. If a screenwriter were to say, “I’m going to write the definitive action-adventure story”, would you not ask them if they had seen, say, Star War? Or Indiana Jones? Or hell, any action-adventure story at all? How could you possibly expect them to write such a film without having seen the classics which define the genre?
So it is with journalism. How can you, someone who hasn’t spent time reading the books and pillars of journalism, (not to mention the most classic games journalism pieces), how can you possibly hope to have any skill or impact? It’s as if you are a child, simply saying, “I want to be a pilot when I grow up!”
Let’s leave emotion out of it. Where is your drive to spend months tackling hard interviews, putting together pieces of a puzzle to construct something like Rob Zacny’s post-mortem of Homefront?
Do you understand how long these pieces take? Do you even have the slightest inkling of what it means to have a piece published in the New Yorker? To conduct an interview without sounding like a ravaging fanboy? To have someone give you a stock, company answer and then interrupt with a question that person doesn’t want to hear?
Where is your journalistic drive to piss people off?
Now, there’s clearly nothing wrong with specialisation. Michael Lewis keeps himself in finance, and Bill Bryson in travel, for very good reasons. But specialisation isn’t exclusion. You can surely bet these two haven’t always written about those subjects, and I would bet my life savings they keep ideas journals or something similar, and that at least one of them won’t slot into their chosen fields.
Take Lewis, for instance. His books and articles have an economic spine, sure, but Liar’s Poker is a very different book than Moneyball, and for good reason. They’re about two different topics. Yet his prose is just as good in either of them.
No good journalist is concerned with any one thing. Check out any writer from a magazine like The New Yorker, or the Texas Monthly. Their articles range greatly in diversity of topic. Look at David Grann – he’s written pieces about the Aryan Brotherhood and the hunt for a giant squid. The two couldn’t be further apart.
You want to get better as a journalist? You really want to start learning how to write, and not just about games? There are plenty of things you can do. Start reading Pulitzer winners. Keep abreast of the Longform or Longreads websites and read the stories they post. Read non-fiction books about international finance, or something which you don’t really care about at all. Do you hate personal essays? Buy a book of personal essays and learn to love them. Hate poetry? Write some damn poems. Stretch yourself. Make yourself challenge your accepted talents. Listen to This American Life and learn the way Ira Glass can tell a story that keeps you hooked, no matter the subject. Experiment. Fail. And then try again.
Tom Bissell doesn't get published in Grantland because he's a fanboy.
Hell, you don’t even have to want to write about anything other than games. But keep a journalistic IV in your veins. Read long-form journalism and talk to other people about it. Figure out what makes those journalists good. Read their pieces, and then read them again. Deconstruct their sentences and figure out how you can make your prose better. Study, study, study. Read...anything!
Note, none of this is about "being a better writer". Anyone can be a better writer. Being a journalist or critic is something else entirely. You need to want to tell stories. Those stories may just be about games, sure. But one day, they could be about something else, too. The industry doesn't need more people interested in writing about the latest Modern Warfare. We need trained journalists who have worked in other fields, who then spy why games are interesting and opt to bring their talents to the industry.
Be passionate, yes, absolutely. It's a sin to write about which you have no interest. But please, don’t just write about games. If you do, you’re doing yourself – and everyone else – a great disservice.
Edit: I recognise the people who are reading this post aren't likely to be those who I'm referencing here. I just felt this was something I needed to say.
Footnote. Check out these great pieces of journalism:
Michael Lewis - A bunch of his articles are available on Vanity Fair.
David Grann - This guy is amazing and his range is incredible. His stuff is at The New Yorker.
Matt Taibi - His smackdown of Goldman Sachs is informative, and his prose is always slick.