Category Archives: Freelancing

2015 Writing Year in Review

 

Happy New Year!

*Throws champagne, drinks confetti*

The last few hours of a year always seem to bring on reflection, and this year’s no different. The last 365 presented many changes for me–I left the Escapist,  had a book chapter published, landed some new outlets, and went to work at a writing tutor. Added to that, I started doing podcasts and video scripts for the first time.

So before the clock turns, here are some of my writing highlights from 2015:

Favorite Piece: “H.P. Lovecraft, Master of Environmental Horror” (Slate)

My primary writing goal this year was to branch out, and nothing exemplifies that better than this piece about Lovecraft’s increasing relevance in the age of environmental destruction. No video games here–just literature.

Biggest Achievement: Shooter

Shooter was a big point of pride for many reasons. It’s my first book publication, first off, but it also scored a couple of nice reviews and has some gorgeous art.

Largest Growth Area: Podcasting

When I began 2015, I’d never taped a podcast. As of today, I’ve appeared on the ChattyCastThe Freelance Game, and Covert Contact from Blogs of War. I’ve come to really enjoy it and hope to do more in the future.

Favorite Interview: “Military Expert P.W. Singer Predicts the Video Game Wars of the Future” (Playboy)

P.W. Singer’s a fascinating guy, and his book Ghost Fleet provides a scary look at a future where games and military tech are increasingly merging. It’s a topic I’ve followed for years, and I’m glad public consciousness has finally turned to this crucial, and sometimes worrying, development.

Favorite New Outlet: Extra Credits

I’d admired Extra Credits long before I began writing about games, and I couldn’t be prouder that I’ve leant my hand to two episodes this year. The first was on how games can re-approach WWII, while the second was the crucial question of where our consoles come from.

Weird and Wild

I also had a couple odd ducks this year, both at Playboy. The first was an article about visiting the Resident Evil haunted house at Universal Studios Japan–and all the weird Japan-ness that ensued–while the second tracked the real history behind Assassin’s Creed Syndicate‘s ghost stories.

So that’s it for 2015! I’ll have some more news on the way early next year, so watch this space…


I’m at Playboy Discussing the Video Game Wars of the Future

I wrote an article for Playboy that included an interview with leading defense expert P.W. Singer.

Singer’s a brilliant guy, the type that you listen to when he talks. So when I found out his new novel, Ghost Fleet, predicts that video game technology will merge with military hardware, I thought it was worth asking him about it.

Military Expert P.W. Singer Predicts the Video Game Wars of the Future (NSFW, because Playboy. Do I really need to say that? I mean, there’s no nudity, but still, it’s Playboy.)

Wait, did you say you read it…for the articles?

Haha, so funny. You’re totally the first person to tell me that.


How to Spot A Fake Photo on Twitter

The police response in Ferguson yesterday shocked the nation. We saw video of cops shooting rubber bullets at peaceful demonstrators, a journalist hassled out of McDonald’s and police gassing an Al Jazeera crew and dismantling their equipment.

Several photos stood out: One depicted a policeman spraying mace into a little girl’s eyes. Another a protester hit with a gas canister. A third showed an officer pointing his rifle into a car’s open window. In game circles, an article about how Ferguson affected videogames stoked anger at its insensitive focus.

Here’s the problem though–these last four had nothing to do with Ferguson. The photos were taken months or years earlier, over a thousand miles away. The article (from my publication, The Escapist) didn’t exist. These hoaxes are part of a growing trend in social media fakes–photoshopped or misidentified images intended to provoke outrage or fool users as a prank.

They’re not limited to Ferguson, either. I’ve detected fake photos during the World Cup, Occupy Protests and several other major news events. They’re a part of the news landscape now.

As social media like Twitter and Facebook start beating our traditional media to reporting on unfolding events, users need to start being more savvy about what they share. Not only does sharing fake images misrepresent the situation and cause confusion or anger in the public, sharing and commenting on media without fact-checking it can do lasting damage to a journalist’s reputation.

So here’s a quick-and-dirty guide to spotting a fake on social media. Generally, investigating and debunking a photo takes under two minutes, and some methods under 60 seconds.

 

1) Be Naturally Skeptical

TearGasOccupy

Photo Credit: AFP, Kimihiro Hoshino

First of all, consider the source. Does this photo come from a respected source like a journalist or a news outlet? If not, does it seem like this person is on the ground or knows what’s going on? Does it tally with other accounts?

