Cara Ellison Kickstarts Games Critic Career with Patreon

Critical Proximity Second Life golden gate bridge

The direct funding of critics you want to read through the funding web service called Patreon allows some writers to live on their work.

One of the ongoing themes that flowed through many of the talks at Critical Proximity – the pre-GDC 2014 game critics conference – was that it is very difficult to make a living writing games criticism. I’ll be honest with you – there are very few game journalism jobs in the industry, and there’s even fewer websites or magazines that can indulge in long form essays or investigations on games. Most of the critical work highlighted at Critical Proximity did not earn the author any money, usually appearing on personal blogs or websites that accept volunteer submissions.

One way that has emerged to allow critics to support themselves is the web service called Patreon. With this service, you can set a goal and users can pledge money to support that goal, and, if you are successful, it can turn into thousands of dollars of income per month. Which, when you’re struggling to pay rent, can feel like an incredible boon. But not everyone can succeed, sadly.

Cara Ellison took the stage at Critical Proximity to talk about her experiences as a games writer. “The old gods are dead,” she said to begin her talk. Ellison was enamored with the British games magazine PC Zone, and the sarcastic, yet enthusiastic manner in which it looked at the industry. PC Zone stopped publishing in 2010, and the other forms of games criticism Ellison loved had also faded away. She wanted to carry the burning pile of poo of the irreverent writing of her idols, and found that she couldn’t do so at any familiar websites or publications.

So she started writing her own brand of weird and funny essays at the website Unwinnable in an unpaid capacity. “I worked my ass off for it. For free,” she said. Ellison built an audience, and eventually got the courage to pitch to Rock, Paper Shotgun, where she currently writes a comedic column on sex and romance in games. Even though she had racked up more than 10,000 followers on Twitter and many could say she had “made it”, she was “struggling to pay her 500-pounds-a-month rent.”

She decided to use Patreon to help support her career in a more direct way. Ellison admitted there may have been other factors involved when she posted her Patreon page. “I was also somewhat tipsy when this went up, which explains my stretch goal, that if it got over $1000 I’d visit games developers and write about them,” she said. Getting beyond the 30-minute press junket pecking order was a huge goal. “In order to actually be able to afford to spend that time and to travel, I needed some sort of funding, and it turned out that the internet wanted that writing to the tune of about $2000 a month. So I guess here I am in San Francisco, starting that project. The amount of money is something that I’m still baffled about and grateful for.”

Ellison found success with Patreon, as have writers like Mattie Brice and the critical writing site Critical Distance curated by Kris Ligman, but there’s still some people that urge caution. Samantha Allen made the game Block Party with Maddy Myers, and she offered her own opinions on the Patreon model through a video you can view on the Critical Proximity website here.

“When Critical Proximity’s call for submissions first went out, Patreon was first starting to spread through games criticism, especially queer, feminist and allied games criticism,” Allen said. “But there was a simultaneous, almost nostalgic undercurrent that accompanied the rise of Patreon: a conversation about community. Were we a community? Had we ever been one? How could we be one?”

The desire for a community of games critics is a strong one – the whole event of Critical Proximity was meant to achieve a sense of belonging somewhere – but Allen urged caution about using Patreon as a means to create a utopia where writers can all earn a buck. “Patreon is essentially a monetized Twitter with dollar signs instead of followers,” she said. “Patreon [campaigns] are establishing critics as island nations. It’s a necessary, but also profoundly individualistic mode of establishing your presence.”

That’s not exactly bad or wrong, but for each successful Patreon campaign there are hundreds of others that will not meet their goals. “Some Patreons are wildly successful; others have floundered or faded into obscurity,” Allen said. “If an inclusive community is what we want, we need to build it across or apart from particular publications and sources of income.”

Patreon is another platform for those games critics that haven’t been able to feel at home in the traditional outlets available to other games writers. The writing staffs of Kotaku, Polygon and yes, even The Escapist are predominantly white cisgender heterosexual males. Like the game industry itself, the gaming press has a problem with representing the gamer culture it reports on. “Patreon is not a panacea for these problems,” Allen said. And she is correct, but similar to how Kickstarter has contributed to the growth of independent games projects, Patreon might be the first step in making all games writing more diverse.

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