The power of gaming communities

For three years, many of my evenings and weekends have been spent online with the Rock, Paper, Shotgun community – posting announcements, managing servers, and hosting events. By doing this I’ve met hundreds of people and have developed some great friendships. I’ve enhanced the experience of playing games for myself and others, and in the process I’ve gained skills to progress my career in ‘real life’.

My experience is not unique. I’m here to convince you of the power of getting involved in gaming communities – and that game developers should take more responsibility for fostering and highlighting what their community is doing.

Around the world, thousands of gaming communities provide awesome moments for their members every single day. In a time when the media insist we’re becoming more divided on political, ethnic and religious lines, gaming communities are a vital refuge for the lost and the disenfranchised. Most will accept you regardless of what you look like, or where you’re from, or what you believe in. From my perspective at RPS, if you can ‘play nice’, then you can play with us.

But many people don’t share the same transcendent feelings about gaming communities I describe. For some, the term ‘gaming community’ will connote shitposting memes or six people coordinating to roll Mei in Overwatch No Limits.

If they have a more specific view, it’s likely a memory of reading about some long-ago community event, as the same few stories are repeated over and over: EVE Online’s Guiding Hand Social Club heist, for example, World of Warcraft’s Corrupted Blood incident, or Ultima Online’s assassination of Lord British

These incidents were unique and exciting, and the stories have inspired brilliant community leaders who weren’t even alive when Lord British was killed in 1997. But there are events like them happening every day. Gaming communities offer much more than people realise.

For starters, any community of scale will have its own stories like those above. In Guild Wars 2 alone, RPS mischievously started a (tactically unsound) trend of placing trebuchets outside of an enemy base as a ‘middle finger’, pushed the limits of triggering scripted dialogue, and accidentally permanently killed a skill point NPC. These are just three exceptional examples, from one game, in one gaming community.

The positive work of our community and communities also extends further than these strange, one-off occurrences. Just a fortnight ago, we assembled a ‘Hero Squad’ in Guild Wars 2, nipping about Tyria to help strangers in need, giving out presents along the way. It was fun, different, and tapped into the other side of what a bunch of people can do online together.

Other games have amazing players whose altruism completely dominates ours: EVE Online has EVE University (now in its 13th year of helping pilots), World of Warcraft has Friendship Legion (ensuring everyone can experience raiding), and even Ultima Online had spontaneous friendly crowds (usually to chase off horse scammers). These groups make the worlds they inhabit unarguably better.

RPS’ own ‘Ridealong’ articles prove the day-to-day humdrum of these gaming communities can be interesting even to outsiders. Readers appreciate the fresh perspective, and are grateful to see a different angle. Through turning away from perpetuating the growing myth that online games are only interesting when something naughty happens, sites will be welcomed by actual fans for shining a much-needed light on positive activities.

As value as articles like these are, developers should strive to promote the good work their communities do too. It’s not enough to just mitigate toxicity, especially when that mitigation involves outright limiting interactions and therefore the very purpose of playing online. By offering only emotes and map pings to communicate with other players (as Blizzard do in Hearthstone or Heroes of the Storm), is it any surprise that opponents and teammates are treated as faceless AI replacements? This sadly leads to players being less likely to engage with others, unless they’re skilled enough to warrant a friend request.

Blizzard aren’t trying to encourage new friendships this way, and instead rely on outside gaming communities to plug the gap for people who need to find others to complete their various ‘Play a Friend’ quests. They give credit and prizes to many of these third party sites, ensuring their sustainability. The danger is that other studios building multiplayer systems and trying to emulate Blizzard’s success will not appreciate all the extra support they directly deliver to their bigger communities. Without this interaction, the developer and their community become too separated, leaving the latter to wilt and die – or worse, twist into something ugly.

A quick look through industry job listings confirms attitudes need to change: Community Managers are expected to moderate and firefight, rather than seek out and foster the best parts of their player base. Marketing Managers are expected to push the latest trailer for content patches, rather than craft press releases about all the excellent things players are doing in their community. Opportunities are being missed, and if you can’t find anything positive about your community to encourage, then you have bigger problems.

The best developers dig deep into their player bases, bring out their best, and find ways to effectively present that to the world. It’s not easy, but without developers promoting positive outcomes, games can easily be defined by their negatives. Those that don’t play them will think the worst of them, and those that do play them will never unlock their full potential.

