Blogging awards: breaking the chain

Blogging awards usually involve sharing guidance for other bloggers. This is the case for one I was nominated for recently: the rules stated I’d need to give Later Levels’ origin story along with five pieces of advice before nominating five to 12 other bloggers to take a turn.

I was totally stumped and had no idea what to write. Drafting a response post to a separate award nomination just the week before meant I was all out of new advice and I’d already explained how the blog came to life in previous posts. Hoping it might give me some inspiration, I decided to stop staring at the blank screen on my laptop and instead figure out where this current award had originally come from because it wasn’t one I’d ever heard of in my seven years of blogging.

blogging, laptop, hands, keyboard

Tracing back through the chain didn’t take long at all because it had only been in existence for several weeks. In their originating post, the author explained how the award had been created to build links within the community and collate a pool of useful tips that everybody here could benefit from. I struggled to see how it was different from the other honours doing the rounds though; its rules sounded awfully like several other existing awards and I wasn’t sure what this new one added.

I then noticed that the creator had given their own guidance for new bloggers and had mentioned search engine optimisation (SEO) in one of their tips. Anyone who’s ever read a website or book about the subject will be familiar with the practice of improving your search rankings by getting a link back to your blog on as many good sites as possible. A blogging award where nominees are required to give up to 12 nominees of their own along with a link to this original post seemed very convenient right about now.

I realise just how cynical I sound. My negativity is in part brought on by what we’ve experienced over the past eight months because the ever-present risk of COVID-19 has done a wonderful job of sucking the motivation out of me. Combine this with recently looking at how blogging had changed over the years and the disappointing realisation that it’s far less community-orientated than it used to be, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that this award had an almost chain-letter smell about it.

I realise that such recognitions are meant to be a sincere way of celebrating our blogging efforts and I really am honoured each time Later Levels is included. But let’s be honest with ourselves: it’s time to finally admit that they’re a pain in the butt. As mentioned above, it can be difficult to give advice you haven’t already shared, provide different answers to questions you’ve been asked several times or tell your origin story in words you haven’t used before.

blog, award, awesome, epic, trophies

There’s also the fact that it becomes increasingly difficult to nominate someone who hasn’t already been recognised because we all have friends in the same blogging circles. And once you’ve finally managed to choose your people, it’s impossible not to put them under any pressure to accept an award no matter how much you try. Nominees usually feel obliged to publish a witty response post because they don’t want to be considered ungrateful, unfriendly, or unwilling to get involved.

I’m not sure I’m ready to do what others have done and put a badge up on the site declaring that it’s an award-free zone though. The truth is that it’s always nice to be recognised – everyone likes to receive a compliment occasionally and hear that their content is appreciated. I’ve also found that the more creative questions asked as part of some awards make for great writing prompts, like this one about explaining horror game storylines to children in a way that doesn’t scare them.

I just think that there’s got to be a better way of showing your admiration for your blogger-friends than giving them the Blogger Appreciation, Blogger Recognition, Liebster, Mystery Blogger, One Lovely Blog, Real Neat Blog, Sunshine Blogger, Unique Blogger, Versatile Blogger or any of the other awards out there. (I took up almost half a paragraph there just listing those I could remember off the top of my head, and I’m sure there are hundreds more out there.)

The best thing you can do to show your appreciation for someone’s content is to share it. If there’s a post you particularly enjoyed, don’t keep it to yourself: leave a comment to further the conversation and share the link with others. Write a post about the same subject if you’re feeling inspired to do so and get in touch with the author directly if you’d like to talk to them about it. There’s no need to wait until the next round of blog awards to give a deserving blogger a pat on the back for their hard work.

make kindness the norm, World Kindness Day

World Kindness Day is coming up again on Friday and drafting this post has given me an idea for a celebration: a way to give a shout-out to the bloggers we admire and the posts we’ve enjoyed. It’s just a small thing considering everything else going on in the world right now, but maybe a little bit of positivity may be just the thing we need to give ourselves a boost in time for the weekend. Check back later this week to find out what I’ve got planned and how you can get involved.

