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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jay Z has placed a bet on streaming being the future for music and videos
music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury
music
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This publishing company based i...

Ashdown Group: Content Manager - Publishing

£30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Guru Careers: Report Writer / Reporting Analyst

£25 - 30k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Report Writer / Reporting Analyst is nee...

Guru Careers: German Speaking Account Manager / Account Executive

£24-30K + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: A German speaking Account Manager ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own