Community Management: The Game

Is running a community like playing a video game? I would bet at first glance your community doesn’t have much in common with the Mario franchise. However, online game communities were some of first to arrive on the scene, and their experience makes them perfectly suited to advise our work. Raphael Koster  gave a speech at the Game Developers Conference (GDC), titled “Still Logged In: What AR and VR Can Learn from MMOs.” (For those drowning in jargon short-hand, the terms in the title refer to Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, and Massively Multiplayer Online environments). Koster, a celebrated game designer, did not come to the GDC to talk games. Instead, he outlined the implications of digital society that goes unchecked. While I encourage you to watch the video, below are some highlights of his speech that connect to our role as community managers:

  • If you host an online community, you are on the hook. Koster believes that there is no room for error in this message. No matter your team size or the scope of your project, it is your sole responsibility to manage users in your community. Designing a community is like making pasta; if you let the water boil and put the pasta in, it will cook; Left unchecked the water will boil off and the stove will catch on fire.
  • People repeat negative behavior. This is a trend that holds true to many virtual communities. People who troll rarely do it in a singular instance. Consider banning a user by blocking a credit card from being used in the instance of an online game – with the average American household owning more than 8 credit cards on average, banning a card is simply an annoyance – it agitates rather than resolves the issue.
  • Corruption happens. If you elevate admins to “god” status and allow them to interact directly with members, an imbalance can emerge. While this may not pose a problem in your community (and may even be an intended effect), it is important to consider the social hierarchy your community possesses, and how it might be leveraged in unintended ways.
  • We import real world biases into virtual worlds. Koster draws attention to the fact that, in real life, men who are of shorter-than-average height are less likely to get promotions and earn a lower salary. In virtual reality worlds, characters with a shorter stature earn less experience points and level up slower. This example invites us to think about additional preconceived notions we bring to the worlds that we are creating.
  • People use virtual spaces as a form of self-therapy. This observation has implications that are both positive and negative. Giving people a form of community, especially where they may not have had one before, can be an empowering tool to foster a sense of connection. However, many communities are shocked to find manifestations of mental illness – and are unprepared to handle them. Understanding and being prepared for these occurrences can be of utmost importance, to your users and to the health of your community.

Koster pulls together ideas of what it means to be a walking video game client, an argument for solidarity in community management, and the future of complete virtual realities. Whether we apply these ideas to an intranet or World of Warcraft, we are ultimately working with individuals in a way that will shape the future of online citizenship, for good or bad.

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