And I promise: you won’t need to give your origin story, several pieces of advice or nominate 20 bloggers.

Blogging: looking back, and looking forward

Realising this morning that I’ve now written over 700 posts for the blog came as quite a surprise. I didn’t think the number would be so high; Later Levels might have been going for almost four years but it doesn’t feel that long at all.

A lot of things have changed for my hobbies during that time and many for the better. Most gamers now accept that women pick up controllers; we’re more likely to see female protagonists in new releases; and the importance of narrative and the ability of video games to share experiences is understood. And as for blogging, it’s still something I’m enjoying and I don’t see that stopping, but it’s interesting to take a step back and see how the community has shifted over the past year.

MoeGamer, title, website, blog, homepage

Someone who I bet has seen a few changes in his blogging history too is Pete from MoeGamer. Since his first post in April 2014 where he said he was hoping his site would be ‘a safe haven for those who enjoy and are passionate about Japanese interactive entertainment’, he has become well-known for his interesting conversations and good advice. After his very kind nomination for a Blogger Recognition Award last month, I thought I’d take this opportunity to share some thoughts on what’s happened in the last four years.

Later Levels was started in December 2016 after a previous blog ended several months before when it didn’t work out as planned. Ben and I decided that we wanted to create a place online where we could share our opinions on video games and no longer feel as though we had to fight to stay current or review every single release. He eventually had to step away from blogging due to family and work commitments but remains a good friend, and I’ve been plodding along here on my own since early 2019.

I’m obviously talking about my own experiences from inside my individual bubble, but back at the beginning it felt as though the hobby was very community-orientated. It was common for bloggers to reach out to one another with suggestions for collaborations, but it wasn’t just done to increase their followers: it was more about increasing conversations and possibly even making some new friends. It was generally accepted that if you went it completely alone, you were more likely to fail.

This then started to change and the difference has become particularly noticeable in 2020. If I had to put my finger on why, I’d say it was because we all felt overwhelmed or exhausted by such projects. They’d grown in number, length and effort, and it was impossible to take part in all of them even though there was an unspoken pressure to do so. There are far fewer collaborations happening this year and those I’m aware of are being run by smaller groups, such as the game-swaps I’ve enjoyed with individual bloggers recently.

WordPress, reading, blogging, posts, articles, titles

There seems to be less conversation happening in comment sections now too. I’m guilty of this myself, as I’ll often bookmark blog posts with the intention of coming back to them later in the day but I never seem to get around to it. I’ve had more available time since the start of the UK lockdown in March but it still feels as though it’s a struggle to fit everything in. Perhaps it’s a case of being digitally-drained though: it’s tough to work up the motivation to return to my laptop when I’ve been in conference calls all day.

Moving on to trends in the subjects covered by gaming blogs, new sites are more likely to focus on covering the latest news rather than taking a personal tone and I think this could be the cause of their shorter lifespans. The trouble with staying on top of everything is that it’s impossible – plus it’s not fun for you or your audience. Potential readers are highly likely to have already heard about the latest developments in the industry from the major gaming websites, and regurgitating press releases doesn’t fulfil a desire to be creative.

Many long-running blogs have shifted away from covering only video games to now talking about other media such as films, books, comics and board games too. For some bloggers, this may be because their hobbies have broadened during the extra free hours brought by the lockdown; but for others, it’s to do with increasing their views and followers. Logic says that the more subjects you write about, the wider your audience will be and it’s a method if you’re looking to attract more readers and generate revenue.

Speaking of other media, bloggers are branching out of WordPress too. You’ll find them streaming on Twitch, publishing videos on YouTube and recording podcasts. Those who are willing to put in the time are finding new ways to express their creativity – but others expect their readers to follow them over to their new channels and it simply doesn’t work like that. I’ve also noticed established streamers set up blogs, and then abandon them just as quickly when they realise their viewers just aren’t reading.

blogging, laptop, hands, keyboard

I’m required to give some advice for new bloggers as part of the Blogger Recognition Award nomination from Pete so I’m going to base it on the observations I’ve made above. Quite simply: all that blogging guidance you find online is a load of rubbish. You’re better off totally ignoring it and simply focusing on having fun with your site and doing what suits you. Write about things you’re genuinely interested in and get to know other bloggers in the community, and blogging end up being one of the most rewarding things you do.

