Why I stopped writing

Or, how forums and comments gradually eroded my capacity to give a shit about videogames journalism.

Me and my girlfriend have been talking a lot recently about ‘the quest’. That undeniable feeling that there’s meaning out there to be discovered, or a truth within to understand. In my case it is very much an in-my-own-head experience, a mining down inside to touch the real fabric, the bedrock, of my psyche.

I’ve wrestled with the fact that while this quest feels so important to me I’m also struck by a sense of absurdity and guilt – just writing that paragraph above leaves me somehow needing to apologise for the perceived grandeur of how I feel, or devalue it with a self-deprecating aside.

What I’ve discovered when I’ve allowed myself to pursue this urge without questioning whether it’s “worth it” or not is that I love writing. I love the act of it. I love the theory behind it. I love the blending of instinct and inspiration with base structure and rule, playing with how sentences ‘should’ look, and how that can make things stand out.

But what that also means is that writing really means something personal to me. Writing is in itself part of my quest to make sense of the chaos of ideas and feelings in my head, and when I manage to spool something out of that mess – or to fleetingly line it all up and create something with it – that something immediately becomes personal too.

This can make criticism very difficult to take, but that doesn’t mean I can’t accept and learn from it. But what it really prevents me from doing is having any capacity to accept and live with snide faceless stick-poking from people who I can’t engage directly with.

There are parts of working in the videogames industry that I miss, bitterly. The creativity can be thrilling. Working in L.A. for a week with one of my old editors was perhaps the most truly creative, driven and professional I’ve ever felt. It can be a wonderful industry, and there can be a real sense of family and shared dreams.

There will always be another side to any pursuit – especially one built on pleasing people – and occasionally the dumb-faced questions (“How many polygons are in her hair?”) and lack of ambition of others was infuriating to have to work with. But I think what killed it all for me was the rise of blogs and comments.

Forums were always fervent, and had been for many years before I started in 2003. But between that time and when I left in 2008 it seemed that the people who found their own little pleasures in writing forum posts in backwater corners of the web suddenly began to expect more recognition, and to actually get this from other, similar, people.

The style of reportage that came out of these new sites appeared to me to be one of two types, both of which sent me cold. First was the rampant enthusiasm that could drool for hundreds of words over a simple batch of new screenshots for another identikit title factory-coded to appeal to the masses, primarily by turning the game into a totem in the ever-depressing (but unending) ‘war’ between console enthusiasts.

Second was the polar opposite – a snide, self-satisfied approach that sucked the life out of everything it wrote about, made the writer the primary force in the piece (“I think”, “My opinion”, “I have always said”) and seemed to me to be aimed at scoring points by attacking other sites or at fatuously inflating the reputation of the writer or their site.

I’ll freely admit that the fact I saw this, and the fact I still feel so strongly about it now, says a hell of a lot about me to begin with. But the fact is that however much my own interpretation and prejudice was at fault, the longer I worked the more it seemed that I was having to please these blinkered goits above anyone else.

Because your average gamer does not write a blog. They play games. They probably do lots of other things too – playing games is perhaps the only thing that binds the majority of gamers together under that banner. It certainly isn’t ‘passion’, real or imagined, for the industry. Or a desperation to show everyone else (read: The Internets) that they had more of this passion than anyone else.

Great things have come out of the drive for blogs and independent sites. An old colleague of mine used to write for Destructoid, and is a brilliant guy, fiercely bright and creative and writes some really excellent stuff that isn’t ever snide or self-satisfied. But because of my own ambitions and style, I only ever saw the bad stuff. Because I believed the bad stuff didn’t like me.

My aims were simple – find stuff out that nobody else knew, get a quote or crucial fact to hang it on, and then make sure everyone knew about it and where it came from. Sure, it was self-aggrandising. But it wasn’t negative.

But when these aims were derailed I took it personally. One line from a preview I wrote upset a developer so much they called my publisher to have it edited, which was pathetic, since the line was factually accurate. Why not call me up and we’ll do a story that counter-attacks the fact, creating yet more news and coverage?

Then I unearthed a difficult truth for a larger business to swallow, and made the stupid (stupid!) rookie reporter’s error of calling for a quote before publishing. If I’d stuck it up first (and it was based on quantifiable research) the eventual furious retort would have given me two top stories for the price of one.

Later I did publish first. This time, however, it was a spitting minority of readers who responded to rubbish my research, prompting a rash of news reporting that I’d made up or deliberately misinterpreted the facts. This was even harder to take since many writers hadn’t read my article and were just re-writing from the report of my report.

This all happened over a few months, and it left me bruised. Not only were the people I was attempting to write for (and attract to our site) attacking me, but the industry I was writing about was taking weasel-faced measures to stop me and the publishers who actually paid me to write were offering no support or backup at all.

It killed me, and it killed my passion. And since I was writing all the time for my job, and my job was therefore being a writer, it killed writing too.

As a journalist you’re trained, reminded and told again and again who you’re supposed to be writing for, who the most important person is – the reader. Which makes it difficult when you’re convinced that the reader is a scumbag who has an unhealthy life-consuming passion for what amounts to a plastic toy.

Now a few years down the line, what’s most sad is how I couldn’t look past my own need for these stories to be noticed. I’m sure people were noticing them – that’s probably why the reaction was so savage – but I couldn’t see that because the negative reaction of a minority was so loud and unavoidable.

What’s sad is that I ruined writing for myself. I made it personal, no one else did. And no one else I ever worked with took it so personally, so much as a reflection on them. Probably because unlike them I have nothing else to use as a reflection on me, due to this ceaseless feeling that I don’t actually understand me or how I feel about stuff.

It was impossible to use the stuff I was proud of to define me when that stuff was also being assaulted by people I had no respect for. I haven’t ever written about how this experience made me feel, and this post is just the sort of writing that eventually results from feeling baseless, defenceless, pointless.

Fortunately now I can see the point of the quest. Back then I just thought that if I shouted loud enough someone else would tell me what the answer was, what I was supposed to be doing, what they thought.

And of course, lots of someone elses were telling me that. They were telling me that on the internet there are always another million voices bellowing into space, deaf to everyone about them. Screaming along with them will only make you hoarse.

About Ben Catley-Richardson

Writer, reader, husband. Father!
This entry was posted in Writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Why I stopped writing

  1. To keep writing these days, you really do need to be writing entirely for yourself, either as therapy, from compulsion, or because of screaming arrogance. Delicate minds will suffer from being ignored or being offended, and the rare praise isn’t enough recompense. Write for yourself and your writing will be at its truest and its best.

  2. Yeah, I’m with Dan on that one. I can recognize myself in a lot of what you write about, it’s a wall more or less every games journalist risks running into at some point. Too bad it scared you away completely. Great post.

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