Should You Work for Free When Starting Out in Video Game Journalism?

This question was asked to me in response to my call for questions on Instagram Stories. You can ask me questions directly or email questions at gameindustryguides@gmail.com (I will never share who asked). These FAQ posts will be filed under the Ask Gameonysus Category of my blog.

Would you recommend doing unpaid work/writing articles for free to grow your resume/CV?

Asked via Instagram 

No. 

Anything you can do for free you can do for yourself or for someone who pays you which means no one needs to work for free in order to grow their resume. 

However, I did work for free so I think it’s important for me to discuss that experience. It’s funny because before writing this post I wasn’t completely against the idea of working for free. I thought, “sure, I did it and it was great.” But it turns out that view was skewed by my own false memory. I thought I worked for free when I was first starting out, but I actually worked for free before I really got started.

It wasn’t until I sat down to write this post that I realized I only worked for free because I didn’t know if I wanted to do this. So if you know you want to do this, I do not recommend you work for free.

I only worked for free for two websites 

I found both of these sites on gamejournalismjobs.com, a site with plenty of janky listings but a few hidden gems (including the first place to ever pay me: Nerd Much). The first time I wrote for free was for a mobile games website called Game Mob. At the time, the only other people writing for Game Mob were the guy who made the site, one other person, and me. 

It was the very first time I wrote critically about games ever and, at the time, I just thought it’d be a cool way to get back into video games after not playing many during the beginning of college. And I loved writing. I already had a blog about college (specifically my majors: English and Secondary Education), life, and goal-setting so I saw this as just another outlet.

When I wrote for free I had no intention of ever turning it into a job

I loved writing, I loved games, so I wanted to try writing about games after doing a blog post about what video games meant to me (this is not well written but I wanted to put it here for transparency purposes). Again, you can totally test the waters by starting your own blog and not writing for free but at the time it just wasn’t that deep for me. I had no intention of pursing games media as a job. I already had a blog for my other writing and I didn’t want to expand it into video games or start my own gaming blog. I just wanted to jump into something already established and have fun being in new writing territory with something I loved: video games.

Game Mob was that for me. It wasn’t like anything I was used to. I was new to the mobile games space and I’d never written a review before. I enjoyed having this new challenge. Game Mob was the first time I got a free code for a game. And it was the first time I ever got to play a game before it was publicly available: Laura Croft: GO.

Without me being fully aware of it, my time at Game Mob planted the seed for my career. It made me realize I liked doing this and wanted to do more. So I went further down the rabbit hole.

Down the rabbit hole

Once again, I found myself on gamejournalismjobs.com. That’s when I found Bit Cultures. There were more writers (maybe a dozen or so) and there were stipends you could potentially earn every month (nothing crazy, maybe $25-$50) for things like most articles written, writer of the month, most views on an article, etc. Honestly, I don’t remember the categories much anymore. And again, it wasn’t about the money for me. I just wanted a place to write a wider array of articles.

Here’s where my head was at back then, according to a Facebook post I went deep into the archives to find:

Hey everyone, as a few of you know I’ve been writing mobile game reviews for Game Mob for a while now. And I have recently decided to dedicate this semester to video game journalism: more immersion in Game Mob, an expansion in the sites I write for, and more personal gaming projects. I am thrilled to announce that I am officially writing for Bit Cultures!”

– my Facebook post announcing my new byline

So it turns out I did not write for free to build my resume. I wrote for free because I wanted to. It was just a hobby at the time. I was simply wading into video game journalism “for the semester” with no promise of where it would go next.

Bit Cultures was the first time I was ever on a podcast. It was the first time I ever wrote a feature, review, collaborated on a listicle, hell, it was the first time I covered E3 in any capacity. I still remember a handful of us who volunteered writing news stories as fast as possible while hashing out logistics and reacting in real time on FB messenger. It was lovely chaos. I think, at the time, it was the most words I’d written in a single day. 

So yeah it wasn’t much financially but I learned a lot, made friends who I still have to this day, and was fully sold on wanting to be in the industry. Again: I never set out to do anything with these free gigs other than write about games for fun, but in doing so I found my dream career.

After a year or so of being there I stopped writing for Bit Cultures and I vowed I’d never do unpaid work for anyone else because I was no longer someone writing for fun, I was in this for real. I had already started writing for Nerd Much (paid) when I stopped writing at Bit Cultures and I’ve been getting paid for my work ever since.

