"It's silly that it's somehow controversial to say you should pay the people keeping your site alive," Ben Kuchera, editor of the Penny Arcade Report, recently tweeted, sparking a debate on the ethics of unpaid internships and putting community content driven sites like Bitmob in the hot seat.
Bitmob writer Rus McLaughlin explained there are no paid, full time employees at the site, but suggested if we knew how much money founder Dan "Shoe" Hsu had invested into the idea we'd be slapping ourselves.
It left Kuchera wondering, does anyone at Bitmob feel exploited?
I have written 28 stories on Bitmob in the last three months, half of which were promoted to the front page. In total, my work has received 66, 016 hits. And since I haven't seen a cent of compensation, whether the thousands of hits brought more readers into the site or not, some game journalists like Kuchera would consider myself a victim of exploitation.
Full disclosure: I did earn myself a free game courtesy of a Bitmob writing challenge, at least a $40 value, which certainly makes writing the story on videogame plot twists lucrative, but what about the other 27 stories that left me creatively drained, although satisfied, but my bank account remained unchanged?
As a non-games journalist I do write for a living, so I have a grasp of the monetary value of tapping keys and making words. In fact, a rough estimate puts myself at around $50 per story, making my plot twist piece for Bitmob just shy of the going rate. If I were to count just the stories promoted to the front page, and the writing challenge only garnered a link, that's 14 stories, theoretically worth $700. For three months of work that isn't exactly anything to live on, but it's significant. I will never see that money, though I can, and some might say I am "encouraged", to call it an investment. And like all investments, there's risk. I could toil away for decades, with nothing to show but a hard drive loaded with text documents, or I could be the next editor of Game Informer, you never know.
So will I continue writing for Bitmob, with no compensation, no guarantee of return on my investment in the form of a future job? Yes, I probably will. Not because I enjoy this hobby, I could just manage a blog if I wanted a creative outlet, but because it's like throwing darts, sooner or later, you hope one will find a bulls-eye. All it takes is one good story that catches fire and makes its rounds through the gaming community. Once people know my name, then the jobs will come.
Maybe this recent uproar and flurry of exploitation accusations deeply make me question myself, and not just on Bitmob, because it pulls back the curtain on our secret hope, that a little luck and we could win the game journo job lottery.
Dennis Scimeca's story, a former Bitmob writer, is the dream that keeps myself and other Bitmob contributors writing for free. Because Scimeca said it was Bitmob that gave him the built in audience to be seen and the confidence to make it big.
And in a saturated market, Scimeca says new writers have a hard time getting noticed, "if you wanted to write about games nowadays, you were screwed. If they needed something written, they had a folder full of names of freelance journos with published clips who they could turn to."
Sites like Bitmob become our wizard of Oz, if we could just meet him, he'd give us what we wanted. If I could just get a post on the front page or spend some time elbow to elbow with "real" game journalists, I'd get the job I've always wanted. But the sooner or later I realized what I think we secretly knew all along; the Wizard of Oz is a hack. Or more accurately, me expectations of the wizard were unrealistic. That job didn't come running after my story peaked the 10, 000 plus hits, I hadn't finally "made it". Toto gnawed the velvet sheet away to reveal a small man behind a garish machine, wheezing and honking; repeating the words I so desperately wanted to hear, "you're getting closer to that job."
Yet, I love Bitmob with all my heart. For all the money it never relinquishes, the naive dreams it does nothing to temper, I do receive something in return. Here is a community of mindful editors and writing challenges that require a sharpening of words. Bitmob has no equal in terms of community support and grabbing the eyeballs of tens of thousands of readers and valuable editing time from world class journalists. It is an answer to the circular paradox of never having enough experience for an entry level position in the industry.
Before Bitmob, I went around hawking my writing to the lowest bidder, from industry giants to obscure niche markets. And I was met by silence, or on the rare occasion, rejection emails. The advertised job openings usually required moving to San Fransisco. So here I was, a mostly unknown Canadian writer with some guile and an inbox full of "we have no need of you at this time" responses. And I found videogamejournalismjobs.com to be mostly filled with the vile extortion Ben Kuchera detests. Then I met Bitmob.
I was smitten with Dan "Shoe" Hsu long before the internet, when I would sit at my public library and voraciously devour game magazines like EGM. I always made a point of reading the editor's column and wondered what it's like to play Mario 64 for money. You might say Shoe helped inspire my fledgling career in this industry that is in turn alternatively magical and cruel.
I remember it was my second story on Bitmob that changed everything, a glorified rant with a convoluted title, but Shoe, for all I was concerned, the father of games journalism, commented on the piece, something I wrote. It was eventually promoted to the front page. It was that moment that I finally felt like a videogame writer, and that's a hard feeling to quantify with a dollar sign.
John Walker recently criticized Pocket Gamer's three month unpaid internship, calling it a thinly veiled attempt at exploiting the desperate. Walker explains how unpaid writers devalue their own work under the assumption that, "the only way they can get anywhere in this job is to work for free." It also creates an environment where the best writers are featured, but never move up in the company as long as they're willing to continue writing without compensation.
The reality of his words hit home. I was proud of my growing portfolio, the improvements, the community, but I was working for free. I had not been "discovered" like Scimeca had and soon I began to resent Bitmob.
I had given Bitmob a wizard of Oz-like status, a magic lamp to fix all my problems, and it doesn't work that way.
"If you want to write, you have to reach out. You have to be very proactive in reaching out to the other outlets. You have to be pitching stories. You have to get out there. You have to get published. You have to be known," Shoe said in an interview with Realm of Gaming.
"In this specific case Dennis (Scimeca) when that happened to him 5 times he realized people actually like [his] stuff. Then he got the confidence to pitch for actual paid freelance work. That was really cool for us to see, that you can be discovered on Bitmob if you do it right."
"If you do it right," Shoe says, and that is the key here. Bitmob provides a place to create a portfolio, and teaches writers how to write the kind of content people are willing to read and editors will pay for. It's also been a haven for me, shelter in the storm of rejection letters and the all encompassing silence of emails that go without response; that's the reward for writing on the testing grounds of a community content driven site like Bitmob.
When I commit to a more stable, paid position in games journalism, like others before me, I'll move on from Bitmob. But I'll do so with fond memories and without regrets.