K, so, I'm Gus Mastrapa. I'm 43. I live in Southern California.
I was a games journalist or freelance journalist for a little longer than 10 years. I kinda started muscling in around 2004. Prior to that I had, you know, blogged kinda early on in the gaming blog space. Like, even in '99 I was writing for this group blog called Robot Street Gang. But I eventually muscled in and was able to kind of make a career out of freelancing game writing.
So, I wound up writing for most major gaming magazines, or many of them. Wired.com, the Wired website. I worked for the Game|Life blog for some time. A.V. Club. Kill Screen. I mean, the list kind of goes on. That's how you make a living in freelance games writing, is, like, you just work for everybody as often as possible.
Yeah. When you were writing about games, were you exclusively writing about games or were you writing about other things as well?
[Laughs.] That's something -- when I look back on it now, I feel like I might've misrepresented myself as somebody making a living as a freelance games writer. I also freelanced for_Hustler_ and continued writing porn for them. That was my first editorial job. And to be honest, the amount that I got paid with that little amount of work with Hustler outweighed the work that I did in games writing by a pretty large margin. So, that made the games writing living comfortable, was having this kind of foundation of these monthly magazines that I did for Hustler.
And losing that couple years ago, like, three or four years ago, that job finally went away, definitely pulled into contrast how bad the pay in the games writing world had gotten.
When that was the only income I was getting, I was really like, "Okay, this isn't working."
For people who are not, like us, freelance writers: Why was the pay going down? Because I remember you introduced me to some colleagues of yours who wrote about games in the late '90s and it seems like they've just steadily been going down, those rates. Is that right?
Yeah. I mean, so, I started -- luckily I graduated right at the end of old-school publishing. And so when I worked for Hustler, for LFP, they did things the old way and rates were the old rates, which were, like, if you did a feature story, you could get $3,000 for a feature story in a magazine.
Other than Condé Nast, like _Wired_probably still pays around that. But nobody else does. And gaming, that's ridiculous. You write a feature for gaming and you're lucky to get $800 nowadays.
Yeah. Eight-hundred is great. Two-hundred is more, 250, that range is more likely. Same amount of work, same amount of interviews, same amount of effort. But the rate is just terrible. And you know, a lot of that -- I noticed the downswing right after the recession. I mean, it was already trending down because of the internet. But the recession put a huge break on the -- especially the old print people. The print people no longer had the ads, they were all going out of business, and once those jobs went away, the internet jobs were the only ones that were left and they were already lower, but they went even lower it felt like. They just kept dropping and dropping.
Like, they actually do and can have correlates or influences from other parts of the culture.
Well, I think it's interesting. I think there's another genre, too, comic books, which make a lot of sense, too. It's like these sort of male-dominated interests. Kind of like, maybe loner interested, kinda nerdy. Metal is nerdy. It doesn't seem so at first for a lot of people, but I think there's some obvious, like, music nerdy, tech nerdy, gear nerdy, but also being nerdy into the band. The fandom of it can be nerdy.
Well, debating time signatures and stuff, too.
Oh yeah. If you wanna nerd out on metal, there's definitely stuff to nerd out about. So, my interest in metal, like, my research and interest in metal happened kind of concurrently with me getting a little over videogames. I think part of that came from where metal is sort of still a Wild West where games and comics have been pretty tamed as far as, like, being part of the culture. They're getting more mainstreamed.
So, one of the things that really interested me in writing about games was to write about them as culture as opposed to, like, tech or a product. In 1999, that was pretty far-out and rare to find. But as I wrote in that way and many other people started writing in that way, you get to 2010, 2012, and there's a lot of people writing about games in a cool way like that.
So, I don't know. I sort of felt like, "My work here is done." [Laughs.] You know?
[Laughs.] With writing about games?
Yeah. What I needed to say got out and a lot of people were also saying it, too, so I didn't feel like it was that necessary to do.
Yeah. Well, that and the pay, right?
Yeah, and the pay too. But then, you know, the thing about metal, too -- and I don't write about metal. I just like it as an interest, but what I like about metal is it's still way outside. Of course, there's stuff like Sabbath and Iron Maiden and things like that, but largely metal is super-insular and super-underground in a lot of ways. And so -- what I like about that is I can just kind of enjoy that isolation.
Why do you prefer that? Not isolation, but I think you're talking about, like, it hasn't been co-opted yet?
Yeah. Well, there's a fatigue that kind of set in around games for me about -- I don't know. About the sharing of it and how it's gotten so hairy and fraught and political.
I don't know how much attention these days you pay to what people say about videogames anymore, but I feel like you made a good point about how games have been tamed. But the great sleight of hand trick that's been going on is games have been super-tamed but they're still trying to give off the air that they haven't been.
Yeah. Well, okay, so it's a growing period, right?
And I think, like, comics, we're having a long growing period like that, too, where we're right now in this part where people are like, "Oh, comics are okay finally but it's still all superhero stuff." So, it's a maturation, I think. I'm cool with comics being mainstream. I think they're a beautiful medium and they're capable of so much. Right now, we're sort of at the point now where people are, like, totally willing to admit that they like mutants or superheroes or whatever. The whole world is into that stuff. In 20, 30, 40 years, maybe we'll get to a point where people are into Tintin and people are into, like, Love and Rockets and all the other great things that comics have to offer.
So, I think that's what games are going through. Games also have to produce that material.
This is something that I used to enjoy, was talking about games as a medium of creative expression, right? If I got joy from doing that job, that was what I got the joy from, getting to think about games in that way, as a means of expression, as a cultural product, as a mirror of culture. That, to me, is the most interesting thing about writing about games. I'm not super-interested in discovering that the gameplay is not tight or whatever.
This notion that the writer knows what the game is supposed to be or should be?
I've done that, too, I think. I definitely have done that.
I used to do that, too.
We have this really kind of interesting way things work in games, is that we get to know about a game for several years before it comes out and it captures your imagination.
That's why gamers like reading previews and why they dig previews. You get wrapped up in that world and you almost make the game yourself for the two years before the game comes out. You know what I mean? It's like, what you want.
Movies are a little bit different. We get a trailer, but it's, like, usually just before the movie's gonna come out. Four, five months. We don't think about it that much. But you don't go to the movie theater and go, "This is what this whole, rich world that I wanted this movie to be." I mean, you do sometimes.
