Recently, a throwaway Tweet by an aggressive gamer with 3 followers indicated scorn for my only owning a PS4, when I am a game critic. I dealt with this issue at the height of being targeted by gamergate 6000 years ago – but I’ve seen recent related discussions from colleagues, in light of the upcoming behemoths that are the 9th generation of consoles.
Speaking as a freelancer, and speaking only about my experience, I want to convey some aspects of the reality of writing in this bizarre medium.
Expenses and barriers
Gaming is an expensive hobby. Writing about gaming – especially as a freelancer – rarely renders that any easier. Publishers are under no obligation to send you review copies of games; manufacturers are not going to send expensive hardware. (I cannot speak to what it’s like working for a major games site, since I’ve never been staff.) I cherish the few relationships with publishers I have in a professional capacity (who are fully aware I am not PR but a critic, and will criticise any or all of their products.)
Unless you are very lucky and/or exceptional, being a freelancer is rarely going to pay the bills.
Thus, combine the expense of games, games consoles, and irregular/low pay of writing work – even during the Before Times – and I can assure you the barrier is high. Not only do you have to keep up with modern games, but you need the time to actually play, think and engage with them properly to even have a unique angle worth putting out. Time is another factor many people – especially adults with families – might not have. Also freelancing means pitching and pitching and mountains made of rejection.
Never become a freelance writer is my advice. (This isn’t even taking into account the weird aggression and threats you receive regularly, especially if you’re not a white cishet man.)
As I said, I only really have a PS4. I cannot afford a PC that can play modern games. It took extensive savings to even afford the PS4 when it came out years ago.
However, there is also very little need to have another console: My gig is often game plots, stories or characters; the PS4 is the machine most likely to be played on for the average player; and I am often tackling Sony exclusives.
I am not Digital Foundry doing comparison videos and no one is coming to me to talk the tech of games.
There is therefore little need, even if you’re writing about games, to have many consoles.
Also, as I say, unless you’re doing comparison videos or articles, what is the point? Furthermore, as a reviewer, I make it apparent what console I am on and plenty of platform-exclusive sites – for example, Rock Paper Shotgun for PC – will have specific platform reviews if that is what you are concerned about. Bigger sites with staff reviewers do, in their reviews, play on multiple platforms. But that is certainly not most reviewers, I’ve seen.
The upcoming behemoths and the current pandemic
My concern, however, is what will happen with the new consoles.
First, we have no idea what the prices will be. I live in South Africa, where tech tends to get marked up a great deal. However, in order for me to earn and be relevant as a freelancer, I will need one of these consoles (in particular, a PS5). In order to make freelancing money, I will need to… pay. No one tells you how expensive it is to do this kind of work is, as I said.
Second, the pandemic has meant many people and businesses are out of work or pocket, more than they otherwise would’ve been. This also means fewer opportunities for freelancers – especially those of us who are not living in the States.
(Third, I’ve been studying and just wrote the Bar exams to become a lawyer, so I can finally ban video games. But that’s a side and personal issue.)
Freelance writing about games is difficult, tiring, expensive. But games mean a great deal to me. It’s precisely because games mean so much I am willing to rather spend my energies and savings on the medium. It’s precisely because I think games are important that, despite not amazing pay, I am willing to grind through essays and withstand bizarrely aggressive gamers.
Anyway, if you think freelance games writing is just getting free games and expensive toys, then spewing out a 5 minute “article”, I hope you’ll think again. Send some love to your freelance game critics. They’re hard workers and have little safety net, especially now during these trying times and with the upcoming consoles.