This is the first of a two part series on becoming a games journalist. In this part we will explore what games journalism is; and the "easy" route to entering the industry, via a degree and junior staff position in a publishing house. The second part will explore freelance journalism, the more complex and varied method of entry into the industry. We would recommend that you read both parts before embarking upon a career in games journalism.
Mark Baldwin gave a rather upbeat view of the profession of games journalist in his introduction to career paths in the games industry. In the spirit of "Good journalists plagiarise, but the best just steal," I shall quote him here:
"The journalist as mass communicator and evaluator is one of the more exhilarating and important roles within the game industry. It is up to her not only to be able to look at a game, evaluate it and communicate that evaluation in prose to both the industry and to the game customer, but the journalist must also understand the intricacies of what a game is and how it succeeds as entertainment."
I've met countless souls wishing to be involved in the games industry on my travels, and no career is more coveted than that of games journalist. It is seen as a far less taxing job than that of game designer, and a far more varied one at that. "Playing games all day for a living" is a simplistic, though not overtly incorrect, view of what a games journalist does; but it also belies the complexities and taxations of a role which can wear thin the skin of many after time.
What is a Games Journalist, Exactly?
Never take anything at face value in life. Being a games journalist is one of the most fun and varied jobs I have ever had, make no mistake, but the fact of the matter is that it is also a difficult job for which a great many people are not suited.
A games journalist is somebody who reviews video games first, reports on the games industry second and writes the odd learned article on the nature of life, the universe and game design third. The main purpose of a games journalist in life is, when you boil it all down, to tell people what games they should buy and play and why.
A journalist is a furiously obsessed writer.
What Does a Games Journalist Do?
On a day-to-day basis a games journalist will play games, either preview or review; write articles; deal with PR people (the marketing counterparts with whom journalists will most often dance); formulate article ideas with peers; keep up on the industry news; write the industry news; meet demanding deadlines; and perform a score of other mundane administrative tasks besides. More infrequently a games journalist will attend conferences and expo's; visit with game developers, sometime travelling the globe to do so; and generally move about to experience the industry from the road.
This simple task roster belies the complexity of the role of games journalist. For example, playing a game with an eye towards reviewing it differs from playing it purely for fun and, if it happens to be a terrible game (which you will see more than your fair share of in time), it may not be such an enjoyable experience. Dealing with PR people, otherwise known as "spin doctors" in the political field, can be tiresome to degrees depending on the nature of the PR person (some are more tiresome than others, let's just say).
Working to deadlines can be too much for some to hack - for a candid example, I was once commissioned to do a review for a magazine, the deadline for which fell exceedingly close to the final date by which all materials must be prepared for timely publishing. The game arrived on time, but the review copy did not work.
A day or two was spent faffing about attempting to get another review copy, and eventually we had to find another game entirely to review in its place - this replacement game arrived two days before deadline. Cue feverish playing, note taking and writing to the same high standard expected of any review - whether you have two days or two weeks to complete it. I won't go into the hell that is attempting to cover a "glamorous" (loud, obnoxious, hot and thankfully now dead) event like E3 for the web, but you get the idea. In the online world article deadlines are fluid, and in the print world there is a final monthly deadline. It is said that 90% of content on a bad day is written to the wire, hours or minutes before deadline - could you write excellent material against the clock?