I think in movies, though, that tends to be more like, "Structurally speaking, this is what the story should have been." But in games it's often stuff like, "Well, I wanted multiplayer. It should’ve been there."
Yeah. I mean, I think that's a limiting assessment of what people think about when they say a missed opportunity. For me, a lot of times, missed opportunities would be in theme. Where they could have done something interesting with the story or the characters or the world and they played it safe.
How do you feel that journalists and people who write about games lack empathy for the people who make them?
Largely, the people who make games are mostly invisible to us. We see only a small fraction of those people in interviews or vidocs or whatever. So it is way easier to critique them with the gloves off. In some ways that is important, especially if you have some really cutting criticism. But the reality is that there’s nothing really that earth-shattering happening in games. We’re really just critiquing consumer stuff: “They gave me a bad deal. I want my money back.” Stuff like that. I don’t really care about those concerns. It is like being mad at an airline or a phone company. Extremely commonplace and very boring.
Did you burn out on playing games, or did you burn out on writing about games? All of the above? Did becoming a parent factor into any of this? Like, I know we talk about it all sometimes but where are you with it?
I think my main burnout was the game discourse.
Are you talking two years ago or before then?
Even before that. I was always kind of tired of -- when I used to write for A.V. Club, the comments sections would just get on my nerves.
People would -- when I first started writing for A.V. Club, we had a word count because it was in the print edition. So I would write 150 words sometimes and these guys in the comments would write, like, three 1,000-word essays about what they thought the game should be. I just got exhausted by that.
My read on that was always that I think those people were looking for jobs or the opportunity to do what you and I were doing over there.
Yeah. Very much so, they were frustrated game critics.
And I guarantee I did the same thing to other people 15 years ago. I'm sure I did. Oh! You know what? One little anecdote I wanted to talk about, because we were talking about that age difference.
When I was first getting into games and first going to E3, like, in the 2002, 2003, 2004 era, I made friends with Peter Olafson, the writer from The New York Times. He wrote a couple things and let us run 'em at Robot Street Gang. I was a big fan of his style of writing. I felt like it was experiential. And so he kind of became my mentor. I met him at E3 one time and I was bright-eyed, bushy tailed, young guy just so excited about writing about games, so excited about being at E3, just so energized. And he was kind of where I'm at now, where he was just fatigued and had seen it at all and was just, like, kinda done.
And I was like -- I remember back then I looked at him and go, "But Peter, I know how you write and I know how you look at games. How could you not be so excited? Maybe I just need to help you find that excitement again." Because I couldn't get it. I couldn't get how you could possibly tire of writing about games or be tired of talking about games. [Laughs.]
And then after 15 years of it I go, "Oh! I see how you could get tired of this."
[Laughs.] As I think you know, I have reluctantly and increasingly been poking at you and asking you things about this whole project thing. I don't think it's so much to invigorate your enthusiasm, but it's just a definite thing that happens and it especially does happen a lot when you're a writer or critic around entertainment or what other people typically do for fun, it just changes your relationship with it. But the whole world is so different now from when we first crossed paths. Everyone goes on the internet now and writes about everything that they do for fun.
I don't really know what that means. I know Peter made more -- or I'm speculating -- that he likely made more at New York Times than we typically did freelance.
And this is a very nebulous question, but if games writing paid better, what do you think it would change?
The major thing I think you would see is you wouldn't see this brain drain from games writing into, like, especially game development, right? You would see more people who were dedicated lifelong games journalists. And we have a couple of those who are just fantastic writers and have done great work over their careers. But I think you would definitely see more people that did that.
What that would mean is overall you would have all of this experience at the top level of your magazines and your websites. You'd have more of that. And so I think that would cause a trickle-down effect of better writing and better thoughtfulness. Stuff like that.
Do you think that would bleed elsewhere into the industry?
I mean, that was the weird issue, right? And where a lot of this distrust of games journalism comes from is even the gamers knew at a certain point that they weren't buying magazines, so who was paying these games journalists, right? Like, the advertisements in the magazines were the last place where their money was coming from.
And so I think that is like a little subliminal thing that all gamers know or ought to know, is that if you're not paying for your game journalism, somebody else has to.
Or, you get what you pay for, which is if it's free, it's gonna be like a free thing. It's gonna be throwaway. It's gonna be pretty cheap.
As far as the games industry goes and the writing, I don't think they're at any loss. The games journalists who go onto work in the game industry, there's plenty of people. It's not like it's a great source of people for them. I mean, they'll find people elsewhere. The only reason that happens is, A, because these people love games and have written about games their whole lives and want to know. I think that's a really healthy impulse, is to love the medium so much that you want to know what it's like to make them and you think that you have a way to express yourself in that way.
Like, a lot of people say, "Well, if you're a journalist covering something, you should always be separate from it and never partake in the creation." I think that's silly to like a medium so much for your whole life and not be curious about what it's like to make them or to try to express yourself in that medium. I would question that more than I would question somebody getting a job in games after writing about them for a long time.
I know we've talked about this a little before, but if I'm remembering correctly, film writing has come from a lot of academic journals, right? And games writing came from consumer magazines.
How do you think those origins and trajectories impacted those ecosystems? Like, what's different as a result?
You know, yeah, that's an interesting point. What you're saying is the birthplace of film criticism was, like, these magazines like Cahiers du Cinéma, who, these were people who were interested in film or were filmmakers who started writing about film. Part of it is we have this history, and that's where we're a lot like comic books where we were considered a child's medium at the beginning, right?
And so all the media and stuff around that is catered to that market. Games magazines initially, a lot of them, other than the old-school PC magazines and stuff like that are targeted to teenagers and pre-teens even, so that is part of our foundation. It's nothing to be totally embarrassed of. But, you know, what you expect is a maturation with the audience. And I think that's kind of what happened. I really do think the writing about games has matured to a great degree in 15 to 20 years. The kinds of writing, the kinds of angles, the fact that we have people that are interested in the politics of gender in games and the politics of race in games and people who write about games from a ludic perspective and people who write about them from a visual arts perspective -- that stuff is all happening now. And that's what we didn't have as much 20 years ago. Twenty years ago there were little hints of that or -- I don't want to erase history, either. Some magazines were doing things and they just kinda disappeared and we don't know about them. Our history of games journalism is limited to, like, people who collect magazines and stuff like that. So, there may be instances of all those things that we just haven't brought with us to the internet.
