Cliques, Conferences and Bithell

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Over the last couple of months I’ve really enjoyed listening to / talking on the Internet with Mike Bithell. He’s an insightful bloke, and there’s a legitimate reason Thomas Was Alone got the praise it did – it’s fantastic.

Mike recently wrote a quick post about the nature of cliques and how as a conference attendee, he’d been at a party and had an experience (before his game came out) trying to interact with well known people. If you haven’t read it, go do that and come back because I’m not going to recap it for you here.

There are times at events where I just want to spend time with the people I love because we live on different sides of the planet and conferences are the only time we get together. I remember one incident in particular where I’d just finished a conversation up with a random, caught my friends eye and suggested we get some lunch. A voice behind me said “yeah let’s go find something to eat!” and suddenly my conversation in a hallway turned into a group lunch date, with my internal voice screaming for the next hour “FUCK OFF WHY ARE YOU INTRUDING ON THE ONLY OPPORTUNITY I HAVE TO HANG OUT WITH MY BEST FRIEND ALL YEAR”.

I get the situation Mike’s describing, and I get the desire to be reasonably brusque and give people short shrift when they do approach you. There’s a part of me that wishes I was more like that, but as many of you know, I’m fairly approachable and try to give people time, which is why my inbox looks like a game of Missile Command that’s just hit the tipping point of achievability, but that’s another story.

However, dismissing cliques as just old friends catching up is also not the full story. The problem (if you look at it this way) with cliques is that they give people on the inside advantages that are harder to get on the outside. I’m part of cliques, I’m not going to deny I’m not and I’ll go further out of my way for someone who’s part of the same group. A friend of a friend needs some AI advice? Chances are I’ll figure out how to work time free when I’m slammed. This is the way things have always worked – people are more likely to go out of their way for friends or as a favour for a mutual friend. I know I do, and I know that when I have a job needs doing, I’m more likely to ask someone I respect but also who I’ve worked with or for to do it – and that just becomes a cycle of reinforcement.

Which is all well and good until you start to factor things like press into the clique, because then access to coverage becomes something that is easier for the haves than it is for the have-nots. I don’t want to pick on Mike because he seems like a genuinely lovely bloke, but the level of coverage that his new game Volume got at just first announcement was disproportionate to what a no-name indie would have received, so there’s some X factor (remember when you could use that term and not be referencing a shit talent show?) at play.

Mike’s made derogatory reference to the idea that there’s some sort of indie illuminati before and in real “organised entity” terms I’m sure that he’s right. But there is a “clique” of successful indies for whom success will from now on be that much easier because they’re known, because they have 15,000 twitter followers, because they can reach out and ask a question and get an answer. In effect it’s a clique of people who for whatever reason got lucky that one time, whose game stood out and was noticed and achieved acclaim – and in some ways that’s a lovely meritocracy but in other ways it’s a hideously self-reinforcing thing that requires an incredible jackpot to break into.

We can’t deny that cliques exist, and I’m not going to tell you I have never benefitted from them because I have. I’m privileged enough to have associated with some of the smartest up-and-comers in the industry through the IGDA and particularly the Scholars program, and many of those have become lifelong friends and collaborators. There’s more to cliques than “old friends who want to hang out” and it’s important to recognise that.

Also, it’s worth pointing out that a lot of the indies, rallied by Zoe Quinn, are offering themselves up as approachable and willing to talk about projects and offer support to developers. I’m happy to add my name to that list, tho this is already something I do pretty extensively through the IGDA and GameMentorOnline. I’m always happy to talk about games though and many people take advantage of that, so feel free to contact me and I’ll always do my best to reply!

Finally, as a side note, Mike’s taking a lot of shit for his post it seems and people need to knock that off. I’ve said before, I’ll say again, he seems like a properly decent chap but putting a post like that based on a personal experience takes guts, and kudos to him for putting it out there, even if it is only one perspective. There’s no excuse for being a dick (and I say that as someone who in his younger years was a professional Angry Internet Dick).