For example, the photo above circulated a lot yesterday, claiming to show a protester hit by a gas canister in Ferguson. The photo does show a protester who’d been hit by a gas canister, but this was taken at the Occupy Oakland protests in 2011. It caused a pretty big stir at the time because the protester, Scott Olsen, was an Iraq veteran.

Anyone who’d seen footage or pictures of the Ferguson protests should’ve been immediately suspicious of this photo. Why? First of all, anyone who saw photos from Ferguson could tell you that the protesters were mostly African-American, but everyone in this picture is white. Second, there’d been no indication from reporters on the scene that there were casualties from gas canisters–something they’d have reported immediately. Third, the black hoodies were a hallmark of OWS.

Don’t assume anything’s true. If it smells even a little wrong or sensationalist to you, check it. Think before you Tweet.

 

2) If Unsure, Use Google Image Search

(Photo: O Globo, Pedro Kirilos)

Photo Credit: O Globo, Pedro Kirilos

When I was debunking Ferguson photos, a lot of people just assumed I have exceptional visual recall–but actually I was just using Google Image Search.

For example, when I saw the photo above of a cop macing a child, it didn’t read right to me. The cop’s uniform and police cruiser looked different than the ones I’d seen in photos. It was taken in daylight when the Ferguson crackdown happened after dark. And finally, the police in Ferguson flat-out weren’t getting that close to the demonstrators.

To check it, I opened up another tab to Google Image Search and typed in, “cop macing child.” There was a matching picture on the first page of results. When I clicked on the photo, it led to a page debunking the photo as a hoax–turns out this one’s a favorite and has been around for years. When I followed through on the links, I found the original news report from Brazilian outlet O Globo.

Yes, not only was this photo from 2011, but it was taken at a protest in Brazil. Finding the real source took around 60 seconds–not exactly strenuous. Trade secret: hoaxers are lazy, they take from the first page of results every time.

There’s also a shortcut for this tactic: If you install the Google Image tool in Chrome, you can search for pictures through dragging and dropping them into Google Image search or pasting a URL, which is useful for pictures that aren’t easily described, if you’re not good with search terms or you’re in a hurry.

 

3) Make Sure Any Text You Share Contains The Proper Context

Sometimes it’s not the image itself that’s wrong, it’s the comment framing it. While editorializing on a situation is one of the things social media does well, make sure the text passes muster and corresponds what the picture shows. Even a genuine photo can mislead people if it’s framed in an incorrect or biased manner.

checkpoint

Photo Credit: AP/The Sacramento Bee, Randall Benton

 

Take this photo for example. It made the rounds yesterday as an example of militarized police, and while it carried the hashtag #Ferguson it didn’t explicitly claim to be from Ferguson–an inherently misleading difference (clever girl). While this snapshot does show worrying things about police use of weapons–he shouldn’t be pointing that rifle directly at the driver–this didn’t happen during a protest, or even take place in Missouri at all. This photo shows a checkpoint the California Highway Patrol set up after a man shot four police officers in a Sacramento suburb–making the rifle a little more understandable. (If you look closely you can see the officer’s CHiP patch.) While it expresses a valid point, the way it’s framed tricks the viewer into thinking police checkpoints are happening in Ferguson as we speak.

But there are more harmful examples too. Remember the Reddit attempt to find the Boston Marathon bombers that ended up plastering an innocent man’s picture all over Twitter? Or Anonymous claiming they’d found Mike Brown’s killer yesterday? All real photos with erroneous or deceptive text. If the evidence on a claim seems thin, it’s better to wait until it’s corroborated before passing it on.

 

4) Spotting Photoshops

Most social media fakes aren’t photoshop jobs, since it’s less work for a hoaxer to find an existing photo and misrepresent it. However, since today someone decided to smear The Escapist with a photoshop, I’m including it.

Learning to spot photoshops can be difficult and should be a post in itself. I’ll instead link you to this short LifeHacker guide and add this: your best bet is to look for edges that don’t line up well (see the awful unmatched blockiness in the Escapist fake below), suspicious blending, lighting that isn’t right or shadows that should be there but aren’t. Most photoshop fakes are fast and sloppy alterations–but the best way is still to use Google Image search to find the original and see if it was doctored.

