Architechnophile commentary, originally published May 20th, 2013
There's value to be had in hard work in-and-of-itself, to be sure. Wisdom to be gleaned, skills to be honed, experiences to be had. But return on investment varies; one shouldn't just pick any old bit of granite and start hammering away at it. It can be easy for the inexperienced to misapply themselves, particularly here in the games industry - neophytes don't have any frame of reference with which to attach a dollar sign to their own work, and forces will reliably attempt to abuse their naivete and enthusiasm. I know, I've seen much of it firsthand.
With that in mind, I come to IGN All Stars, an invite-only membership program looking for the best and brightest contributors from among the site's community. What is an IGN All Star? It seems to be an honorary title bestowed upon a sort of hybrid community manager/blogger type. It's a pretty common position - my favorite forum employs moderators of this type, and they're paid for their efforts. It's a lot of work. Here's the thing: I've been through the list of features to the All Stars program and back again, and I haven't yet seen any mention of financial compensation, nor any sort of mentorship that might constitute fair trade for an unpaid position. The list of benefits, as it currently stands:
… an exclusive message board for All-Stars and Staff only!
… exclusive IGN swag!
… IGN-wide recognition within the community!
… a free subscription to IGN Prime
Of these, only the subscription to IGN Prime, at $6.95 a month ($2.50 a month with an annual commitment) contains any tangible value. The others are nebulous at best - we're left to guess what "closer relationship with IGN and the editorial staff" means, and I'm skeptical that an exclusive message board passes the eye test for "close proximity with existing staff" under the U.S. Department of Labor's evaluation for unpaid internships. There's no provision for editing of the All Stars' submitted writing and work. No mention of training, no guarantee of future employment. It also bears repeating: this is an invite-only program. Ostensibly, IGN is asking its community, a community as big as any in the games scene, to compete for the rarefied privilege of "sorta-kinda being around their editors, and hey maybe there's a job at the end of this who knows." Many will step up their efforts, bolstering IGN's wiki pages, writing blogs that draw readership, pitching in on the forums. The site will clearly benefit for the endeavor.
IGN isn't the first company to roll out such a program, and it won't be the last, either. Gaming sites large and small have long been trading in promises of "exposure" and "views" over cold hard cash. There's ample reason for them to partake in such deals. What's seldom articulated is that you've ample reason to forgo that particular scene. Let's set aside the odds of becoming an IGN All Star, and the dubious rewards of being selected, for a moment. How much does one gain from working towards the award? It's conceivable that members of the community will cluster around the contributors they enjoy. But that's a far cry from paid work, and when it comes to the exchange rate on that cultural capital, the prospects are debatable. Myself, I couldn't tell you who's in the early running for an All Stars position - I don't know the writers within the site's insular community. They're just anonymous usernames and avatars. The same goes for the community blogs at other major sites, like Gamespot or Destructoid.
There's also that old journalism sticking point: if a site has the capacity to pay a writer, or to provide to them the sort of training that might act as a sufficient stand-in for a salary, then it should be doing so. I hope that's self-evident. As an aside, I do also believe that small sites should divvy up whatever income they can manage to accrue, even if the pay is a pittance. The gesture is symbolic. To not adequately compensate writers is to rob them of the value of their work. For budding writers, it's probably value that they didn't even know that they could command. I promise you this: your writing is worth more than a promise of exposure, more than a one-in-a-million shot at "maybe a job", more than some swag and a special star next to your name on someone's forum. If you're enthusiastic enough to shoot for a position like IGN's All Stars, then you're probably enthusiastic enough to put in the effort to become a paid writer of some level. You just need to find a place that better values your contributions; a place where you're not toiling near-solely for another's gain.
Ironically, I suspect that one's best bet to write for IGN is probably to not write for IGN's community pages. A resume filled with strong, well-edited scrivening at a variety of sites will always read better than a compendium of blog posts on one site's community pages. Here's a dumb analogy: the path to, say, being a professional baseball player hinges on making one's way through the ranks from high school ball through the farm club, not from being the bat boy at a specific team (also, bat boys get paid).