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Five reasons you should write for free

Brad Gallaway's picture

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So for the last couple of months (and especially over the last few days) there's been a resurgence of "no one should ever write for free, ever, never never" among freelance games writers and paid career professionals.

As someone who takes games writing very seriously and who's also worked as a mostly-unpaid-but-not-always reviewer for the last twelve years, I wanted to take a few minutes and share my thoughts on the subject.

Now, I think the goal for pretty much everyone out there is to get rich by hanging out with cool people and playing games all day, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. It is, after all, The Dream. I also agree that if a site is large enough and successful enough to pay for their normal content, then they absolutely should. That's not in question.

However, the available number of opportunities for reviewers and writers out there is a fraction of a fraction of the number of people who want those gigs. There's just too much supply and not enough demand, so unless there's some kind of worldwide moratorium, people who want to write for free (and who do so) are always going to be around.

Instead of being browbeaten by the people who've worked hard enough (and who maybe got lucky enough) to make it as a paid pro, here are five reasons why I think writing for free may not be quite as awful for your karma as kicking puppies or drowning kittens.

You're a newcomer

It's a little silly to expect someone who's just starting out (and probably still in their late teens) to have earned the skills and experience necessary to be a good writer. The likelihood of such a person being a great writer? Even lower. Why would anyone want to pay such a person, and how can such a person honestly even expect to get paid?

I've been a freelancer in a non-games field for over sixteen years, and in my other profession, it's not only expected that newcomers work for free—it's often required as a way to earn the knowledge and experience necessary to perform their jobs well. There are volunteer opportunities, mentorships, and a wealth of work-related activities that can help someone improve to the point at which they can call themselves a competent professional and start looking for a paycheck. I don't see any reason why games writers should be different.

Networking, baby

When I started out as a freelancer in my non-gaming career, I got my first breaks thanks to people I had met during volunteer opportunities and from instructors at my college. They knew me, they knew what I could do, and they opened some doors that lead to getting paid work. Even with that leg up, it was about two years or so before I actually met enough people and made enough contacts to support myself independently. If I'd tried to go paid-only out of the gate, I would have starved! Literally!

When it comes to games writing, it's no different. The best way to get gigs and assignments is to know somebody. That's the absolute truth, and anyone who denies it is trying to pull the wool over your eyes. Writing for free (again, for sites that can't afford to pay, or as an internship, etc.) will help anyone start building their own network of contacts and resources. You meet the right people, shake their hands, make the right friends... and of course, prove over and over again that you are reliable and can produce. Then, before you know it, all sorts of paid opportunities present themselves that would never be offered to Random Games Wannabe off the street. This is How It Works.

Smaller sites need content to become bigger sites

With the exception of some lucky individuals who manage to procure a pile of venture capital and go big from the start, I think the norm for a lot of websites out there is to begin as a volunteer operation with the hope of growing and becoming a success. If every writer demands to get paid, then how will these no-income startups ever get a chance to become paying destination sites? You reap what you sow, after all. Many organizations (gaming or non-gaming) have started as personal grassroots efforts, and then gone on to become larger, more established, and more financially stable. Then... they cut checks!

There are also some sites out there that are not-for-profit from the start, and use their position as a way to shield themselves from the financial influence of publishers and paid advertising. They might be rare, but they're out there. Volunteers are crucial either way.

You do it for yourself

Most of the freelancers I know are not exactly what you'd call rich people. Fortunately, most don't seem to have many financial obligations. On the other hand, they often don't have children, houses, or even health care. It's a bit of a precarious situation to be in, and it isn't exactly the most stable base upon which to build a future.

For people who want certain things out of life, it's far easier to get a job that offers better compensation, more opportunity, and more stability while keeping games writing as a passion that they partake in on the side. Such a person should have no qualms about writing for free if it's something they enjoy. Additionally, by writing for free, they are leaving a paid opportunity open elsewhere for people who actually need that source of income.

You are crazy

Let's say that you've got a fire in your heart to write about some subject that no editor on the planet would pay money for; some subject so esoteric and arcane that your reading audience would likely number in the single digits. Or, maybe your point of view is so contrary to the prevailing opinion that people laugh off your pitch or simply delete it and never reply.

