Ben Kuchera is a senior opinion editor for Polygon, one of gaming’s biggest websites. When he’s not running around taking care of his five children, Kuchera writes articles covering a wide variety of topics, including but not limited to: television, film, gaming and virtual reality. Oftentimes controversial, his opinion pieces are nevertheless entertaining and refreshing – providing unique insights into the industry to which he is covering.
Interview conducted January 8, 2015
How did you start writing about games?
That’s a question everyone asks, and I always try to have a slightly interesting answer. The truth is, I wanted to be a writer long before I was interested in writing about games. I had written short stories, poems, and all sorts of crazy things. I grew up writing. My mother got me a word processor at a young age, and I have boxes full of notebooks filled with my writing. In high school and college I was absolutely sure I was going to make my living as a poet. I was published in a few places and doing some live shows. It turns out that if you want to make a living writing poetry is basically the worst way you possibly can. I went to college, almost got an English degree; I was working at a few video gams stores. That’s when I started writing about games for the forums at Ars Technica, which was the first outlet I ever wrote for. They decided they wanted to get into writing about games seriously and gave me a shot as a professional writer. I helped grow their readership, and two years after that they offered me a full time job. I’ve been doing it ever since. It’s been about twelve or thirteen years!
I’ve also got shelves full of my writing; it’s something I hold very close to me.
I think that’s the way you have to do it. A lot of writers think, ‘Oh, well I have all this stuff I’ve never done anything with.’ I think that’s a silly attitude. If you’re a musician, you spend days, weeks, months, and years practicing. You learn new scales, new riffs; you’re practicing constantly. The difference between being a musician and being a writer is when you write, you have a physical record of it. If you look at each notebook as 50 hours spent practicing your craft, you’ve got evidence you did it! You got a ton out of it, you’ve advanced yourself – I think it’s amazing! It would be like if you’re a musician and you tape every practice session. That’s a record of you getting better, which is a valuable thing to have!
How and when did you start at Polygon?
I had run an outlet for Penny Arcade called the Penny Arcade Report for two years. For a variety of reasons, it didn’t work out. After that, I looked around, trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I was in my early to mid thirties with a lot of options, a lot of people offering me work. I chose Polygon because I think they have one of the best products out there right now. I decided I still had a bunch of stuff to say, and I thought that Polygon was the most attractive place to say it. I came on January 1 of 2014. It was a great process. It was also nice to have a lot of choice, because wherever I landed and however well or poorly it went, it was all on my shoulders. I was given a number of opportunities, and it was up to me to make something of my situation. I think it’s going quite well! The readers seem to think so; I love the hell out of my coworkers. I’m happy here!
Does Polygon have an office you go to every day, or can editors work from home?
It depends on your situation. Vox Media Incorporated runs Polygon, Verge and a number of other companies. I live in Ohio, and we certainly don’t have offices here. Thus, I work from my home, which is something I enjoy immensely. Ohio has a relatively inexpensive cost of living; which is something I couldn’t say about San Francisco or New York or even a place like Chicago. A lot of us work from home or telecommute, although plenty Polygon employees go to work every day at a designated office. At Polygon, you really have the freedom of choice of what you want to do. I think more outlets should do that, because if you limit your pool of talent to these big cities, your employees live in the same place, have the same frame of reference. It seems very redundant to me. Plus it’s hard to live in these cities where the cost of living is so expensive. You end up getting a lot of single writers living in a one bedroom apartment, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but I’m happily marries with a large family, I’ve got five children. With that kind of family, no way I’d be able to live in San Francisco or New York!
What’s unique about Polygon compared to other sites?
I think it’s a really good combination of veteran voices and newer writers. It’s a place where collaboration happens often. We have really definitive headlines, which I think is funny because I often don’t write them myself! It’s very much a group decision; we come up with three appropriate headlines and choose the one that fits. Stories go through multiple hands and eyeballs before they make it to the site. That sort of environment is crucial to training new writers. A lot of outlets publish very quickly and each story is 100% the writers’ responsibility. Don’t get me wrong, there are advantages to that, but I think a collaborative, supportive atmosphere is the way to go.
