Want to be a video game journalist? I'll let you in on a little secret. Even professional video game journalists don't know how to define “video game journalist,” because we do so many different things. We're reviewers, critics, previewers, live event reporters, bloggers, interviewers, and columnists. If you want the gig full-time, you should be prepared to write all of the above.
Most outlets have plenty of established writers to fulfill those roles, so it can be difficult to break in writing this sort of material unless you already have connections. There's one kind of games writing that's always in demand, however: features. If you can consistently write solid, well-researched features with unique angles, you will find work in this business, and once you have a reputation as a dependable feature writer, it's just a matter of waiting for the right position to open up.
So rather than give you vague advice about how to do the whole job, that no one is able to define in the first place, I'm going to tell you how to get into writing features. If you can jump that hurdle, you'll be well on your way.
Step 1: Do the job before you get the job.
Being a video game journalist isn't about being an expert on video games. Being a game journo is first and foremost about being a writer, which means you need to write every day, or as close to it as you can reasonably get, and to a high standard, i.e. you're anal retentive about your spelling and grammar, use punctuation properly, and pay attention to structure and style. If you want to be paid for your writing, that means having the ability to dependably write to deadline, work with editors, and tailor style to outlet, among other skills.
A personal blog is an okay place to start getting your writing muscles in shape, but if you have no experience at all, taking one of the writing gigs advertised on VideoGameJournalismJobs.com might not be a bad idea. You can learn a lot very quickly if you apply yourself at one of these sites. They’re volunteer jobs, but something to learn at the beginning is that you can draw your wages in forms other than currency. In this case, a volunteer writing gig can get you access to public relations email lists, review copies, and most importantly, gaming events.
If you are able to attend events like E3 by working for one of these unpaid sites, conduct yourself properly. Don't run around from booth to booth asking for swag. In fact, try not accepting any swag at all. Many professionals are prohibited from doing so, and you might leave a positive impression with the PR and marketing people you’ll be dealing with. Have some simple business cards made just in case someone asks you for one. Don't be a video game fan at events pretending to be a journalist. Be a journalist.
All of this experience should get you looking at the video game industry through a different lens besides “the consumer.” That’s going to help you come up with ideas for things to write about that are off the beaten path. If you’re writing for one of these freebie sites, start giving them thoughtful, well-written features. If everyone else on staff is focusing on reblogging news from the professional sites, and writing reviews that get lost in the noise of the tremendous number of other freebie site reviews out there, your features may stand out and get you some attention.
If you’re not using social networking tools, start. Even if you’re only promoting the work you’re doing at one of these freebie sites, learning how to build an audience is a tremendously important skill for anyone just starting out to learn.
When you feel confident in your writing, I recommend trying your hand at Bitmob. It's a community site owned by a pair of professional video game journos, and while anyone can write there, only the best work gets promoted to the front page. Those promoted articles receive a professional edit which you can also learn a lot from, and I know plenty of professional video game journalists and writers who pay attention to Bitmob and take it seriously.
Step 2: Network with the professionals
I got started in games journalism by attending a pair of industry panels at PAX East 2010. I asked a lot of questions of the game journos willing to talk to me. I got in touch with some of them via email and asked for advice over several months. One of them gave me my first shot, another introduced me to a huge network of game journos, and another is now a colleague of mine on the same outlet. Getting work in any industry is about knowing the right people, so you have to stick your neck out and try to meet as many professional game journalists and editors as you can.
Also seek out your local video game development community. See if there are community events or conferences you can attend. Start talking to developers and learning about how video games are actually made. If you're writing for a blog, give them coverage of these events where it's appropriate. You never know where those connections might lead.
I don’t have much more to say about networking because, while it’s something you can become more comfortable with, it’s not easy, and a lot of it comes down to the luck of being in the right place at the right time. Most every professional video game journalist I spoke to back when I was networking for the first time had a story about the person who gave them their first big break, or lucking into their first big job. To put yourself in a position where you might also get lucky, you need to be meeting people.
Step 3: Learn how to pitch stories
Eventually you’re going to tap the advice well dry. It will be time for you to start pitching stories, and hopefully getting recognized. No one's going to come offering you work until you've proven yourself, and even games journalists who have full-time positions can still be expected to pitch stories.
The awful truth about pitching is that there’s no best way to do it. There's no magic formula, and there's no format to follow. I have editors who don't want more than three lines in a pitch email. I have editors who not only want a detailed thesis, but also a description of the research I'm going to do to prove it.
Hopefully your networking efforts will have turned up some editors who you feel comfortable enough sending those first, awkward pitches to, but the most important things to remember about pitching stories are that you want to tell the editor what your story is going to be about, and it needs to have an original angle.
When you have an idea for a story, Google the keywords and see if someone else has already written it. If so, ask yourself if there's a different approach you can take on the subject. If not, think of another story to pitch. If you offer an editor something they've seen a hundred times before, they're not going to take your pitch very seriously, and they may not take you very seriously in the future, either.
Figure out which outlets are friendly to freelancers. Sometimes an outlet, like the AV Club, will explicitly state that they're not looking for freelance submissions. Other outlets, like The Escapist, advertise their openness to freelancers. Don't just assume that your favorite website or magazine wants to hear from you. Pitching takes time. Aim those shots wisely.
Figure out who the freelance game journalists are. Find out where they're getting published. Chances are those outlets are going to be much more receptive to your pitches, and therefore more likely to bite on one of them. Your goal is to land that first, paid, published piece, because the rest of your career will flow from that clip.
If one editor decides that your work was worth paying for, another editor is far more likely to make the same decision, and then you have your foot in the door. Once you’re starting to get freelance work, the rest is keeping your ear to the ground for opportunities, continuing to network, writing as much as you can, and hoping you get that big, lucky break if you want to do the job full-time.
Even if freelancing is as far as you ever get in video game journalism, just remember that you'll have done something that hundreds of thousands of gamers would kill for. You were paid to write about video games.
Dennis Scimeca is a freelancer from Boston, MA. His weekly video game opinion column, First Person, is published by Village Voice Media. He occasionally blogs at punchingsnakes.com, and can be followed on Twitter: