Personal

My Polygon Work in 2014

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At the beginning of the year I promised myself I’d write 50 things in 2014 that I could look at in the future and say, ‘yeah, that is pretty good work.’ Going through my handy back-end roster of Polygon’s 2014 stories today, I found just over that number.

In looking back over the year, I disregarded all the rewrite stories, the press releases, the ‘Here’s a Trailer for X Game’. They pay my wages, but are mostly forgotten within a few days of publication. The stories that matter to me are the ones in which I interview people, or I play a game and furnish some impressions, or I sit and stare out of a window for a while and come up with an opinion on an issue of the day.

I am going to pick a few out here that I enjoyed writing and I think are worth a mention.

EQUALITY

The big issue this year was bullying and misogyny. There are writers out there who bring far more valuable perspectives to this than I can, but I got angry enough about certain episodes to write a few thundering editorials. Take Two’s idiotic response to concerns about GTA 5’s treatment of sex workers was one, as well as the pure farce of Christina Hoff Sommers’ ignorant appraisal of equality in gaming.

I also got to speak to developer Brianna Wu about how she is dealing with death threats. Earlier in the year, I wrote about the atrocious bullying of women gamers in online games, something that I’ve covered in the past.

Apart from some standard news coverage, I pretty much stayed away from the specific of GamerGate itself. Polygon addressed the issue through Chris Grant’s superb editorial. That piece was the result of much internal debate and a frank exchange of views among team members (me included) but I think it almost entirely represents Grant’s view coming into the issue, which is why it feels authentic.

It’s a shame Polygon was a week or two late to take a specific stand (I think the outlet has made its overall position on equality pretty clear from the start) but I’m happy with the way Grant handled this, most especially in comparison to (in my personal opinion) some of the craven responses from certain other outlets, who seemed determined to reframe the whole affair as somehow being about online civility, thus dodging the real issue entirely.

Our own Ben Kuchera offered a few great editorials on this stuff too, but the most vital and provocative perspective came from Leigh Alexander, who addressed the core problem of gamer identity before the whole ridiculous shebang even got started.

Much later in the year, I wanted to write about the origins of the word “gamer,” how it has always been identified with maleness, and where it is going next. For the record, I find it a useful word, and I hope it mutates to encompass everyone who plays games, not merely an era-specific cultural subset.

GAMES

One of the lessons I have learned from looking back at the year, is the shape of my own beat, which tends to include a lot of what we used to call “previews.” This much-maligned sector of games journalism generally involves going to a PR event, playing a game for a bit and writing some impressions. I get invited to (conservatively) about 150 of these events a year, and only go to those where I think I’ll see something that I like, but I try to be as honest and balanced as I can.

Games I saw this year included:

I also wrote two reviews, which is the most I have written in a single year since about 1992. They were both for like-able strategy games (Age of Wonders 3 and Civilization: Beyond Earth), and I hope to challenge myself with a bigger variety of genres in 2015. Nothing too difficult to play though, I hope. There are few things worse than being stuck on a review game, and absolutely having to figure it out before deadline.

More enjoyable than the firm structure of the review, and its expectation of categorical critique, is just playing a game post-launch and writing some impressions about a particular facet that takes my fancy. I enjoyed talking about the writing in Dragon Age: Inquisition, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare’s era choices, This War of Mine’s self-revelatory emotional pull, Game of Thrones use of dialog, Destiny’s awful story, The Last of Us: Left Behind’s development process and the music of Infamous: Second Son.

I’ve found that graphics and mechanics interest me less and less, while the emotional point of a game becomes far more compelling. This isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy banal games. I just find writing about them less interesting.

Generally, a game with a good story makes a good story, because there’s a human element that is at its heart. This is true, sadly, for That Dragon, Cancer, but there were also human stories behind Rime (a near-death experience), IL-2 Sturmovik: Battle of Stalingrad (a war hero), and a religious game about Abraham, which is probably my best work of the year.

CULTURE AND BUSINESS

At my age, the past is also a useful trove to plunder, and so I got stuck into SimCity’s 25th anniversary, a chance encounter with Defender creator Eugene Jarvis, the end of PlayStation Home, a movie about gaming’s overall historic footprint and one about the ET dig.

I began my journalism working life as a business journalist, and am still very much in my comfort zone when writing about companies and their particular personalities and foibles. I’m interested in how organizations morph themselves to deal with the problems they face, and how they (often dishonestly) seek to present themselves to the world. It’s way more interesting to try to figure out what is going on inside a company, than to make the usual simple-headed assumptions

This year, it was hard to not write about Ubisoft’s troubles. Nintendo is always a rich seam. I think I had a rare year off talking intensely about EA, but there was this one thing about the Titanfall beta. I enjoyed writing about Activision and its love affair with Skylanders. I also wrote about Amazon as well as the console wars between Sony and Microsoft, of course. The biggest surprise for me was a fairly humdrum story about retail, which was, by far, my highest trafficked story of the year.

Of course, there’s always controversy. Any journalist who doesn’t enjoy getting stuck into a controversy is probably in the wrong profession. Most of the stories above feature some sort of discord, but I also got to work on a story about a game that opened up all sorts of questions about the portrayal of LGBT people in games, as well as a horrible little game about Gaza and the unfolding grotesque known as Hatred.

I also reported on Mojang’s perplexingly hostile approach to multiplayer server partners. At the time, Mojang boss Notch publicly accused me of asking him “loaded” questions, which is just the sort of thing I’ve learned to expect when asking powerful people awkward questions. Later in the year, Notch sold his company to Microsoft.

I’d written an earlier piece about his powerful and magical relationship with fans. I saw the ugly side of intense fandom when he attempted to shame me for asking reasonable questions about his actions, and was subsequently bombarded with foul abuse from fans via social media. It was a tough few days, but it goes with the territory.

Ultimately, in Minecraft, Notch has contributed something wonderful to the world, and I admire him for that.

HAPPY THINGS

Despite the controversies and arguments that gaming attracts, its joyfulness is one of the chief pleasures in writing about this subject.

Games give people immense pleasure. We like to play them, we like to talk about them and we like to read about them. I’ll happily take whatever trouble comes with that, every day. Writing about entertainment for a living is a great privilege.

Some of the more positive stories I have covered this year include my annual list of the best people in gaming for the last 12 months, a Thanksgiving celebration of reasons to love games and gaming culture, a fun feature on how one game is delighting in technologies that can benefit humankind and how games can help us to become better people.

This year I’ve also succumbed to the trend of writing in the first person about my own experiences, and so I talked about my relationship with fantasy football, and how games have helped me quit a lifetime habit of heavy drinking. Via my wife’s Facebook page, that last one did the rounds among my non-game industry friends, which is always nice.

This was also the year when I published a novel, entirely separately from my work with Polygon. I’m glad, relieved actually, that the whole thing is over. I can look back at the book, one year on, and consider it a minor success (3,000 copies bought), and I still regard it as a good read.

Anyway, working on all these stories has been a pleasure. I love working at Polygon. It’s a noble editorial outlet, a fantastic group of people and a very decent employer. Few are the editorial outlets that encourage writers to go out and express our own individuality, rather than laying content eggs in little cages, ready to be delivered to the hungry media machine.

Finally, a Happy New to Year to you.