What does your position of Senior Editor entail?
What an editor is and what an editor does really varies from outlet to outlet. At Polygon, I don’t have a set number of responsibilities. I think you’re expected to know and do a little more, to go above and beyond. A lot of times people come to me for guidance when it comes to headlines and content. You’ve also got a lot of freedom to choose your own stories that you think are worth talking about. It’s a great combination of having the freedom to do what you want and the responsibility that once you to that, it reflects on the site and you carry a lot of the sites successes and failures on your shoulders. It’s very cool, but very scary in some ways. I like that environment; I like pressure. I was the guy in school who waited until the night before something was due to do it.
Do you review games as well?
No, Arthur Gies is the gentleman in charge of reviews for Polygon. I’ve done a few in the past, and I’ll likely do a few in the future, but it’s not a big part of my responsibility. It’s also not something I’m interested in. I don’t enjoy writing reviews, I’d much rather pick an aspect of a game and talk about it at length. I’m in charge of the opinion sections, so a lot of times I’ll find something I think is interesting and talk about it for 800-1200 words. Being able to do that without the structure of a review is more attractive for my writing style.
One of your articles, titled “Gaming is not the most important thing in my life” changed my perspective regarding my game writing aspirations. I think it’s one of Polygon’s best articles. So, what are some of your passions outside of gaming?
I’m in this odd point in my life where so much of my time and energy is wrapped up in my children. My youngest is 14 months old, my second youngest is two, and the next youngest is 5. Dealing with children of that age takes up and immense amount of time. Any time I’m not working, I’m probably doing things with my children. It’s a very monk-like existence. The twelve to sixteen hour period starting when I wake up and ending when I go to sleep is not one filled with much free time. I pop up out of bed and I’m already changing diapers and making lunches. Then I work for a few hours until I have to pick the kids up from school, make dinner, and drive the kids to after school activities. After all that, I might have 45-90 minutes to read or play a game or relax. Of course, as the kids get older, that will ease up. Outside of work and raising the kids, I really enjoy reading, theme parks, I love Disney World and rides, and I’m a big fan of anything that flies. Every year for my birthday, my wife always gives me some kind of flying experience. I’ve been able to fly a plane for an hour, take helicopter lessons; I flew this jetpack with water! That was so awesome! You’re on a lake and this stream of water propels you ten feet in the air – it was great! I went skydiving one year, and I have a pass to do some crazy glider thing. I haven’t scheduled that yet because my wife is convinced it will somehow malfunction and kill me, so I’ve got to settle her down before I do it! Those are the things that I like to do and explore in my free time. If I had more free time, I’d love to do more creative writing. People ask me what I would do if I didn’t or couldn’t write about games. The honest answer is that I’d write about something else. I love games; they’ve always been a part of my life. It’s an art form I’m incredibly passionate about. But I love writing more than I love specifically writing about games. In a lot of ways I do this because it’s the first kind of writing that pays me – writing about games has allowed me to support my family. If you have any kind of writing career at all, you’re incredibly lucky! The second someone hands you a single dollar for something you’ve written, you’re in the top 1% of writers in history. The vast majority of writers are never paid. I love my job, I love video games, but I’m interested in writing all sorts of things.
You have a really heavy involvement in Virtual Reality. How’d you get involved in that, and what does it entail?