As for starting a gaming community, it’s easier than ever for anyone to use Discord servers and subreddits to create a space for their mates to chat and play together. Yet to provide exceptional experiences (with those character-building, skill-training, friendship-starting highs), your gaming community needs to be exceptional too. It’s not just about managing any aberrant behaviour of your members, but also organising interesting events to reinforce the desired tone.

Every year I see fresh faces who want to make a difference volunteering to help gaming communities. They are vital for ensuring the survival of these spaces, but the hours of unpaid work can add up quickly, and the bigger, active communities can struggle to stay relevant. Hosting significant events requires a certain ‘critical mass’ of people, and if they’re successful, that number only increases for every new one. Developers can help here too. The next challenge could be to find ways to reward these volunteers without betraying the trust of their audience, while also ensuring they remain visible and attract new members. Continued growth may only be possible when supported by game creators.

Standing out is becoming harder, but if gaming communities and developers start working together, we’ll see those old, negative examples of what online games can achieve being replaced by new, positive stories. And we’ll see more people playing games and making friends while doing so.

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18 Comments

  1. Grizzly says:

    As a completely shameless plug: The RPS community has it’s own Discord!

    • TeePee says:

      Oooh, a worthy plug, sir. It’s gotten you at least one more visitor!

      • Scott Constantine says:

        I can testify that it’s Well Good and Proper Active.

  2. SlimShanks says:

    Nice read, thank you. I can’t even count the number of multiplayer games I have turned away from entirely because of their communities. As an example I really enjoy Wargame Red Dragon, but the abuse I received for being bad at the game was unbelievable. Even when I asked my teammates for advice or direction I would be insulted. It doesn’t really encourage a healthy community.
    On the flip side, my long standing love of Battlefield was nurtured by a great community. Even though I had been gaming online for years, when I started playing Bad Company I was surprised to find that pretty much everyone was friendly and helpful. It definitely made we want to keep playing and reciprocate the kindness I was shown. That’s a rare thing, and we need more of it.

  3. Ghostwise says:

    Gaming communities are a vital refuge for the lost and the disenfranchised. Most will accept you regardless of what you look like, or where you’re from, or what you believe in.

    It’s odd, my experience has been that most are drowning in misogynistic, racist, transphobic, homophobic, antisemitic, islamophobic, conspirationist, etc. cocksplattery unless they spun off communities who reject these things.

    • Jaunt says:

      It depends a lot on your definition of community, I imagine. If you mean “the playerbase”, yes, there’s a lot of horseshit because in the absence of a community, hateful people can say hateful things without consequence, something they can normally only do on Stormfront and 4chan. So of course they’ll take advantage of that.

      On the other hand, if you understand communities to mean “organized groups of players who do stuff together at a scale larger than a squad size”, the vast majorities of those I’ve interacted with are good: there are a large number of “just in it for the loot” potatoes, and there are a couple really nice, helpful people. However, because everyone collectively kicks out the jerkholes, those relatively few great people make the community experience great.

      I’ve seen very, very few organized online hate communities in gaming. Haters tend to spend more time writing manifestos and protesting funerals than playing games.

      • Dinger says:

        Back in the day, RPS had an active steam forum. Some of us had the honor of moderating. Our sole job was to boot the haters.
        It’s not hard, and RPS’s mission, even when it was just 4 cis white dudes, has always been inclusive. Show the love; even if they can’t write like Tim Stone, they’ve shared his passion.

    • Blad the impaler says:

      There’s no unless about it. All communities, particularly those within the sphere of John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, invariably contain individuals that possess such endearing traits. Gotta ignore let that stuff slide.

      • Scott Constantine says:

        Yus. The original comment in this thread represents the feelings of many people – and it’s sometimes based on negative, personal experiences. But tackling that is really what the latter half of the article is about; developers need to do more.

  4. Premium User Badge

    The Almighty Moo says:

    New tears resolution: get involved

  5. Premium User Badge

    The Almighty Moo says:

    New years resolution: get involved

    Edit, just wasn’t quite quick enough on the stop button there…

  6. Jaunt says:

    Let me start by saying that I don’t fundamentally disagree with you. I have stories upon stories of old Ultima Online events, Everquest events, emergent player behavior in EVE, and so on. This way, maybe I can trick you into thinking we’re on the same side.

