"What’s your favorite video game?"
This is what people ask when they find out what I do. I have a stock answer: Super Mario 64. It's probably not my favorite game, but it satisfies people. It's a game they've heard of and that we all can agree was important. It's one of my favorite games, sure, but that's where my love for it ends.
What I'd like to talk about is Crypt of the Necrodancer, and how it made roguelikes fun for me again. I'd like to bring up Crawl, and how being the hero makes you "it" and why I think local multiplayer games are an important thing for players who don't often see other people playing games in the same room. I want to talk about my problems with how people call virtual reality antisocial and why I think that's the wrong way to look at the technology.
But I don't say these things. I tell them Super Mario 64, and then we talk about something else. The truth is that video games aren't the most important thing in my life. Not by a long shot.
How can you say that?
That statement is often treated as something scandalous. If gaming isn't the most important thing in my life, maybe I need to step down and give someone else my job. Someone who takes video games more seriously.
I love video games. I grew up playing them, and I can tell you stories about how I used to play games in the basement to drown out the sounds of my parents fighting. I can also talk about organizing and ultimately leaving a competitive Battlefield 1942 league in college, and everything in between. I have the hardcore gaming stories, complete with a pseudo-tragic origin story. They're not interesting stories, and we likely have many of them in common.
Interesting lives make for interesting writing
What I don't talk about is the fact that I grew up being sure I wanted to write poetry for a living, and I wrote every day. I used to perform at local coffee shops and helped run a poetry magazine in my community that earned a fair bit of respect and media attention. I don't talk about building a digital eight-track "studio" in the basement of my house when I was in high school and selling CDs of my music during class hours for extra money.
I don't talk about learning how to scuba dive, or my hobby of taking things that fly for little Groupon-enabled adventures. I don't bring up learning how to fence with my son, or my strong feelings on rollercoaster design. There's no place on Polygon for the books I'm reading, and only limited space to discuss things like movies. But every one of these things impacts how I feel about games and, consequently, how I write about them.
My life outside of my job is filled with many things; being married and having five kids means free time is at a premium. Spending that limited time on games may make me a more hardcore gamer, but it certainly would make me a less interesting writer.
Your life changes how you see games
I've been in charge of hiring writers before, and it's not a fun process. This is a job that everyone wants, and one of my favorite questions to ask is what they would do if they couldn't write about games. Some of them say they would make games, or find some other way to do something with games.
The answer that made me happiest was direct and to the point: "I would write about something else." These are the people with interesting lives, and interesting lives make for interesting writing, especially about games. It's an industry with a tragic lack of balance.
This is why I don't want to make games, and why I get defensive when people tell me people in my job are just looking for a way into game creation. I love my job because I get to play games and write about them during work hours, and my free time is then free to do other things.
My job doesn't allow me to play more games; it allows me to play enough games that my free time can be used to explore the world around me.
Many developers I speak with are stuck in crunch mode, or are engulfed in gaming culture. They lack the time to read, to see movies, to jump out of planes or to travel. Game development too often means giving up family and friends to focus on making your game. Ultimately, the work suffers when you lose these outside influences.
Work-life balance for writers tends toward the awful. For too many developers, it moves closer to intolerable.
T-shirts were sold at E3 that said "100 Percent Gamer," and it's a scary idea. I interact with people who would take that claim seriously. If they have a set number of characters in a social media profile to tell you about themselves, their console preference and favorite game comes first. Gaming makes up the majority of their personality and identity. It's how they present themselves to the world.
I get worried when people list high scores as if they were degrees. Questions about what they do outside of gaming leads to awkward silence.
It's impossible to look at anything critically when you're covered in it to that degree. The more time you spend outside gaming culture, the more references and influences you have away from the world of games — the more you learn to appreciate what makes gaming unique and wonderful, while also becoming aware of its shortcomings and faults.
The white blood cells of gaming
I recently wrote a story about Rise of the Tomb Raider's exclusivity and how, from a business sense, it is likely a wise move. I turned my Twitter feed off for 24 hours to escape the abuse that followed, as players spent hours talking about how I wasn't fit for my job, how I should die and other fun things.
This happens every time a story runs about this or that console. On Monday I'll be called biased toward one platform and by the time Thursday rolls around my "shilling" for the opposite console will lead another group to call me names. Industry professionals praised the article, while many gamers reacted as if they were punched in the face.
Hardcore gamer sounds like a threat: If you hurt the thing I love, I'm coming after you.
I click on their collective Twitter profile and they call themselves the "army" of this company or the "defenders" of that console, and they think that somehow they're doing the world of gaming a favor by attacking those who would criticize this thing they love.
These are the gamers who may think that someone will one day come for their games or their consoles, or that an article written about an issue will cause the downfall of something they care deeply about.
So it becomes personal, and their day is spent setting up new throwaway Twitter accounts to harass and intimidate those they don't agree with. One gentleman thought it was interesting to appear to agree with me in order to send me links I would be more likely to click on, and those links contained images of naked men.
As a trolling attempt it was almost cute, as if homophobia made this person believe that nude men is the worst thing another man could see. But this common reaction to stories changes how you view the hardcore gamers, the people who would consider themselves to be "100 Percent Gamers." It starts to sound like a threat: If you hurt the thing I love, I'm coming after you.
It's not an aspect of the culture I want to be a part of, and I'm not interested in defending my bona fides or proving that I have played every game in any particular series or that I spend a certain amount of daily time gaming.
People often send me oddly aggressive messages asking me to address the fact they love a game I may have written a negative thing about, and my answer is always simple: It makes me happy. You spent money, of which we all have a finite amount, on a hobby you love, and the product you purchased gave you satisfaction and hopefully a little bit of joy. That's why we play games, and our love of gaming is what we all share. It's not a zero-sum game, where written criticism's goal is to diminish the enjoyment of others who disagree.
If I had to make a T-shirt for myself in the same theme as the silly one from E3 — and we've joked about this around the office — it would say something like "15 Percent Gamer." That sounds about right. I play games for work, and I write about them and talk to the people who make them. I love them, but they're one thing in a group of things I love. Not the biggest thing.
I sit on calls about financial results and have long conversations with people in the industry about what's going on and why. When I close my laptop at the end of the day, I get to help take care of my five kids, and we do homework, watch movies, go out, make food. I may fly something, I may spend time with my wife, I may read a book. Most nights I don't play video games for fun, but when I do I love it.
I don't have to make room for games in my life because my job does that for me, and I don't feel bad about missing that game or not owning every system anymore. The idea of the hardcore 100 percent gamer is a concept that feels alien now, and frankly my usual communication with that tribe is when they're at their worst on social media. I leave them out of the conversation when I tell people how great gaming can be.
"I feel like it's a part of how they self-identify," writer and developer Laura Kate Dale told me when I asked about the hardcore gamers. "Their ability to play games competitively or be up to date on what's happening in gaming is an important part of how they assess their own self-worth."
That answer is why I no longer ask why these people react to stories or news so aggressively anymore. To them it's not criticism of some aspect of the industry; it's a direct attack on themselves as people. When your life is Final Fantasy or Metal Gear or one specific console, and someone says something bad about those things, it's the online equivalent of someone coming up to you in a crowded bar and giving you a good shove. The difference between the personal and the external has been washed away in their minds.
Gaming isn't the most important thing in my life. When someone tells me that gaming is their one passion, the most important thing they do and something that informs who they are as a person? I want to help them find more balance.
I'm not a hardcore gamer anymore by most litmus tests, and that's OK. It makes me better at my job.