Once I decided to do this for real, I asked the same question many of you are asking

When I decided to pursue this career, I emailed Austin Walker (host and writer formerly of Vice Games (but still hosting the Waypoint radio podcast)) and asked the very question I’m addressing to all of you today. I asked him “should I write for free for a small site or for myself on my own blog.” He pointed out something really smart which essentially was, if the place isn’t capable of paying, it’s not the resume builder you’re looking for.

Do not do unpaid work, especially not from the sorts of places that tend to offer unpaid work. You are way better off building your own blog and tying your name to it. Treat it like an outlet. People will remember. Fans tell me all the time that they remember when I “was at” Clockwork Worlds — which was just the name of my blog years ago.

– Austin Walker, via email.

His advice brings me to my next point no matter what you choose to do (paid or unpaid):

You need your own platform

Whether you’re working for free (again, not recommended) or are full-time freelancer extraordinaire with bylines at the biggest sites around, you should have your own blog, YouTube channel, podcast, etc. It’s just good to have. We all know not all your pitches will land and not all your ideas are fleshed out enough to even be pitches. And having your own platform is a great way to showcase your individual personality and do things you may not have a chance to get paid for (yet) – such as making YouTube thumbnails. Admittedly, my blog barely got off the ground but it did – technically – exist alongside an old YouTube channel I did with my friend, my most recent solo channel that included a Patreon (no longer active), and of course a portfolio website I still update to this day

If you’ve never been able to get paid to review a big AAA release, review it on your own. It’s good practice and a portfolio builder that shows sites you can handle major releases. 

I’ll definitely do a follow-up post on the importance of working for yourself (and how to do it!).

If you still want to work for free

Ultimately, this is your decision. I don’t think it’s the worst thing in the world and I know a lot of writers who got their start that way (technically, I’m one of those writers). I hope this blog post, and the words of others, can help you make an informed and empowered decision. Here are some tips about free work if you’re dead set on doing it, because not all free gigs are created equal.

  • Avoid content mills: Don’t work for places that have huge staffs where no one is paid but the site is pulling in thousands and thousands of views with higher ups that get paid while the workers get nothing. It’s a bad situation for several reasons but the baseline one is: you’re giving them a lot and they’re giving you nothing. Not only are you not getting money, you’re also likely not getting the feedback you need to grow, nor are you likely to meet other writers who will stick around in the industry (esp. because the strongest writers will avoid these places all together – no shade to great writers who fall into bad situations).
  • You shouldn’t have that much work: if a place can’t pay you, they shouldn’t be requiring 5 news stories a day, or 7 articles a week, or 3 reviews a month etc. It should be a very manageable work load because they’re not even paying you for it. All my work at free sites was “ideally 1 article a week but less is fine” on anything I wanted or whatever reviews I wanted to do. I was never mandated to produce a specific or high amount.
  • You should like the site: This should be a place you like. This is true even when you’re getting paid. Don’t write for a place just because it covers gaming. If you don’t like or respect the work there’s no point in having your byline there.
  • Free writing always needs an expiration date: if you want to write for free just to “get started” that means it needs to have an end. To me, free work should only be done for 3, 6, or 12 months max. Remember, it’s only a “stepping stone” if you keep going up.
  • Look for smaller (paying sites): see below.

Look for smaller paying sites

I think a lot of people feel like they have to go from 0 to Polygon while failing to realize there are plenty of sites in-between. Here are some places that are below industry rates but are great places write for: Unwinnable, Gayming Magazine, Into the Spine, Indie Game Website. “All have great editors that encourage new and underrepresented voices,” according to my fellow writer friends. But don’t just take my list (and subsequently my taste) and run with it. Seek out places like these and start compiling a list. I’ll be revisiting writing for smaller sites and staying organized as a freelancer, in future posts.

Key takeaways

  • I do not recommend working for free to build your resume.
  • If you already know you want to go for this, go for it and never let your foot off the gas (this doesn’t mean to work yourself to death though, stay tune for my self-care posts!)
  • If you’re dead set on writing for free, proceed with caution (tips above).
  • Remember this isn’t an all or nothing. Smaller sites are excellent resume builders and while they don’t always pay industry rates, they do pay.

Note: These guides are provided for free because I want everyone to get their industry questions answered. However, if you’d like to support me continuing to create content drop a tip anywhere below:

This question was asked to me via DMs. But you can send your questions to gameindustryguides@gmail.com. Questions are always kept anonymous.

Feature Image by Fabian Blank on Unsplash

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