Yeah. So, I'm 10 years younger than you and I kind of hit sideways into writing about videogames as an editor at The Onion. I went from there to Kill Screen with you and I didn't even realize -- like, I remember reading Nintendo Power and stuff growing up, but I didn't realize that was unusual for the time or at all to not write like that. And you have a couple years on me writing in that style of games as cultural artifacts than only consumer products. What sort of pushback or head-scratching did you get or hear about in the late '90s or early '00s from editors or readers who were like, "Well, why are you writing about these things in that way? They're just videogames."
The main thing I got was -- so, I'll dial it back a bunch. When I first got into journalism right out of grad school, I applied for_Tips & Tricks Magazine_. They had an opening, an editorial opening. So I thought, "Here's a cool place." I had gone to school for film writing and magazine writing, but I was, like, interested in writing about games: "Let me try here." I wound up getting a job at Hustler. It was the same publisher. My interview was for Hustler. They wanted to fill that position more. And so I wound up working for Hustler for a while, but still was interested in games.
I eventually convinced them to run games stuff in Hustler. That was my first instance of, like, trying to make an argument for why games were something other than nerd stuff.
My pitch to Hustler was, "Hey, they're gonzo! You know what I mean? Like, the violence is gonzo, the sexuality is gonzo. It's over the top. That's something our audience, 18-year-old males." Well, for Hustler, it's mostly dudes in jail. [Laughs.]
But they wanted it to be 18-year-old males. That's something that they consume and they like it that way.
My editor bought it and I just had to make sure -- I couldn't write about Pikmin in Hustler. That was, like, a no-go, right?
But back then there was still a lot of, like, BMX XXX. They never were able to sell ads at Hustler. They sold 900-number ads.
Those were just, like, eternal. Those were always refreshed. The back of the magazine was full of them. But what they really wanted to do was get back into selling ads for real products like Playboy. The kind of ads that Playboy got.
And we got an ad. They sold an ad to Tecmo for the Dead or Alive series, you know, the beach volleyball version of it with all the bikinis.
They were psyched. They were like, "Holy shit! We sold an ad. Like, a page ad to someone other than a 900-number. This is rad!"
Unfortunately, that was right at the tail end of anybody ever paying for print ads ever again.
So they were never able to sell another videogame ad in the magazine.
Do you, though, have any recollections of people sorta being like, "Huh?" to writing about games as cultural artifacts, be they editors, readers, or other writers?
Honestly there wasn’t much resistance. Firstly because I always tried to cater my writing to the style of the outlet. But secondly because it is a style or writing most editors are used to reading. These are pretty literate people. They read a lot -- especially contemorary journalism. And that perspective is how we treat pretty much every other cultural expression. So I think most editors were happy to lean in that direction and, to be honest, were already pushing their outlets in that direction.
Okay, yeah. But it's funny how much pornography and videogames seem to come up in the same breath. Like, I talked to the Pew Research Center -- are you familiar with them?
I talked to them about online harassment, all the other topics that interweave with videogames and the internet. Something they didn't really have much data on in the course of conversation they said was both adult use of pornography and adult use of videogames. I don't know that I really have a question.
But it is kind of funny how often those two end up bedfellows. 'Cause, as we're lead to believe, one is supposed to be for adults, and one is supposed to be for children.
Right. But, I think that just kind of highlights the misconception of what games are and who they're for. I've always made this argument that games aren't for adults, they're mostly for juveniles or people who have juvenile impulses. Right?
But I don't know about "juvenile," because I feel like that's got a certain connotation. That's not necessarily a bad thing.
Like, I feel like that's what we see a lot of. There's a difference between the writing you're talking about from 10 years ago to -- I think it's great there's a lot of really analytical writing and thinking being done but I feel like what's missing out of that camp is the concession that, "Oh yeah, games are just kinda stupid and fun."
And that that's a good thing, too.
Oh, 'cause we definitely need more of that. The escape aspect is valid, right?
It's funny because for a long time there was an argument around talking about the game space and how we need to always talk about the political, too. I felt like at a certain point it's just exhausting, the whole fight and the argument, and you need an escape. And that's what people use games for all the time, is that escape from how their work sucks, how their relationship sucks, how they have huge credit card debt, or whatever. You get to go and shoot some aliens for an hour.
That's a nice break. That's something valuable.
Where I used to be a little more impatient with people who were like, "Oh, don't bring politics into this." Now I think I get it a little bit more. If games are your one escape, I can understand how you would fight to keep the things that we think about all the time out of that one place.
Yeah. Are you talking about a certain subset of the gaming audience here or just in general?
I think just in general. I just think in general. Like, for me, right now I just don't want to think about Donald Trump anymore. Like, I really just don't. My only social life is on Facebook where, just, everybody's fucking talking about Donald Trump and it's like -- [Laughs.] I wish they would just let you, by keyword, hide all mentions of Donald Trump on Facebook. I would pay 10 bucks a month for that.
I did. Yeah.
I know that you and I have bonded over Gchat just talking about general outrage culture stuff.
For people who don't really know, like, we don't have to talk about Donald Trump, but people arguing about videogames and people arguing about politics -- is there really any difference between, like, going to the message boards on IGN versus going to Politico?
I think the thing with Politico is you know what you're going for, right?
Like, you're going specifically for that purpose of getting embroiled in political thought. I mean -- so what I've done, and I think this is larger than just the politics around games. The way we talk about games, too, has become sort of tiresome to me as well.
So, I'm a big fan of Destiny and I play Destiny a lot, but I'm completely disengaged from the discussion of it. When I accidentally read gaming news or see somebody talking about Reddit, I learn that there's this narrative around that game about how it's this failure and how everybody's mad about it and how there's nothing to do. But when you're not engaged with that narrative, it's this game that you like. You know what I mean?
And you talk to your friends about it and you guys have opinions, but it doesn't have this larger import, like, "This is the state of the gaming industry because of how this game happened." Or every story that you read on Kotaku has this kind of narrative built in that nobody likes Destiny anymore because there's no more content or whatever. I like being disengaged from those narratives and I understand why those narratives are so appealing to writers because when you're writing about a game, it makes it feel like there's a point to all this coverage that you're doing. Like, there's this through line when -- I feel like that through line might be a self-fulfilling prophecy. I think, like, we went through that issue with the story for Mass Effect 3.
