Exclusive Interview: Sex, Drugs, And Cartoon Violence Author Russ Pitts

One day, someone will write a tell-all book about what it’s like being a video game journalist. But today is not that day. Which is good because I’ve been writing about games for more than twenty years and I’m getting bored just thinking about it.

Instead, today is the day you get to read about what it’s been like for video game journalist Russ Pitts to write his second memoir, Sex, Drugs, And Cartoon Violence: My Decade As A Video Game Journalist (paperback, digital). The follow-up to last year’s Eagle Semen: The Story Of TechTV Employee Number One, the book chronicles Pitts’ ten year stint at Polygon (where he was one of the Founding Editors and their former Features Editor) and The Escapist (where he held multiple titles including Editor-in-Chief and Editorial Director), as well as his time contributing to IGN, Gamespot, Kotaku, and other gaming outlets.

 Russ Pitts Sex Drugs And Cartoon Violence author

I always like to start with the basics. So, what is Sex, Drugs, And Cartoon Violence about?

The book is about the parts of video game journalism that we, as journalists, very rarely get to write about: the junkets, backstage at events, all of the “perks.” All of the things I experienced in my ten years working for games media outlets that I either A) didn’t expect I’d experience before I was a games journalist, or B) kind of think are bullshit.

So is the book just like, “I went to this party on a yacht, but the yacht didn’t leave the dock, and we spent most of the time singing that ‘I’m on a motherfucking boat’ song from Saturday Night Live“? Because I can’t really see how a video game journalist version of Motley Crue’s The Dirt would be any fun to read. Or to write for that matter.

No. That would be boring as hell, you’re right. This book is much more personal than that. It’s literally ten years of my life’s journey condensed to 300+ pages. It’s a true memoir. The video game journalism industry is just the setting, and occasional antagonist.

Ah, gotcha. Why did you decide to write this book?

When I left Polygon in 2014, my writing engine was still revved up hard. I filed about 100,000 words worth of stories in the few weeks leading up to my departure from there, and after I had everything filed away, I still wanted to write. So I did. And I naturally had some things on my chest about the industry I had just left behind.

In truth, the book started out as a straight memoir, but the deeper I dug into my experiences, the more I realized I’d already written so much about my time as a game journalist, and the only parts I hadn’t written about where the perks. Plus, as a benefit to my process, I had extensive notes, receipts, and, in many cases, filed reports about those events to lean on in telling the stories I wrote into the book.

There’s probably another book’s worth of experiences that I’ll never get on paper because I can’t recall the facts well enough to stand behind them, and I don’t have notes about them. Like, the day-to-day of writing and editing…god, who would even read that? Probably for the best.

Now, I’ve been writing about games for over twenty years, and counting, and aside from some nonsense in Amsterdam, I’ve never seen any sex at video game events, nor any drugs. I guess my question is, am I just not getting invited to the right junkets?

Ha! Hard to say. All I know is what I experienced. Or at least what I remember about what I experienced. Though in some instances I have photographic evidence. I’m not sure if I mentioned that in the book. Probably best to get specific about that.

In putting this book together, were there other professional memoirs that you looked to for inspiration in how Sex, Drugs, And Cartoon Violence should be written or what it should include?

Not really. Though I am an avid reader, and have read plenty of autobiographies and memoirs, I didn’t feel like there was a template I had to follow. I’ve never really followed anyone with my games work. Maybe I should have. I don’t know, But I didn’t here.

That said, two of my favorite memoirs are Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up and Gene Wilder’s Kiss Me Like A Stranger. Given how they both struck me as people who kind of fell into their experiences and wrote about them honestly, I’d be surprised if I didn’t at least borrow some of their approaches. Even if subliminally.

This book is, I assume — and please correct me if I’m wrong — the longest thing you’ve ever written.

Not technically, no. How Video Games Are Made was a massive volume, comprised of 10,000+ word stories written separately and then later compiled and edited into a single whole. Though if you count that as separate stories, then yes, Sex, Drugs, And Cartoon Violence is the longest single work I’ve written.

Fuck, that’s such a games writer thing to say.

Heh. Okay, but in writing something this long, did you learn anything that you think will have an impact on how you writing gaming stories going forward?

Well, How Video Games Are Made is actually relevant to this answer because before I began the reporting process that led to that book, I’d never written anything over 20,000 words or so. Then I started that book, and also wrote “The History Of Xbox Live” for Polygon, which was also massive.

What I learned from those experiences was the value of organization and process. Lots of work to do before the writing even starts. And how to conduct interviews in a way that will not only generate good quotes, but help structure the story all on their own. That way my writing can simply be the current helping the story float along.

Before those works, I’d never imagined I’d have the patience or attention to detail to write a book. I’m actually a super lazy writer. I write quickly, so I can be done with it. And so I write and revise as I go. My first drafts are almost always printable. But the idea of writing a book-length work, letting pieces sit unfinished, other pieces not be available, and keep track of it all, then make sure it all fits together in the end…that terrified me.

