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You have to protect yourself

This month’s Patreon essay. You might not like it, and that is absolutely okay. Here is the Readability link (which should work. I hope).

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My name is Jenn Frank. You may know my byline: I have worked in the video games industry, at varying velocities, for nine years.

You might best know me from my earliest “mainstream” work—1UP.com, the magazine Electronic Gaming Monthly, a few reviews in Computer Gaming World, a podcast called Retronauts—or you might know me from my incredibly biased “conflict of interest” work, like creative nonfiction, essays, or my participation in the creation of games like VIDEOBALL and ROM. (I scrupulously leave Super Hexagon out of this because I was paid for that work, a onetime fee, which was the same fee Cavanagh had paid another voice actor before me; and also because, before that collaboration, he and I and Chipzel did not know one another. The Internet, it seems, works in funny ways.)

Though I understand much of my visibility or industry “cred” comes from the former category—all that salaried work or, put more blunt, my understanding of what it means to work for a gigantic outlet with some sort of corporate fiscal backing—I also recognize that literally every accolade I’ve received, including a BAFTA nomination and last year’s Games Journalism Prize, was awarded to “creative” work derived from that latter category.

I also recognize that this same work is often pointed-to, or (with my permission, absolutely) republished by mainstream outlets that have never paid me. All of this is simply to say, some of my very most respected work, which is often lauded and even republished by mainstream outlets, also rarely pays. This isn’t even a talking point: We all know that “creative work” seldom pays.

But the accolades do mean a lot to me; in my old life, I was often warned against writing blogs “too long” or “too heady.” And as a community manager, my job was to protect everyone but myself. Leaving behind that old life for this new one, means a great deal to me.

Here I would add that, as a professional freelancer in this current job-bubble economy, being able to use my degree and experience, at all, are luxuries, not rights. This is why I am so quick to point out how happy I am with my lot in life, to ironically not be “biased” or otherwise be beholden to any given mainstream outlet anymore, or to use—potentially to the ire of others—my “voice” and also years of training, in any way I see fit.

Not only do I rarely have to work with an actual editor, I get to crowdsource my innermost ideas and conflicts via Twitter—after all, my views don’t represent anyone’s in particular, so I can share them all and check what sticks—and, also, I always type in a plaintext word processor with no built-in spellcheck. I am shooting from the hip, here.

So by all means, let us have a continued conversation about ethics, nepotism, Patreon, and how we pay and don’t pay. None of these quite seems related, but all certainly are. Everything is about being uncompromised.

I am a freelance journalist, and Patreon is a website I will tell you, right now, I absolutely use, not as a supplement to my income, but instead as my primary source of income.

By no means am I unhappy with this circumstance: Patreon affords me the use of my degree, a “creative writing” degree from Northwestern University’s English department, which I acknowledge is not a degree we, culturally, reward. But it is an incredibly competitive degree, awarded to a small annual pool of students, and an even smaller pool gets to do an independent study, and then those independent studies are torn down by a panel of professors and Chicago-area writers, and all of this is just to say that ten years ago I graduated with honors after persevering through a number of hoops.

And no, none of that matters in the end. My most successful classmate from undergrad, Karen Russell—a Pulitzer nominee—often seeks, as all creative writers eventually must, university teaching positions, because those roles do provide basic necessities such as “room and board.” All of this is simply to stress, a second time, a third time, and a fourth time, that out here in real life, we consistently devalue “creative work,” even the good stuff.

But I don’t, as a “games journalist,” have the option of a teaching engagement; however, like classmate Russell, I have certainly hustled for pay—for room and board and a “cost-of-living stipend”—in other ways. Currently I do busk via Patreon, through which I offer my paying readership a first look at pieces I might otherwise leave unpublished.

On the subject of “unpublished,” I was recently informed by an editor at a comparatively-big outlet, there is only so much Anita Sarkeesian coverage they can reasonably accept. I quickly withdrew my pitch. I realized—incredibly sadly since, at heart, I am on the side of the major outlet and everyone who must work there to eat—that the biggest websites can’t even compete with Patreon. I can go my own way; I can publish my Sarkeesian piece for, potentially, $1400.

One thing I do get to do, as a freelancer who is not beholden to any one mainstream outlet, is look over, edit, and critique drafts by other writers, with the understanding that these writers are “safe”—that I won’t share their thoughts with others until the thoughts are perfectly “baked”—and that I, as an absolute mercenary, will offer suggestions and criticisms that occasionally border on cruelty.

