Donkey Kong

How Donkey Kong helped me become a better freelance writer

It seems unlikely, but it’s true – Shigeru Miyamoto’s classic platform game is (part of) the secret of my success.

I’ve been a freelance writer for most of my journalism career; while I’ve had editorial stints at CNET, Gizmodo, APC, PC Mag and Finder over the years, most of the time if you looked up what I was doing over nearly a quarter of a century now (yikes!) the chances are that I’d be working as a freelancer.

Speaking of which, need a freelancer? Drop me a line.

Freelance journalism isn’t easy.

The work isn’t stable, the pay rates are, frankly, woeful and in more recent years it’s become increasingly more difficult for publications to make money from content… which means there’s even less money in the kitty for us poor freelance hacks.

One of the ways that I’ve negotiated this tricky market is by producing content.

Not just a little bit of content, but quite a lot of it. If, as Hemingway is so often quoted, there’s nothing to writing, because all you do is sit at a typewriter and bleed, then consider me a word haemophiliac.

I only realised relatively recently that other people noticed this when a PR professional noted that they’d upped their productivity rate, but not to “Kidman levels”.

I’m still not sure how I feel about being a productivity metric… unless I can somehow trademark and monetise it. Again, that comes down to how generally lousy freelance rates are.

You might be thinking “well, yes, OK, but…” or even “Get on with it Alex, what does all this have to do with retro video games?”, and, well, I’m setting a scene, OK?

The point is, one of the ways to eke out a relatively passable living as a freelancer is by always delivering the copy, and preferably in this web-first age delivering it quickly.

Which means you’ve got to be ready to write even when you don’t feel like it, and capable of doing so on a repeated basis, day in and day out.

Enter the tomato, chased by an ape

For many years now, my chosen productivity and time tracking method has been one of the world’s most popular (apparently), in the form of the Pomodoro technique.

If you’re not familiar with Pomodoro, it’s pretty simple.

  • Define a task
  • Start working on that task for 25 minutes
  • Take a 5 minute break
  • Another 25 minutes
  • Another 5 minute break
  • And so on… with theoretically a bigger break after each four 25 minute periods have passed, because you’re only human.

Pomodoro can be great if it’s properly applied. It’s originally named for a tomato-shaped timer, and I don’t have one of those, but I do have a preferred app on the Mac platform, namely Be Focused Pro.

Not an ad, I don’t have any deal in place and there’s loads of options, right down to going lo-fi and just using your phone’s stopwatch to keep you honest.

Pomodoro is great, but I quickly discovered I had a problem. It wasn’t with the 25 minute working period, although you can always adjust that to your own working rhythm as best pleases you.

It was with the breaks. Five minutes is theoretically good, because it’s not long enough to start another task, but it is long enough to refresh your brain, take in a necessary refreshment or bathroom break, or whatever.

However, what I found was that I often spent the five minutes stressing and basically waiting for the five minutes to be up so I could get back to work.

At which point I hadn’t relaxed, and I was way more stressed than before I’d started my “break”, and as a result, less productive.

It was the anti-pomodoro, a tomato filled with antimatter sucking away my productivity.

This is the bit where Donkey Kong comes in. Do I need to explain what Donkey Kong is? I hope not.

Yeah, even I can’t explain that one.

What I’ve found however is that a quick game of Donkey Kong is just about ideal for filling that five minute gap.

Donkey Kong is nicely high-score fixated, so I have goals to work to, but it’s also nicely hard such that I don’t end up playing for ages.

One or two credits is usually enough, and of course it doesn’t have to be Donkey Kong.

You could sub in, say, 1942 or Galaga or Ghosts N’ Goblins or any of a slew of classic coin gobbling games.

While my love for Bubble Bobble knows no bounds, it’s not a good match for when I’m working, because I play for far too long. It’s an easier title, and I’m rather too familiar with it, so variety is important here.

This is something that your classic retro arcade game is so perfectly suited for that it’s uncanny.

Any modern AAA title (and a lot of indies) wants hundreds of hours of your time, which means that in pacing term five minutes simply isn’t enough time to play them in any meaningful way. For a lot of modern games, you wouldn’t even get past the opening cut scenes. Mobile games want to grab your attention (and often your IAP dollars) so they’re also not great for this task.

A classic coin-per-go (it was 20c in my day, your local currency and timeframe may differ) title wanted you playing but not for too long, and that works beautifully with Pomodoro, allowing me to stop, take that needed break and then get back to it refreshed and with an appreciation for how much fun it is to make a giant ape fall off a building. Don’t let the RSPCA know I said that, OK?

There’s even no real shortage of quite legit ways to play classic titles too; Nintendo’s released Donkey Kong for a whole host of platforms, and there’s countless retro collections for most platforms as well. Services like Antstream Arcade even make it feasible for me to play specific retro arcade titles without even leaving my browser.

Speaking of which, my 25 minutes is up, which means I’ve got an appointment with a giant ape.

If you’ll excuse me, I’ll be back in five minutes…

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