The lockdown has affected us in so many ways, some of which we’re not even aware of right now, but I think a few can be seen within the blogging community at the present time. The feeling of isolation has caused us to turn in on ourselves and focus on what’s happening inside our immediate circles, while many individuals are turning away from their laptops at the end of the day after being stuck in front of a screen for work. We’re finding it hard to concentrate, stay motivated and remain positive.

Although I’m not saying that blogging in 2016 was better than the present, I do miss the level of collaboration and conversation within the community from back then. Maybe these are elements of the hobby which will slowly return once we’re all in a better place and the world isn’t so chaotic. But that’s not to say there isn’t support here for those who need it: all you need to do is reach out and you’ll find plenty of bloggers who are willing to talk, answer questions and tell you all about their favourite video games.

The only thing we can do is take it one day at a time. Things will get better eventually.

Frosti-writes: honesty in your posts

One of the hardest things you can do as a gaming blogger is write a review. On one hand, you want to give your readers an honest opinion and let them know if a game is worth their time and money. Then on the other, you want to give the developer credit for their effort.

These sides don’t always play nicely together and can conflict if the release is a bad one. It’s especially difficult if the review is for a game you received via a free key because you might feel a bad critique could damage your relationship with the developer or publisher. Come across a critique which absolutely gushes about a title but doesn’t specifically explain why it’s so good and is extremely far removed from most other opinions on it, and you’ve likely found a blogger who’s experiencing this kind of struggle.

It can be a balancing act, and a lesson I’ve had to learn myself since starting blogging. I now only accept keys for games which are the sort of thing I usually enjoy – point-and-clicks or narrative-based adventures – and I know which public relations (PR) contacts are likely to promote those sort of experiences. Accepting a free code comes with the obligation of publishing a review, and life is too short to spend playing video games you’re not enjoying and then having to write about them.

That being said though, it’s important to never shy away from expressing your opinion even if it’s a negative one. It is your blog after all. But it’s just as vital to make sure you’re able to explain why you feel the way you do. The reason ‘I just didn’t like it’ can sometimes be valid and the only one you can give, but it isn’t enough if you’re trying to give a well-rounded critique to your audience. It also doesn’t give the developer much to go on: if you’re able to provide more details, they then have opportunity to improve their work in the future.

Someone who I admire in this regard is Frostilyte from Frostilyte Writes. His honesty (along with his awesome artwork) is one of the reasons I enjoy his posts and streams as much as I do. If he has a view on a video game or genre that many others are unlikely to agree with, he doesn’t shy away from it. Instead he’s happy to talk about it and always strives to explain his opinion so you can see where he’s coming from, and you can be certain when reading one of his reviews that it’s really what he thinks.

I first realised this when watching him on a Frosti Fridays evening as he began streaming Hollow Knight to his Twitch channel a few months ago. My other-half had attempted to play Ori and the Blind Forest for our GameBlast20 challenge earlier this year, and made a comment in chat about the coordination to play these kind of Metroidvania titles. This moved us on to a conversation about our thoughts on Moon Studios’ release and Frosti wasn’t scared to give an opinion that was quite different to most I’ve heard before.

His honesty during this situation, along with his very kind nomination for the Super Happy Love Award last month, made me think about the way I express my own opinions. Do I ever ‘adapt’ them so as not to be so far removed from general consensus or seem like I’m just trying to be different from the majority? I already know that I don’t like writing negative reviews, because if I’ve not enjoyed playing a game then I’m not going to enjoy writing about it either; is this a part of it too?

