How To Become A Video Game Journalist

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This interview is part of the Quest for Your Career series. We focus on each specific job in the video game industry by interviewing an expert in the field. Learn what they do, how they got started, and whether it's a good job for you.
Nicole Tanner, Video Game Journalist Editor Writer

“If you can build a solid relationship with an editor, it can be invaluable in helping to establish yourself.”

Nicole Tanner has spent over 15 years writing, editing and podcasting for video games and video game publications. She graduated in 1999 with a degree in Journalism, and has since worked at top game-industry and game-review publications such as IGN, The Sims Official Magazine, GameNow, MacLife, and Pixelkin.

In addition to writing and editing articles about games, Nicole has also contributed directly at video game studios. She has been the Director of PR & Marketing for Foundation 9 Entertainment – a company that ran several game studios around the world – and was a Game Writer in charge of story development for all of the games at KIXEYE.

We’re speaking with Nicole today to find out what it’s like to be a games journalist, and what skills and talents it takes to succeed in this exciting and challenging career path.

What do you do every day as a Video Game Journalist?

As a managing editor most of my job consists of planning and editing content. I manage all of our freelance writers and work with the in-house staff to create new content as well.

Our content tends to be very evergreen, so while we do report on games news, we only report on things that might be of interest to parents of gamers. Most of our content focuses on how games affect people on a personal level, especially how games help the relationships between parents and kids.

I also host our weekly podcast, Gaming with the Moms.

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How did you come to be in that job?

I’ve been working in the game industry in a variety of roles for about 12 years. My most recent editorial work was at IGN where I was an editor and host of the podcast, Girlfight.

After I had my daughter, our family moved up to the Seattle area. I was freelancing for a while then I met Pixelkin at the Seattle Retro Gaming Expo in 2014. They were looking for someone who was a parent and had a lot of experience with games to come in on a part time basis. The part time schedule is perfect for me, as it still gives me the chance to have a few days a week with my daughter.

What’s your favorite, and least favorite, part of the job?

I really enjoy helping to mentor the staff at Pixelkin. We have a very small staff and with exception of our publisher, they are all young, but very passionate about games. I love helping them identify their strengths and weaknesses and grow. In the time I’ve been there, they have all blossomed into astute and discerning journalists without the baggage that some of the journalists at the major outlets have. It’s nice to have fresh voices and I love to be a part of helping that happen.

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The only thing I don’t enjoy is declining pitches from freelancers. Usually I do my best to help a writer who shows promise, but I’ve dealt with a few writers who simply didn’t understand the mission of our site and pitched stories that just weren’t appropriate. That leaves a pretty bad taste in my mouth as it wastes my time, which is short to begin with. In other cases, I’ve commissioned a piece when the pitch sounded great, but the article was something that just wasn’t publishable.

“Some inexperienced writers think their pieces are good without editing. That’s almost never the case.”

Another of my pet peeves is dealing with writers who aren’t open to feedback. Some inexperienced writers think their pieces are good without editing. That’s almost never the case. Dealing with ego from writers is something I don’t tolerate. Those people aren’t worth my time.

What aspect of the job would be surprising to people on the outside?

I think a lot of people look at game journalists and think all we do is play games all day, and that couldn’t be further than the truth.

When I was at IGN, playing games in the office made up a lot of an editor’s day. At Pixelkin, since we don’t review every new release, very little of our work time is spent playing games. We mostly play games outside of the office. Some of our staff members stay late to play games together, but the normal work day involves writing, editing both written and video content, managing the technical end of our website and planning the content we’re going to publish throughout the week.

What does it take to succeed as a Video Game Journalist?

You have to be a good writer first. Loving games is not enough to be a successful journalist. And to be an editor, you have to be a good writer yourself, so you can see where articles can be made better.

Personality wise, you need to have a really thick skin. You have to willing to take feedback from editors and be prepared to rewrite your story, multiple times in some cases. Most of the time the work you do will be a lot more than the pay, but if you can build a solid relationship with an editor it can be invaluable in helping to establish yourself.

What advice would you give to people thinking about game journalism as a career?

I would say if you’re looking to be just a games journalist, that’s going to take a lot of time and dedication to get your voice heard. The pool of games-specific journalists has been shrinking dramatically over the past few years. It’s become pretty hard for press outlets to sustain the level of advertising it takes to pay for a full-time staff. I hate to sound discouraging, but that’s the reality of the situation now.

“A blog will show editors your voice and writing skills. With that you could earn a freelance assignment.”

If you want to get your foot in the door and work your way up to a staff position, freelance is going to be the first way go. Starting your own blog where you write reviews or other games content is important if you don’t have a portfolio of work. A blog will give you something to show editors your voice and writing skills. With that you probably could earn a freelance assignment.
A blog will show editors your voice and writing skills. With that you could earn a freelance assignment.

If the editors like what you’re doing, then you can get more work, building up your portfolio. Then if a position opens up, the other editors are already familiar with you and your work, which would give you an advantage over other candidates.

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The bleak part of all of this is that you can’t really make a living out of freelancing. It’s something you need to commit to doing in addition to another job. I know of a few freelancers who can make that happen, but they generally have steady writing gigs in the form of columns or other regular content. Those freelancers also aren’t focused solely on games. They tend to write about the broader tech industry as well. So being knowledgeable about the tech industry in general is going to open up a lot more options for you.

What would you recommend for education to start down that career path?

Even though it’s become less of a requirement, I still think a Journalism or English degree is important. Studying one of those things is going to help you hone your writing and find your voice. If you can study editing in addition to writing, then that’s even better.

Another thing to do would be to become an avid reader of the main sites out there for games. Not only will this keep you knowledgeable enough to write relevant content, it will also give you an idea of the types of articles an outlet publishes, so that once you’re ready to pitch something you’ll be able to pitch something the editors would really be interested in.

Like I said above, if you end up pitching something wildly inappropriate for a site, you’re going to burn bridges quickly. While I’m willing to give writers a second chance, I’m going to be much more skeptical of their pieces.

You can connect with Nicole at Pixelkin, or via her online portfolio. Please share this article because it will help others find this career path.

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3 comments on “How To Become A Video Game Journalist
  1. George says:

    Really interesting. Also will you do an interview with an AI Programmer.

  2. Chris says:

    This was really eye-opening for me. It really helped solidify the path my education has been steamrolling through, and it made me realize the importance of not only being a well-rounded writer but a well-rounded editor. I’ve been pursuing a degree in English with two minors (History and Anthropology), and this article helped mitigate the stress I feel about making it as a writer in the industry, it gave me hope. Thanks so much!

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