2014 in review: Video games are a rich source for fascinating stories

Amputees playing video games with phantom limbs; live rock operas shaped by video games and audience participation; diversity; addiction; death threats; soft wars: Video games are such a tantalizing topic for writers because they seem to touch upon everything.

This year marked my seventh writing an internationally syndicated newspaper column about gaming and gaming culture. It’s a fascinating challenge to try and find a different topic every week that can appeal to both a broad mainstream audience and a more focused gamer audience.

That the subject matter of my columns is always gaming, takes a bit of the edge off that challenge. As the year wraps up, I’ve gathered together some of my favorite columns of the year. If you have the time and the interest, check out some of the ways gaming crosses over into so many other varied subjects.

If you like what you see below, you can find the rest of my Good Game columns right here.


Why anonymity in games is a good thing (January)

The anonymity associated with many online gaming communities reinforces that group’s own powerful set of social norms and makes those who belong to the group feel obliged to follow those rules.


Video games are losing the culture war in America, scientific visionary says (February)

“The anti-gaming establishment owns the vocabulary and have done a very successful job of convincing many that interactive games are harmful (especially to children) and that screen time is to blame for most of the social ills. Whether it be the awful events that took place at Sandy Hook or bullying in schools, video games have been the easy target for those who wish to pass blame.”


How video games and augmented reality could cure phantom pain (March)

A researcher in Sweden is getting closer to finding a cure for phantom limb pain thanks to an experimental muscle mapping treatment that uses augmented reality to trick the brain into thinking a missing arm is back, and video games that have a player steer a car with a missing hand.


How gaming is reshaping the way museums teach (April)

Gaming has slowly become an important part of museum exhibit design, right alongside artifacts, fossils, movies, music and other forms of interaction.

And not surprisingly, the American Museum of Natural History continues to push the envelope on how gaming can be used to engage and educate.


As game players diversify, developers start to rethink the stars of their creations (June)

“We recognize the valid concern around diversity in video game narratives. Ubisoft’s games are developed by a multicultural team of various faiths and beliefs and we hope this attention to diversity is reflected in the settings of our games and our characters. With regard to diversity in our playable characters, we’ve featured Aveline, Aurora, Jade, Connor, Adewale and Altair and we will continue to showcase diverse characters in our upcoming titles.”


A video game rock opera that can be played on a PC or watched live in a concert hall (July)

All video games are a sort of tenuous performance art, requiring players to take on the role of both audience and performer as they inhabit an interactive story designed to create a shared experience.

From pellet-chomping Pac-Man to Uncharted’s artifact hunting Nathan Drake, video game characters are vessels designed to transport gamers into a world created to mingle play and narrative; a sort of participatory storytelling blended with more traditional, passive consumption.

And as game creators continue to explore their medium, the role of gamers continues to evolve.


HBO documentary examines addiction, ethics of game design in shadow of child’s death (July)

Are video games addictive? Do game developers have an ethical responsibility in how they bring their creations to life? What role should gamers have in the shape those games take?


Ulysses as video game could make it more approachable, but not replace it, scholars say (August)

An award-winning Irish filmmaker and animator just received crowd-sourced funding to kickstart his work turning James Joyce’s Ulysses into a virtual reality video game.

The concept is to immerse players in Joyce’s stream of consciousness by dropping them into the shoes of the work’s two protagonists, Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom.


Fixing chess: One game developer’s redesign of a 1,500-year-old game (August)

There are thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of chess variants like Chess 2 in the world. Creating new rules for one of history’s oldest games is a popular exploration for the cerebral sport.


Why video game sound is so powerfully bonding (September)

Nostalgia sometimes comes in a thick soup of buzzes, beeps, trills and, of course, wakka-wakkas.

That cacophony of sound paint an audio landscape that any child of the ’70s, ’80s or ’90s can pick up in an instant: the arcade.


These Oculus filmmakers want to put you inside a horror movie (October)

The experience of watching such a film is like being trapped in someone else’s body or going through an amusement ride strapped into a seat. While you can’t guide where you head, you can look in different directions and see what’s happening all around you.


A console launch in three acts: The birth, death and rebirth of Xbox One (November)

If the Xbox One’s launch were a movie, it would fit very neatly into a three-act structure, and we would be witnessing right now the console’s final, biggest moment of crisis. What happens next in the launch’s third act seems to rest entirely with the new(ish) head of Xbox, Phil Spencer.


Broken video games are the new norm, what developers need to do to fix that (November)

Today’s cutting edge of game consoles brought with them living worlds, new ways to interact with entertainment and experiences that weave seamlessly with vast social networks. They also created a new norm: Selling not a finished game, but the promise of one.

More often than not, blockbuster video games tend to ship incomplete.


When should a death threat count? (December)

At its worst, social media is a cesspool of anger, narrow-mindedness and caustic harassment. It is common-sense, common-courtesy, humanity drowning in a sea of soapboxes.


The ‘soft war’ against America’s enemies is fueled by video games and movies (December)

North Korea has denied any connection to the hack attack. But if there is a soft war, if Hollywood is, knowingly or not, involved in an attempt to destabilize North Korea’s government and Kim’s dictatorial grasp on his people, this attack was one of this secret war’s most noticeable counter-strikes. One that does what some government officials in Iran have long urged: Turn a soft war into a hard one.

This piece is part of Polygon’s 2014 in Review series. Throughout December we’ll be exploring the games, people and events that shaped gaming in the past year. You can check out more 2014 in Review stories in our StoryStream.