Friday, September 16, 2011

Working in the sweatshop

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.


Jessica Dobervich said...

Thank you for this! I write strictly as a hobby, with zero aspirations for anything but personal enjoyment and an outlet for creative writing, but there is a always a teensy voice in the corner of my mind that wonders "maybe...just maybe..." That voice isn't dead, but I just clobbered it with a reality check.

One of the things you mentioned, concerning worrying about hardcore fans ripping your reviews to pieces, is the biggest reason I would not want to do what you do. Staying committed to my own voice without having to feel responsible for representing a brand or publication keeps me from feeling totally anxious every time I hit the publish post button. Luckily I have kept under the radar enough not to have attracted trolls. I hope it stays that way. :)

Mitch Krpata said...

I certainly don't want to try to dissuade you from writing for money! Getting paid to do what you love is a wonderful thing. Just make sure you're getting treated fairly.

Anonymous said...

As a regular contributor to a major games site, I think you've summed up my situation pretty well. I get paid a tiny amount of money per news article I post, and it's rare that a review is actually cost effective, and I've lost many an entire weekend for $80. Despite that fact that I'm expected to put in 8-hour days, or more, like a regular employee, I'm paid like a freelancer and receive no benefits.

But I'm stuck, because my job situation is very tenuous, as my contract can be terminated at any time for pretty much any reason. And so my peers and I shy away from objecting when our bosses tell us, say, that we need to stay up working in the middle of the night to cover news out of TGS.

That said, I feel thrilled to be able to do what I do for a living. Unfortunately, there's not much of a future in it the way things stand now, so I'm constantly on the lookout for other opportunities. Perhaps someday "working in the sweatshop" will work out for me.

Anonymous said...

The worst part about it, though, is that I'm not proud of most of the work I do because I rush through so much of it in order to make a decent amount of money. I just slap some words on the page and don't give a damn if it's any good.

Jacob Clark said...

I personally write for fun as well. For me I guess I could not write under pressure and such a low wage. I do it as a hobby myself to get my mind off the woes of my day to day labor job. A lot of people though start off their writing as a hobby, and end up being a writer. Not to say i'll ever be a great writer, but pipe dreams always something to have.

I guess being a writer is like no other job profession. Even in my job as a grocery store buyer, I see a lot of mistreatment of people below and even above me. I am not putting my specific place of work for obvious reasons, but it's never the best that move up it's who works the system. I bet you have seen the same thing with writers, its not who writes the best but who creates outrageous articles.

I am just saying your not alone your plight of work, most people who work have the same woes.

David said...

I had a decent side job writing news/commentary for a website for a while, but the stress of staying on top of several subject areas (more than just gaming) killed my love for it.

Even worse, I have health issues (carpal tunnel syndrome) that make writing as much as I want to impossible. Making money is possible (I was pulling in $250-$500 a month as extra income), but I was definitely earning below minimum wage when divided per hour.

The main issue is that web journalism has a vast divide between large sites that can sell ads as impressions (similar to print) versus small sites that have to base everything on hits and CPM ratios.

I've gone back to writing for fun (mainly fiction) because - luckily - I have a stable "day" job.

Nels Anderson said...

When Paste quoted me the rate for the piece I wrote for them about PAX this year, the first thing I thought was, "How could someone making a living doing this??" And I don't think Paste was being miserly either, I think their rates are above-average.

It didn't matter to me, since I was going to show anyway, but I can't imagine support myself on gig like that.

Between this and my "game journalist for a weekend" excursion, my respect for the awesome folks that produce great writing despite all this swelled all the more (and count yourself amongst that awesome number, Krpata. For realzies).

Anonymous said...

big mitch!
scene is changing, you are a lucky one i agree, but well deserved. those that matter will endure.
boyer pulling in 100k in 2 weeks?