Patrons of Game Criticism

The enthusiasm around crowdfunding has long since peaked. From game studio Double Fine’s explosive $3 million success with Double Fine Adventure to Rob Thomas’s $5 million for for a Veronica Mars movie to the more recent success of the Climate Council, we are well and truly past the point where it is acceptable to be blindly optimistic about the possibilities of crowdfunding. Indeed, people have already highlighted that crowdfunding the Climate Council just gave the Coalition the perfect excuse to not spend any government money on climate change. Someone else will pay for it.

A newer iteration of crowdfunding currently turning heads in game criticism circles is Patreon, and it’s confronting much of the same enthusiasm (and the same scepticism) of broader crowdfunding models. While websites like Kickstarter ask funders to invest in the production of a project with the usual promise of a copy of that project once it is completed, Patreon instead works as a patronage. Patrons are not investers in a project but patrons of an artist, pledging to pay a certain amount of money for each work that artist creates.

The significant difference is that the works that Patreon artists are creating are, more often than not, released as free content on the internet, either as written articles or Youtube videos or webcomics or some other form. Patrons, then, are not paying to access content, but to support a creator in the act of creating.

With all the caveats that come with crowdfunding (some of which I’ll get to in a moment), this is a potentially important intervention in how creating content for the internet functions. The main challenge faced by many creators of online content is that the vast majority of web users expect to access content for free: that’s just how the internet has always worked. Paywalls only ever feel obtrusive and rude. ‘Donate’ buttons are rarely successful. The most successful publishers of web content make their money from one of two areas: either advertising, or selling non-web merchandise alongside their content, and precious little of this money actually trickles down to the creators themselves. The vast majority of creators of web content, simply, don’t make any money.

This is certainly true for online writers, as the recent fiasco around The Daily Review showed, and it is definitely true for videogame critics. While there is no shortage of successful videogame outlets, those that have money are primarily interested in straightforward industry news and previews of upcoming games, with a few also budgeting for longform features focusing on the industry and developers. Indeed, if they weren’t interested in these things they probably wouldn’t have any money. There are precious few websites that have a budget for critical essays and analysis beyond consumer reviews.

Instead, the best videogame criticism for the past decade has happened on personal blogs and love-driven websites, written by those few that have enough spare time away from whatever job pays their rent to write for love alone. For my part, it was a weekend barista job for two years followed by the incredible privilege of a PhD scholarship that has allowed me to write videogame criticism.

It’s something that I suspect many readers of game criticism don’t fully appreciate. They see a writer appearing on various websites, they see the writer’s thousands and thousands of Twitter followers—surely they are doing well for themselves. Chances are, they are not.

Patreon, then, offers a potential solution for some (certainly not all) of the excellent videogame critics out there who, despite having readerships of thousands, struggle to make enough money to live. It gives those critics the confidence and security to write those more daring pieces that would have previously been considered a poor use of time and energy.

As someone who deeply cares about the craft of game criticism, I feel obliged to help support those critics whose content I have been reading for free for years now. Mattie Brice, Liz Ryerson, merritt kopas, Lana Polansky, Aevee Bee, Cara Ellison, and Cameron Kunzelman are the ones I am a patron of. These critics are also among, I think, some of the most important and interesting videogame critics currently writing, and it is exciting to think that they can finally, at least in part, be supported by the significant contributions they make. Brice has also constructed a list of several others using the service.

There are issues, of course. The most obvious is the inevitable saturation. As more people succeed through Patreon, better known people will turn to it and obscure the smaller creators, just as with Kickstarter. Another issue is that, just as with the Climate Council, Patreon arguably sends the message to mainstream game writing outlets that they don’t need to spend money on game criticism. Though, I am hopeful it will do the reverse and show them there is a readership for critical writing.

Further, it is a young service, only launching in May last year, and is far from perfectly designed. The biggest flaw, from a patron’s perspective, is the lack of any clear overview of the creators you support. Being able to set a monthly cap of your outgoing money is commendable, so you don’t have to worry about one creator making ten things a day and sapping your bank account dry. But as you begin to support more artists, the inability to see a quick overview of just how much money is potentially leaving your account each month is a little unnerving. I have spoken to people at Patreon, however, and they’ve mentioned they are looking at ways to implement this.

So Patreon isn’t a perfect solution. Indeed, the notion of ‘solutions’ is a flawed one to begin with. It is one potential avenue among others that will allow those critics that have a large following but few financial avenues to make something from their work. It will work for some, and it won’t work for others. Namely, it will work for those writers who have large amounts of social capital that has not previously translated into financial stability.

But for me, currently at one of the precious few times in my life where I feel temporarily financially stable thanks to my academic work, it is important to me that I support those creators whose creations I enjoy. I think it is important to challenge the mindset that everything should be free, as that cheapens the very real labour of many writers and creators. But I also think it is important to keep things accessible for those that cannot afford to pay for everything. Patreon, for now, is a promising balanace. Those that can afford to support creators can, and those that can’t afford to can still access their content.

If a game critic you enjoy reading has a Patreon page and you are financially able to, I encourage you to support them.