So for the last couple of months (and especially over the last few days) there's been a resurgence of "no one should ever write for free, ever, never never" among freelance games writers and paid career professionals.
As someone who takes games writing very seriously and who's also worked as a mostly-unpaid-but-not-always reviewer for the last twelve years, I wanted to take a few minutes and share my thoughts on the subject.
Now, I think the goal for pretty much everyone out there is to get rich by hanging out with cool people and playing games all day, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. It is, after all, The Dream. I also agree that if a site is large enough and successful enough to pay for their normal content, then they absolutely should. That's not in question.
However, the available number of opportunities for reviewers and writers out there is a fraction of a fraction of the number of people who want those gigs. There's just too much supply and not enough demand, so unless there's some kind of worldwide moratorium, people who want to write for free (and who do so) are always going to be around.
Instead of being browbeaten by the people who've worked hard enough (and who maybe got lucky enough) to make it as a paid pro, here are five reasons why I think writing for free may not be quite as awful for your karma as kicking puppies or drowning kittens.
You're a newcomer
It's a little silly to expect someone who's just starting out (and probably still in their late teens) to have earned the skills and experience necessary to be a good writer. The likelihood of such a person being a great writer? Even lower. Why would anyone want to pay such a person, and how can such a person honestly even expect to get paid?
I've been a freelancer in a non-games field for over sixteen years, and in my other profession, it's not only expected that newcomers work for free—it's often required as a way to earn the knowledge and experience necessary to perform their jobs well. There are volunteer opportunities, mentorships, and a wealth of work-related activities that can help someone improve to the point at which they can call themselves a competent professional and start looking for a paycheck. I don't see any reason why games writers should be different.
When I started out as a freelancer in my non-gaming career, I got my first breaks thanks to people I had met during volunteer opportunities and from instructors at my college. They knew me, they knew what I could do, and they opened some doors that lead to getting paid work. Even with that leg up, it was about two years or so before I actually met enough people and made enough contacts to support myself independently. If I'd tried to go paid-only out of the gate, I would have starved! Literally!
When it comes to games writing, it's no different. The best way to get gigs and assignments is to know somebody. That's the absolute truth, and anyone who denies it is trying to pull the wool over your eyes. Writing for free (again, for sites that can't afford to pay, or as an internship, etc.) will help anyone start building their own network of contacts and resources. You meet the right people, shake their hands, make the right friends... and of course, prove over and over again that you are reliable and can produce. Then, before you know it, all sorts of paid opportunities present themselves that would never be offered to Random Games Wannabe off the street. This is How It Works.
Smaller sites need content to become bigger sites
With the exception of some lucky individuals who manage to procure a pile of venture capital and go big from the start, I think the norm for a lot of websites out there is to begin as a volunteer operation with the hope of growing and becoming a success. If every writer demands to get paid, then how will these no-income startups ever get a chance to become paying destination sites? You reap what you sow, after all. Many organizations (gaming or non-gaming) have started as personal grassroots efforts, and then gone on to become larger, more established, and more financially stable. Then... they cut checks!
There are also some sites out there that are not-for-profit from the start, and use their position as a way to shield themselves from the financial influence of publishers and paid advertising. They might be rare, but they're out there. Volunteers are crucial either way.
You do it for yourself
Most of the freelancers I know are not exactly what you'd call rich people. Fortunately, most don't seem to have many financial obligations. On the other hand, they often don't have children, houses, or even health care. It's a bit of a precarious situation to be in, and it isn't exactly the most stable base upon which to build a future.
For people who want certain things out of life, it's far easier to get a job that offers better compensation, more opportunity, and more stability while keeping games writing as a passion that they partake in on the side. Such a person should have no qualms about writing for free if it's something they enjoy. Additionally, by writing for free, they are leaving a paid opportunity open elsewhere for people who actually need that source of income.
You are crazy
Let's say that you've got a fire in your heart to write about some subject that no editor on the planet would pay money for; some subject so esoteric and arcane that your reading audience would likely number in the single digits. Or, maybe your point of view is so contrary to the prevailing opinion that people laugh off your pitch or simply delete it and never reply.
Sometimes these can't-win projects turn into labors of love that can only blossom when published among kindred spirits, open-minded editorial staff, and most likely, websites with empty bank accounts. You may not get paid for such work, but sometimes simply sharing it with the world is reward enough—especially when no one but you and that one weird-looking guy over there thinks it's worth a cent.
So there you have it, five good reasons why someone might want to write for free.
Now, with all that said, I do want to reiterate that just because it's okay to write for free sometimes, doesn't mean that it's all right to be taken advantage of.
Although there is no clear-cut way to know which sites are technically "big enough" to pay for content and which aren't, new writers looking to get paid should ask around and do some homework before agreeing to start producing content for people. Know who you're going to be working with, and know what you're getting into.
If everything clicks, then have fun, improve your skills (and if it's your goal) work towards getting that paycheck.