Brash Games and “Exposure”

For many young and new writers, getting your foot in the door somewhere is more important than a check for your work. The idea that “exposure” is more valuable to you versus actual money for actual work is one that permeates throughout industries which use freelancers to do a lot of a site’s grunt work. This is especially apparent in the video game industry, where the promise of a free game in return for the ability to review has a very powerful allure.

Many people who get into writing about video games dreamt about it as we grew up. The very idea someone might read our take on a game, or care what we have to say regarding a game’s mechanics, visuals, story or more attracts many writers to sites that don’t have their interests in mind. These sites are fueled by the passion and hard work of unpaid volunteers, hoping to get a foot in the door in an extremely competitive industry based purely on the “exposure” the site offers to them.

I was one of these writers once, and in fact very early in my career I too promised code for “exposure,” something I viciously regret now. But at the time, it was the only way into the industry I knew — because I lived it myself too. It is the double edged sword which many in this industry seem all too willing to use nowadays.

I will mention this upfront: none of the sites I wrote for free promised me anything. Exposure was never a thing they dangled in front of my face, enticing me to write. This was the way I personally felt was the best — and only way for an amateur like me — to break into the industry. I went into this willingly, knowing my end goal was to parley that portfolio and exposure into a writing job somewhere.

For those reading this who do not know my background, in 2012 I wrote for two large sites dedicated to very specific fandoms. Both sites were (and still are to my knowledge) volunteer based. For one, we wrote about The Lord of the Rings and the (at the time) upcoming Hobbit films, while the other was primarily focused on The Elder Scrolls (Skyrim was only a released a few months prior to this in 2011).

As I wrote, the thought never occurred to me early on that I could make a living doing this. I thought I would need a journalism degree, live in San Francisco or New York, and have connections that I simply did not have at the time. So for me, writing about games — even if it was just a single game at the time — was the fulfillment of a life-long dream of mine. “Exposure” was all I needed.

However, as we switched focus in 2013 and started to cover more and more games, eventually trying to cover all things gaming related, the idea of being paid was beginning to be floated around. The site was bringing in some money, I was made News Director for the Network and I left the Lord of the Rings site in order to focus on this.

Now I was starting to bring in writers myself, promising them code in exchange for their work, all the while talking about how we are trying to transition into a paid structure. Thinking about it now makes me sick to my stomach, but at the time I remember thinking, “This was just the way it worked in this industry.”

[Image via The Oatmeal]

The thought of pitching stories to sites never made sense to me, because I didn’t have an established portfolio to prove I was worth their time.

It wasn’t until I went to my first Electronic Entertainment Expo in 2013 (along with one of our other writers, who is now one of my best friends) that the walls of “exposure” started to show some cracks.

I spoke with so many different writers from all walks of life. Some were in the same position I was in — volunteer writers with the promise of building a portfolio in order to parley it into a full time, paid writing gig. Some were high profile writers who I still look up to today, where the very idea of being paid with “exposure” made them cringe.

In 2014 I met one of my good friends, who is one of the most prolific freelance writers in this industry to date, who really helped me understand the importance of leaving the volunteer position and get myself out there and in editor’s inboxes.

So in August, after two months of pitching stories, I successfully sold my first pitch. From that point on, writing for free was a thing of the past. By then it had become apparent that our news section at our site wasn’t going to last either, and many of the writers we had “hired” were tired of writing for free also, and had left.

How this ties into the current gaming climate is simple: Brash Games. This site is run by a man named Paul Ryan (not that one) off the back of unpaid volunteers. These volunteers are paid with “exposure” and “free games” in order to write reviews and the like for Brash Games. Brash also (allegedly as nothing has been concrete proven) has paid sponsored content in the form of SEO backlinking to casino websites (a form of grey hat SEO which I am very familiar with since my day job is also in SEO — that’s another post for another day).

Brash lives because of the tireless work of its volunteers — volunteers who after they leave have all traces of their work eradicated from the website altogether. The “exposure” and portfolio these writers were working to build is just gone. The work is still there, but there is no way to prove, unless the writers anticipated this (And why would they? Who in their right mind would think this was ok?) and established copies of their work elsewhere.

Paul Ryan (not that one) in a statement today (here is a link to NeoGaf so you don’t have to give Paul Ryan (not that one) a click) on Brash Games admits mistakes were made, rather clumsily.

“ I acknowledge I made mistakes in deleting the accounts of previous volunteers and would like to take this opportunity to personally apologise to those concerned for my actions. I am deeply sorry for my actions and I will be reinstating the effected accounts as soon as possible.”

However, in an attempt to “clear the air” with all of the other issues Brash Games has been facing (and for that saga, I’ll direct you to Jim Sterling’s wonderful video — which I’ve linked once already — as well as an article on his website from previous Brash contributor, Ben McCurry, who tells his story), Paul Ryan (not that one) starts to call out writers one by one. He also airs personal issues various writers have been dealing with — issues which should never have been revealed publicly unless by the affected party — in an alarmingly unprofessional manner.

