Have you been following Game Journos’ exposé of shenanigans at VGChartz? It’s a tale of a site withholding payment, refusing to honor its agreements with writers, and generally exploiting its labor force. Obviously, as part of the labor class, this is a subject of great interest to me – not because VGChartz’s treatment of its writers is so unusual, but rather, I believe, because it is so common.
Let’s start with a couple of disclaimers. As a freelancer, I can’t speak to the working conditions of full-time staff, especially at sites that offer salaries and benefits. My experiences as a freelancer are surely not the same as those of every other freelancer. I’m sure there are some writers who have it better than I do, and probably many more who have it worse. I’ve been lucky to have been able to write for awesome editors, and publications with integrity. I’ve rarely been stiffed on payments. I love what I do, and I don’t intend to stop doing it.
With that said: freelance game writing has got to be one of the worst ways to make money in a developed nation. There’s no relationship between the flat fee you accept from a publisher, and the amount of time and effort involved in delivering the work. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. If you play a game for 25 hours, and spend another 2-3 hours writing the review, you’d need to be paid around $200 just to make minimum wage. If you know of a publisher who’s paying that much for a review, please put me in touch with the editors.
Sure, not all games take that long. It’s why reviewers enjoy reviewing downloadable titles and short AAA releases. You get paid the same fee whether the game you played was 6 hours or 40 hours. You don’t need an MBA to know which one is more profitable. But somebody’s got to go out there and sink a week of their life into Skyrim, watching their wages drop with each passing hour, knowing that the fanboys will tear them a new one if, god forbid, they miss even the slightest detail. It doesn't matter if you love the game. Every hour you spend earning peanuts is an hour you're not doing something that earns you enough money to live on.
I’ve also found a significant difference in rates between print publications and online publications. Online publications – the ones that are growing, where more opportunities are – pay less than print, often much less. It doesn’t take any less time or effort to review a game for a website instead of a newspaper, but it is apparently half as valuable to the publisher. Lots of people who work in the web space get pageview bonuses, which, to this outside observer, seems a lot like a scam. Not only does it lead to garbage link bait instead of quality content, but you can be sure that the math is always in favor of the person paying the bonus, and not the person getting the bonus. There’s no good way to know what the standard rates for pageview bonuses should be, and the publishers like it that way.
What does this all mean in terms of compensation? It means that game writers are letting themselves be exploited, and even folks who are paid by the article are working for sweatshop wages. It’s not an exaggeration to say that my standard rate for reviewing a game, across all publications, probably averages $3-$4 an hour – well below the federal minimum wage. And I suspect I’m one of the lucky ones.
But I love writing about games, and if I won the lottery tomorrow, I’d keep doing it. In that sense, I’d write for free. The truth is that I do write for free. Nowhere, in the past five and a half years, have I written more words than I have for this blog. My total earnings in that time, between Google AdSense and Amazon Affiliates, are about $150. I have no way of knowing for sure, but I would guess that my hourly wage for working on Insult Swordfighting is in the hundredths of a cent, if not thousandths. That’s far less than a kid making Nikes in Vietnam.
Look, I’m not pleading poverty here. Writing about games is a choice for me, a luxury, and a passion. It’s something I do when I’m not at my day job. I make a good salary; I’m better off than 99.9% of the world. But there’s an important principle at stake here, which is that people deserve to be compensated for their work. If someone is profiting disproportionately from your labor, then you have a right to be angry and you have a right to demand justice. Not that I think the owners of sites like VGChartz are lighting cigars with hundred-dollar bills, only that they seem to be one of the frontrunners in a race to the bottom.
The story of videogame writing in the year 2011 is the story of publishers who don’t care about the quality of their product, and writers who are so eager for exposure that they take shitty deals which drive down wages for everybody. Again: there are many great sites out there, staffed by talented editors who care about what they do. But the marketplace for writers is lousy, if not outright hostile. If the only viable business model is to underpay and rip off their writers, then there is no viable business model for these sites. I’m afraid that the malfeasance at VGChartz is the rule and not the exception. And I’m afraid it’s only going to get worse for writers – and, therefore, for readers.