Inspired by the Preece and Lau readings this week, I took some time to reflect on my own involvement with online gaming communities, especially the one I helped form in high school. Back in the day, I spent a good many evening hours playing Counter Strike: Source, an online team-based first person shooter. What started as a casual weeknight activity for me grew into a very involved and structured commitment, as I found a place to interact online with my peers.
In 2004, I found myself regularly playing on a 24/7 “Assault” server – Assault being the name of the particular map, the only map used on that server – where I came to know a few of the other regulars. Over time, we went from casual playing buddies, to forming a clan, starting our own server and forums, and bringing more people into our group. As the co-founder and second in command of our team, I helped form our community of teammates and friends from the ground up, by moderating our online activities, encouraging teamwork and fair play, collecting payments from our clan members to support the servers, and so on. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was a community manager, through and through.
This reflection has made me aware of how both technology and games themselves had an influence on how the community functioned. The game server, the forums, and even our Teamspeak server, all provided centralized locations for synchronous and asynchronous interaction. We were brought together by our love of Counter Strike, but we found we had a lot of other interests in common. I ended up going to design school, and tutored two of our members in design concepts, setting up image-creation contests for nothing more than bragging rights. We would also simply join into the Teamspeak server, used primarily for strategic chatter during competitions, just to casually talk when few of us were playing. Technology facilitated a level of bonding and understanding over great distances; while most of us were in the EST time zone, not all of us were American. We had effectively built an international, albeit English-speaking, community from scratch, based on interest alone.
The value that gaming added, however, is what really intrigues me. Jane McGonigal, game designer and author of Reality Is Broken, has spoken many times on the power of gaming to bring people together. Friendly competition and teamwork in a game tends to build relationships outside of gaming as well, a concept which leads her to recommending “gamifying” activities that aren’t normally seen as games. For instance, her web community Super Better adds gaming aspects, like bad guys and check points, to the act of working on personal goals. Super Better also encourages peer interaction, to have users help each other to get up when they stumble, and support each other to completion. In the same way, though the game wasn’t the sole focal point of our community, it did serve to color our interactions with each other. It allowed us to come together with a common goal, and work together to achieve it, thus building and shaping our relationships with each other. Our teamwork was so strengthened by our high level of interaction that we started competing in amateur gaming leagues, a testament both to our abilities and the confidence inspired by peer reinforcement. In fact, while I’ve moved on to be a member of many other communities, I can’t help but notice most aren’t as tight-knit as the gaming groups I’ve belonged to. I’m not sure if this is because gaming is better at bringing people together, or if it’s simply a factor of group activities being a great bonding agent for communities, but it’s a very noticeable difference in my mind.
What do you think, do games or other synchronous activities make a large difference in community interactions? What are your experiences?