It became almost a real meme. Like, what meme means in the definition, which is a viral thought pattern. And that disappointment with the story became a viral thought pattern in the gaming fandom and media and it sort of became the narrative of that game. Like, when you talk about Mass Effect 3, it's almost like this knee jerk thing, the ending or whatever.
[Laughs.] That's all I know about it.
Yeah. And so I have made a huge effort to disconnect from both the fandom and the gaming press and it's helped me to enjoy games better, I think.
Well, you know, around entertainment and maybe it's just the internet in general, but in games specifically there is such a strong desire to break down everything into spreadsheets and try to figure out what this means and what column that belongs in.
That wasn't really the case when Twin Peaks was on, that feeling to authoritatively tell people what was going on, unlike True Detective.
I think the problem for people like you and me is there's not a lot of websites or places to go with people who want to talk about that stuff, maybe not have that stuff be spoiled, and just quietly appreciate it and discuss.
Yeah. Well, you know, it's interesting because it gets really granular.
And there also are ways that we talk about TV on the internet or games on the internet or movies on the internet that it becomes -- I hate the word "trope" -- but we get these tropes of how we talk about them, which sucks some of the fun out of everything? [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] A little bit.
A little bit.
For some people.
Yeah, for some people. Some people love it and they embrace it and they grew up in it or whatever. But I don't know. Like, so, my fandom started in magazines. 'Cause I was thinking about life was like before the internet and I read magazines voraciously. Like, Film Threat, Premiere, like, all these movie magazines that I could get my hands on. Sight & Sound. Music magazines like RIP and Rolling Stone and Spin. Ray Gun. When I moved to LA, before internet was huge, I had comic-book boxes full of magazines that I loved.
The Comics Journal, who I eventually got to write for, which is just an amazing treat. The Comics Journal, I loved that.
So you would spend a lot of time reading about stuff that you liked back then. And if you were super-lucky, you would meet one person who also cared about those things.
And so it was different. It was way different. I remember I had this buddy Jesse in Orlando who I met, and we had this shorthand 'cause we had both read the entire issue of Premiere by the time we were hanging out. And we would just kinda go down the line and be like, "That thing, that was cool. That one was good, too. Okay, cool." We talked about all the stuff in Premiere Magazine. [Laughs.] "We're done on that subject. We're all on the same page."
Whereas, I think on the internet it's more like this constant picking apart. It's almost like -- the thing that you're talking about, the movie or the show or the game is this deer that you just shot and it's rotting away and everybody's just picking everything off it until, like, it's just this perfectly polished skeleton with not a single bit of meat left on it.
[Laughs.] Then you have to pulverize the bones and turn it into some sort of medicine.
The internet uses every part of the animal.
[Laughs.] You said you accidentally read some stories about games. Do you pay any attention at all to the games writing space?
I've unfollowed, like, almost every game outlet in all the ways that I could. Because I'm interested in them and 'cause I post about them, the Facebook algorithms still will put news about it there. Or, somebody who I'm still friends with, a journalist or somebody will share one of their stories and if it's somebody I particularly like or something I'm interested in I'll still go read it.
But largely, I go out of my way to avoid games writing, politics.
Can you talk a little bit about your falling out of love reading this stuff, and also a bit about how you stopped writing it as well? Did this coincide?
Yeah. I mean, a little bit. So, what happened, honestly, was I started getting better work writing game trailers and ads and stuff like. So once that started I was like, "Well, I can't review games anymore. I can't position myself as a game journalist if I'm also writing these game trailers and stuff." It was at a good time because it was right at the time I was transitioning in my life and having a kid and lost that freelance Hustler gig and getting a little fatigued with this stuff. So it was nice to just disconnect from it.
And then, secondarily, all of the discord that's occurring in games, it was nice to disconnect from that. Because I felt like -- I mean, I feel for everybody and everybody's struggling and it's hard and I respect what everybody's going for. But I gotta protect my mental health, too. [Laughs.] You know? And so that was my way of kind of healing myself and shielding away from all that stuff.
"How has becoming a father changed your relationship with videogames?
For the first year or so it meant I just barely played them at all. I just didn’t have the time or I was exhausted. Now that my kid is a little older it is my escape, my time to have a social life. Before I had kids I used to be really critical of people who would play World of Warcraft while ignoring their kids. I am that parent now. There’s only so much you can give to a kid. Maybe some people are able to give 100 percent of their undivided attention to their child, but that’s not me. This probably makes me sound like a terrible parent, but its just the truth. Sometimes i just need to set the kid down in front of YouTube and play a game to blow off some steam.
Well, similarly in how you can’t necessarily give something your undivided attention indefinitely -- I don't know if you've observed this, but there does seem to be burnout or a changing of the guard among writers in the space.
I've observed the cycle to be two, maybe three years. You've seen more of those cycles than me, but what have you noticed about that revolving door and the people who come through it?
Yeah, you know, the thing is there's all those exceptions, right? There's people that are making great careers of it. A lot of them work for nice established places. I think that's one of the main things, right? If you're one of the lucky few to get your foot in the door at a really good established place, a place that has fair pay, good working conditions, great editorial staff, and an audience that is big enough and responsive enough that you can make a career out of it, you see more people hanging out there. But even that, I think, there's other contributing factors to people burning out.
I think it's kind of like pro gaming. It might be a young person's game. Like, the obsessive writing about games could be more in the realm of the young because you still have the energy.
When I was getting Nintendo Power and GamePro, I don't remember going off and writing my own game reviews. Maybe I started late, but I started in my early to mid-twenties, and that's crazy if that's late. All I know is E3 last year, someone treated me like I was a village elder at 32. [Laughs.]
Someone who was 25 was worrying aloud about being "too old." That can't be healthy, right?
Yeah, I mean, you lose -- I've got nothing against young people.
Me neither. But I think that's a little young to be worried about being old.
Oh, no! But I mean, like I said, look at pro gaming. When you're 21, you're over the hill for pro gaming. You know, it's an accumulation of factors, right? The way society works today, when you're in your teens and twenties, you might not be responsible for as much as somebody in their thirties and forties. You don't have debt. You might have a small apartment or no apartment. You might stay at home still. So many people stay home still. So, you can unselfishly do this thing which is not a great financial decision, right? You could say, "Hey, I'm gonna do this. I'm gonna write about games. I'm gonna throw myself in and I'm gonna be this person who just soaks up the industry and all this stuff." And you're just responsible for yourself and it's not a selfish thing to do, but when you have a relationship or a child, I think you have to fight harder to rationalize keeping at it. I don't think people understand how when you're a game journalist, you have to play a lot of games. More than normal gamers or at least keep up with the most hardcore gamers. It's hard to have a life and a career and take care of your kids and play, you know, a lot of games.
