Geeks have all the fun

You get your games for nothing and your trips for free. Steve Hill reveals the improbable hedonism of the games journalist

In the fabled careers adviser meeting of youth, imagine if you explained that when you grew up you wanted to play video games and travel the world on somebody else's tab. You'd probably get a slap. But for a select few at the coalface of the games magazine business, this is a daily reality.

In the fabled careers adviser meeting of youth, imagine if you explained that when you grew up you wanted to play video games and travel the world on somebody else's tab. You'd probably get a slap. But for a select few at the coalface of the games magazine business, this is a daily reality.

The term "games journalist" is still not one that readily trips off the tongue, but for a medium that is often claimed to produce more revenue than Hollywood, and which comfortably dwarfs the music business, it is unlikely to go away. Consider that while Eric Prydz's Call On Me was limping to number one on the strength of a recycled Steve Winwood riff, a promotional video that doubled as a masturbatory aid and sales of 20,000, the PlayStation2 title Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas shifted one million UK copies in its first nine days.

Despite being a multi-billion dollar business and a hobby enjoyed by millions, gaming is still largely invisible in the mainstream media. Whereas everybody has heard a tune or seen a movie, games are something that you either get or you don't. Apart from the occasional grossly ill-informed Daily Mail horror story ("Murder by PlayStation") they are either overlooked or restricted to a token reviews section.

It is here that the specialist press fills the void, with a bewildering slew of barely discernible titles wrestling for shelf space. Next time you're in WH Smith check out the games section, an unruly mess of plastic bags, discs, books and spurious exclusives.

As the major media outlet for coverage of their products, a large proportion of the games developers' sizeable PR budgets is geared towards the specialist press, with pages secured by any means necessary. And while the question you're most asked as a games journalist is, "So do you get paid to sit around playing games all day?", the reality reveals a bigger picture.

The review of a game is generally the last stage of its coverage, which can begin some years before in the form of news, interviews and extensive previews. If that involves flying to California to talk to the development team and see a prototype version of the game, then so be it. And while you're there, you might as well take advantage of the stretch limos, the five-star hotels and the obscenely expensive restaurants. For many, the lavish press trips are the highlight of - if not the main reason for - working in the games industry, and can be an extremely entertaining way of seeing the world. I genuinely believe that the favours bestowed upon games journalists today far exceed those lavished upon rock writers in the mid 1970s.

Other journalists have their press trips, but it's the sheer quantity and unlikely decadence of the games junkets that sets them apart. At virtually any time in the year, there will be a bunch of pasty hacks living it large in LA, San Francisco, Vegas, Tokyo, various locations in Europe (which doesn't really count), and the UK (which is considered an insult). In the last month, as a freelancer across several titles, I've visited Paris, Dubai, New York and Limerick, with the forthcoming week offering a launch party in Berlin segueing into three days' snowboarding in Val d'Isère.

These are all reasonable perks, and that's before you factor in the amount of free stuff that you are bombarded with: computers, consoles, surround-sound speakers, England tickets, football kits, invites to parties and film premieres, CD players, iPods, branded bags, books, DVDs, coats, appalling T-shirts, baseball caps, Zippo lighters, strippers, alcohol, fridges - not to mention the chance to drive tanks and shoot guns. And of course there are the games themselves. It's an oft-repeated line, but I haven't bought a game since the 1980s. Get on the right mailing lists and you have ten boxed copies (RRP £40) a week dropping on your doormat. Less scrupulous hacks have even been known to sell them.

Understandably, the time spent away from home causes some domestic wrangling. By the time you read this I may be living in a furnished room with a pile of dirty washing and a coat-hanger for a TV aerial. And in a predictably male-dominated industry, each press trip is roughly the equivalent of a stag weekend, which can be physically debilitating, not helped by the sedentary nature of the "work" - ie slouching with a joypad or pecking away at a keyboard.

Despite these drawbacks - and the prohibitively low starting salaries - it would appear to be a dream ticket. The downside is that in the real world, you are treated with scarcely more respect than a children's entertainer. It sticks in the craw of "proper" journalists that those they regard as would-be burger-flippers manage to live like playboys on the strength of having opposable thumbs and a GCSE in English. While the supposedly "rock 'n' roll" music hacks are watching Shufflebutt at the Camden Barfly (beer or wine only, no spirits), the games chimps are on Sunset Strip quaffing champagne.

