I recently attended an impromptu family reunion in North Texas, the occasion being the funeral of a relative. It had been a year at least since I’d been in the area, and seven years or so since I’d left the state to pursue a career in entertainment media. Little had changed about Texas in the intervening years (except it’d gotten even bigger, if you can believe that) but a lot had changed for me, including but not limited to the fact that I’d wangled a way to make money off playing games. Few of my relatives were impressed.
“I’m a writer,” I say, for the 14th time, in response to the inveterate staple of social interaction, the question “what do you do for a living?” This time uttered by a distant relative I haven’t seen in over 20 years. I foolishly expect that answer to be sufficient. It isn’t.
“You write screenplays or books, or what?” He asks innocently, not having any real clue how one makes a living as a writer, but trying to be supportive. My reply deflates his attempt at conversation like a strip of “severe tire damage spikes” placed across the roadway of our abortive interaction.
“I write about videogames,” I say. “On the internet.”
“Oh,” he says, nodding politely, his attention already turned away, looking for someone else to talk to. I would sock him in the nose (literally or figuratively) if he wasn’t a relative.
Every game writer has his own reasons for working in the industry. Some are hoping for an express ticket into working on games (and not a few succeed). Others “fall” into it, either fresh out of school, or as refugees from other reporting fields. Still others are genuinely lazy (and lucky) and are just in it for the free games, the swag, the parties and the relatively easy life. We’ve all got a story, but whatever our motive, it’s a gig easily confused with not having a job at all – and getting paid for it.
Most of us, at the base of it, get paid to play videogames. “But that’s not all there is to it,” we attempt to explain to would-be friends and relatives, then fall eerily silent as we realize the “more” doesn’t quite add up to “work” in the parlance of people who already think we’re retards.
“Your mother says you travel a lot?” another relative, a great uncle, asks.
I attempt to describe to him the harrowing schedule of jetting across the country almost one week per month to attend gaming conventions, at which I’m expected to … get paid to play games. “They also serve me free food and drink. They also give me things.” I realize I’m not exactly helping my case. His attention wanders, and I find myself alone.
Whether you agree with the stereotype of the typical gamer or not, it exists, and like most stereotypes, the portrait of the adult gamer as post-adolescent cultural washout is based at least on some semblance of reality. Enough to coalesce that picture into a paint-by-numbers template near enough the image of an actual working adult gamer to confuse even the most adroit social analyst. To most people, we’re all still boys in bedrooms, Peter Pans with joystick thumb who’re putting one over on society at large and laughing all the way to the credit union.
As a child and an adolescent, playing games was an accepted, if not nerdish, way of “staying off the streets,” and fistfuls of quarters (and then Nintendo cartridges) were thrust at me to keep me occupied. I think “clean your room” was the strongest invective hurled at me as a result of the growing mass of cartridges and soda cans emanating from the area around the TV. As soon as I was able, I even got a job, forestalling that argument before it began. Still, I played games.
One summer in the mid ’90s, while I was living in my parents’ house between futile attempts to earn a college degree, I spent two months savings on a new PC – and X-Wing. It was the first time I’d lied to anyone about playing games. I told my mother I was using the PC for writing. The joystick gave me away.
In the years that followed the lies became more frequent, until I started to feel like a junkie on the outskirts of society, hiding in my room, stealing away to the mall under cover of darkness to purchase games wrapped in plain plastic bags and then closing the blinds, lest my neighbors see I wasn’t entertaining guests, but vaulting Lara Croft through tomb after tomb, ogling her digital ass and dreaming. I pretended to be sick more times than I can remember to avoid having to leave the house to visit friends or attend parties. I burned the bottom of a pan once because I was so engrossed in a rousing multiplayer Quake battle I’d completely forgotten I’d set two cups of water boiling to make macaroni.
I remember the disapproving looks I’d get from friends and roommates after all-night videogame sessions. Most were in bands, which, granted, isn’t all that unusual in Austin. At that time, you couldn’t swing a taco without hitting at least half a dozen musicians of some kind or another. Saying “I’m in a band” was as unlikely to arouse interest as proclaiming “I’m wearing pants.” There were people who looked unfavorably upon these denizens of the night and their vain attempts to earn fame, fortune or just a living through their artistic efforts. We called them “most people” and mocked them behind their backs as we served their food, rang up their retail purchases and washed their cars. Yet even musicians and retail jockeys looked down on me for playing videogames.
They’d return from bars at whatever o’clock at night to find me still at my computer, still playing Half-Life, Civ2, Outlaws, Total Annihilation or whatever the game of the week happened to be. They’d sneer, I’d cringe, and we’d all eat breakfast, whereupon they would collapse and I would return to the PC.
Now here I am, a 30-something-year-old adult, living the dream, as it were, after a decade of hacking a career out of the new media jungle, working my dream job, living in a fashionable neighborhood, making a decent living and enjoying my life as fully as I’m able, and I’m still ashamed to admit in certain company that I play videogames. And by “certain company” I mean practically everyone.
Another relative approaches. She’s the wife of an uncle, just close enough to remember my name, but not enough to have kept tabs on what I’ve been doing since we saw each other last, many years prior. She asks me what I’ve been doing for a living. I decide to tell her the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
“I’m a writer and editor for a videogame website,” I say, smiling.
To her credit, she doesn’t grimace, but she doesn’t exactly ask to hear more, either. She smiles, ponders responding, and then quietly walks away.
This week’s issue of The Escapist, “Living the Dream,” is about the people you never hear about, the folks behind the scenes who, while neither game developers nor game writers – the two most visible entities in the industry – still make their living off games. They’re like the people who hang bombs on the wings of airplanes, yet don’t fly them; like the ones who dab makeup on the faces of news anchors, yet don’t appear on TV; the guys who tighten lug nuts on race cars; put parsley on your dinner plate; change light bulbs on streetlamps; and hang movie posters. You never see them, rarely hear about them, but you know they’re there, know they have to be there, for a multi-billion dollar industry doesn’t run on wishes and dreams.
Walk into any cocktail party and proclaim yourself the owner of one of the above jobs, and you may not become the star of the show – chicks still prefer the race car driver over his tire changer – but you won’t exactly feel the chill that crawls up the spine of many who dare proclaim they make a living playing videogames. I’m one of them. I’m happy with my job. And I’m quite well over being ashamed of it.
Russ Pitts is an Associate Editor for The Escapist. His blog can be found at www.falsegravity.com.