Sometimes these can't-win projects turn into labors of love that can only blossom when published among kindred spirits, open-minded editorial staff, and most likely, websites with empty bank accounts. You may not get paid for such work, but sometimes simply sharing it with the world is reward enough—especially when no one but you and that one weird-looking guy over there thinks it's worth a cent.

So there you have it, five good reasons why someone might want to write for free.

Now, with all that said, I do want to reiterate that just because it's okay to write for free sometimes, doesn't mean that it's all right to be taken advantage of.

Although there is no clear-cut way to know which sites are technically "big enough" to pay for content and which aren't, new writers looking to get paid should ask around and do some homework before agreeing to start producing content for people. Know who you're going to be working with, and know what you're getting into.

If everything clicks, then have fun, improve your skills (and if it's your goal) work towards getting that paycheck.

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All I'm going to say is that

All I'm going to say is that this is a crappy economy and everyone is suffering.

I've completed three unpaid internships for the industry I got my BA for, and no jobs came from it because no jobs existed. I could keep hammering away, but in that industry, it's likely years before something opens up, and this reality hit me like a ton of bricks and literally broke my heart - that no matter how hard I tried, there would be no opportunity.

Now, you're advocating the benefits of unpaid labor to the laborer. You further state that if one person can volunteer to not be paid, then that opens up a slot for someone "who needs it."

I think everybody "needs" it. Can you name a single writer in your same position who is salaried that could afford to keep writing without that salary? Just take their income away and see if they keep putting out the same effort?

So many businesses and industries have scaled back to accommodate the new economy and before anyone young like myself can get hired, all those veterans with 10 years experience will have to get hired first - because who would picked an untrained, untested kid like me when you can just hire back Bill, your friend who was let go last quarter?

In the meantime, I am doing these unpaid internships, bumping elbows with industry veterans, and I know I don't have a chance in hell. And you write an article talking about how great it is to be starting out...

...are you out of touch?

Anonymous, I'm sorry to hear

Anonymous,

I'm sorry to hear that you're having difficulty finding of a position, but if I can be brutally honest with you for a minute here -- if you thought you were going to come straight out of college and get a paid, full-time games writing job, you must not have done any research about what it's actually like to be a games writer.

Continuing to be honest -- if you thought getting a games writing job would actually pay all your bills and give you a comfortable living, then again, you must not have done enough research.

I don't know the specifics of your situation or what avenues you’re trying to pursue, but getting a job writing about games and earning enough money to have that be your only source of income is pretty much equivalent to winning the lottery.

Most everybody I know who "gets paid" does it on a freelance basis, and does not earn enough to have a “normal” standard of living including a house, nice car, kids, health care, and so forth.

In any event, I'm not sure what the disconnect is here, but my article was not written to discourage people who are trying to get paid in the industry, it was to provide a little bit of perspective from the other side following several articles and discussions which seem to insist that writing for free is some kind of crime.

It's not as simple as that, and there are much larger issues involved in the poor state of the games writing industry than getting upset about a few people writing articles because they enjoy it.

Good luck with your job search.

Welcome to modern slavery

Quote:

... that can help someone improve to the point at which they can call themselves a competent professional and start looking for a paycheck. I don't see any reason why games writers should be different.

If i did not get it totally wrong this sounds like: Welcome to modern slavery.

It's discouraging to read that and how much the time seem to have been turned back.

I am an engineer. When i graduate with my "Matura" diploma i am legally allowed to pursue a lot of different professions, but when going the design engineering route, i have chosen, the first thing my employer has to pay for is a specific training on the software he uses. Some thousand euros! I get payed those 1-2 weeks of further education. So even before i have to prove i am worth my monthly pay check i already get paid for my training (twice since i can list another program at my next application - pretend being a competent professional- and literally since it's also working time... incl. pension payments and social insurance). Usually there is some clause that you have to partially refund the investment in you if you suck at the actual work afterwards but my boss has to risk quite a big sum into an employee just by wanting a worker that has to be fit on the tools he wants to give him.

While in school you have to do twice a traineeship each a month long. OF COURSE you get paid for that too. You will most probably do the minor work like sorting paperwork. It's work that has to be done by someone, and since the other regular workers are overqualified, remember, they got expensive training, let it be done by some more or less unqualified student (maybe he could do more sophisticated work but since he is uninstructed in the procedures it's unviable to let him do things when instructing takes some days and he leaves days later) is alright. But this work is certainly also worth something, so it gets paid.

