What if you had a great idea but nobody with the cash and influence to make it happen agreed? What if you had something interesting to say but no editor would give you the space to say it without chopping it into a numbered list? You might start a YouTube channel or a blog, publish an indie magazine, or get together some like-minded friends and put out a podcast.
Maybe your idea isn’t for everyone. Maybe it’s for a niche market of enthusiasts, or maybe you’re not big on self-promotion and struggle with plugging away to build your audience. Plenty of people find themselves here. They might pour so many hours of their lives into a project it’s like a second job, and at the end of it all, they still need to eat. They still need to pay the bills. Starting a YouTube channel, for example, is all well and good, but it can take many tens of thousands of views or more to make back your investment of labour. Plenty of people strain for years to scrape together a few thousand people who like their stuff. It’s a gargantuan effort in the overcrowded forum of ideas. Most of them will do this in addition to their day job, sacrificing free time and sleep only to have the world fold its arms and tell them that a few thousand isn’t enough; come back when you’ve got an army of adoring followers.
It doesn’t seem unreasonable to say that if even just a thousand people think you do great work, you probably ought to be able to make a living from it. Let’s use YouTube for the sake of argument again. When an individual ad on your video nets you a fraction of a cent, people will use adblock anyway, and with YouTube demonetising content that’s not sterile enough to appeal to every advertiser, it seems futile to even try. Or if an editor will pass your work over for something safer and more pedestrian, or you’re simply not established enough for them to care, what can you do?
Crowdfunding doesn’t need much introduction at this point. Plenty of products, movies, games, animations, and a mind-boggling array of other stuff, exists because of Kickstarter and its cousin services like Indiegogo. It’s a way to prove your idea is good enough for people to pony up before it’s made. Ideally, that will be enough people to get the project off the ground.
Often these sorts of services still favour the fortunate few with enough capital to begin with, and enough existing renown to generate buzz. Alternatives like Patreon, that function on a kind of subscription basis, allow creators to live off their work with a relatively small audience, or at least to meaningfully supplement their regular income with regular user-donations. Most of all it’s a way for weird ideas and approaches to find their niche in a marketplace of ideas that favours safe, easy ones and a media ecosystem that thrives on easily-digestible top tens, star-ratings and thin comment pieces.
There’s strange, wonderful stuff out there and it all takes time and effort to make. Take RagnarRox, who picks apart fictional monsters to see what inspired them and showcases forgotten old games that were ahead of their time or otherwise noteworthy. You might have got a taste further up in his Baba Yaga video.
Or take Hbomberguy, who produces a mix of comedic video essays on politics, science, movies, and videogames. The latter of which he approaches in a thoughtful, analytical fashion not typical of videogames coverage. It’s part of a growing trend of critics examining games in a considered, often literary way that’s usually reserved for classic novels and arthouse movies. You have SolePorpoise, Joseph Anderson and Trevor Strunk, to name a few more.
I was lucky enough to get Trevor to talk about his experience of using alternative funding to help make a living off a kind of criticism that’s rarely given a space in regular games media and how a professor with a PhD in English and an academic background in American literature ends up critiquing videogames with the same aesthetic approach reserved for classic novels.
How did you decide to approach using Patreon/crowdfunding as a model for financing your work?
I started using Patreon in earnest because I had such a difficult time finding work in the academic sphere, but I started using it initially because I wanted to go deeper into videogame research and needed a fund for that. I thought (and I guess I was right) that people would fund some of my writing on a monthly basis. I’d say I started them based on the success of podcasts like Chapo Trap House, but I started my Patreon around the same time as them. I mainly saw it as a financial hedge for research. The podcast push happened later, and was definitely a more focused attempt to develop an income. In that way it was pretty organic from “stipend” to “salary.”
Do you think it would be possible to finance your work under a more traditional model? I’m thinking here specifically of whether you feel crowdfunding or direct donations from your audience allows you a platform to produce content that traditional outlets might not take a risk on.
I definitely think crowdfunding is the only way this kind of work would be produced. Well, at least by me; Austin Walker does Waypoint’s podcast and is paid by VICE, and there are always the McElroy’s. But when I started the podcast, I found that there was a pretty hard pushback against critical work in videogame writing; as a result, I thought (and I still think) that I just needed to produce the work before people knew they wanted it. I could’ve definitely produced it for free, which is the classic podcast model, but I don’t know how much I would have been able to produce for free before falling off a bit.
