||How to Be Me is our series of casual, vaguely instructional interviews with video games industry professionals.
For our inaugural interview, HCF spoke with Leigh Alexander, video games journalist. Leigh is News Director at Gamasutra, writes reviews for Variety and a monthly column for Kotaku, and maintains her own blog, Sexy Videogameland, in which she covers video games topics various and sundry.
Leigh, could you tell us a little about yourself?
Leigh Alexander: My name is Leigh Alexander, and I'm a video game journalist. (Crowd: Hi, Leigh)
Have you always wanted to be a journalist? Did you ever consider an alternate career path?
Leigh Alexander: Well, I went to acting conservatory, actually. Initially, I just got into writing so that I'd have flexible work that would allow me to audition, but I ended up falling in love with it.
Did your acting training influence your writing?
Leigh Alexander: Yeah, you know, I think it did. In school they taught us how to identify emotional throughlines in the reading of a play, and then express them truthfully. That's sort of what I do when I'm doing blogging or criticism about games. Although I guess it's worth noting that the majority of what I do is news writing, at Gamasutra, where theatre isn't much of a help!
Well, your news writing is certainly different stylistically from your blog and even your column on Kotaku...
Leigh Alexander: Yeah, we have a house style at Gama, mainly. It's not about HEY HELLO I'M GONNA BE MYSELF, it's more about getting facts across.
Do you ever try slipping some personality into news posts? Is there any value in doing so if you're a news writer?
Leigh Alexander: There are all different ways of writing news, I guess. Plenty of blogs do news in their own "voices." But Gama's not that kind of site. Y'know, it's just about the news. There, I focus more on just understanding the industry and thinking of interesting things to talk to developers about, and keeping tabs on what's going on out there.
Do you have advice on working with an editor? It seems like you could learn so much from working with one, but I find that people often bristle at the idea, as though an editor would rob them of their "voice."
Leigh Alexander: My advice would be "Get the hell over it." :) Really, professional writing is less about "your voice" and "your art" and more about the solidity of your information and how well you can construct a thought and if you want to be published anywhere, you may have to write in the voice of the publication and not like you're talking to your pals. Often it's the thought process that's creative and not the actual writing. If you want to be all precious about it, doodle your emotions in your velvet-bound diary, but that won't make a pro! Behind every good writer's a good editor.
In your case there's also a very supportive family! Your father is also a writer. Does he offer a lot of feedback on your work?
Leigh Alexander: Oh, man. My father is very vocal. He is always noticing if I make mistakes -- but he's also enormously proud of me, and very encouraging.
Does he read everything you write?
Leigh Alexander: Yes. He really does. My mother doesn't read all my work because she doesn't have the depth of interest in games, but she loves to google me. She's also very supportive.
So, where did you get your start? What was your first writing job?
Leigh Alexander: Well, I was doing Sexy Videogameland before anything else, but the first time I wrote for a large audience was at Destructoid. And my first review was for Paste Magazine. Oh, well, that's not quite true. That was my first stuff on games. Before that I did some enterprise tech articles.
Those are some pretty awesome firsts. Did you ever suffer any setbacks? Moments of self-doubt?
Leigh Alexander: I still do, Marie. I had times early on where I wondered if I ever had anything at all of use to say, wondering if anyone would ever read my work. And I just kept at it. And even now, on a regular basis, I have days where I'm tired. I have days where I don't like what I've written, or when I worry that I've run out of ideas. But I think that's part of being a writer. There are wax and wane times.
Have you ever considered shaking things up with some non-journalistic writing? Fiction? Screenplays?
Leigh Alexander: Well, I do think about fiction a lot. Unfortunately I'm not very good at that yet :)
I find that hard to believe!
Leigh Alexander: Writing well takes talent, but putting a story together takes enormous skill one must learn. So I feel I should practice more!
What marriage of talent and skill is necessary for someone to become a successful games journalist? 10/90? 60/40?
Leigh Alexander: Oh, geez, that's hard. I think that depends on what kind of journalist you want to be, what kind of writing on games you want to do. There're all different kinds, and I think there's a very specific blend of traits involved. And what I think makes a good one might not be what someone else thinks!
If someone wanted to be Leigh Alexander, what breakdown of talent, skill and charisma would be necessary? How much XP?
Leigh Alexander: Haha, well, I think that the most important trait I personally have is that I look for the conversations people aren't having, and the questions people aren't asking, and I go there.
Well then, what are the most interesting conversations people aren't having about video games?
Leigh Alexander: Well, I guess that depends. I notice that gamers are a very strong community, but we're just now becoming aware of audiences beyond what's on the internet, you know? And I think we as a community are still thinking about different ways that gaming can be part of a larger culture. And ways to share it among different groups, and that's one of the things I try to help people talk about.
I feel as though there are some who are reluctant to share gaming with a larger culture.
Leigh Alexander: Yes, I notice that, too. People really personalize games.