Also, alarmingly, Paul Ryan (not that one) essentially admits to changing review scores in an effort to please developers — and ethical breach which calls the very nature of Brash Games’ credibility into question even moreso than the other offenses in question.

On another occasion Matt Forde reviewed U Host and gave it 2/10 while it was averaging 78% world-wide, sadly Brash Games was the only site to have reviewed it on Metacritic where it was now an impressionable 20% which was effecting sales. The developer had this to say “In conclusion, in my opinion, a game reviewer should demonstrate that they have actually played the game and this is frustratingly one of, if not the worst review I’ve read in my entire life. Frustrating, not only because it’s connected to my game, but because I have serious doubts that they actually played said game, let alone played it the way it was meant to be played. U Host is a multiplayer game. I can’t help but get the impression that they not only played it on their own, but half-heartedly at that. I have great respect for your site, but can’t respect this review. It demonstrates a lazy and unprofessional reviewer bordering on slander and malicious falsehood. As I said, I’d appreciate a fair review. Please offer it to someone who enjoys playing multiplayer games and or quizzes”. Again we asked an experienced reviewer to take a look at the game and it was awarded a 7/10 so we were justified.

In fact, everything about Brash Games and Paul Ryan’s (not that one) statement reeks of unprofessionalism. I’ve known many editors over the last five years of my games writing career and ALL of them have been absolutely dedicated to helping their writers grow and get better. This “editor” is seeking to destroy the reputations of everyone who has spoken out against his shady and deliberately unethical policies and practices in an effort to save himself.

This is wrong, but it does make me wonder whether or not this is an isolated example, or part of a larger problem?

Brash Games has fallen — and rightfully so — because its former writers felt wronged — which they were — and it caught fire with the right people. But how many other sites do this where no one speaks up? How many other writers are exploited for “exposure” only to receive nothing in return for their work? How many other writers are currently slaving away for free at sites that care nothing of the writer themselves, but only the SEO value they might bring in with their work?

How many other sites have promised exposure only to never deliver on that promise?

I was lucky. Even with the messy exit I had once I took my first paying gig, the site I worked for never once publicly admonished me or retro-actively took down my work. My portfolio — including my videos — are still intact. They were professional about it. And I can say my experience — starting from volunteer and eventually making it where I’ve written for some high profile sites — might be rare nowadays, but I’m forever grateful to those who did give me my start.

However, new writers — use this as an example. Pay Paul Ryan’s (not that one) words no heed. This is the last gasp of air from a wheezing corpse of a site, nothing more.

If your ideas are good enough for someone else’s volunteer site, they are good enough to pitch to a real editor. There are plenty of resources out there to help craft pitches. Reach out to respected writers on Twitter. Buy Nathan Meunier’s book Up Up Down Down Left Write: The Freelance Guide to Game Journalism.

You don’t need the “exposure” you’re being promised. In my experience, if you’re idea is good enough and your writing sound, editors will take a chance on you.

Paul Ryan (not that one) blames the inconsistent nature of his review scores on “[…]newbies who have been rejected by magazines [and/or] larger game sites[,] these things happen.” This is an absolutely disgusting thing for an editor of a site to say. All of us are newbies at some point.

Susan Arendt, one of the most respected editors in the gaming industry (and an editor I’ve had the honor of writing for when I wrote my Fallout 4 piece for GamesRadar +) offered a perspective on this better than I could ever say:

In short, get your work out there. If you need to write for free, do it for yourself. It’s as easy as ever to start your own blog, which you can build a portfolio with. Many editors don’t care where the content has been, so long as you can prove you can write. Don’t write for exposure, especially at the behest of another person. You never know how it might be exploited later on down the road.

And this isn’t to say writing as a volunteer is inherently bad — it is the foot in the door many of us did use at one point to get into the industry. Just know what you are getting into. Put a stop to it if you feel exploited. And always know what you are worth. Your work is worth more than “exposure,” it’s worth more than the price of the “free” game you were given in order to work. Get your work out there, on your terms.

I guarantee those who went into the Brash Games situation had no clue it would end this way. Those talented writers deserved better. This industry should do better to safeguard the next wave of writers eager to jump into an industry so few of us actually get to make our mark on.

As someone who wrote for exposure, I did so knowing it was up to me to make sure that my voice was heard. I was lucky. My path isn’t one I’d recommend, but I am forever grateful to those who gave me the chance I had which allows me to write today. However, when sending in a pitch, I don’t even reference those sites anymore. I reference Playboy, PixelKin, MMORPG.com, GamesRadar+, Inquisitr News, GameWatcher, UploadVR and more.

Those early exposure sites, and the part I played in helping cultivate that culture, will forever be a part of my story. But it doesn’t have to be a part of yours.