There is undoubtedly some snobbery involved. Music hacks are considered geniuses for describing some unlistenable dirge as "a sonic cathedral of sound", film critics can maintain a living by hyphenating the words "must" and "see", while sports writers are given awards for little more than judicious employment of the word "aplomb". Yet the popular misconception of games journalists is that they churn out joyless drivel about pixels and polygons. The truth is, of course, vastly different. Given the wide variety of gaming genres, you can be writing about topics as diverse as sport, war, cars, sex, goblins, and in the worst types of games, beating prostitutes to death with a baseball bat.

So why are games journalists considered the poor relations of the entertainment industry? The former PC Zone writer, Charlie Brooker - now co-creator of Channel 4's Nathan Barley with Chris Morris - has a theory: "I suppose the real reason is that music and film hacks get to meet lots of interesting, beautiful stars; demi-Gods the general public would happily hack off their own forearms to sleep with. Games journalists get to interview a computer programmer with bits of sandwich stuck round his mouth. Also, whilst playing games might be less of a dirty secret than it used to be, talking about playing games is still, I think, perceived as a bit tragic."

It's a valid point, but not universally true, as celebrities are often drafted in to make games appear more interesting. In the name of publicity I've interviewed stars as disparate as Alan Shearer and Mr T (both of whom, coincidentally, refer to themselves almost exclusively in the third person).

It's true that the games industry doesn't boast any genuine human stars, which may explain the obsession among most magazines to print countless pictures of their own staff. And while the NME Awards can attract Paul McCartney, New Order and Mick Jones, the loosely equivalent Golden Joysticks is populated almost exclusively by braying marketing skunks.

Games journalism can be an absurdly enjoyable "career", but the question inevitably arises of how long you can keep it up. The young bucks of the original PlayStation generation are now a bunch of paunchy, embittered thirtysomethings, who when they explain what they do are generally met with confusion and disgust.

"When I was about 24 I thought writing about games was the most brilliant job in the world: like getting paid for playing with toys," says Brooker. "As I got older, I felt trapped in a comfort zone that was hard to break out of. From the age of about 27, whenever I told people I was a games journalist, they'd look at me like I was a comically overgrown boy - like Terry Scott dressed as a cub scout."

Conversely, leather-clad music journos can keep knocking it out for the Mojo/ Classic Rock generation, bespectacled film critics can carry on tutting until they drop dead mid-matinée, and sports hacks can drink through 'til their retirement years. Yet for us, the game would appear to be up. Much of this has to do with the misconception that games are solely for children. Paul Rose spent a decade writing for Digitiser, a hilarious slice of game-based surrealism hidden away on Channel 4's Teletext pages. Now a BAFTA-nominated TV writer, he says: "It would be great to think that the games industry could breed its own Paul Morleys, David Hepworths and Charles Shaar-Murrays, who are still writing about their specialist field a quarter of a century after being hailed as hip, original voices. If games are going to continue to grow up, the industry needs its star opinion-formers, but the pay is so abysmal that the genuinely decent writers all bugger off for fresher, better paid pastures."

For those with no interest in the traditional routes into PR or development, and with no tangible skills apart from writing and drinking, it's a quandary. So, with the games industry's golden handcuffs starting to chafe, what's the alternative? Churning out bluff editorial for the broadsheets between long lunches at the Groucho? Forget it. We may be on extended play, but it's not game over yet.

Steve Hill's third book, 'Press To Play: Misadventures Of A Games Journalist', is currently unwritten

JOYSTICK JUNKETS

Game: Various

Location: Whistler, Canada

A weekend of acclimatisation/snowboarding ahead of a Seattle exhibition. Fellow guests included Sly Stallone and The Prodigy.

Game: Championship Manager

Location: Hong Kong and Singapore

A ten-day promotional tour of the Far East, ostensibly to come on at half-time in a football match arranged by fans of the game.

Game: Playboy: The Mansion

Location: The Playboy Mansion, LA

One of the many lavish parties surrounding the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo. Having used Hef's lawn as an impromptu urinal, we cabbed it to another Hollywood party to catch a Paul Oakenfold DJ set. Something of a moment.

Game: FIFA 2001

Location: Charlefontaine, France

A day in the company of footballers including Ian Rush, Lothar Matthäus, Craig Johnston and Mark Lawrenson. Drink was involved.

Game: Enthusia Professional Racing

Location: Dubai

An entire wing of the Grand Hyatt, driving 4x4s through the desert, a press conference under the stars, and a tented village featuring camel rides and belly dancers. All attendees dressed in branded Arab robes.

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