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.
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.
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?
To be a games journalist requires a handful of rather obvious seeming basic prerequisites which are oftentimes overlooked by potential candidates.
You must know and have a passion for video games.
This seems like a rather obvious one, but it's always worth stating aloud. In order to be a successful, and good, games journalist you must have a passion for playing video games. You must also have at least a working knowledge of the industry - know what the seminal titles of the past decade have been and, even if you've never actually played them, why everybody crawls on their hands and knees to lavish praise upon them.
You must know who some of the key players are, what the trends have been recently and so forth. Generally speaking I find that most successful entry level journalists have been reading about video games for many years, and the collected sum of their knowledge is perhaps more extensive than even they might realise; until it comes time to make a reference to Random Shooter 14 in an article and a piece of minutia just pops into their head.
You cannot pick this information up overnight. In order to be a successful games journalist you must first be a gamer who has been reading about and participating in the industry, if even only as just another fan, for many years.
Becoming a game journalist will not turn you into film's most tragic figure. Promise.
You must be able to write.
Another obvious requirement, but this one is far more often overlooked than the first. I have come across the portfolios of countless aspiring games journalists working in the industry proving grounds that are the countless freebie games sites and blogs and, frankly, 99/100 of them can't construct intelligible, let alone intelligent, copy.
If you don't know things such as the difference between its (possessive) and it's (contraction), which many of these aspiring journalists don't, then you should not yet be thinking of breaking into the professional journalism scene. At best you'll be laughed at when you present your portfolio, at worst some haggard editor on deadline and suffering from the previous nights excesses will tell you in no uncertain terms what an idiot you are.
This does not mean, however, that if your grasp on the language in which you will be writing is tenuous at best that you will never be a games journalist. These days I'm an editor who can tell you pretty quickly exactly what's wrong with your article and rewrite, or direct a rewrite, without even a cup of coffee in me. When I started in journalism I didn't know the difference between my above given example of its and it's; and to this day I rely on good copy editors to catch out some of my grammatical gaffes.
If you're no good with language then what you require is the mental discipline to better your grasp of it. Read style books, read the work of your peers, read the dictionary (I'm not joking); read, read and read some more, and then write, write and edit your work until it is polished into at least intelligible prose. Practice makes perfect, and you shall see an improvement in your writing with every article you ever write until your dying day, so long as you continue to turn a fair and critical eye upon your own work.
You must be entertaining.
Next up, past games knowledge and technical linguistic know-how, is the achievement of intelligent prose. There is a difference between intelligible and intelligent writing, and that is style. Particularly in the games world one has to both inform and entertain readers, and this has nothing to do with your skills as a comma nazi.
Game reviews and previews in particular are very formulaic affairs, and if you dissect them you will see clear patterns of journalists going through a check list of areas to cover. The introduction, the premise, the graphics, the sound, the AI, and so on, and so on until you've gone through the entire game, essentially saying "this is good, this is bad."
If style did not matter then all game reviews could be simple bullet pointed affairs. Indeed, they practically are - most game reviews will have a listing of Pro's/Con's of a game and a score, which is usually the first thing most readers will look at and, just in case you were getting a sense of self importance, a lot of the time it's the only thing readers will pay attention to in most reviews.
Anyone can write: "The sound is not very good. The graphics are excellent, stressing my GeForce 7950 GT to its maximum operating capability. The AI is not very good, often walking characters into walls." What makes a game review, preview, or any other article you write, worth reading is how relevant, entertaining and informative you are.
For example, I recall a review of Combat Mission 3 in PC Gamer UK a few years back for the introduction rather than the rest of the review (though I can recall it got a very high score, the first thing I looked at in said review).
In the intro the author pointed to a famous picture of British soldiers rushing into a sandstorm in North Africa during World War II. The picture, which came to symbolise the Battle of North Africa, was taken around the back of a billet using cooks - the photographer knew he'd never get that type of photo in real combat, but never the less it was a powerful image. Similarly, the author went on to postulate, Combat Mission 3 is an excellent combat simulator without actually putting you into any danger.
It was a powerful introduction and an excellent analogy to which I cannot do enough justice. It was a creative and entertaining approach which was also informative at the same time.
So you see the difference between a games journalist and somebody who wants to be a games journalist is three fold. One, you must know and love video games. Two, you must be able to write intelligibly in your native language. Three, you must be able to combine your passion and technical ability into intelligent and entertaining copy.
To see the difference clearly, go out and read some of the stuff on freebie games journalism sites and compare it with the work of professional games journalists you enjoy reading.
Becoming a Games Journalist FAQ
The most direct way to become a games journalist is via a degree and straight into a publishing house as a low-level staff writer or assistant. It puts you on the hierarchal ladder, so to speak. There are a few questions and misconceptions to be addressed about this route.
Do I need a degree in journalism?
