Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

In defense of ‘gatekeeping’.

One of my pet hates is the huge avalanche of really bad advice and ‘hot takes’ that spread rapidly over the interwebs that have zero experience or data behind them. The problem has been made infinitely worse by the shift over time from asynchronous communication to real time communication as the preferred system. This is really, really bad.

Go back 100+ years and the primary means of communication between geographically separate individuals was probably a letter. Letters have some downsides, mostly the delay in receiving a reply, but actually that delay can be a feature. Not only is it harder to send an embarrassing emotional drunken ‘hot take’ by letter, you also have a much slower expectation of reply times. You can almost certainly ‘sleep on it’, do some research, discuss the topic with friends and family, read the news, let the contents of the letter sink in… and then, once you have marshaled your thoughts, and mentally composed an intelligent, thoughtful, and reasoned reply, you can put pen to paper.

Email worsened the situation, because now you do not need to walk to a post box. You can email drunk, or angry, or without checking your facts. However, you do not HAVE to respond right now. The sender isn’t sure if you get the email in a minute or an hour. A next day reply is fine.

Social media makes everything worse in 4 different vectors:

  • Delivery is instant, so there is pressure to reply without thinking or researching
  • Replying is gamified, with notifications, so there is a push to respond, even if you have no insight
  • Replies are global. Anybody can reply, and everyone can see the reply.
  • Your replies (ie: your personal work/content) is now monetized by a 3rd party, and you are paid $0 for this.

One of the huge downsides of connecting everyone to everyone else over the entire planet is that we no longer have any idea who has experience, or data, and who is just a talkative idiot who wades into every conversation they can find. We also have no time, or incentive to give a damn who anybody is. On the internet, all opinions have become equally weighted, whether they are the considered conclusions from a multi-year phd research project, or a drunken reality tv-star’s vodka-fueled hot take. (FWIW I don’t care what actor Idris Elba said about climate change at COP26…)

Many thousands of years ago, I was one of many people who hung out on an internet forum for indie game developers. It basically WAS the indie game community, probably a decade before ‘indie game:the movie’, and long before steam. The entire indie community, globally, would chat there about programming, design, and business…

…and as the community grew, people who had been making games for a long time noticed a tendency for newcomers (without any shipped games) to get increasingly vocal about every topic, in terms of offering their advice to other newcomers. The advice was often bad, coming from neither experience or data. People started to complain that they had no idea who to listen to. The idea was mooted that forum posters with actual, shipped, commercial games would get a forum badge by their name, to give context to the replies and posts from people with experience and data.

Begun, the indie wars had…

By modern twitter standards it probably would not seem too bad, but oh my god, it was bad. People who were extremely frequent posters who had not shipped a game were FURIOUS to put it mildly. How DARE people say that their opinions were worthless? how dare the forum become so elitist? These days, on twitter, such a move is described as gatekeeping, and is apparently a really bad thing.

There is a difference between arbitrary gatekeeping (ie: not letting people join your club for no good reason), and giving context to information. I will even add to that to say that some times, a little gatekeeping makes a lot of sense. If you want a forum where long established game developers want to talk about running a studio, dealing with staff, negotiating contracts etc… then only allowing people in the forum who have some experience of such stuff makes a lot of sense. And there are quite a few private indie forums in 2021 full of such people. I’m a member of 3 of them, and used to be in a forth.

People seem to have a blindspot when it comes to the creative industries, where there is an oft-repeated mantra that ‘if you are working on a game, you are already a game developer’, and the same for acting, writing, music and so on. Perhaps controversially, I think this is total bollocks.

People used to mock Sarah Palin for saying she has foreign affairs expertise because she lived in Alaska and could see Russia. My favorite joke was to say if you can see the moon, you are an astronaut. When I worked in a boatyard, there was a VERY FIRM rule, that you could not describe yourself as a boatbuilder unless you had built a boat… from scratch. So you did the keel, the ribs, the planking, everything. I worked on boats for 8 years, banged in tens of thousands of nails, did a lot of ribs, and floor joints and a huge amount of planking, but never the keel. People were very firm: I was not a boatbuilder…

And thats fine. Because frankly, I wasn’t. I can tell you a few tricks about banging in nails accurately, and how to drill holes in thin wood without splitting the timber, but my experience is limited, and my hot takes on how to build a boat should not be public. Be aware that I have 8 years experience in that industry, but I still know I am not vaguely qualified to give general advice on it.

Back in Sarah Palin’s era, she was rightly mocked for pretending to have worthy experience when she had none, but these days, having absolutely fuck-all experience and data regarding a topic is becoming a badge of honor. In the US, President Trump literally claimed to ‘love the poorly educated’. He knew absolutely nothing about what covid was, or why climate change was a threat, and much, much more worryingly, he expressed zero interest in learning from experts on either topic. Despite this he expressed insane ideas on national TV about solutions, with actual experts stood to the side looking on in horror.

This should not be a political issue. Whether you are left wing or right wing, liberal or conservative, science is science, data is data, experience is experience. I have absolutely NO IDEA how the global climate works, but the overwhelming majority of people who have phds and nobel prizes in this stuff tell me about climate change, and I believe them. I have no idea how covid spreads, but medical experts tell me to wear a mask, so I do so. I do this because the alternative is a frightening one, which is trusting my own hunch and gut feeling on topics, instead of experts.

Here are some of the things my gut instinct tells me, if I ignored the opinions of ‘so-called-experts’. Planes cannot fly, because they are metal, and its heavy. The earth cannot be round because Australians would fall off. Quantum physics sounds confusing, so clearly its just made up. Advertising doesn’t affect me, because I am smart.

All the time, every day, we encounter stuff that our immediate ‘hot-take’ on is wrong, because we are not experts. The problem is, we are so encouraged to share our dumb hot takes on social media, that we are now all overloading each other with ignorance. When everyone is constantly offering their shallow analysis on everything, all the time, how on earth are people ever going to be sensibly informed? When our analysis is a popularity contest on twitter, the electorate become literally stupider every day, the chances of us electing decent politicians, or allowing them to make the right choices are slim to none. The best facts should be the correct ones, not the ones with most upvotes from people who have no idea. e=mc2 is not the result of a twitter poll

We need to fight back against the urge to offer up our opinions when we have zero experience and zero data. The urge is strong, and psychology experts working at social media companies are working hard to force us to vomit up hot-takes 24/7, but its highly destructive. I’m probably as guilty as the next person, so to help out anybody unlucky enough to know me, or follow me on twitter, or read this blog, here is a list of all of the topics I actually have a decent, serious amount of experience and data on, after 52 years on this planet. Anything else I offer an opinion on is likely bullshit:

  • The electric car market, and the plans and existing business of Tesla.
  • Marketing and selling a PC-focused indie strategy game, especially advertising.
  • Heavy metal guitar playing techniques, up to a certain level.
  • C++, with some stl, but excluding any modern additions in the last 15 years.
  • Solar panel economics, and challenges associated with solar farm construction in the UK.
  • Classical Economic theory, but only to degree level.

Everything else I offer an opinion on is basically garbage, and not worthy of you listening to. There are more experienced experts on all of those topics BTW (although I *might* make a play for being a decent expert for the second one).

So to conclude, having experience MATTERS. having data MATTERS. Lets stop being ashamed to admit that we disregard some peoples opinions on some topics. Expertise has real value. To make a point, I’ll close comments for this post :D.