Sample Chapter

Critical Path

It’s Not Brain Surgery (But It’s Not Nothing, Either)

This might come as a surprise, but I have not always been eager or even proud to tell people about my career. Mind you, I absolutely love reviewing games, but there’s a lot of misunderstanding when I say what I get paid to do. Inevitably, the immediate question you get in response is one of the following:

[confusion] “So…you make the games that the kids play?” [/confusion]

[incredulousness] “So…you sit around and play games for a living?” [/incredulousness]

[greed] “Oh, cool! Can you get me free games?” [/greed]

The middle one is the most common (unless they’re 14 or under, in which case it’s usually the last one). Play, they reason, cannot possibly be work! “They sell videogames in toy stores. You play with toys? Wow…must be a tough job.”

Yes, actually, it is. You will not hear me complain about how unreasonably or unfairly hard the job is, because I have always been grateful for my position and my opportunity; I have never taken it for granted. If I really felt that it was not worth the effort, I would have stopped and done something else. But I do want to try to convince you of one thing: There is, in fact, effort.

I have two standard self-deprecating phrases I use when I try to explain the job, and this is only so that I don’t have to engage this often total stranger in a long, drawn-out ideological battle on the value of artistic criticism or the nature and importance of play in modern society. One is “Yeah, well, I’m in no danger of winning a Pulitzer.” Thank you, says me, I am aware that my field of expertise is not as important as many others, and I hereby give up (but still secretly yearn for) mainstream accolades. The other one was always “Well, yeah, it’s not brain surgery.” That’s basically a variation on the Pulitzer joke, but I used it more often because it seemed less cynical and sad.

Until One Fateful Day.

Early on, I mentored a young writer; I wasn’t even working in games full-time yet, but I was busting my hump as a freelancer for a then-unfathomable online-only review publication. I had been writing almost all the game reviews for this outlet on my own and editing myself as I went; as payment, I got to keep the games I reviewed. But as the site got popular, the work got to be too much and I realized the site needed to double its staff. Enter the Kid, a teenager who knew how to explain his ideas via the written word and was a good gamer as well. He submitted a few reviews, which required minimal tweaking, and started writing things for me weekly. This seemed to validate my Brain Surgery theory—see how easy it is? This guy’s not trained at all, and he’s doing great.

One Fateful Day, he turned in something that was just awful. Maybe he got lucky those first four or five times, maybe someone was helping him edit his stuff before submission, maybe he’d already gotten too comfortable, I don’t know—but I couldn’t publish it, and I was stunned that he’d fallen so far so fast. I had to tell him, “Okay, I know you’re doing this for free and all, and I appreciate the help, but this isn’t good enough.” And he was not happy, to be honest. But I worked through what I didn’t like with him and it turned into a great learning experience for both of us; he went on to write for me for several years.

But after that experience, I immediately revised my brain surgery joke to a point that I could no longer use it: “Well, it isn’t brain surgery…but it’s not nothing, either.”

Too many people—reviewers, readers, and total strangers—assume that because the subject matter is fun, there is no skill or craft involved. All you do is play the game and you’re done! But the people who make the games we review do not play their way to success; they program and design and test and revise their way to success (failure, too). Game reviewers do it the same way, but I’d still argue that what game developers do is more of a Thing That Matters than what reviewers do. They act; we just react. But even that reaction has a standard of excellence worth achieving.

I hope that other people in my position think that what we do is, if not one of the Things That Matter, at least something Vaguely Important To Certain People Out There. (This may invite a long-winded dissertation on why videogames are an important cultural force, just as important as movies and books and TV and all that. I see their point, but I will kindly suggest that AIDS research or education issues are slightly more important than whether or not Mario could beat up Sonic.)

Ultimately, I realized that anything worth doing is worth doing well enough that you’d be proud to tell someone in casual conversation—and you’re still going to have to be reasonably good at what you do in order to find success in this career. If you get this job, it’s fun work, but you will constantly be proving your worth, one article at a time.