Today I want to talk about something not directly related to games, but more to the industry, and to creative industries in general: working for free.
I’ve been interested in turning my creative writing into a career for a long time, though due to reasons of immaturity, arrogance, and general flakiness I never really tried all that hard. In the last six months I’ve been doing some work editing and proofreading for various people. I enjoy it and I figure that it’s all part of the industry, and something I can do while I also write and work my day job.
I’m bringing this up because I mentioned last time that I was doing some proofreading for a cyberpunk game. I have since decided to pull out of this – even though it is enjoyable and a valuable opportunity to get a credit in a book – because the designer wants people to do this proofreading for him for free.
When I first started doing this editing and writing for real, I had the attitude that you have to do everything you can to get your foot in the door – including working for free. I had done some paid work for a university before, have done some unpaid work helping my friend with his PhD thesis, and I am currently editing and proofing the work of two other friends gratis. But I think there is a difference between working for free for a mate who is producing academic writing or starting out in fiction writing, and working for free for a stranger on a project that he intends to make money out of.
People often expect writers, artists, film-makers, editors – in other words creatives and their ancillaries – to work for “exposure.” The reasons they give if pressed usually boil down to “you love it, you should want to do it anyway.” I’ve been guilty of spreading this attitude myself. But I have since had a change of heart, after talking to some professional editors and really thinking about it.
So what if you love what you do? I’m sure there are many people in the world who would hate going through a written work with a fine-toothed comb and proofing it, even if they were capable of the job. Which brings me to my next point: this is skilled work. With 43% of Australians functionally illiterate, this is not something anyone can just do. If a plumber enjoys his work, does that mean he should do it for free? Of course not. For one thing he trained for years to know what he knows.
Working for free undercuts everyone else who is legitimately trying to sell their valuable skills. The only reason businesses even ask creatives to work gratis is because people do it. So I’ve decided not to. I can see no difference between agreeing to work for free on someone else’s commercial project, and being a scab on a union job site. This has been a really difficult decision for me as I’m still in the early stages of my new career, and as I said I wanted to do the work and I wanted that publication credit.
But doing “whatever it takes” is being a free-rider. It’s being a scab, an anti-vaccinator, someone who puts their own welfare ahead of the group. I think that’s cowardly and morally dubious, if not wrong, and I try not to act that way in the rest of my life.
I’ll still buy the guy’s book. I’m not angry at him or anything, he’s just doing the smart thing for him, and no doubt someone else will help him. Maybe one of his friends who has a more personal stake in the project than I do. But I’m not helping someone make a product in return for “exposure.” That’s not going to pay my electricity bill.