Generally, no. Many employers these days, in all fields, ask for a degree level education simply for the sake of having one. You do not require a degree in Journalism or English specifically to be a journalist, and I've met games journalists with qualifications ranging from Philosophy & Politics to Science and Agricultural studies. You don't technically need a formal education at all, if you want to try the more indirect method of entry which I will cover in Part 2, but it is always advantageous to have a degree when applying for a first job. After that, experience will weigh more heavily than what you've studied.
Do I need to have a portfolio to get a job?
Generally, yes. Apart from the fact that you will need to be proficient as a journalist anyway, and this requires practice no matter what degree you have, an employer will want to see a couple of varied examples of your work. A few game reviews, a few news items, perhaps an opinion piece or two as well. You don't need to be a published author, but you do need to have a collection of clips, private or public.
Do I need to have work experience to get a job?
Not necessarily, but it helps a lot to have your face known around a publishing house to get a job there. One way of doing this is to be a freelancer before applying for a job, but making everybody their tea for a few weeks can be far more valuable face time. Many publishing houses offer work experience, and I'd recommend you go for it and take any publication they will give, even if it's not in games journalism per se. If you don't get work experience, then Part 2 of this article will still be of interest to you, and publishing houses will still hire people they've never used as freelancers or coffee makers if you cut the mustard in terms of your work and the interview you give.
Should I work for freebie game sites during college?
These freebie game sites come ten a penny, offering their writers the chance to write for the glory and not much else. The quality of work is generally low, but they do act as a valuable training ground for aspiring serious journalists. I wouldn't discourage anyone from writing for them, but I would warn against becoming too involved and spending too much time and effort on filling up essentially what is a non-commercial site that's never going to pose much of a problem to the established publishers. Working for the freebie is a good way to become accustomed to working to deadlines and getting the game experience from the sharp end of a press release, but you can work up a portfolio without ever having to actually publish one of your articles and embroil yourself is the oftentimes narcissistic world of freebie game sites. It's up to you.
Are there many jobs in games journalism?
Eeerrrmmm... no, actually, in the grand scheme of things there aren't. But, there aren't all that many aspiring games journalists who can actually hack it as writers either, so supply and demand kind of match up. If you want to be a games journalist in a staff position then, so long as you have the skills for it, you are almost certain to get the kind of job you want. You may, however, have to work on another publication in a related field first - say, a consumer electronics magazine. It depends on the publishing house you go into, but there are often routes for transfer between publications and so if there are no jobs going in the gaming end of a publisher's operations it might be worthwhile taking a job in a related field and biding your time. You never know, you might even find more joy in reviewing MP3 players to games.
Is one publisher better to work for than another?
Yes. Definitely. As with all industries, some companies are better to work for than others. Sometimes a publishing house is undoubtedly a place you do not want to work, and other times it can depend on personal preference. For example, I recall listening to the woes of a friend of mine who used to work at a publishing house which would only grant its writers the "privilege" to go to Los Angeles to cover E3 for the magazine if they paid their own air fare there and back. At the same publishing house the writers on a magazine concerning itself with a handheld console had to buy their own units to review games on for the magazine.
Always research the publishing house you are going to work for, and don't be so desperate for a job as a games journalist to chase down staff positions wherever they may arise, or you could find yourself in a position you do not want to be in. Towards personal preference, you can choose to work for a small, tight knit outfit, or you could go and work for one of the large publishers like Future, CMP or Ziff Davis. In these large companies there is more scope for moving around internally, and if you choose to leave the company and go freelance you will find you have a lot more contacts and friends with commissioning abilities than if you work for Joe Small Publisher, which has its own advantages and rewards. Take your pick.
Becoming a Games Journalist, Step-by-Step
Just because I'm a sucker for having an action plan, here's Aaron's Five Step Program to Becoming a Games Journalist the "Easy" Way.
3,000 words or so later and we arrive at the conclusion. Did I mention the ability to waffle-on as essential to the craft of journalism? Or was that detrimental? I never can remember, but I do hope that by firing all these pieces of minutia (my word for today, find it earlier in the article and win a lollipop) at you in quick succession will leave something sticking to the inside walls of your brain for you to ponder.
So, we've covered roughly what games journalism is all about, and the fairly straight forward manner in which you can become a games journalist. In the next part I will cover freelancing, a far more complex, but I think also interesting and exciting, way of becoming a games journalist. This part will be of interest to aspiring games journalists and existing staff writers wishing to go freelance alike. Even if you want to go the easy route of degree to a staff position you may find yourself fighting in the freelance trenches for a little while, so stick around.
In the meantime, feel free to ask me any questions you have on games journalism in the forums.
Aaron McKenna is the editor ("bastard", if you're a freelancer) of Tom's Hardware Guide UK & Ireland and a former freelance journalist ("urchin", if you're an editor) who specialises in video games and consumer electronics.