Twitch, stream, chat, Frostilyte, Frostilyte Writes

It’s possible that I hold back in my posts without even realising I’m doing it sometimes. This could come in part from not wanting to share my blog with many people in my real life and concern about what they might think if they stumble across it. It can also be hard to say what you truly think about a game or a company when you know so many others around you feel completely differently. For example, I’ve had an idea for a post about Nintendo for a while now but I’ve always been too scared to write it.

Perhaps it’s time to start letting go of the doubts we feel about sharing our thoughts as bloggers and the worry we feel when expressing a different view. Everyone here in our community has different backgrounds and experiences which make us each react to the video games we play in a way which is unique to us. It’s this which keeps our conversations interesting: there’s something to be learned from everyone we speak to and every discussion is a chance to open your eyes to something you might not have considered before.

Talking to Frostilyte during his streams has made me want to be more open in my writing. The thing he has taught me over the past few months is that it’s ok to have your own opinion, even if it’s totally unlike that conveyed by everybody else. But you’ve got to be able to explain it so others can understand why you’ve arrived at this view, even if they don’t necessarily agree with you. It’s certainly something I’m going to try to stick to – as well as tuning in for more Frosti Fridays.

I know what I’m doing this afternoon now. It’s time to finally start writing that post explaining why I don’t like Nintendo.

Lockdown gaming: when a hobby stops being fun

How many hours have you sunk into video games since the COVID-19 lockdown was imposed in the UK? With a lot of people finding themselves with more free time over the past few months, many have turned to hobbies such as gaming to fill those extra hours.

I was certainly one of them at the beginning of the isolation period. Working from home meant that instead of devoting four hours to a commute into London each day, I could instead use them for other things such as picking up a controller. I managed to complete 15 games during April and May with entries being knocked off my backlog a couple of times each week; and I tried a number of demos thanks to the increase in digital expos, which kept the number of items on my Steam wishlist topped up.

Video games gave me a sense of productivity back then. When my usual routine had been screwed up thanks to the pandemic, and working days seemed to be a never-ending stream of conference calls where much was said but little was achieved, they provided a way to feel as though I’d accomplished something. The worlds they presented were full of chaos and disorder, yet it was in my power to bring them back within control with each quest fulfilled and level completed.

But then came June and something inside me shifted. I’d now spent over two months of my life almost completely online and the desire to be in front of a screen diminished with each passing hour. I began concentrating on pastimes outside of gaming such as cross-stitching and jigsaw-puzzling, and eventually I decided to take a break from streaming too. The progress I’d made on reducing my backlog came to a standstill and I can count the number of games I’ve finished since then on one hand.

The problem was that gaming during the lockdown had started to feel like a second job. My new routine was to get up at 06:00, go for a socially-distanced walk and connect to my work laptop an hour later; slog through emails, instant messages and video calls before logging off at around 16:00; then hit the sofa and grab the controller after dinner and showers were done. Heading to bed not long after 22:00 meant I was ready to do the exact same thing again the following day.

Gaming became something I did just to pass the time during the pandemic rather than something I enjoyed, and the fact there wasn’t much I wanted to play didn’t help. The new releases coming out didn’t hold much interest or received less than glowing reviews. Upcoming titles I’d been looking forward to and had either backed on Kickstarter or added to my wishlist were delayed by several months. And although the games I picked up during the Steam summer sale were ones I’d wanted, I didn’t feel any motivation to install them.

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That doesn’t bode well for a video game blogger, does it? There are only so many times you can write about the titles from your childhood or top-ten lists without starting to like a fraud, and the worry that I wouldn’t have anything new to say niggled away at the back of my mind. It turned into a horrible cycle. I was convinced I needed to play games so I’d have something to write about, even if I wasn’t enjoying them; but the more I forced myself to do that, the less I wanted to play.

It was the decision to take some time away from Twitch which helped me move past this. Removing myself for a while made me realise that the most important thing about streaming was getting fun out of it, and achieving that meant only playing games I was interested in. So why shouldn’t it be the same for blogging and gaming in general? One evening I decided I wasn’t going to reach for the controller as I usually did because I really wasn’t in the mood and you know what? The blog didn’t fall apart.

