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.