All this said, I give you—for the first and last time—all of my marginalia from Lana Polansky’s first draft of a piece about “payola.” (The piece itself—“Payola: I Sleep Beneath the Golden Hill”—was just published, which is, for me, excellent timing.)

In my first-draft notes, I start out by warning Ms. Polansky against addressing her own anger. I admit we must not “tone-police,” but that, also, her frustration is shared by anyone who works in video games, including those who might work for mainstream venues (exactly hence all these policy changes themselves). I go on to note that writing for mainstream venues—and this is something I know quite well—“normalizes” writing, produces writing that is frequently “on-brand,” rather than “risky.” (The word I actually wanted to use here was “frisky.”)

She uses the phrase “maintain the status quo,” but the indictment is much worse than that, I point out. “The reality is that many mainstream journalists would like to say something, but cannot. You’re absolutely correct when you use phrases like ‘held hostage’ by the ‘barbarians at the gate.’”

The real issue is with, not escalating up to the status quo, but maintaining, instead, the “lowest common denominator.” (“And that is so much more damning an indictment,” I type to Ms. Polansky.)

I agree that her point—that we drive a wedge among “classes” with this entire debate—is true, but that “freelance” is a class unto its own, an entirely separate class from “salaried,” with its own rights and rulesets, and distance only grows when we create policies that separate the two.

I also warn her about an inaccuracy—no one has yet created a policy against writers who use Patreon, and that policies, at present, only discriminate against games developers—but I must also wonder at this, as well. Isn’t that even worse?

Polansky works as both a journalist and as an independent game developer, so she is better able to articulate this than I am, but, even for my own part, I do wonder at the distinction currently being made between freelance indie designers and freelance writers, any of whom ought to feel free to choose to use Patreon.

I do align more with indie game developers than I do with salaried journalists—and I do apologize, here, since my work is read more by my writer-colleagues than it is by game devs, so all this is alienating—because, like independent game designers, I don’t depend on any one publisher. My work is almost always my own, and what I seek is only pay or distribution. In this way, then, Patreon is essentially Steam sales.

I publicly told Kotaku’s Jason Schreier that, while I recognize I am not a game designer—“support” of writers, after all, is not necessarily being dropped by writers of major outlets—I also recognize that I am most indebted to my own “creative” work, same as many games designers are. As a “creative” writer, have I any longstanding protection from Kotaku’s new policies? If we create these new precedents about “support” of “creative work,” how are all other types of freelancers to protect themselves?

And given all these new policies, I keep asking myself whether I must kill off my own Patreon since, clearly, even having one is apparently a liability of my own appearance of integrity. Of course I must understand the value of being “twice as good,” because I am a woman in your industry. I apologize that you’re all being pressured—now that the Internet has caught on to the fact that you know or sometimes work with women, who are indistinguishable from “SJWs” because they are women—to do the same.

In short: When I write, do I look like a liar? Or, even shorter: Why am I even still here?

Many writer-colleagues, in turn, tell me “no,” I don’t have to worry about these policy changes. They don’t “affect me,” I am reassured. According to many of my mainstream colleagues, I am not in the crosshairs—because I am not a “game designer,” even though my BAFTA nom is for a game—and also, I am not held to the same standards as a real journalist who does actual reportage.

And again, I wonder at all this. I once told Terry Cavanagh—just before I published “Allow Natural Death,” which I asked his and only his permission to write—that I aspire to accomplish with writing what he does with games. I told Cavanagh that I would like to someday produce a piece of writing that respects the reader, by being challenging or torturous, exactly because I know my reader can handle it just fine. And this little anecdote speaks to my larger philosophy: I believe that games journalists and writers are accountable, not only to other writers and also their readers, but also to the people who make these products. This “product,” video games, is the very source, inspiration, and true life-blood, of all that we “games journalists” create in turn.

Make no mistake, this piece only exists because of Patreon. Patreon allows me to write directly to readers. Instead of being paid $50 or $100 from some piddling freelance budget—and if the piece is well-received, the outlet will profit so much more than that—I am able to cut the publisher out of the transaction I make when I write freelance. I hire Patreon as my literary agent, and my readers commission the work. This isn’t charity, this isn’t “support” on any emotional level: This is paid work.