I don't want to say that there's an elitist attitude among "hardcore" gamers, but I feel there might be, perhaps, an anti-populist attitude?
Leigh Alexander: I agree. I think when games were considered "niche," people felt misunderstood or persecuted, so they responded by taking ownership of it. And now, I think it seems to a lot of people that they will lose something if the shape of the landscape changes.
So as someone who facilitates discussion on games becoming part of culture at large, you're essentially an ambassador of games.
Leigh Alexander: Yes, exactly. I think I've used that word to describe myself a lot. Or, at least, that's one of the things I like to do. I don't want to be someone who writes only for the elite.
Let's play Bombardment! Bombardment!
Leigh Alexander: OK!
Cat or Dog?
Leigh Alexander: Cat.
Hot dog or hamburger?
Leigh Alexander: Hamburger.
Has a video game ever made you cry?
Leigh Alexander: Sure!
Leigh Alexander: Lots, I bet. Hm. FFVII, Shadow Hearts, Crisis Core, Metal Gear 3 and 4, Persona 4... Plenty. I cry like a girl. I've cried while watching the Simpsons once.
Leigh Alexander: Yes, I cried at a Lisa Episode
Leigh Alexander: But I've also cried when, like, Grandpa is left behind. I might have been drunk at those times, but I have.
Well, that's a good setup for this question: Bag of Sugar or Bag of Flour?
Leigh Alexander: Um. Flour?
Because you're not good enough for your sugar bag?
Leigh Alexander: Because I like savories more than sweets!
Coffee or tea?
Leigh Alexander: COFFEE.
My friend Scott, QA tester at Telltale would like you to validate his career choice. He says: "I feel QA is seriously underestimated in the video games industry and I would like to know what you think about QA and the industry's current attitude toward QA."
Leigh Alexander: You know, I wish I had something to say to him. As far as I understand, the role of QA staff is a little bit different depending on where you work. I think he highlights an interesting issue, though. Overall, there's not a strong understanding out there of what the different development roles are, or what people do there. This is in part because we the press aren't often educated on this, people don't tell us how things work behind the scenes, they're so ooh-secretive, and we usually only get to talk to one designated person. I think there could definitely be a better understanding of how games are made and the people that are involved and what they all do!
360, PS3, or Wii?
Leigh Alexander: Ummmm...Oh man. I, uh, am an unbiased, um proper journalist. I can't answer that. I like all 3 for different reasons, and that's the truth.
Do you have favorite journalists? Anyone in particular you admire?
Leigh Alexander: Sure I do. Tom Chick, Stephen Totilo, Kieron Gillen, Brandon Boyer, Ben Fritz. And my boss, Simon Carless, although he's not so much a writer as he is like an Information Magnate.
I wanna be an Information Magnate! How does someone get that job?
Leigh Alexander: Simon does that by being a freaking genius. I've learned tons from him. I like a lot of guys out there, though. Those are just the ones that pop into my head.
How about the lady journalists? Anyone you like?
Leigh Alexander: Susan Arendt at the Escapist, Libe Goad and Robin Yang at Gamedaily.
Speaking of the ladies, you recently mentioned on your Twitter that a reader chastised you for not using your visibility to promote a feminist viewpoint. Response?
Leigh Alexander: I do understand that because the number of women visibly doing what I do is relatively small, many people would like me to become an advocate of some kind. But I really don't like the idea that because I'm female, I must subscribe to a particular set of ideals, or that I should be expected to consider things "as a woman" instead of "as an individual." Obviously I can't stop being a woman (nor would I ever want to!), so anything I say is going to be "a woman's view" -- it's just that it's going to be the view of a person who happens to be, among many things, a woman, and I won't aim at adopting a viewpoint that is somehow representative of all women. I still prefer to keep my gender out of things unless it's truly relevant to my perspective, and I certainly don't work under the assumption that all females are victims by default that need auto-defending.
Argh, unfortunately I have to wrap things up here. But quickly, are there any common mistakes you see journalists making?
Leigh Alexander: Bad grammar. It doesn't matter how smart you are or how good your ideas are, if you're missing commas, spelling things wrong, or mushing your sentences together it's hard for editors to take you seriously. Writing well and correctly should be a given! And also, I think there are plenty of folks out there, plenty of enthusiasts with blogs sharing their thoughts on games and that's awesome, and that's very valuable to the community. I think for people who want to do it professionally, I guess I'd advise them to think about it like this: Make a single statement, raise a single question, frame your thoughts around a main idea. Look at the articles you think are good and how they're structured. Think about what you want people to take away from your work, whether that's a thought or an idea or a fact!
Finally, if you could give just five tips for becoming a video game journalist, what would they be?
Leigh Alexander: Hmm...
1. Write every day
2. Say something different
3. Be yourself and be creative, not all "lol i'm snarky"
4. Read, not just other games writing, but writing on other disciplines and
5. Be really persistent!