How many in-jokes is too many in-jokes?

So after I wrote about the in-group references in Diablo III, Melissa Anderson asked my opinion about “aggressive” in-groupness and how it turns off new members.  Which then got me thinking about what makes some in-groupness awesome and some dramatically less awesome.

When we think of in-groupness as “aggressive”, I think it is actually behavior that has a specific function: keeping people out.  But there is another kind of in-group reference, which is more about layers of meaning – and technically, the Diablo III sort is that.

Take the treasure goblin.  It stands alone as a great game feature and character; you don’t have to know anything about the Golden Axe connection to enjoy it.  What being weird/geeky/old enough to know about Golden Axe does is add something.  That’s the key: addition.  An in-group reference is meant to make you feel that warm buzz of inclusion and recognition, but that doesn’t necessarily have to mean that it makes others feel that harsh note of rejection.

But you could make the treasure goblin obnoxious.  First, it could actually be a detriment to the game by either a) not being a standalone good (like a secret level that gives you infinite power for no good reason) or b) being actually stupid, like a joke that isn’t bad because it is a reference but rather bad because it just isn’t funny.  Second, you could make other people feel actively bad for not knowing what it was.  You could make the treasure goblin, for example, ask you “Gilius?” and force you to type “Thunderhead”.  Not only would that be not standalone good, but it would actually make out-group members feel dumb for not knowing what the heck is going on.  Like the first few seconds of a flash mob, but lasting forever.

Sadly, there is a lot of that sort of in-group behavior in the world – the kind that says “haha, fuck you for not knowing this, newb”.  It has a reason for existing, which is that sometimes we want to be part of small, exclusive groups.  But honestly, isn’t that what esoteric knowledge is for?  If you really want to be part of an exclusive in-group, go join a truly obscure community.  Where we get into trouble as a society is when we start trying to make in-groups that sit somewhere in the mainstream context.  The whole point of the mainstream is that it is inherently inclusive.  It is the actual meaning of the word.

When creating communities around a product, then, the key is fairly simple.  For any reference, ask yourself two questions:

1) If I have no idea what you are referencing, does this still make sense?  Can it stand alone, without the reference?
2) Is there a way someone could feel bad about this?

The only exception should be if you’re making a specifically in-group product, in which case: feel free to make it as bizarre and exclusive as you want.  And rest assured, if you do, someone will write fanfiction about it.