A Declaration of Independence
I am always hesitant to explicitly state desires as though they were logical and discreet things. I’m sure if I were to try and express my actual thoughts and the discordant disharmony of them in some kind of written form I’d have to write them in one of those Dingbat fonts, only one that my brain would interpret correctly and everyone else would see as abstract womanly curves that seemed obscene for no decipherable reason. But, as little as four months ago, among the nebulous desires festering in my mind was a partially formed lust to be a freelance games writer.
This is why I did things like send official queries to people of varying import, with inconsistent degrees of success. I’ve seen my name in print and in online spaces that I sincerely respect. I did some good work that I’m proud of. I met people I very much like and with whom I completely fail to maintain a relationship — an indictment on my personality and not theirs.
But, I learned very quickly that I’ll never have it better than I have it right now.
Even among the most independent of the writing class, the great and entrepreneurial freelancer, I quickly recognized that nothing was superior to creating your own outlet, your own rules and your own reputation. I don’t know if this post is about disillusionment or the opposite — which I guess would be illusionment in some kind of really cool way — but I feel my days as a freelance games journalist for-hire waning swiftly, and that’s fine by me.
I never felt like I understood Bill Harris until now. He is clearly one of the premier writers about games in the whole-wide internet, and yet, following his impressive stint running the tragically defunct Gone Gold, he retreated to the safe confines of a personal blog. That blog, dubiousquality.blogspot.com, is a daily stop, I imagine, for anyone who likes things that are awesome. Since I count myself among such populations, it is a comfortable home.
For the most part Bill exercises his stature as one of the best in the business to a limited readership. His is an underground community of gaming thinkers, lovers of great writing and dedicated fans. Today’s topic on the latest NPD numbers may be followed by an adorable anecdote about his son, who I feel I have watched grow from small boy into slightly less small but increasingly cool kid. And, with very few exceptions his words can be found only on his blog, despite the fact that he could make a compelling case for writing about video games for anyone.
I make frequent and entirely unsuccessful attempts to recruit Bill, almost as a matter of course. I have tried full-on frontal assaults of offering writing gigs, stealth offers masked within mundane topics and even impassioned personal pleas on the rare but pleasant occasions when we meet face to face. His no is always a bitter pill wrapped in chocolate.
As a man who longed to some degree for the many kinds of opportunities available to him, I found his reticence perplexing. Now, I understand far more clearly. It’s not that games journalism is the festering stinkhole that popular opinion makes it out to be; it’s that writers, editors and management must balance many spinning plates on poles made of wet onion-paper. One need not even read the frustration expressed on a blog such as Dan Hsu’s, but simply watch the attrition rate.
I wonder what a Bill Harris column might look like under the methodologies and structures of most publishers, and his choices that once seemed mystifying are clear. Even in online space, I see how Games For Windows Magazine became 1up’s PC section, and while it maintained quality of integrity and writing, much of the pure magic of that magazine and its dedication to a new kind of presentation seemed to slowly be assimiliated into the 1up formula for content. It seems a model for the transition we see too often. And, as I watch the exodus of colleagues and friends who make the painful decision to move on, as well as the talented and determined people who choose to remain behind, I am reminded that no matter how talented the editorial and writing staff, there are forces beyond their control.
I don’t want to bemoan the realities of doing business in the games writing market, because there are good people who are at the front lines doing strong work. For every Dan Hsu or Jeff Green the writing business loses, there are people behind them with no less integrity, no less passion for providing valuable and ethical content. This is not a manifesto against organized platforms for games writing, but an embrace of the rare opportunity that total independence provides, and why I think I increasingly side with Bill’s philosophy of being grateful for that which I already have.
For good or bad, the content I create each week here in this environment of my own making is unfiltered. I am wholly responsible for my words. That blessing and curse, a double bladed sword that I swing hazardously around like that You Tube lightsaber kid, frequently gashes me deep into a core I didn’t know existed. But, it is my sword to wield, my hazard to handle and when it strikes hot on a target, the blow is never muted by the realities of business. Mine is work of idealists, foolish and as unhelpful as we may sometimes be, and the freelance business is, in the words of our own Julian Murdoch, milk delivery.
The trade off for relative obscurity for the benefit of finding a small but like-minded readership is entirely acceptable. There was, I assure you, a rich and electric thrill seeing my name in print, but the rewards of independence are, for me, more valuable. I take great pride in working with a few choice partners who have a passion for writer independence, and who work in corporate environments that make that possible. They are, I fear, a dying breed.