    I think a large part of why we’re seeing far less gaming community positive stuff is that online gaming has become much more defined. Ultima Online was a second, virtual world where anyone could do anything. We didn’t have expectations yet. By the time WoW hit its stride, we already knew what a “theme park MMO” was, even though we could still have cool, player-driven stuff going on. Finally, at the most extreme edge, Overwatch and Heroes of the Storm are basically organized sports: you spend X minutes trying to murder each other and do some objective. Trying to have a player event in the middle of Overwatch would be like starting a singalong in the middle of a basketball game. Not that there isn’t room for events in Overwatch (organized tourneys, practice nights, trick shot events, that kinda thing).

    Second, I’d point out that gaming communities aren’t special. Insofar as they can provide exceptional experiences while gaming, they’re only taking what communities have been doing for thousands of years. Further, they don’t actually make the underlying game better, any more than whistling makes your job better. It improves the collective experience. What I’m getting at is that as gaming communities improve gaming experience, the burden of promoting communities should thus rest squarely on the shoulders of the developers, as they reap the tangible benefits.

    TLDR: Devs should care a lot about player communities and go out of their way to support them, players should only get involved if they enjoy it. I’m perfectly happy treating Hearthstone as a card game against a bunch of unpredictable, bad-mannered emoting AIs with no greater community component. (have you seen the subreddit? Just ugh.)

    • Scott Constantine says:

      I think your third paragraph taps into the ‘next level’ of this discussion. I feel many people are disconnecting from their local communities (whether it’s not going to church, or disengaging from secular civic activities etc.), and so the online world can accommodate similar needs instead. In my experience, you can do cooler things online quicker, and without existing systems bogging you down. Should that be the standard for forming networks of friendships in the future? And moreover, are we just inadvertently shilling for developers by providing more value to their game?

      Funny you mention the Hearthstone subreddit, because I was actually really impressed with the event they held on the Discord leading up to the latest expansion. You could join one of the Gangs of Gadgetzan, vote on certain things, and even unlock ‘exclusive’ emojis. It’s another example of not focusing on day-to-day (controversial?) content produced by the community, instead producing a (really quite polished and well organised) event to encourage participation.

  7. Chris Evans says:

    My formative ‘web’ years were spent on the halflife2.net (now valvetime.net) forums, I became a member in May 2005 after many moons of lurking and started to develop friendships which have lasted in the years since I stopped being an active member of the forum.

    I’ve talked several times on The Reticule about my time with the -=256=- clan in Battlefield 2, while we don’t often play online together anymore, those days where we would spend evenings on the clan server, shooting the shit and drinking away will forever remain close to my heart.

    Perhaps the most important community I have been a part of is the RPS Steam Group, going way back when. Together with a few of the regulars on there, we formed The Reticule. Those were great times on the Group, and I will forever feel sad that I drifted away from the Group while focusing ever more on The Reticule.

  8. Premium User Badge

    Al__S says:

    I’m still in contact with various people from the old PC Gamer forums that were hosted on Delphi Forums, which for our younger viewers was almost a proto-reddit complete with its communities of wildly right wing americans and brigading. Plus signatures. Oh the signatures. Lenghty, gif laden, basci HTML-powered signatures. That just got worse in September 2001. I digress.

    Admittedly those I’m still in contact with were from the splinter group that got very, very Lost. Lasted more than a week mindyou.

    But yes, yay for gaming communities. The good ones at least, not the ones spiralling down bigotry fuelled rabbit holes.

  9. SableKeech says:

    I don’t know where I would be without my gaming friends.

    We got together over 12 years ago playing Soldner of all things! Since then we have been through DoW, BF2 3 & 4, Eve, WoW, Guildwars and our mainstay Arma.

    Nowadays we just meet on comms and shoot the breeze, relaxed and casual. They’ve helped me through some tough, dark times and I hope I’ve done likewise.

    There is something comforting about knowing that whatever is going on in your life, with the click of a mouse you can jump on comms to a safe haven and just chill.

  10. Vael Victus says:

    Duke/Scott,

    Excellent piece, and something I’d never considered: I feel community managers for games are more often fire-fighters than they are conduits to a more positive community. I changed the way my wife & I raise children because of one article that presented the following: if I come home every night and I’m the primary discipliner, then the child learns to not be excited for when Dad comes home. I think the same logic applies here, and it ends at all administrators, not just community managers.

    Get down in the game and host some fun events. Reward those like yourself, even if it’s just a prestigious mention. Well-said, Duke.