Is there a greater sense of freedom with regards to what you feel you can cover or the way it can be covered?
For sure. I kind of covered the larger end of this in the previous question, but I also feel like I don’t have to hold back or soft peddle any of my stronger critical stances. What I found when writing on digital humanities in the academy was that people were pretty hesitant to publish anything critical of the current discourse, which I was. I definitely don’t have to worry about that now with No Cartridge.
What’s the experience of being completely beholden to your audience as an individual, rather than as part of an organisation, such as might be the case if a website or magazine were publishing/commissioning your work?
It’s good and bad. The good part is that I can determine the direction of the project and change it for audience requests, or, as sometimes is the case, not change it. A lot of the introduction of guests and recurring themes/approaches have been laid in by audience approval. But that also makes it a pretty heavy responsibility – you can feel like you have 200 bosses instead of just one or two. People are very generous, but I get worried I’m not holding up my end of the deal. To get a bit theoretical, this is the capitalist impulse behind crowd funding: you take on your work as a raison d’être as opposed to a part of your life. I’m happy to be doing it for my audience, but the systemic problems are a bit troubling.
Your work in videogame criticism and analysis has a distinctly literary approach that’s rarely appeared in videogame criticism until recently. I’m not familiar with your work outside of No Cartridge, and I’m interested as to whether you see your approach to videogame criticism specifically as a result of your background in American literature?
Yeah, absolutely — the whole approach to videogames was born out of a chapter of my dissertation. And that itself was born out of a feeling that videogames are important current texts, but they were being covered as media or cultural oddities. So, since I wasn’t super happy with the way the academy was handling them and I was even less pleased with popular coverage, I kind of forged my own serious aesthetic approach to it. No Cartridge is basically me committing to that approach as a much larger project — I’m glad the lineage shows it!
Many people that I’ve seen adopting a similar approach also opt for Patreon or similar donation-based models. Do you think that’s because there’s not a large market for this sort of analysis, or do you see this more literary style as something that’s gaining traction in the mainstream?
I think this is honestly a symptom of the academy changing. Where my work would’ve ended up even 10 or 15 years ago would be in a classroom or in a peer-reviewed journal. But there are so few jobs anymore in the academy, and most of them are lecturer positions that privilege teaching to the point that research is out of the question (I have one of these jobs too, and can attest). Since the academy isn’t really publishing the work anymore or hiring the people, it’s up to scholars who want to keep pursuing it to find their own way of being serious academics outside of an academic patronage system. Add to that that traditional media is very unwilling to take a chance on something that doesn’t have easy click projections, and Patreon is really the best bet. It allows me, personally, to demonstrate proof of concept and also keep developing my own stance while still getting some money for sustaining the project and myself. I hope it’s gaining traction in the mainstream though — people do seem to think NC is filling a gap, which is gratifying anyway!
Do you see your work as in some sense filling a niche within the ecosystem, or do you approach it more from the perspective that this sort of critical analysis ought to be the norm?
I think it’s filling a niche for sure, but to me that’s more justifying its market share. To my mind, there’s of course room for super casual or market-based analysis of games – reviews and such – but I think there has to be a careful and consistent approach to games that is aesthetic and literary. I’m sure I’m not in the majority in thinking that, but hopefully that’s changing!
I had every intention of giving Trevor the last word on this, but recent events warrant some disclaimers. These services aren’t perfect. Kickstarter and IndieGogo have the problems mentioned earlier: it’s just not easy to generate interest unless you have an existing audience. Not everyone is going to take a chance on an unproven company or creator. More prescient, however, is the controversy Patreon have stirred up in just the last week. In short they’re shifting transaction fees from creators to backers – the consumers who are pledging to creators.
Many feel that the changes to their transaction model are not only bad for backers and thus bad in the long-term for creators, but a veiled attempt to increase Patreon’s profits. The new system will be demonstrably worse for people pledging small amounts to several projects, and the consensus among users on both sides of the equation is that this will hurt smaller creators especially. It’s a disappointing move for a company that’s become the face of alternative funding for independent writers and content-creators.