Sure, I’m still worried there’s going to come a point where I’ll have nothing new to write about. And yes, I’m still in a slump where new games aren’t grabbing my attention and those I’m really looking forward too are still under development. Despite the rise in digital expos, the cancellation of physical events such as EGX Rezzed and MCM Comic Con has left me without some of the usual stuff I’d cover throughout the summer and my upcoming schedule is looking rather more empty than it has done in the past.

But hobbies are nothing if they’re no longer fun, and the blog will always be here for me even if the number of posts I’m able to publish each week eventually decreases. We’re going through an unprecedented time right now and that gives us the opportunity to look at things from new perspectives and offer fresh insights – as well the chance to take a step back and assess where we’re going. It’s also proven how the people you meet online can turn into good friends in real life who are there to support you when you need some reassurance.

It’s time to stop picking up the controller after logging off from work because it feels like a second job, and start doing it because I want to lose myself in a video game. That’s going to mean searching out more from the genres I love and no longer feeling guilty about switching off a title if it’s not doing it for me. Give me more adventures, interesting stories, detective mysteries and full-motion video (FMV) games. (I can hear everyone who joined us for the stream of Dark Nights with Poe and Munro groaning right now.)

Whatever you’re trying to achieve through gaming, blogging and streaming, make sure that one of your priorities is to enjoy yourself. I think we all deserve a little bit of fun right now.

What if Later Levels wasn’t about video games?

Here’s a question for bloggers: what would you do if you were no longer able to write about the current subject for your site? Would you take the decision to start again by finding a new topic of interest and, if so, what would you then cover?

This was the conundrum posed to the nominees for a Mystery Blogger Award by The Night Owl from The Late Night Session back in April. I’ve found it one of the most interesting and hardest questions to respond to so far because, since Later Levels started over three years ago, I’ve hardly ever deviated from the subject of video games. Occasionally I’ve posted something about blogging itself and have also written a couple of posts for other blogs about different areas, but I return to gaming consistently.

Locked In A Room, team, lab coats, Kim, Joel, Jake, Pete, Tim, GeekOut South-West

Perhaps I could write about escape rooms instead? As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve grown to love them since trying my first in January 2019 and I managed to complete seven in total last year. It’s certainly a subject I’d be excited about covering but I’m not sure how sustainable it would be for me personally: my other-half and I have now completed most of the rooms in Essex which interest us, so we need to start going further afield. Blogging content would therefore be limited to where and when we were able to travel.

How about other types of games instead then? My enjoyment of escape rooms has encouraged me to try a few treasure hunts, jigsaw puzzles and online detective experiences over the past six months, and this has been particularly convenient throughout the UK lockdown since March. It doesn’t feel like a good enough answer to The Night Owl’s question though. It’s a subject that’s still very close to gaming and one I touch upon sometimes now, so maybe I should be thinking of a completely unrelated topic.

A New Way of Cooking With Chocolate, book, Hotel Chocolat

So what about cooking? You can usually find me in the kitchen when I’m not playing video games; and thanks to some helpful advice from Teri-Mae from Sheikah Plate, I recently started making bread by hand once a week after we were unable to find any in the supermarket during a shopping trip. The thing is though, I’m just not that creative when it comes to recipes. I’m more likely to follow someone else’s and tweak it slightly to my family’s tastes, rather than create an entirely new one from scratch for an audience.

The truth is that I can only ever see myself blogging about video games now. Both hobbies have become so entwined since 2016 that I’m not sure one would exist without the other any longer. If I didn’t have a channel to share my thoughts about the games I’m playing, it would feel as though something was missing; and if I blogged about a different subject, I don’t think I’d get as much enjoyment out of it because I wouldn’t be a part of the gaming community here at WordPress.

Being so narrow in the topic for your blog isn’t necessarily the best way to go though if you’re looking to increase your views and followers. Many professional and casual sites I follow have moved away from video games only in recent years and now cover board games, films and books too. Logic says that the more subjects you write about, the wider your audience will be and surely that can only be a good thing when it comes to attracting readers and generating revenue.