Or is much more involved in the choices in what happened to their piece before it shows up online. What sort of things have you noticed over the years?
Yeah, I mean, there's just a general misunderstanding of what journalism is across the board in our culture, right? People think a real journalist is, like, you've got Deep Throat telling you about the next administration and you're covering all of the dirt and that's the only thing that is journalism. Everything else, writing about recipes for food or writing about a movie -- all that fluff stuff, that's not real journalism. And I don't believe that. I think there's this great spectrum of things that journalism is for. It's amazing for speaking truth to power and revealing corruption and all these things, but in a lot of cases, there's not a necessity for that and I don't think -- and I know a lot of people think otherwise -- that games and the games industry needs that much serious digging and investigation. It's pretty much all out there. Games take a long time to make. I don't think the subject matter or the fact that a game is coming out -- it’s an industrial secret. It's not something that the public needs to know.
I remember being at The Onion at going to my first E3 and a lot of people there asking what I thought about the term "games journalist."
Which is a very 10 years ago concern that was had. You mentioned Deep Throat and I always felt more comfortable at that time saying that I just write about games.
Like, it's not like all of a sudden you're going to meet a Deep Throat and find a secret piece of marketing.
There certainly are things, workforce stuff, to be digged at. But I do wonder, in tandem, the burnout rate, the low pay, the handful of places with staff positions, the audience being a factor, the lack of things you can do actual journalism about, what sort of things do you feel like you never see get examined or talked about?
That's a good question. I think the human element is almost always underplayed.
I think that's the largest thing. It's like, the major concern of everybody, including myself when I wrote about games, was the end product. The art, the creation that they were doing.
And I think we always give short shrift to the people who make games, to the people that play games. There's all these lives that intersect with games, and I think that's interesting. When I wrote features, I always tried to be really descriptive of who these people were, what their workplace was like, their mannerisms if I could. Again, that's not journalism either, but I want to paint a picture about this.
It's like features writing.
Just more details.
Yeah. What I wanted -- in 1999 and 2000, when I was writing for Robot Street Gang and doing the blog, still working at Hustler, what I wanted out of games writing was I wanted more writing about games like the writing in the magazines that I read, like, in the New Yorker and in Premiere and Film Threat. I wanted more games writing like that. Peter wrote it New York Times, but that was a column that was short-lived. Not many other people were writing about games like that. And so that was my main motivation to write about games. I was like, "I wanna try to do that."
Now, I think, you know, you've got Simon Parkin in New Yorker doing amazing work writing exactly what I thought games deserved. That's really what it was. I thought games were this rich medium. People that played games were this interesting group of people. The people who made them were fascinating. I thought that they deserved equal reflection in media. And I don't think I lived up to that all the time. I strove for it when I wrote. I think I nailed it 10 percent of the time, maybe. But I was trying and a lot of other people started to, too. And I think that there was just this kind of upswing of people that kind of felt the same way all coming into it and contributing. And it brought us to where we are now, where I feel like there's a lot of that. You just have to go out and find it. Just the fact that -- and again, Simon Parkin, his stuff being in the New Yorker every issue or so is just light years different than the way it was 15 years ago.
I think this is another thing the audience for games doesn't necessarily understand is -- I see so many people say, "Oh, well, the impetus is on writers to get those places to write about these things." But a lot of those places, they don't want to or to get that stuff to go ahead, they have to admit they haven't been paying attention for a long time.
So, my writing -- when I first started writing about games and getting it in print in Hustler and other men's magazines, stuff like that, part of what I was doing was making this argument in everything I wrote that, "Hey, these things? These games intersect with all the other things that you do in your life, all the other kinds of books that you read and movies that you watch. There's intersections and I'm gonna explain to you why you should care about them."
And I feel like -- we did that at Paste the most. That was under Chris Dahlen and Jason Killingsworth. Both of them were the editors at Paste that I worked with. And because of the magazine Paste_was, kind of, like, a rock magazine sort of. Not hippie-dippie, but definitely into a certain kind of rock and a certain level of interest which might not intersect with the interest in games. A lot of what we were doing was trying to sell games to them, to those people, those literate people. Maybe that's a little self-conscious, us trying to explain to people why we like games. I think there's a little bit of that where you're maybe a little bit embarrassed of being an adult who's talking about games. But I found that exercise interesting and the exercise of trying to explain to people who don't "get" games why they should and why they're interesting, it forces you to look at why_you like games and why you think they're interesting and examine that. Right? It becomes, like, this internal exploration as well.
One of the Achilles heel I've had is I find there's not a lot of places you can go to write about the things that I'm interested in taking and writing about.
Like, why is it we more often see conspiracy theories about Hideo Kojima in enthusiast publications but rarely do you see quality digging into structural systemic problems that are just as convoluted? Then you look at mainstream publications that do traditionally cover these kinds of things but they're also not interested. So I don't know if I'm griping to you or --
It's a very narrow subset of people who understand that this is a problem and care that this is a problem.
What's the problem?
[Laughs.] Because I know we've talked about this before, but how do you even label what that problem is?
I think overall it's a problem of wanting to think about games. I think that's a big one. I think that's a big part of it. And honestly, like, I get now why people don't want to think about games. [Laughs.]
Like, I frequently don't want to think about them. I just want to have them here when I need to vent and to move on with my life.
But this is a problem that we have everywhere. Like, people don't really think about much. It's mostly they react to stuff. They get mad about the thing. They let you know that they're mad about the thing.
They tell you how to feel about the thing.
Yeah! Oh my God, I saw an article. It was, "How Should People Feel about this Thing?" It was in The New York Times and I was like, "Fuck me!"
They should feel how they feel. Like, we don't need an article about that!
What do you feel is getting in the way of games evolving? Or maybe you don't think they're stuck in any sort of creative or cultural way?
I'll talk about Firewatch, 'cause Firewatch came out and a bunch of my friends played it.
