After two days, five tanks of gas and 1,300 glorious miles of interstate, I have arrived at Gamer Shangri-La. A mythical place where DS Lites are plentiful, Spore has been playable for months and The Orange Box was the best-selling game of 2007. A place where some three dozen devoted employees commute to the office by hoverboard, where “work” is really just a nine-to-five LAN tournament and each day concludes with an after party that makes E3 seem like bingo night.
I have arrived at The Escapist.
Of course, reality rarely lives up to our expectations – or delusions, in my case. Over the past couple weeks as the newest member of Team Humidor, my crude, ill-informed notions about game journalism have strained under the weight of actual experience. Long-distance relocation is disorienting by itself, but moving into a new industry, especially one as idiosyncratic as this gaming business, presents challenges that the rigors of long-term unemployment have done little to prepare me for. Foremost among them: figuring out what the hell I’m doing.
Simply explaining my position to inquisitive friends and relatives back home has been an ordeal. For those who haven’t picked up a controller since Pong, working for a “gaming company” could mean anything from manufacturing chess sets to orchestrating offshore gambling rings. Those savvy enough to have played a few games of Wii bowling seem puzzled that one could pursue a career writing about games without actually reviewing them – an understandably skeptical opinion. For casual acquaintances, where the question is asked out of simple courtesy, I’ve opted for a more abstract answer: I work for the internet. At some philosophical level, it’s probably true; more importantly, it has yet to result in a follow-up.
For my gamer friends back in the Midwest, the sudden career change is slightly less bewildering. There’s something about the prospect of writing about games that seems like cheating the system. Artists, designers and programmers have to endure the pressures of budgetary constraints and release schedules, suffering through back-to-back 80-hour weeks without overtime pay to polish a game for mass production. Entire websites have sprung up to document this white-collar indentured servitude. And what do game journalists have to put up with? Press passes, beanbag chairs and all the free stuff publishers can throw their way.
This last assumption has been particularly tough to dispel. As an outsider to the industry whose only window into the tenuous relationship between PR companies and publications has been a few Penny Arcade posts and snippets of bygone E3 coverage, I vaguely expected The Escapist to be inundated with free games and useless swag: T-shirts, key chains, coasters, you name it. It’s been two weeks, and I don’t even have so much as a glossy press release to show for my newly acquired credentials. Turns out, someone has to know you exist before you get the full PR treatment.
But beneath the reputation for freeloading is an underlying fallacy of game journalism: that we’re basically getting paid to play games. While it may be true for more traditional gaming sites, the reality I’ve encountered here at The Escapist has been both more mundane and more rewarding. Between trying to adjust to a new city and insinuating myself into the finely-tuned Rube Goldberg machine that is The Escapist‘s editorial process, Mass Effect has been collecting dust. Even at a gaming company, entertainment takes a back seat to more practical considerations.
My first order of business was moving out of the Red Roof Inn that I had made my home and into someplace a little more permanent. A week in this cozy roadside motel was more than enough time to cast into doubt the wisdom of waiting until my arrival in Durham to find an apartment. With each Craigslist post that failed to result in an acceptable living situation, I grew more desperate. My checking account was dwindling, and the walls of the hotel room seemed to get a few inches closer together each time I returned to my room without a suitable alternative.
Salvation would come in the form of an apartment complex a mere 10-minute walk from The Escapist‘s global headquarters, and home to roughly half of the company’s staff. It also happened to be the very first housing recommended to me by my boss, over a month before I gathered up my meager belongings and hit the open road. Certainly, I could have put more faith into the wisdom of the crowd and avoided the expense and indignity of motel residence. But the dream of finding the perfect apartment for under $400 a month by skimming a few Craigslist posts was too seductive to pass up.
I ended up in a cavernous one-bedroom apartment that will undoubtedly test the limits of my budget. But its relative roominess posed another challenge. A few days of lying huddled on the floor next to my laptop, leeching Wi-Fi from the one generous soul in the building who kept an unsecure wireless network, was enough to convince me that I needed some kind of sitting device. A chair; perhaps a stool, or a sofa if I was feeling especially ambitious. It was time to mine for upholstered gold the only way I knew how.
I imagined a kind of epic Craigslist fetch quest that would span the Raleigh-Durham metro and result in a perfectly appointed living room for less than the cost of renting a trailer. Despite all experience to the contrary, I had some unassailable belief in an Ideal Craigslist where each location was a five-minute drive away, furniture lifted itself and everything was free to a good home. All I needed was a Saturday afternoon, I surmised, and my apartment would practically furnish itself.
Like a true fetch quest, however, sheer tedium got the best of me. When a weekend of fruitless efforts resulted in the same empty apartment, I took the easy way out and hit up a factory furniture store. Sometimes getting power-leveled has its benefits.
As for the work itself, it seems I couldn’t have started at a more chaotic time. Between the DICE Summit, GDC and a virulent flu virus that has put a quarter of the office out of commission, there have been few opportunities for instruction beyond a quick tutorial now and then. On-the-job training is the order of the day, and the workload fluctuates wildly between staying late and just trying to remain useful when there’s nothing to proof. No one has sat me down in front of Puzzle Quest and asked for my critical opinion. But with just the right amount of self-delusion, sometimes just pinpointing a misplaced comma can feel like a pretty heroic effort.
Jordan Deam is the Editorial Assistant for The Escapist. He has undergone more than a dozen MRI brain scans in the name of science. The results, while promising, were inconclusive.