In short, no one—not even Patreon as an entity—quite understands what “crowdfunding” is, not yet. But we are already putting editorial policies in place against it. No, not against me personally, but against independent game designers, certainly.

Initially I thought my work was being prioritized ahead, and other types of creative work discriminated against, but now I am not so sure. Because if I am not held to the same standards—and I do believe “creative nonfiction” is every bit as genuine a style of reportage as “news” is, but I also believe creative nonfiction is the exact same thing as a “newsgame”—why am I being let off the hook?

As I publicly said to Kotaku’s Jason Schreier, I would certainly hope to someday write something so good, my colleagues and fellow writers, and would-be editors, would like to “engage” with my work on the same level as we already do “video games.”

And now I can arrive at only one conclusion: It isn’t that my work is “above all this.” On the contrary, my work is so valueless to my industry—and I absolutely mean this monetarily—they’ve left me and my work out of their policies. My industry, like the “gamers” (whoever that shadowy group is), has left me behind.

The point repeatedly being made, in this ongoing conversation about “ethics,” “integrity,” “conflicts of interest,” is that the video games industry protects its own. It does not. It protects readers.

Or as Arthur Chu writes, convincingly, for the Daily Beast, “The degree of consensus largely forced on game reviewers by their audience is shocking.” Chu is absolutely correct. The conflict-of-interest here is not that writers and game designers know one another. It’s that we always yield to the harassment.

More to the point, the industry will leave you behind just as quickly as you can say “the thing about Japanese game design is—” because, yes, yes, we are all held hostage by our own fear, every last one of us.

In her first draft of her essay about “payola,” Polansky refers to a group she describes as “among the least-protected and thus most politically-threatening.” And while the least-protected writers are often women and minorities, there is an argument to be made that these “most politically-threatening,” “least-protected” people, are, including straight-white male writers, freelancers.

And we know this is literally true. Few freelance writers have until now had health insurance—I for one have not—and I have also been open about my medical bills and about my dead mother’s bills, and MRSA and Alzheimer’s and god damned everything. I have also, in the past, been sure to remark on the poor pay freelancers receive. (Again, I sympathize with the editors at major outlets, who rarely have any control over their freelance budgets. The problems come from the very top and trickle down.)

This morning I read a feature article—written, at the time, anonymously—by a freelance war reporter who receives £70 for every article she submits from Gaza. The piece is about very literally being made to work without protective gear. “Woman’s Work,” the article is titled, and it is about doing whatever it takes. “Editors only want ‘blood’,” she writes. Freelance writers always bend to mainstream publishers, not the other way around.

The feature’s author, it turns out, is named Francesca Borri. She is real. In a new piece, which is really about the beheading of freelance journalist James Foley, Borri finally goes on the record:

Writing a piece on freelancing for the Columbia Journalism Review last year [Borri] called freelancers “second-class journalists,” but she said Tuesday in a telephone interview from Gaza that it’s more honest to call freelancers “exploited journalists.”

When it comes down to protecting freelance authors, “there is no standard policy,” the article goes on to say. Freelancers have no safety net, no publisher to come to their rescue in wartime. Freelance writer Michael Luongo goes on the record on the subject of publishers who sent him to Iraq: ”’We want work from you but we won’t officially commission it’ because we don’t want to be connected with you if something happens. The editor knew he’d go anyway, he said.” In this way, the freelancers themselves are the danger. They themselves become the liability.

And although neither Gaza nor Iraq is in any way “video games journalism” (!!!!), mainstream publishers are willing to put freelancers on the “front lines,” so to speak, but if and only if it comes at no fiscal or seemingly-ethical cost to the business. There really is a transaction being made here, and it is one of convenience.

All publishers are willing to abandon freelancers—and here I will name self-subsidized game designer Zoë Quinn, whom, if you are a journalist at one of two major outlets, you can no longer buy product from using Patreon—on the front lines of a battle, a battle to create or report (or whatever it is freelancers do) without receiving death threats about a video game. We hang Quinn or Anita Sarkeesian or whoever out to dry. We, “video games,” do not “take care of our own.”

On the contrary: We expect freelance professionals to function as our avatars, to say and do what we ourselves wish we could say and do. And when the battle becomes too much—when the fight is too great, the baddies too numerous—we absolve ourselves by shutting off the Xbox.

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