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  • So You Want to Be a Games Journalist: Part One

    [10.19.06]
    - Aaron McKenna
  • What Does It Take to Be a Games Journalist?

    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.

     


    Practice your aim, Duck Hunter S. Thompson.

    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.

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