Sorry by the sea

Is this really what the education system has done to the kids on the front row of the class? Leaving

As one who seems to spend large amounts of his waking life apologising to others, these last few days spent at the Develop conference have been a refreshing change. There, unusually, I listened to numerous speakers apologising to me. It wasn’t even for the normal reasons like a poor PA system or blurry powerpoint projection. Shockingly, these speakers were sorry for being clever.

Develop is an annual Game Developer gathering which this year had a particularly strong programme. Artists, producers, writers, animators, musicians all come together in sunny Brighton to discuss their craft and ingest large amounts of food and drink. Packed into the clammy conference rooms of the Hilton hotel, these leading thinkers and doers shared their insights, techniques and crippling, paranoid insecurities.

Ken Levine, creative director of Bioshock at 2k Games took part in a panel discussion with the rest of his team in which they detailed the depth of the approach taken in developing this unusually rich and intelligent game.

Levine, a charismatic speaker, gave a compelling account of the development of the work which took in Ayn Rand, objectivism, art deco design and mise en scene - each of these elements by a squirming apology for his own perceived pretentiousness.

Jonathan Smith, always an insightful and entertaining speaker delivered the best talk I’ve seen him do in ‘How to make children cry’. Smith is VP of publishing at TTGames who produce the acclaimed LEGO Star Wars series of games.

He showed some extraordinary footage of research interviews and playtesting with children that went in to developing their working thesis of ‘LEGO-ness’. Upon unveiling his ‘LEGO Manifesto’, a set of principles from which the game was created, he too finally caved and said sorry for being a too pretentious.

After further unpacking the fascinating thinking behind his notion of the game as teacher, he reminded us lest we get too intoxicated by his ideas that at the end of the day they were still making a ‘fucking platform game’.

Finally, Matt Southern from Evolution Studios came out as a Cultural Studies lecturer turned Game Director. His brilliant talk which illuminated the value of scholarly cultural theory to Game design was interrupted throughout with winks and apologies for coming across like a ‘twat’. Matt even had some material about him thinking he was better than us, ‘because he’s read all those fancy books...’

As the most toxic pretension is usually dealt from those least conscious of their audience, perhaps we should be glad of a little self-awareness in our keynote speakers? Maybe, but this was more than humility - this was executive insecurity.

Are there any other industry conferences where lectures are transformed into confessions? Seeing these brilliant artists relentlessly caveating every informed cultural insight with an insipid apology was depressing. Is this really what the education system has done to the kids on the front row of the class? Leaving headline speakers apologising for having read too many books? If they can’t comfortably come out as being intellectuals at an industry conference, where can they?

The best conferences are about brilliant people bring brilliant at you over a sustained period. Levine, Smith and Southern need to get together for a group therapy session and draw a line under this. With so many factions lining up to attack the games industry, its most inspiring and inspirational figures really should lay off themselves. These are the people we should be putting in front of parents, critics and young people who are struggling to be interested in being interested. C’mon Ken, Jonathan and Matt - relax, take us dancing with your ideas. Your industry needs you more than ever.

Iain Simons writes, talks and tweets about videogames and technology. His new book, Play Britannia, is to be published in 2009. He is the director of the GameCity festival at Nottingham Trent University.
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.