 

5) A Note On Article Screenshots

Photo Credit: Some Lying Jerkbag

Photo Credit: Some Lying Jerkbag

One recent trend has been for people to take screenshots of an article’s headline and then post it to Twitter, decrying that a site would publish an article on such an offensive topic. This is problematic for a number of reasons, but the main one is that by giving people a screenshot rather than a link, it can either misrepresent the content (i.e. spur people to judge the article without actually reading it) or in the case of the crude photoshop above, spread around a piece that the website never published.

When you see an article being flogged around the fleet like this, your first step should be to find and read that article.

“But I don’t want to give them traffic!” you say. But I would counter that until you know that the article exists and the actual content it contains, you probably shouldn’t jump to conclusions about what it says and definitely shouldn’t share it. (Indeed, hoaxers count on you sharing without reading.) Sure, you can argue that an individual headline–at least when it’s real–can be off-putting, but making that argument implicitly states that you’ve judged the material based on your preconceptions rather than what it actually says. “This article is awful,” is a different statement than, “This article is ok, but I don’t like the headline or the header picture.”

If you search for an article and don’t find it–or find a similar article under the different title–don’t automatically assume that the website retracted or altered it (as I saw several people do today on Twitter with the fraudulent Escapist piece). If you’re suspicious, contact one of the editors on Twitter and ask if the screenshot’s genuine and if the piece was removed–editors are generally fairly upfront about that sort of thing and it takes roughly five seconds.

This is particularly crucial if you’re a journalist, since you risk burning bridges by posting fake or misleading screenshots. Check your facts. Do at least the minimum amount of research to make an informed decision. Don’t take attacking a publication lightly.

 

6) What To Do If You Share a Fake

If you do share a fake–and it happens to all of us–minimizing the damage takes seconds.

  1. Delete the post or tweet.
  2. Immediately post a retraction apologizing and explaining the photo was fake.
  3. If you wrote a blog post highlighting or editorializing on the photo, take it down or–if it’s only one part of a larger blog post–edit the post and include a highly visible note at the top explaining the mistake and apologizing.
  4. Apologize to anyone you may have disparaged and say you’ll be more careful in the future. This is especially important if you’re a journalist and badmouthed another publication–this is a small industry and editors will remember.
  5. If any of your followers shared the photo with a lot of people, you may want to tell them individually that it was fake. Think of it like a virus, you want to contain the spread.

Social media is an incredible opportunity to share information without gatekeepers, but with that opportunity comes greater responsibility about what we spread across the internet. If you want to fire CNN and get your news on Twitter, you need to be your own fact-checker. Thankfully, a little skepticism, a few simple tools and a cool head will go a long way toward keeping your feeds hoax-free.


WARNING: This Update Includes Oceans, Podcasts and Soviets

Got a few updates here, a few personal and one big recommendation.

First, old business:

I wrote a piece for Mission Blue about what world leaders accomplished at The Economist World Ocean Summit.  You might not’ve heard about that because, you know, celebrities are getting divorced and stuff, but last month several governments sent representatives to meet in a Davos-like conference on how to fix the enormous damage we’re doing to the ocean (aka the thing that keeps all of us alive).

I also published a Critical Intel on how Tom Clancy used tabletop wargames to research Red Storm Rising.  That’ll be interesting to you author-types or anyone who’s fascinated by the Cold War with Russia.

Heh, sorry, the last Cold War with Russia.

Now for new business:

If you’re someone who writes words in exchange for government currency – or want to be one – check out THE FREELANCE GAME, a new podcast about freelance game journalism.  Hosts Nathan Meunier and Andrew Hayward are both veterans of the ink-for-money trade and dispense advice in a tone I can only describe as “water cooler casual.” The show’s helpful without being dictatorial – it’s emphasized early that every freelancer follows their own path – and provides pleasant shop talk in a profession that can occasionally feel isolating.  Discussions tend toward the frank and humorous, without the bombastic personality jousts so common in gaming podcasts. I’ve listened to one episode so far but there are three out now (including one with IGN editor Mitch Dyer).  Check it out.


People of the Internet: I Have Returned

MacArthur

 

It’s 2014, and as promised, I’m back in business!

After a two-month sabbatical, Critical Intel returned last week with an article about how Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, evokes a time period through game mechanics.

