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Community a Bad Word? Really?

Isabelle Parsley Posted:
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“Community” – sometimes, to hear it said, you’d think it was a dirty word in the MMO world. It tends to have a bad rep these days, and it tends to get blamed for an awful lot of stuff. It’s a convenient scapegoat, too, the unspecific “they” who make everything worse and suck the enjoyment out of one’s gaming life. Faceless, amorphous, easy to blame. Yet here you are, and here I am, and for once I’d like to take the higher road and take a look at this community of ours. Is it really that bad?

The first problem, of course, is defining it. There’s the meta-MMO community, which is so broad and diverse as to be almost impossible to define. We’re male, female, young, old, mature and not, we come from all over the world and we speak 100 different languages. That one doesn’t get blamed much because it’s so broad and shapeless it’s almost impossible to pin anything on it.

Next there’s game genre communities, which are only slightly less diverse. Then you come to game communities, server communities, class communities and all the other specific groups, which is generally what we’re talking about when we’re using the word.

If there’s one thing you hear a lot these days, it’s that MMO communities suck, or that they’ve gone downhill, or that they’re not what they used to be. As someone who has ridiculously rose-tinted memories of those old days, I find that interesting – because while I agree with the sentiment to some extent, I also think game communities have improved over the last decade, both quantitatively and qualitatively.

My take on game communities – and common interest groups in general, for that matter – is that the more people are involved in a given community, the higher the number of asshats. That’s just a social law (or should be). Statistically-speaking, when you’re dealing with a total group of 1000 people in a beta, you’ll have a lower number of asshats than when you’re dealing with 100,000 at launch. The proportions, however, remain the same; I just think that at some point asshats reach critical mass and their voice becomes loud enough to be a problem for the rest of us. They were there from the start – they just weren’t as brash.

And yes, I have a Theory of Asshattery. Asshats are herd creatures, gaining in courage as their numbers increase – so when their numbers are low they mostly lurk and don’t cause much trouble. Furthermore, asshattery can be contagious, if only temporarily, turning perfectly sensible and friendly people into raving asshats themselves. Evidence exhibit A, WoW’s Barrens Chat. Asshattery can be difficult to resist, and it has a tendency to bring people down to its own level.

The thing is, we non-asshats have all the same channels available to us when it comes to expressing ourselves. We can talk in chat, we can post on forums, we can tweet, we can post on our blogs or on other people’s; the problem is we’re not as vociferous, we’re not as aggressive, and – generally speaking – we don’t like to rant just for the sake of ranting, unlike the asshats. So yes, there are times when the insolent, rude, negative community voice seems to be much louder than the voice of reasoned debate, and the obnoxious voice is always there, always ready with more ammunition and more asshats to take up the banner and carry on being obnoxious.

Call me incorrigibly optimistic, but I still think the gaming community is richer now than it was 10 years ago. A decade ago I frequented probably half a dozen forums on a regular basis, and I read exactly one blog (Lum the Mad, for those who care). I didn’t have a blog of my own and I didn’t visit any kind of meta-gaming site like the one we’re in now. Most of the gaming news I got was from friends and it wasn’t exactly deep-insider, breaking, up-to-the-minute news either. Sure, the pace was more leisurely and we did have some lengthy discussions on those forums; and sure, the asshats were definitely in a minority back then (though I refer you to my Theory, above: I think they were just lurking).

Today I have something like 150 blogs and gaming sites on my feed reader; I have my own blog; I follow bloggers and game journalists and developers on Twitter and even (though I’m not a big fan) on Facebook. We have those game-networking tools that tell us who is playing what and when, and since I don’t use them I don’t know what they’re called, but Raptr is one of them. Ironically, I only read a couple of forums on a regular basis now and one of them is the same guild forum I was reading ten years ago; but as far as in-depth gaming discussions go, I mostly do those as comments on blogs or even as tweets. 140 characters is a pain in the backside when it comes to making a serious point, I’ll grant you, but I’ve lost count of the number of times a tweeted discussion has sparked blog or forum posts, thereby taking the debate to a more convenient location.

,p>What we have is an explosion in the quantity, both in terms of how many people are in these gaming communities and in terms of how many options we have for communicating about the games. I don’t agree, however, that the quantitative explosion inherently includes a qualitative reduction. Yes, there are obnoxious people around who make it really difficult to enjoy a game or even just to talk about a game; yes, they’re really loud; and yes, it would be a lot better if the asshats could just be gagged and thrown in a corner until they learn some manners.

But that’s always been the case, in any gathering. Hit the pub on a Friday night and there will be one or two – or five – obnoxious asshats somewhere in the room causing some sort of trouble. If you’re lucky it’s not much trouble and they’re just being mouthy; if you’re less lucky, they’re actually harassing someone (and if you’re really unlucky that someone is you). There were asshats in every class I was in at school; there were asshats in college; and I’ve come across my share of asshats at various workplaces over the years.

I understand that they’re annoying and I understand that they can be upsetting – I’ve been there. I do know, however, that we can choose how we react to them. “Don’t feed the trolls” is a prime example of the wider community choosing how it reacts to a particular brand of asshattery. I can choose what sites I visit and I can choose how much weight I give to the things I read on those sites or in those communities. If I get irked by something, I can choose to just move on and not give the asshats the pleasure of seeing that they riled me up.

Most of all, I can choose to see all the amazingly interesting people I’ve met in the last decade and interact with them instead of with the asshats. That’s one of the benefits of the quantitative explosion: there are a bunch of really smart and fascinating gamers out there with funny or insightful things to say about the games I enjoy, and they’re a lot easier to find than they were 10 years ago before any of us knew what a blog was, much less how to set one up and post on it. And those who don’t blog, comment, without which blogs would be nothing – I may say I post for myself, and to a large extent I do, but what’s a blog without the contribution of the people who react to what I write?

So here’s to you all, the non-asshats of the gaming world. Post, comment, tweet, and generally stand up for being a reasonable member of the community. We’ll never be rid of the asshats, but we’re certainly a damn sight more interesting than they are.


Isabelle Parsley