Do something for free, if the final product is free. Fine. But as soon it is done for a commercial company and you are not demanding money for it there is some fundamental flaw in the value of your work. The company working in capitalism while you are working in communism?

I got my BA and worked in

I got my BA and worked in three separate internships in that industry (not video games). I met major players, attended conferences, and shook a lot of hands. I absolutely did research - I was working in it, but there were no jobs. My school, my professors, even my managers at the internships spun me a tale, but when my bills came due, they let me down - there were no opportunities available.

Yes, I thought that after college, after the internships, I would get that golden ticket, not so I can have a house and a family and a nice car and health insurance, but so that I don't have to declare bankruptcy before I turn 30. People don't go to school and work for free for "life fulfillment," we do it because working at McDonalds and living with our parents and driving a shitty car is an intolerable lifestyle.

This state of being is supposed to be temporary. There are supposed to be opportunities out there. Growing up, every adult told us the importance of staying in school and working hard, and we'd be rewarded. And now, I'm being called ungrateful that I won't do the scummy minimum wage work, by the same people who told me to go to school if I wanted to avoid that fate.

"I'm sorry to hear that you're having difficulty finding of a position, but if I can be brutally honest with you for a minute here -- if you thought you were going to come straight out of college and get a paid, full-time games writing job, you must not have done any research about what it's actually like to be a games writer."

You aren't the only one who's said that to me - that expecting a career right out of college is unrealistic. This is fascinating, because no one said that to my parents when they got their degrees back in the 70s. So what's changed? Why is mine the generation that the economy left behind?

Working for free is an impossible situation for too many people for it to be the 'status-quo' business model. How do you expect the next generation of would-be professionals to survive getting into any industry if they don't get the minimum support needed to keep trying?

I'm poor, I'm broke. I can't work for free - that's too expensive on my end. I can't take up another internship, I think it'd be a waste of time. And another adult telling me that I HAVE to work for free isn't productive - I've done that and it didn't help. I need a new business model because I'm being crushed by the existing one.

Serious question: how long do you expect unemployed college graduates to coast? What the hell are we supposed to do - not be dissatisfied with our situation?

Anonymous- I get what you're

Anonymous- I get what you're saying and I fully appreciate that you're in a bad position, but I don't have any answers for you.

I'm sorry to say it, but what you describe is the new reality of the economy, and millions of people just like you (including me) are coming to grips with the fact that the American dream of "working hard and you'll make it" is revealed to be a fallacy.

I sympathize, I really do. However, I think your efforts would be better spent writing your local government officials, the White House, or maybe just joining one of the many Occupy movements. The problems you are complaining of are far deeper and more fundamental to the country and to American society than something that a game reviewer can tackle.

Besides, the whole point of my article wasn't to say that people should work for free, it was simply in response to a number of comments and editorials saying that no writer should ever write for free, ever. I don't believe that, so I was simply sharing my viewpoint and not trying to convince the unemployed of America that they should settle for a life of hardship and call it good.

Wish I had better news for you, but like I said, the issues you are describing are far, far larger than video games, game reviews, or people who write reviews for free.

Education vs Marketable Skills

Anonymous wrote:

You aren't the only one who's said that to me - that expecting a career right out of college is unrealistic. This is fascinating, because no one said that to my parents when they got their degrees back in the 70s. So what's changed? Why is mine the generation that the economy left behind?

I hate to tell you this, but it wasn't just your generation and this economy. After I got my degree in 1998 and I got my first job (almost entirely due to my paid internship which was different from what I was actually studying), it was embarrassing the amount of times I bumped into fellow classmates who were working at a grocery store or weren't working at all. The idea that a degree guarantees a job has always been a myth. Unfortunately, an education and marketable skills aren't always the same thing. Of course colleges don't like to tell you this because they are in the business of selling education (not necessarily marketable skills).

crackajack wrote: I am an

crackajack wrote:

I am an engineer. [...] the first thing my employer has to pay for is a specific training on the software he uses. Some thousand euros! I get payed those 1-2 weeks of further education. So even before i have to prove i am worth my monthly pay check i already get paid for my training [...]

Apples, Pears, Bananas...