A friend of mine who doesn't interact with games media or look at websites a lot, we're talking about Firewatch and he goes, "I don't think that was a game." [Pause.] [Laughs.] And I was like, "I don't want to talk about this, at all. Good for you for discovering this thought." But that is one of the things that I think is in the way of games: There's a pretty rigid view of what they're supposed to do.
And that was what hurt comic books, too, and that's hurt comic books for a long time. There was this rigid conception that the job of a comic book was to tell the story of a guy in tights who could fly and punch people. But, we all know that comic books can tell the story of the Buddha, it can tell the story of being a Jew in Nazi Germany during World War II, it could do so many so many things. And that is true for games as well. Games can do so many so many things, and they do already, but not a lot of people know that.
The thing with metal is that it got huge, like games did, and then it went away.
Games got huge and I don't think they're going away. I think they're gonna keep evolving to VR and all this stuff. It's just gonna be this ubiquitous thing.
Metal's going through these growing pains now as it's slowly getting more popular. It's going through the growing pains that games are with inclusivity and subject matter and all that stuff. Part of what I like about metal is that you can say some fucked up shit in metal and there's so few people listening to it and so few people judging it that it goes by the wayside and people just go, "Well, that guy's an idiot!" And then it's just done, right?
The bigger you get, the less you can do that and the more it becomes life or death for some people and rightfully so, because so many people are having such a hard time with their lives and fitting in or whatever. So, I don't know. I don't know if games can learn from metal so much. I think a medium might be an idiot trying to take anything from metal and model themselves after that way because metal is doing it wrong, obviously.
I feel like that was something people used to say, "Games are bigger than Hollywood."
I think it thinks they are, and it thinks it tries to copy them, but I don't really get the sense it really is.
They used to say that about porn, too. You know, every year somebody would say, "Oh, porn makes more money than the entertainment industry."
And the figures were fudged.
I think, you know, the way that they say games are bigger than Hollywood is because sometimes a game sells more than movies do, like Grand Theft Auto V definitely generated more money than most movies do. But also, they count hardware and all these other things that you buy.
So it's not a fair comparison. Porn isn't bigger than Hollywood, either, even though Spanktravision generates tons of revenue, hotels are used to -- they're phasing that out.
I look at porn -- it's probably hard to make a living making porn on the internet now. I think of it as just another content provider who's had their whole earning potential be disrupted by the internet. They're the same as us.
I can't imagine what it's like. I know that it was a tough time when I was in porn in the '90s. It was already changing so much.
And the people who starred in pornography did not make a lot of money. I mean, it's pretty clear. Yeah, they're making a thousand bucks a scene sometimes. Which seems like a lot to a lot of people, but it's not when you consider what that scene is.
Right. That's a lot of articles about videogames.
It is a lot of articles about videogames. [Laughs.] Though, I wonder if they make a thousand bucks a scene anymore. I think they might not.
I think, just like every industry, we're seeing homegrown stuff. You know, a husband and a wife who can shoot a porn scene in their room and put it on the internet and make a little bit of money off it. It's just the same as people writing about games. It's like -- you're doing it at home, you got small expenses, and you can support yourself on it but you can't support a small business on it. Like, it gets harder and harder. If you were trying to start up a website, say, and pay people $50 an article, where are you gonna get that $50 from? Convince people to buy ads, I guess?
Crowdfunding, yeah. And that's what people are doing, really. But that's about all you can get, is that $50 per story, right? That's about all you can get people to pay for.
As long as we're gonna drag out the dusty old chestnuts of, "Are games art?" and "Games are bigger than Hollywood," I think people -- someone, I think it was Chuck Klosterman who was like, "Where is the Lester Bangs of videogames?"
No. Even the guys that write for rogerebert.com are bloggers at home. Like, literally, the people who are taking over Roger Ebert's website are homegrown freelancers hustling it like all the rest of the writers on the internet. [Laughs.] You're not gonna go into an office anymore. Like, literally, when I went to work for Hustler, I walked in there and I had an office with a door. I had a desk. I had a Rolodex. And this was for writing pornography.
You used to freelance from work as well, right? Like, in your downtime?
Yeah. Yeah. My editor was super-cool. This guy, Alan MacDonell, great writer and great guy to work for. He taught me so much. But he was very open: He let us freelance as long as we got our work done. We did what they called internal freelance. We wrote the box covers for the pornos that they put out and wrote for other magazines. But I could also freelance from there, too, which made it a great gig.
I don't know if non-writers will understand that, but that's a way to have a balanced life and be maximizing your earning potential.
Yeah. I just see how the good jobs now -- you work for Kotaku, I know a lot of people that still work over there, and it's just a different environment. You're sharing the space with everybody, so everything you do is public. I guess that's how they keep you from freelancing and keep you from doing other stuff. You're basically working for them all the time, which you know, Kotaku pays well apparently. They negotiated a pretty fair salary. So that's one of the rare circumstances, I think, where everything works out. Well, they're still in New York. I don't know how you can afford living in New York and that salary.
No, I've seen those articles about New York where even married couples are taking in roommates.
Yeah. I mean, that happened to us. After the recession, I was freelancing, living off freelance budget. We got back to LA and I had freelanced in LA before and could make a living. When I got back, just that change of the recession and the way things had gotten more expensive, it just wasn't gonna work anymore.
Did you ever get the sense from people in games who complain about how insular it is that maybe they seem to enjoy it because it gives them a sense of superiority?
I mean, I definitely felt that way, too. It feels cool to be in this little club of games journalists.
It does. It makes you feel cool and maybe that's a weakness on my part to fall into that and to be less humble about it. Because you could be more humble about it, I think. But it's an allure. Because when you go to "judge's week" for E3, it's a very select group of people who get picked to go to that. And it can't do anything but make you feel a little bit special.
Yeah. I feel like I've sort of surgically removed myself from a lot of it and never was really all that deep in. But I do know there does seem to be some sort of class system or cliques where freelancers who can't write for certain sites have perceptions of certain sites as being X or Y. I know you've written for a lot of different places. Can you talk about some of the cliquishness you remember among games writers?
Not asking you to name names.
No, no. Not at all.
You don't remember that?