By the time I started writing this book, I’d put most of those fears away. The bigger challenge was worrying if I could carry something book-length with just my own voice, and no interviews. I think I did alright with that, but we’ll see if anyone else agrees.

As you’re well aware, there are a lot of people who hate game journalists and think the worst of us. What do you think they’re going to learn from this book?

Wow, what a question.

You know, maybe this is another thing people who hate me can hate me for, but I don’t spend a huge amount of time thinking about people who hate me. And I don’t mean that to be flip. I know a lot of games journalists who do. They spend hours and hours on 4chan and NeoGaf, reading the horrible things written about them and then soliciting support from their inner circles. This has always struck me as profane. And my former colleagues can tell you I don’t have a lot of patience for it. It sucks your energy. I’d much rather spend my time worrying about people who enjoy what I do, and giving them more of that.

But in an effort to guess at an answer to your question…fuck, I don’t know. That games journalists are people? That some of the things they hate us for are valid? That others aren’t?

Honestly, man, if I had to guess at where a question like this might be coming from, I’d have to say simply that my intent is not to provide fuel to any fire or even put one out. People will take from the work what they bring into it, and hopefully also something that’s there. But I’m not writing it for any purpose other than to journal.

I’m a journalist and these are things I experienced. I think that’s a good enough reason to write anything, and if it’s taken as nothing more than that, I’ll be perfectly happy.

You kind of already answered this, but I’ll ask it anyway: As you were writing the book, were you at all worried that you might be giving fuel to the people who hate or distrust game journalists? And did you do anything about it? Like did you cut that stuff out, or leave it in but take special care to put it in its proper context…

I will say that I did withhold some details that might hurt various people I care about, or that might damage businesses. I tried to be careful about how I presented facts so as not to mislead anyone, break any confidences, or damage anyone’s business. I don’t want to ruin anyone, if it can be helped. That’s never been why I write about games. And there are plenty of stories I’ve heard over the years that simply aren’t mine to tell. But some things had to be written honestly or not at all, so there will undoubtedly be a few people who will get pissed about this book. I hope they get over it, but if they don’t, well….

For the book’s forward, you enlisted fellow game journalist Adam Sessler. Why him as opposed to a game developer?

It never occurred to me to ask a game developer. I wanted a foreword from someone who’d had some of the same experiences I had, from a similar perspective, and who knew me well enough to understand where I’m coming from with this book. That’s a short list.

Aside from Sex, Drugs, And Cartoon Violence, you’re also one of the founders of TakeThis.org, a charity that, “seeks to inform our community” — i.e. the gaming community — “about mental health issues, to provide education about mental disorders and mental illness prevention, and to reduce the stigma of mental illness.” Given that, why not write a book about gaming and depression?

Hmm, interesting question. And, with all due respect, kind of insulting. But I know you mean it well.

The truth is both of my memoirs to date — Sex, Drugs, And Cartoon Violence and Eagle Semen — are books about my mental health issues. So much of what I’ve experienced and accomplished has been through a lens and against the headwinds of my depression and anxiety that there’s practically no way to separate my story from that struggle. I’ve already heard from some early readers of Sex, Drugs, And Cartoon Violence that it touched them deeply in regards to their own struggles with anxiety, which, A) is an amazing thing to hear, but also B) was what I’d hoped to achieve.

As for whether I’ll write anything more specifically about mental health issues, I’m not sure. So much of what we’re doing at Take This is helping those with knowledge about mental health issues — researchers, doctors — reach those who need their perspective. I feel like, alongside someone who’s studied mental health issues for decades, my own contributions would be miniscule.

But to explain my reaction to the question, I’ve struggled my whole life to be recognized for the things I’ve done that fall outside of expectations. Some of that is in this book. It’s too easy to label people and pigeonhole your expectations of them. And I have always tried to go my own way even when others would have greatly preferred I go theirs. I have no doubt that of all the things I’ve done so far with this life, my work with Take This is the most meaningful. And maybe some day I’ll feel like that’s something I need to write about. But for now, as I turn a new chapter in my personal life and creative career, I felt this was the right time to put a bow on my games journalism work. Just as I did with my career in television with Eagle Semen. And just as I may some day in the future for my work with Take This, or whatever else.

Russ Pitts Sex Drugs And Cartoon Violence cover

Lastly, if someone enjoys Sex, Drugs, And Cartoon Violence and wants to read another book about the video game industry, what would you recommend and why?

I’ve long avoided reading other books about the game industry. Mostly for the same reason that I avoided reading reviews of games I was also reviewing. As a writer covering the field, I wanted my work to be its own, and not borrow from anyone else’s.

Maybe now that I’m — I hate to say “done,” but it sure feels like that — I’ll take the time to catch up on what I’ve missed. Much like I’ve done the past year or so with video games themselves.

 

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