Engineers are in quite a different position. It's really difficult to find engineers for some reason (except in IT), while everyone wants to be a writer. I know only very few engineers who have struggled finding a job (not even in IT), while friends of mine who have studied humanities, finance or law struggle quite often.

Chi Kong Lui wrote: The

Chi Kong Lui wrote:

The idea that a degree guarantees a job has always been a myth.

Only if you study in a field where the job market is flooded and then people can easily be exploited by doing some more "practical education", ie. actually work, but for free and it seems writing is such a field.

In an ideal world everyone should get an education which corresponds to his talents.
In reality you better not study eg. publicism in Austria since there are if i remember the number correctly 2000 registering every year. No way they will get a job in that area.

FachHochschul graduates however get a guaranteed job afaik. Since they are very practical oriented. An FH graduate is sort of out of the box usable while the university guy has only in theory knowledge but lacks practical skills, and probably wants more money.

Teachers are also sought after currently here. The school system is on the brink of getting reformed, inspired by Scandinavian models, hopefully at least. So more teachers, smaller classes, more individual education and even if it does not get reformed in the desirable way, a whole generation of teachers are retiring in the next decade.

Getting decent engineers was also hard a few years ago. Crisis might have relaxed that situation but getting at least some applicants to have at least a placebo choice was tough. If you have to have a new engineer and you have to take anything, it is a problem to get the desired quality.

Li-Ion wrote: Apples,

Li-Ion wrote:

Apples, Pears, Bananas...

If he meant the newcomers paragraph and "other profession" only for writing, than my comment is on first glimpse misplaced.
But i see not a single reason why anyone, no matter if apple or banana, should work for free. That's what i wanted to say. Only because you're a writer doesn't make your free work, work of no value.
I get payed for courses, so should anyone.

Following Brads reasoning i should not get paid until after about one or two full years of training because that's my estimate for the time span needed until the average designer is about to be able to work on his own without strict guidance. And that's hardly the point were the competent professional stops learning stuff every day.

This doing it for free is imho also blocking them themselves from getting paid. Three free people hinder at least one, probably the best dude, to get paid.

crackajack wrote: Following

crackajack wrote:

Following Brads reasoning i should not get paid until after about one or two full years of training because that's my estimate for the time span needed until the average designer is about to be able to work on his own without strict guidance. And that's hardly the point were the competent professional stops learning stuff every day.

This doing it for free is imho also blocking them themselves from getting paid. Three free people hinder at least one, probably the best dude, to get paid.

We discuss the very point you raised in our upcoming podcast.

Plan B, C, D - Z

I might sound a little too lighthearted, but we all have different skills. Some might be more useful for an economical and survival purpose, but there are some that are beneficial to our spirit and people around us. I think that making a living out of being an artist and a critic mostly depends on experience. The way we see the world and the way we approach specific subjects. It can be explained at school, but not fully assimilated to a point where you can stand on your own and make a living out what you've learned. It's not a point A to B type of path, it's not purely technical. You mostly have a theoretical approach by then.

I almost fell on my face when I first dropped out of school, I thought I would be a musician. I spent my time doing sh*t jobs and tried to figure out the artistic side of my personality. I slowly realized that I wasn't even able to imitate my inspirations and felt like a complete failure. It's such a normal thing, but I wasn't seeing that way yet. One thing for sure is that I'm slowly starting to find my way and my flesh out my skills, but I can't see myself forcing the note of my productivity even when I don't feel like it. I'd rather keep it for my own good and use it when inspired or as a crutch for when harder times come by. Of course, there might be a tiny chance for me to make a living out of what I create, but it is so uncertain that I find it preferable to develop other skills and ensure some kind of life quality beyond being able to sleep and eat. The more I live, the more I'm inspired. Sadly, I can't schedule inspiration and I have to push a bit of discipline into the mix for it to be regular. The greatest benefit of college is learning how to work under pressure(a thing you easily forget once you're out, like when you stop going to the gym).

What I'm trying to say is... don't let anybody prevent you from doing what you love the most, but don't expect being rewarded enough in exchange for it to prevent any external outcomes. Especially when if you're just starting you journey out of academy. Also, don't forget that there's always going to be a chance for a life reconfiguration. You never know what's in store!

P-S I'm a french Canadian, pardon me if something went wrong.

Clevelan

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