We play massively multi-player online games. Despite certain trends that seem to show an interest in making MMOs geared more for a single-player experience with a chat room attached, what defines any and all of the hundreds of games in our favorite gaming style isn't the genre, it's the fact that hundreds or thousands of people are attached to our gaming experience. While the choice certainly remains for a player to build a solo experience, MMOs are designed to be for a large amount of players, from chat channels, to groups and raids, to the behemoth that a player economy can become.
When so many players are gathered together for common gaming goals, they form a community. Defining a community can be broad: some lay definitions simply label a group of people with common interests (in this case, the game they are playing) as community, sociology may choose to label a community based on whether or not it is geared for common or self interest, and psychology may insist on emotional connection between individuals to establish community. The difficulty in defining a game's community, therefore, becomes more complex, as it takes up no physical space, no psychological needs, and involves more strangers and cliques than friends.
Even if we want to stubbornly deny MMOs possess a community, we acknowledge the fact on at least a subconscious level. When we enter a new game, we judge the game not only by its own merit, but how its players act. We look at how many people are around us; are there a lot of people, or is it maybe a ghost town? We see how players act toward us; is it a friendly atmosphere, or perhaps a little less than jovial? We look at how helpful players are to everyone else; do they welcome newcomers, or is everyone a "stupid noob" that has no place in their realm? These evaluations and judgments inform us, whether correct or not, if the game has a community that we want to join. Not everyone cares whether a game's community is naughty or nice, but those that do are willing to walk away from good games based on their perceptions.
If you take a look at a game's community as a whole, you will find that it is broken down into several different sub-communities. These groups can be broken down minutely in portions: guilds, raiders, casuals, solos, duos, PvPers, etc. Although sub-communities vary from game to game, and even server to server, every game possesses three distinct sub-groups within their community formed around communication methods: forums, in-game chat and activities, and individual participation. How these smaller groups come together helps define the character of the game's community.
Forums are often viewed as a source of information, but the information itself comes from community members. These message boards become a place to discuss mechanics, gameplay issues, and request assistance. More analytical players even use them to number crunch why x skill from y class is better than z ability, and to request input and data from other players to confirm or refute their findings. This is also, however, where the "hive-mind" mentality develops, too. People become convinced their way is the best (or, sometimes, only) way to play the game, and the like-minded go by that example, arguing, and in extreme cases, belittling and putting down anyone who disagrees or tries to present a different idea, even if that person has never actually attempted any theorizing or testing.
When it comes to MMOs, forums take on a community all their own. Some forum communities are kind and informative, welcome to new players and ideas. Some are downright cutthroat, populated with several breeds of trolls that chase away those that don't fit in. In more rare cases, forums can be empty entirely, devoid of almost any conversation. None of these forum attitudes are necessary translations to the community in-game. Empty forums don't indicate low population, nor does vitriol mean that players will be treated with an elitist attitude in game. Likewise, even friendly forums can mislead players into thinking the in-game community will be welcoming, only to meet an unexpected nastiness.
When it comes to in game interactions, attitudes can be similar to the forums, or radically different. Even if similar, the community in-game is a different beast because it has a bearing on the community's characters far more than the walls of posts found on a message board. While chat channels can act like a live version of the forums, the in-game community relates more to how players interact with each other on a more personal level: trading, grouping, and sharing a common virtual space. How do players react to sharing an area for the same named quest mob? Do players make fair trades in person, and how are fair trades determined? Are groups tolerant of mistakes, or opting for a vote kick the first time someone makes an error? Do players make themselves available to mentor newbies, or are they shoved away without grace to figure things out on their own? These social interactions develop a tone that becomes familiar to players, an in-game community that defines how individuals interact with each other.
And there are individuals, of course. There is no pretending that a game is simply made of hive-minds and generic social rules with no individual character. Every player has their own set of likes and dislikes, their own pool of knowledge, and their own style of play. Some individuals come to stand out in the community as leaders, whether it's because they can get a group of players working together toward a common goal, such as a raiding guild, or because they offer unique information or point of view, such as a guide writer or a MVP. No one individual, however, can define a game's character; no individual steers a game. Ultimately, the MMO community is simply bound together by a lay definition: a group of people all playing the same game.
So why does this discussion about community matter? A game lives or dies, in great part, based on its community. A new player's perspective, as already mentioned, is largely influenced by the community they encounter, and this can either draw players in or drive them away. More than that, however, the community has an influence on the direction the developers take the game. Imagine, for instance, a game like Darkfall or Warhammer Online, where the community was greatly driven toward PvE content. Think of how the Allods Online fiasco might have went if players approved of the item shop's initial prices. Although a fallacy persists that the community's opinion means nothing to developers, a collection of individual voices, formed together, has the power to change game mechanics, introduce new items and areas, and in some cases, completely revise a game into a new experience.
Like it or not, whatever games we choose to play envelops us within a community. No different than being a resident of a neighborhood, or a member of the workforce, even a loner is part of the greater community that exists. While you may not be a butterfly flapping its wings, you are part of a voice that shapes and defines the games you play, an opportunity rare outside the world of MMOs. Use that power to whatever you will.