But there’s also an argument for sticking to one topic. I remember reading something about the same time as setting up Later Levels, which recommended writing about a single area only so you could position yourself in the community as an ‘authority blogger’ – someone who’s considered an specialist on their subject and whom others turn to for support or recommendations. If you’re continually expanding your number of topics, how can you hope to become an expert in any of them?

What I’ve come to realise over the years though is this: all that blogging advice you find online is an utter load of rubbish (I’m being very careful not to swear here). You’re better off totally ignoring it and simply focusing on having fun with your site. Write about things you’re genuinely interested in, because you’re the one putting in the effort and that will happen far more easily if you’re enthusiastic about doing it. You’ll also notice the side-effect of creating content that others enjoy as much as you do.

That’s why you’ll find me sticking to video games. I’m grateful to The Night Owl and the Mystery Blogger Award nomination for giving me the opportunity to think about a different future for Later Levels; and I might write about something else occasionally, as well as start posting more bread photographs on Instagram. But gaming is what I’m interested in and excited about, and I can’t think of anything else I’d rather blog about – or another community I’d rather be a part of.

The Support Role: there when you need it

New year, new blog. January is a month of change here on WordPress. New bloggers decide it’s time to start a site and are busy thinking about what their first post should be, while those who have been around for a while consider redesigns and a possible change in direction.

Whether you’ve just started your blogging journey or have a few years’ experience under your belt, both situations can feel a little daunting. It can be more work than you realise and come with a steeper learning curve than expected. For new writers, there may be additional pressure from feeling as though you’re entering into a community where everybody already knows each other; and for established bloggers, there’s the battle to keep things fresh and avoid the dreaded writers’ block.

Luke from Hundstrasse and I were chatting about these things late last year after we got into a conversation about how difficult it can be to get good blogging advice. The internet searches I’d run in the past pulled back plenty of responses to my questions – but seemed to be written by ‘SEO experts’ or gurus who could show you how to make money from your site. Neither were the kind of people we wanted to take guidance from. Where were the answers from people who were actually blogging – and not for profit, but for enjoyment?

The Support Role, Discord, logo, icon, cross, healing, circle

A month or so later and we decided to create The Support Role, a new Discord server where bloggers can come together to learn from each other. We want it to be a place where new bloggers could be introduced to other members of the community and those who have been here a while could possibly make new blogging friends. But not only that: we’re working on making it a group where questions can be asked, advice sought and opinions requested, and real answers are received from peers who know where you’re coming from.

The server has only been active since the beginning of the year and so is still in its starting phase, but already we’ve had some very useful discussions. We’ve also added dedicated channels for streaming, video and podcasting advice for anyone who wants to dip their toes into other areas of content creation. There’s a place to share collaboration ideas if you’re looking for people who would be interested in getting involved in a joint-project, and somewhere for video game press releases if we come across anything interesting.

It may seem strange that I decided to go in this direction with Luke after writing in October 2018 about finding the social aspect of blogging pretty difficult. Although I’m usually fine and can join in if I’m in a chat with a handful of friends, the anxiety starts to creep in when it gets to more than five people or so. But I said in my resolutions post that I wanted to more to get bloggers taking and share our experience, and the server – along with the weekly #BloggerTalk events – feel like a great place to start.

This invitation to is open to everyone so please do stop by and make yourself at home. There are channels for chatting if you feel like talking about the games you’re playing at the moment or sharing your pet photographs; but if you’re more the quiet type, then the group is there wherever you need to ask a blogging question or get some advice. Use it how you see fit and however it’s going to help you make the most of your site.

Thanks so much to Luke from Hundstrasse for being my partner-in-crime and getting the group off the ground. We look forward to seeing you over on The Support Role!

We’re taking part in GameBlast20 to support SpecialEffect, the gamers’ charity.
Making a donation will bring you great loot, increase your XP by +100 and make you immune to fire.*
(*Not guaranteed.)