Like most things in my life, I’ve always been interested in virtual reality. As a teenager I would seek out anything that had to do with VR. I remember the mall near where I grew up had this really rudimentary VR game that didn’t really work very well and cost like $10 for 5 minutes. Once I started writing about technology, I would always go to CES, the consumer electronics show, and dozens of companies always claimed they had the working VR. I would go and take the meetings, and was always disappointed – the technology was never there. For years and years, virtual reality was largely hypothetical. I went to QuakeCon about three years ago only to see the first version of the Oculus Rife. I heard John Carmack from iD Software had a working VR headset and was showing Doom off on it. If you know Carmack like I do, you know he’s a perfectionist. He wouldn’t be showing this thing off if it was gimmicky or not 100% working. I was in a meeting playing some games when one of the PR people invited me in to see the headset. I got in the room with a few other reporters and Mr. Carmack and told him flat out that I’ve been disappointed by every VR headset I’d tried. He looked me right in the eyes and said, ‘No, we’ve done it.’ I put it on, and I was looking around and it felt like I was inside the game. It was the first piece of VR hardware that worked. I took it off and told him that he was right; they’d really done it! The PR person asked if I wanted to meet the two guys who had created the hardware, Palmer Luckey and Nate Mitchell. I said yes and we went out to dinner. Palmer was still a teenager at the time, either 18 or 19. For every hard question I asked them, they had a good answer. They knew how challenging it was going to be, they were aware of the limitations of the technology. I said something that haunts me to this day. I asked if they were open to investments. They weren’t open to it at the time, but by God if I had invested in that company three years ago I would be a rich man! Of course, I can’t ethically invest in anything, and I wouldn’t have if I could have, but the idea was there. A year and a half later, I was one of the first people to interview Palmer and Nate after Facebook acquired them, and Nate asked if he ever thought they’d be a two billion dollar company. I told them yes! I always thought they’d be a billion dollar company eventually. It’s neat to see all the things I’ve been dreaming about for the past twenty years becoming a reality. I’ve got three VR headsets in my little VR lab in my basement, a bunch of wired and wireless controllers and 3D headphones and all this amazing technology. I consider this to be the next big art form, and I’m flattered that I’m going to be there when it becomes as big as I think it’s going to be. I’m also super glad that Polygon helps subsidize my VR addiction a little bit!
It’s amazing that Palmer and Nate were so young when they created this!
This year, Palmer turned 22. It’s not a bad age to be a billionaire!
What are your favorite gaming events to cover?
It really depends on what you want. I like PAX because you get to meet so many people. The density of interesting people at PAX is amazing. When you go to E3 and GDC, it’s all industry and press only. It’s people who work in the space. PAX is amazing because I get to hang out with readers. I get to talk to the people who read my work, I get to see what stories they like and what they don’t. That face-to-face connection is really interesting and valuable. I tell my wife whenever I go to PAX that I get to pretend to be famous! Even though I work for a major publication, not a whole lot of people know who I am. You go to PAX and everyone has at least heard your name if you work for a place like Polygon, IGN, Joystiq, etc… It’s really great to hang out with people who appreciate your work. When you do this work day to day, you mostly hear from people who don’t like you or your work. The comments on our articles are often negative; there are thousands of people on Twitter who are negative. It’s so great to meet people face to face and hear the good things. It’s uplifting; it recharges me. It’s humbling, enriching; I feel very lucky. I think the moment you start taking that for granted is the moment you start losing those things. Every show does something different and interesting, but PAX is the most enjoyable for me.
You mentioned you have 5 children. What’s your approach to gaming with them?
It’s funny; I think most people who are familiar with video games tend to be way stricter than parents who aren’t in the industry. I really pay attention to the ratings, my kids have limited game time per day, and we stick to the weekends. I also know when to go against the ratings – my oldest son can’t play Grand Theft Auto but we play Halo together. I think it’s kind of bonkers that Halo and Grand Theft Auto have the same rating because Halo at worst is a PG-13 movie, and Grand Theft Auto is at best an NC-17 movie. The nice thing is, I know what the games are and what they’re going to get out of it. I like my children to be active outside of gaming as well – they’re all in academically rigorous schools and all have other hobbies. My oldest is about to be 13.
7th grade is when I first got an Xbox, and at that time in school we were working on persuasive essays. My parents made me write them a persuasive essay to get an Xbox, including terms and conditions and limitations!
I love that; that is such a great idea! I’ve got to use that! I’m so stealing that to use with my kids!