Games writing: when a hobby becomes work

They say that a sure way to ruin something you enjoy is by doing it for a living.

One of my first jobs out of university involved reading the first editions of national newspapers every night and then, first thing in the morning, letting various companies know what that day’s papers were saying about them. Looking back, it was a really strange job, not least because of the odd hours.

I worked seven days on, seven days off, heading in to start my shift at around 10.30pm and finishing at about 6am. On Sunday nights/Monday mornings we all headed off the pub underneath Smithfield Market (the office was in Holborn, London) – it was just about the only drinking establishment open at 6am, since most of the market deliveries took place during the wee small hours. The Cock Tavern, it was called – it felt like a secret place, known only to meat market workers and select denizens of the night, a place out of sight and out of time. In fact, I felt out of place and time for that year and a half spent working nights – it was an odd twilight existence, like I’d been nudged slightly off the track of human life and was now living in parallel to it. As I took the tube home on Monday mornings, slightly sozzled after a pint or three of Guinness, and heading in the ‘wrong’ direction as coachloads of business suits piled in to Bank for the 9am meeting, I felt like a ghost, floating through a shadow London.

Smithfield Market, home to a secret underground tavern…

But I got to read the papers for a living, and how many people can say that? Something I did for pleasure I could now do for money. Admittedly, I did have to read The Daily Mail now and again, which always, ALWAYS, left me with a feeling of incandescent outrage – no doubt the ‘high’ that its readers pay for. Although in this case, my outrage was at the unbridled bias of the thing, the shameless manipulation of the truth, rather than how immigrants with cancer are using up ‘our’ NHS, or some such other sanctimonious twaddle. Still, it was genuinely eye-opening to read the full breadth of the papers, to see how different press rooms reported the same news with their own spin aligning with their owners’ opinions – and their readers’ mores. No matter what the people reporting it insist, ALL news is biased in some way or another.

I finally left that job when I got a placement with the JET programme and headed off to teach in Japan for two years. But for a long while afterward, I struggled to enjoy reading newspapers. My brain had become so used to skimming articles for keywords that I found it difficult to switch off and just absorb the writing. I’d see a mention of a drug company or finance firm or some other client who paid to be told what was being said about them, and then a little alert would go off in my brain, readying my fingers to type in a record of the story. I kept being pulled out of what I was reading, poised to note something that no longer needed to be noted – it was as if my brain had yet to catch up with the fact that I’d left that particular job some months previously.

Fast forward a decade or two, and I now find myself as a freelance writer and copy-editor. I do all sorts – science copy-editing, travel writing, finance copy, even proofing card games – but the part I most enjoy is writing feature articles for the likes of Kotaku, Eurogamer and GamesRadar. And on top of that, I have A Most Agreeable Pastime, this very website, which I started with Sir Gaulian back in 2011.

I love writing about games, but it can also be tough. Coming up with original feature ideas is difficult, not to mention the fact that the pay is comparatively low for the sheer amount of work in terms of research that goes into each article. Reviews and previews are even more tricky, mostly because of the hard deadlines – if a website wants to see any significant traffic come its way, it needs to post its review as soon as the embargo lifts. If you post your review a day later, chances are that many people won’t bother reading it, as they’ll have already read a review of the game elsewhere.

What this means is that playing a game for a review is very different from playing it for pleasure. You’re always aware of that ticking clock, that countdown to deadline. Even if you’re really enjoying just messing about in the game, you might have to rush through some parts in order to see the story through to the end, or to sample other modes to get a feel for the full scope of the game. In short, it can feel like work – because it is work.

Games writing is only a small part of my workload – last month it accounted for about a third of my income, although often that percentage is a lot lower (you can see some of my recent work here). When I went freelance five years ago and got my first article published on Eurogamer, I thought how wonderful it would be to write about games full time. Perhaps, I thought, I could gradually phase out all of the other stuff and just do games articles. How wonderful would that be?

Nowadays, I think a little differently. The trouble comes when what you do during your work time and your spare time end up being the same thing – which inevitably means your brain struggles to differentiate between the two. Like when I found I couldn’t see past keywords in the newspaper, I often find myself ‘reviewing’ games in my head when I’m supposed to be playing them for pleasure. Or idly thinking about how that game might tie in to a feature, or how it relates to some other game, or what the developer is doing now, or what games they did before that, or maybe there’s an article on the representation of guns in this game, I wonder who I could pitch that to?

At the moment, it’s manageable. Games writing is something I do more as a treat than anything else, so it’s relatively easy to separate work from fun. But I wouldn’t want to do it full time. I can imagine that you could quite easily end up absolutely hating video games if all you did was write about them all day. With no separation between your work life and home life, suddenly playing ANY video game would become work.

About a year and a bit ago, a while after Sir Gaulian left AMAP, I had the notion of collaborating with some other writers, of boosting the number of posts, of reviewing more games, upping the hit rate, and generally putting a lot more effort into making it a bit more polished and professional. I’m pleased with the results. In particular, I’ve loved reading the stuff that regular contributors like Matt and Mr Percival S.-P. have come up with. But there’s also the danger of AMAP becoming more like work than fun.

What this basically means is that I don’t feel obligated to write something very week – that way it becomes more like work than a fun way to talk about games, which is why I started this website in the first place. I write things when I feel I’ve got something I want to say – which means there might be several posts one week and none the next. And when it comes to reviews, they might not always be posted when a game is released. At the end of the day, we write this website for fun, and if reviewing games starts to feel like work because we’re desperately trying to meet a deadline, then it’s not fun any more.

And writing, like playing games, should be fun – especially if you’re not getting paid for it.