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Virginia
by Mathew Kumar
09052006

 



Standing on the damp tarmac outside my apartment block, I watch my breath form as mist in the air as I breathe. It feels like the middle of the night Ė hell, it is the middle of the night, and as I wait for the taxi that will soon take me to the airport, for the 6am Toronto Pearson to Washington Dulles flight, I shiver in my confusing mishmash of clothing, not only intended to keep me warm right now in an increasingly chilly Toronto/cool in a continually warm Virginia, but to give me some semblance of respectability.

Who the hell do I think Iím kidding, I think. The suit jacket and trousers probably clash significantly with the American Apparel track jacket and Converse trainers Iíve got on. I look exactly like the kind of hipster drop out that I am.

As the taxi arrives, it sinks in. Iím going to Virginia.

And I intend the $35 Canadian that Iíll hand this affable taxi driver will be the only money that Iíll spend until I drop 2 dollars on the bus ride back from the airport, 3 days later.

If I were a smoker, right now Iíd inhale that last breath, flick the end onto the ground and stub it out with one classically scruffy Chuck Taylor heel, sound of car door slamming, fade to black.

But I donít smoke.

- -- -

It all started what feels like months ago. Like all good freelancers in this brave new world of the hyperglobalmeganet, I work almost entirely out of my inbox. I live in my inbox, and one day came a mail that was simple enough that I was sure it had to be a scam.

The Virginia Economic Development Partnership wanted to invite me to Virginia for a 3 day modeling and simulation media tour. Paid flight, paid accommodation, paid meals, bonus visit to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. A completely free trip, with the slight annoyance of the company of other journalists, and a bunch of visits to boring old modeling and simulation companies.

All I was thinking about was the completely free trip part of that sentence.

Recently, dear journo-chum Kieron Gillen wrote a short blog piece in which he put forth the conundrum Ė if you were an editor, and were offered an expensive free trip by a videogames company on the condition that you featured their game on your next cover, and you were going to feature the game on the cover anyway, should you take the trip?

The conclusion, all round, is that no, you shouldnít. Itís a trip offered to you with the prerequisite that youíre weak or greedy enough to pay for it with your credibility. Even if it truly is free, how could you take something that was even offered that way?

And itís heartening to see even big hitters like Dan Hsu discussing this idea of integrity, because, as we all know, thereís not enough of it in the videogame journalism industry. But here, I was faced with a slightly different dilemma. I was lying above when I said Ďlike all good freelancers.í Iím a terrible freelancer. I make less money at my job than a prostitute who doesnít ask for the money up front, and while Iím being honest, that metaphor is entirely apt for the business of being a freelancer. So, when Iím offered something for free, a lovely sounding perk that I fully checked out as not being a sting operation by the US Government[1], Iím very tempted to take it. But there was, naturally, what I felt was a bit of a problem.

Iím a videogames journalist. Oh, sure, I write about film, too, occasionally music, but what on earth am I going to know about modeling and simulation tools?[2] And where on earth am I going to write about them?

So I fire them off an e-mail.

ďIím a videogames journalist.Ē I say.

ďThatís fine! Weíll be sure to let the companies know to discuss the videogaming aspects of their technologies with you.Ē They say.

ďOh.Ē I respond.

So there began my dilemma. As a freelancer, is it wrong to take advantage of a free trip when you expect that youíll not be able to cover it in any meaningful way? Do companies, or should companies, have the right to expect something in return for the things they give you?

As a freelancer you become quite used to writing gigs either falling through, or simply not working out. With an endless shower of free games coming through the mail box from companies[3], itís doubtless that some will fall through the cracks.

Do you owe them? Is it a failing that you didnít write about Super Game 47, resplendent with itís photocopied press release excitedly revealing it now has extra blood and tits?

A perfect example to how confusing this situation can be is Burnout: Legends for Nintendo DS. It came in the mail, with no warning, no explanation, and no contact from EA ever. I donít know who sent it out, or why, or if they care.

It is unbelievably, gut wrenchingly awful. Itís so bad I couldnít find anyone who wanted a review of it. I considered writing an article, reams of hateful bile all aimed at the cretins who allowed it to be released, and queried Brandon about a possible review on IC.

The thing is, of course, is any publicity really good publicity? Surely my keeping my mouth shut is worth more to them than my opening it. We decided to not run with it, not for those reasons. I think Tim said it best.

"I was thinking of doing a review of Perfect Dark Zero, and then I was like, I'm not going to bother writing a review that's full of hate unless I think there's a... you know, a purpose."

The only reason Iíd have written down the hate was because I felt like I, somehow, owed EA the coverage. I had no Ďangleí otherwise. So I leave Burnout: Legends to get dusty on my shelf.

With an uneasy conscience, I decided to take the trip. In many ways, I slipped into denial. ďIím sure I can get an angle to make writing about this trip worthwhileĒ, I thought. ďIím sure, somehow, this trip will be worthwhile.Ē

In the end, some of it was! But not in any way I could have foreseen.

[Next: Interlude]


 

[Chapter Two]

[Interlude]

[Chapter Three]

[Chapter Six]

[Chapter Seven]

[Chapter Eight]