Opinion: Emotional labour in the games media (and beyond)

IHS games analyst Steve Bailey asks if we need to be concerned about the sheer extent of hostility that can sometimes face people who work in the games media.

Iwas a freelance games journalist up until 2008, writing almost exclusively for print.

Then, gaming forums featured some hostility toward the specialist games media: I could reliably click on a thread discussing a new issue of a magazine I’d contributed to and find comments that called my very existence into question, with varying degrees of acidity, because I’d given the ‘wrong’ review score to a game that the person was yet to play themselves.

Reading such sentiment did rankle a little, of course. But these were only slight prickles, and it wasn’t difficult to keep perspective on what was valuable feedback, and what was someone indulging in a rant.

Fast-forward until today and it feels as if the extent of aggression toward games journalists has grown vastly. Any errors, misunderstandings, or minor differences of opinion can now be grounds for a variety of threats, or even attempts to have a person’s livelihood dismantled.

Consumer vigilance is necessary for everyone’s health in the marketplace, and journalists/critics lay no claim to intellectual comfort. But this doesn’t permit open season on an individual’s well-being. It makes me wonder – if I hadn’t left games journalism behind all those years ago, would I have struggled to maintain my mental health, under such a spiralling sense of exposure? The emotional labour required – the extent of expectation surrounding how a person has to manage their feelings, in order to perform within a given job – could be staggering, potentially.

I’m not here to try to address why there’s so much combative response out there, or tactics for minimising it. Instead, I think there’s another important facet of the conversation that needs to be addressed: if the weight of such emotional labour begins to adversely affect someone in the games media, what provision do we have for dealing with it? Having to experience a continuum of toxic noise can easily cause someone to cramp up on the inside, over time. And then what happens? If they get into such trouble, does it mean that they’re bad at their job? Dealing with this stuff doesn’t seem to be in the job description.

This is not exclusive to the games media, or even just games, but that doesn’t excuse us from discussing it. We also see it in the way that smaller developers are now expected to conduct their own PR, say, with little grounding in how to cope if their efforts backfire. Or in the way that YouTubers sometimes air their disagreements in public – and get tutted at for doing so – but what other recourse for resolution do they feel that they have to hand? Which institution here should be taking responsibility for education/provision on such a matter, if at all?

The classical idea of employment, that brings with it all manner of guarantees regarding health, safety, illness, fairness and non-retaliation, is fading. No longer having such facilities to hand introduces a potentially tremendous new channel of stress that you have to learn to manage yourself, whether you’ve established a sufficient support network or not.

It can result in what’s known as a ‘placeless anxiety’, a constant sense of coming under attack that has no discernible source for you to tackle. And when the pressure is very real but we feel that we’re not allowed to acknowledge it – well, this is the ideal recipe for a breakdown.

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