And in case you missed it, I also penned a humor piece for Slate a few weeks ago called, “NORAD’s Fighter Escort for Santa: Another Example of Wasteful Government Spending.” I was particularly proud of this one, since I’ve always admired Slate‘s Future Tense blog.

In other news, I just returned from 17 days in Thailand and Cambodia, where I collected writing material between exploring temple ruins and dodging riot cops–so expect to see some Southeast Asia-flavored content here and in CI soon. (If you’re wondering, Southeast Asia-flavored means spicy.)

Thanks for hanging with me through the sabbatical, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciated the messages of support I received during the short hiatus. Here’s to a new year and new possibilities.

2014 is going to be a good one, I can feel it.


Critical Intel on Sabbatical

Just a short announcement today.

After talking it over with my colleagues and family, I’ve decided to take a sabbatical from Critical Intel for the remainder of the year.  Putting the column on hiatus was my call and I can’t say enough good things about my editors at The Escapist and the support they’ve given me both professionally and personally.  According to the current plan, the column will return in January.

I love Critical Intel, and feel it’s a needed and appreciated voice in game journalism.  That love kept the column going for the last six months even as I got married and moved to Hong Kong.  During that period, my wife and I bounced across the country for two months.  I wrote columns in the passenger seat of a moving car, filed articles over airport wifi, and kept hitting deadlines as we re-built our life here.  But at the end of September my grandmother passed away, followed by my father three days later.

While I’ve continued writing CI since then, I realized last week that – for the time being at least – I can’t give the column the attention it needs.  Writing CI requires extensive research, solid analytical thinking, and attention to detail, and unfortunately grief has a way of screwing with all those things.  Turning out columns on deadline wasn’t the problem, it was the frustrating amount of energy I had to expend to create publishable work.  Faced with an inevitable drop in quality, I decided to close CI up for the winter.

But don’t think that Critical Intel is going away – this is a cat nap, not a dirt nap.   This sabbatical gives me a good opportunity to work in a deadline-free environment, allowing me to develop a back-catalogue of columns so I’m not so pressed for time next year and can spend more energy developing ideas that need extra care.  In other words, even though you’re not reading CI, I’m still writing it.  The sabbatical also gives me a little breathing space to get some fiction off the ground and sell my historical crime novel Lost Guns.  (Strangely, while grief paralyzed my left-brain, my right-brain seems to be manning the pumps double time.)  The lights are all on here in the workshop, and I’m fiddling with some stuff I can’t wait to show you.

So really, Critical Intel isn’t on hiatus at all, it’s just re-arming and re-fitting.  Thank you for your continued support, and I look forward to seeing all of you in January.

 


One Year of Critical Intel

 

Order the cake and dust off your party hat, because it’s Critical Intel‘s first birthday!

Well okay, not exactly.  CritIntel’s first anniversary was actually back on October 12th, but it escaped my notice because of some stuff that’s gone down recently.  Regardless, I’m happy to see how my slick little newborn idea’s grown up over the last year.

I started Critical Intel to talk about how games and the real world are bleeding together, and I feel good about how much ground we’ve covered over the last year.  In one trip around the sun we’ve taken on the false realism of military FPS games, compared Dishonored to real-life 18th century dueling rituals and explored how Star Wars: The Old Republic became an unlikely battleground for LGBT rights.  We’ve explored politics, history and contemporary social issues without resorting to name-calling and hate mail – something people thought impossible when the column started.  The prestigious Games Journalism Prizes were even nice enough to longlist two columns for its annual prize.

You might notice that I’ve been saying “we” a lot.  Despite appearances, Critical Intel is very much a team effort.  A lot of people, from editors to artists, to the back-office folks who keep the lights on, have a hand in bringing CritIntel’s hot analytical goodness direct to your eyeballs every Thursday.  Those people have my deepest thanks, but so does everyone who’s ever passed me a news tip, shared the column or even made it a subject of your podcast or blog post.

Most of all, I’d like to thank you, the reader, for supporting the column.  There was never any guarantee that Critical Intel would find an audience or sustain itself for this long, and I appreciate you lending me your brain for ten minutes a week.

But don’t leave the theater yet –  it’s just intermission.  There’s some exciting stuff coming up, and you won’t want to miss it.

Because if you liked my last trick, I can’t wait to show you what I’ve got up my sleeve for next year.