No, I mean. There definitely -- I mean, what it mainly comes down to is who have you worked with before? Who do you know? Who have you been on a bus with before? Who have you been on a junket with before? That's what it's mostly about. It's about I know this person or I don't know this person, largely. I got along with people I had history with and I think that's 90 percent of where -- if it feels that way to people, it's because these people have been around for 15 years, they've had drinks together a lot, they've been in airports waiting to leave E3 together year after year after year. You can't penetrate that relationship just by showing up and shaking somebody's hand or sending a résumé. You know what I mean?
And that's the main differentiator. I was lucky enough to find an entryway into that lifestyle where I was getting invited to junkets, where I was getting invited to press events. I think having worked for a magazine definitely helped. I had a professional business card back when you couldn't just print it out. Back when, if you had an internet website, you were not getting into a press event. [Laughs.]
Honestly, I think you could've been writing for Slate in 1999 or Suck in 1999 and you would not get a press pass because they're like -- back then, I used to send, once a month, copies of my print magazine articles to everybody who had helped me write something. They called it "clips," which even that is old-fashioned. I would send the clips out every month just to let the people know that the stories that I wrote about their stuff got run.
People don't really do that anymore. But you had to have clips. You had to have a physical clip to get into E3. My first E3, I brought a couple copies of Hustler Magazine with me in my backpack and they were like, "Well, show me your name on a masthead." And I opened the magazine and pointed to my name and they were like, "Okay, you can come in." [Laughs.] If you had a website, they were like, "No way!”
Now, of course, it's the opposite probably.
It's the opposite.
If you brought a clip, they'd be like, "What is that?"
"Please send your links to this email address."
People who write about games, many of them go and work for game companies as community managers. What do you think that says about the games reporting industry?
Well, one thing it says is that part of your job in writing about games is navigating the audience. Which, that's a part of the job that I did not care for. I had a tough time with it. I don't navigate any audience very well. [Laughs.]
Let alone the games audience. I just have a tough time interacting with a bunch of people, no matter what their opinions are. I just kinda prefer my little corner with my friends. So, the people who do get these community manager jobs, I mean, they've been doing this work already. I think that's the key thing. If you're writing articles for the web about games, you're doing some community management as part of your job.
if you engage in the comments. I tended to ignore them. But that is an aspect of the job -- I mean, the job now is so much more. You're your own editor, you're your own copy editor, you're your own photographer often, you're your own everything.
You're your own PR team.
I'll talk about the old days a little bit more, but at Hustler we had a copy editing team, associate editors that looked over our copy, the editor would rewrite your headlines, we had a fact checking department that would take in every single declarative statement you made in your article -- they would check that fact.
And not just go to Wikipedia. But we're talking about a different era, anyway.
There was no such thing as Wikipedia back then.
That wouldn't have passed muster, is what I'm saying.
No. They made phone calls. And Wikipedia's mostly trustworthy for fact-checking, but I doubt that most things get fact-checked even in that fashion anymore. I mean, nowadays -- I felt uncomfortable writing articles into the CMS, to be honest. Like, the way I used to do things is we would write an article, print it out, put it on our editor's desk, he'd mark it up with a red pen and give it back to you, and you would fix it. Which, that's just like -- I haven't done an article like that in 10 years. You know, Kill Screen used to do that. Both Chris Dahlen and Ryan Kuo -- they were very good editors, very thoughtful editors. They were concerned with how the lines were, which is a concern that not too many editors I've encountered care about, the quality of the sentence writing.
Why was Gamergate so badly bungled by the games media? Because, here you have a legit journalism story to do some digging into and you can contextualize a lot of stuff and you can deflate a lot of things and you can head a lot of things off. My memory of it was there was a lot of not acknowledging it.
What do you remember and why do you think what happened happened with as bad as it got?
I think largely it was too close to home and too personal for anybody to really look at it in a way that was helpful. Everybody was hot about it, and if you were hot about it and not talking about it, you just got pent up and -- you know what I mean? It was just this, like, high emotion thing for everybody.
Yeah. I think it, for me, I can only speak to my personal reaction to it, which is it got so ugly everywhere that I had the luxury of being able to disengage. So many people didn't and I feel for them because if you're embroiled in that, it's not a way to live.
Was that your catalyst for leaving Twitter and diving into other work around this stuff?
Oh yeah. Largely. Largely. I mean, Twitter -- magnify that by all the other things that people are fighting about on Twitter.
Like, just a weird thing. Like, some guy got into me about a Kickstarter. I published a Kickstarter link of something I thought was interesting and he was, like, digging up all the dirt on this thing. He was responding to me on Twitter about that and I was like, "Oh, man. I don't need that. It's just a thing I thought was cool." [Sighs.]
So, I just had to disengage. Yeah, and again, I have this great luxury to be able to disengage from this thing. So many people don't and I feel for them and I hope that they find other ways to feel better about their life and everything. That was something I had to do. Just get it out of my front brain. That's the thing. When you disengage from stuff, you disengage from all the things. Politics or whatever. It's all still there and you're still thinking about it. You can't forget about it, right? I think that you can't forget about it and you're always gonna be aware of it. But at the very least, you have a little bit of breathing room. Where, if you're on Twitter, it's just, like, constant. You know?
It's that, about everything. And racist.
To me, it's sort of like having an IV drip of negativity.
Not exactly a good segue here, but I did want to ask you about Indie Game: The Movie very briefly.
'Cause how long ago was that now? Like, five years?
Yeah, I've been thinking about that movie lately. My wife still has the T-shirt. When the movie premiered and I met the filmmakers again after it came out, they gave us this T-shirt and she still, like, sleeps in that T-shirt.
We should probably say, for the transcript, that you were in the movie. I forget what the lower-third when you're on says about you.
I think it says Wired. I think it says Wired.
Yeah, it's funny, because so much water under the bridge since then. There was, like, prior to that this kind of percolating enthusiasm about this space, and it was fun to be a part of that and it was cool to be in that movie. But I feel like, man, it seems like a different planet.
[Laughs.] Doesn't it?
When I think about that movie, yeah, for sure. It feels like everything has just transformed, like, mutated into this other thing. And I wonder where everybody else from that movie is, like, the other journalists especially. I know Brandon Boyer from Venus Patrol still does a lot of cool stuff and still is so enthusiastic about that. I couldn't keep up that level of enthusiasm and I don't know what it was exactly. But I lost that.
That's a bummer. 'Cause I think back to that time and how exciting everything was, and I don't think it's any less exciting, but I think we've cut that excitement with something else.
It's been spiked.
