14 Jan 2012

Free speech: An amateur's perspective on volunteer work

In the last week an issue that directly involves my writing work sprouted, blossomed and promptly overgrew that portion of Twitter more commonly reserved for general games chatter. It appeared to start with this, an article offering guidance to aspiring young game journalists and was promptly followed by this, an article by Rock Paper Shotgun’s John Walker that acted as a rebuttal or, in the kindest sense, clarification on how amateur writers really need to go about things. The most debated point in the whole article was undoubtedly its stance on working for free. Walker posed the question: When should you write for professionals without remittance? And his answer, interestingly, was this: Never. But what if..? Nope. Never. Unless the site you’re working for happens not to turn a profit then you need to expect payment for the money you’re making them in advertising. End of story.

Then, this happened. NowGamer yesterday announced a competition for entry by amateur games writers, the prize for which was ‘a chance to write alongside UK games journalism’s finest’ in a regular, unpaid blog or ‘column’ as it was referred to at least once on the site. The resulting response on Twitter was nothing less than outrage. Uproar that the company could be recruiting unpaid workers by process of what was essentially deemed to be a talent competition. It was taking advantage, it was devaluing the trade, it was... well, not a particularly pleasant move in the eyes of many of the professional writers I follow on the site.

And this is where I come in. As previously mentioned on this blog, I’ve recently taken up volunteer work with DIY Gamer, a site of great use to me when I was typing up copy for this drifting, leaky one-man vessel. And I’ll say right now - when I was offered the chance to write on that site I didn’t feel cheated. I wasn’t upset with what I deemed to be a solid opportunity to be published on a platform that claimed two hundred times more hits per day then my own piffling blog. My thoughts were: Write for the readers and write for free. That’s the price you pay. I’ve read these posts from established games journos many times before - accurate or not - that warn you of one thing: You’ll be working for free when you start out. You’ll be working many hours on top of a full-time job that won’t offer you money. It will be the hardest thing to do, but you will do it if you want this, the golden chalice of published and paid games commentary. It’s the writer’s trial. Something that will perhaps in time allow you to get picked up by some philanthropic entity that wishes to kindly offer you hard cash for your toil. Imagine that. Money.

Of course, this sort of thing is no great act of altruism, it’s a simple offer of employment. You seem to manage your words well. Why not write for us? The issue here is whether I’m being taken advantage of - whether it’s correct to give my mind and words over to someone else for their commercial gain when I’m receiving nothing in return other than this fabled substance known only as ‘exposure’.

It has been announced repeatedly this week that the required steps from bedroom broadcaster to volunteer writer to published, paid for presence is a self-perpuating myth. It only happens now because it’s happened a thousand times before to writers - good writers - who now see money for the words they provide over at, say, IGN or Gamasutra or VG247. Overwhelmingly, the message of the people in the know is that this practice is wrong. You need to retain your dignity and wait for paid work. Submit to editors willing to pay for hard, worthwhile material. They’re the good guys. Try and try again until you succeed, otherwise you’re only cheating yourself and keeping others out of work.

Now, I want to take the time to highlight something here; a perspective that I haven’t noticed being raised at all during the heated debate surrounding this issue. I don’t write for DIY Gamer primarily to give myself increased exposure within the industry. I also don’t write there for the free games, because I was perfectly able to acquire those for coverage on this site. My biggest reason for desperately seeking the role and making the switch was far more practical: I wanted structure and drive. I work a 9 to 5 job that I dislike. After an hour-and-a-half commute in the evening and a frenzied effort to feed myself I don’t have much left to give. I love the results of my writing but find it hard to sit down and commit to work. Writing for someone else, paid or not, changes that. It's exciting.

If I were to pack it in and return here to my homeland at the DPP I can’t help but feel that the lack of dependence will cause me to break my recent rush of productivity. Looking back over the posts on this site, there’s a clear pattern of write-fuck it-write that terrifies me. Many times this week it has been inferred on Twitter that people like myself need a swift lesson in self respect. Well, perhaps I’m just weak of character, but it seems to have been entirely omitted from the discussion quite how demoralizing it is to work full-time in an industry with which you feel absolutely no allegiance. Writing and being given the drive to write keeps me in a reasonable state of mental health, and that’s incredibly important to me. Whatever this degenerative, unworthy extracurricular practice does to my sense of dignity is nothing in comparison to what a continuing, fully-compensated career in insurance broking does to it on a daily basis.

Of course, I’d love to be paid for putting finger to keyboard. I would love to write full-time, but I haven’t had the opportunity. DIY offered to publish my work and I am grateful to them. If they hadn't awarded me the position then it would have gone to someone else. If I hadn’t made the move then I wouldn’t be receiving the rather pleasant feeling that comes from many hundreds of people reading what I deemed to be average-to-okay content on a daily basis. Whether I'm right or wrong in the eyes of others, I can't be sure. All I can do now is return to my writing and hope - hilariously - that my future words don't feel cheapened by the events of last few days.

As a final point of note: I was compelled to write this article because I have the utmost respect for all the journalists involved in the recent discussion - John Walker in particular - and their comments urged me to sit back and seriously consider my position. This isn't for or against their own arguments, it was written primarily as a way to alleviate the sense of guilt that I’ve felt following all the recent discussion. If I’m wrong - if I’m entirely missing the point then I want to hear that perspective. I’m open-minded and always contactable by twitter or email, details of which are displayed in the right-hand panel.