Yeah. I think mostly you can only sustain that raw enthusiasm so long. Invariably something happens. Maybe something ugly. And that just kind of blows it. You get snapped back to reality. No, this wasn’t magic. It was real life just like everything else, full of good and bad in equal doses.
I think a lot of people point to that movie and try to pin some sort of blame or some sort of responsibility for how things are today in that broad and nebulous community. I don't really know if it's that simple. I don't know if you can trace things back to one document in time.
It makes a good mile marker, really. It's like, it becomes this post that says, "This is the high water mark."
But, yeah, I don't know. I mean, I think people had a lot of misconceptions about what games were and how they were made before that movie came out, and then they watched that movie and came away with a lot more misconceptions about 'em. [Laughs.] Not that the movie didn't do its job, 'cause it did a very good job of showing the stress of being this creative person in this insular kind of way of creating games. I think they did a great job with that. But there's so much more, I think -- I say this a lot, like, everybody thinks they know how a job is done. And they think, "Well, why don't you just do this?" And that's, like, the solution to why the job is not getting done the way they think it should be done. And it's never that simple. Take problem X and your simple solution for it or your simple explanation for it's gone to pot and it's never gonna be that. It's always gonna be this amazingly complex knot of influences and things that have come to pass to get you where you are.
I think that's the sort of thinking that goes into why games writers will write things about, "Oh, this is a missed opportunity for this or for that." I will say this about that movie: I do think like anything else, it has its successes and its problems, but I've heard a lot of people point to it as either an inspiration or a thing that makes them feel like the work they're doing as a developer, it gives them a sense of pride.
Have developers who don't know you from your writing, maybe they've learned of you from that movie -- have they ever reached out to you or treated like you a great ordainer of things that could happen to them in their career? What sorts of reach-outs did you get from that film?
It's been so long, it's kind of hard to remember. And I don't think people maybe specifically would say that they knew me from the movie, but, you know, I got a lot of emails from a lot of young developers -- and I did before I made the movie, because I wrote about indie developers. So, it was kind of hard to judge the impact. I mean, what this speaks to, I think -- and that was my motivation to write about games and when I talk about the human element -- what that movie did was it showed what it's like to be this person that makes a game by themselves in a room.
It gives an example of it. It's not a perfect example, but it lets you kind of feel. And just the fact that the story was told is a validation to the lifestyle or to the decision that you made. So, for a lot of people prior to that, nobody even really had a grasp of what it was they were doing or how much work they put into it or whatever. So, the fact that somebody was interested in telling that story -- and that's the same thing with us fighting to get stories in with editors. Just the fact that somebody was willing to run your story is a validation of the medium, of your interest, of you as a writer writing about those things.
So I'm happy that the -- my contribution to that movie was so minor. I sat for one day and did some interviews, right?
I'm happy that my minor contribution to that movie could possibly make somebody feel better about what they're doing.
Do you have any anecdotes or things that come to mind as particularly noteworthy or worth noting about other writers who have left games behind? Or is it pretty much always, you think, the reasons we touched on: low pay, the audience, and so forth?
It's hard for me to think of specific examples of people because you know what happens is you know so many writers when you work in this industry and you interact, especially on Twitter and Facebook. Now, when I look at my Facebook feed, I have these friends in here and I'm like, "I can't remember my interaction with that person." Like, you know what I mean? They were coworkers, and I know the name, and I've read the byline a couple times, but it's like, "I can't remember when we met and what we talked about."
And so that happens a lot in this industry, where you kinda fade out. These people, they just kinda drop off and fade away. And if you don't have a Facebook relationship with them or whatever, they just kinda go and you don't know.
It's like high school.
Yeah. It is like that. You know, the ones I remember the best are the ones who move onto other jobs. Like, the guys who get the jobs in the game industry and I sort of see them tangentially still working and still doing their work, and that's part of it, is they're still keeping me aware of their existence. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Yeah, I do.
You know, I'm trying to think of an example and I can't bring one to mind, somebody else who kinda used to do it. And even I'm like, still writing game trailers and stuff. I'm still kinda tangentially related.
Is that anything I can ask you about?
Yeah, I mean, I can't talk about who I work for mostly. The main thing that I think people are interested in games writing is, like, every other job around games pays so much more than games journalism. [Laughs.] Just, like, orders of magnitude more. Games journalism, writing about games, is the only part of the game industry that is, like, terrible pay. [Laughs.]
It's an allowance.
Yeah. Even, like, people who do QA can make a decent living.
This is the sad thing. When I talk to people between contracts at game companies or who quit game companies. Because I don't think they know that: You take your average person who writes about games and they would happily take a job in a AAA studio, $65k a year, all they do is make digital rocks. Like, they would be so happy.
[Laughs.] Yeah. Yeah, I think that's definitely a fact that people who make games don't get how underpaid games writers are. [Laughs.]
It's true. But, can I ask you this? We've touched on this already a bit, but I think a lot of the tensions around stuff in games comes around how people just don't know how they're made so they form their own mental pictures and draw conclusions and form opinions based on them. How has writing trailers helped fill in the blanks for you that you couldn't in your work as a journalist?
Working on trailers, and kind of seeing the process that you have to go through to market a game, has shed more light on why things are the way they are. What kind of games or movies get made feels like it has a lot to do with what kinds of games and movies can be sold. And by that I mean there’s a playbook for selling a game about space marines that shoot aliens. There’s a playbook for selling superhero movies and Star Wars movies. You can fairly reliably depend on a certain outcome - tickets sold or games preordered or whatever - if you make the ads, spend the money and put the thing out. There’s no playbook for selling a game about a girl who is coming of age as riot girl lesbian. That is uncharted territory.
What do you think videogames have accomplished?
[Pause.] What I think they've really accomplished is they've dragged, or been dragged -- both, a little bit -- expression into the future. Art, story, music, how you feel about the world -- games can address all those things with varying degrees of success. They're obviously -- we've talked about this a lot -- an accumulation of almost all creative mediums crammed into one thing. Plus there's the technology that we use to make games. That's all new.
So, games have taken all those things and kinda shoved them into the year 2050 with a pole. It's, like, cramming them in and it's ugly how they're doing it and it's not always good or healthy or artful, but there's a future there and we're there and art and expression is there and games are, like, part of that mechanism. They are the mechanism driving us there, but the destination is still unclear. That is still exciting to me.