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Gamer communities: the positive side

"How does anybody find friends? In the traditional community, we search through our pool of neighbours and professional colleagues, of acquaintances and acquaintances of acquaintances, in order to find people who share our values and interests. We exchange information about one another, disclose and discuss our mutual interests, and sometimes we become friends. In a virtual community we can go directly to the place where are favourite subjects are being discussed, then get acquainted with people who share our passions or who use words in a way we find attractive. Your chances of making friends are magnified by orders of magnitude over the old methods of finding a peer group." Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community, 1994

There's a story I faintly remember from the Dreamcast era. Nostalgia may have skewed it somewhat, but the kernel of it, I am sure, is accurate. When the online multiplayer adventure Phantasy Star Online was released in 2000, it was one of the first connected console titles to invite and support a global community. However, the game was released a month early in Japan, giving its domestic audience a significant advantage in terms of levelling up their characters and improving their skills. And yet, when American players eventually started to hit the servers, they were welcomed largely with friendship. Using the game's icon-based communication system, veteran players helped the newcomers, shared tips and items and acted as guides. Whatever happened after that, there was an instinct to share rather than destroy.

Gaming communities, indeed online communities in general, have had poor press over recent days. A lot has been written about the Twitter storms surrounding the developers David Vonderhaar and Phil Fish (my own take is here ) and we have seen the horrific hounding of MP Stella Creasy and feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez by social media miscreants. Throughout this year there have been controversies surrounding sexism and misogyny on game sites and in comments sections. There is a sense that somehow internet social communications have regressed, and that a tide of filth is slowly rising. Games often catch a lot of the critical flak, because this is still a culturally arcane community to some extent. People aren't sure what to make of us – better to think of us as weirdos and monsters. Except of course, we're not.

The history of the games industry is, ironically, not about industry in a lot of ways – it is about community. It was the culture that grew up around arcades in the early 80s that cemented the sense of electronic gaming as a pastime. The first mass-produced game, Pong, was a two-player experience that found its home in dive bars and fast food joints, and when Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and Defender arrived later, there was an engaged group ready to embrace them. Arcade competitions, meet-ups and tournaments flourished across the US and Japan, mostly at fan level. Arguably there would be no industry without these early adopters, without the brotherhood of the dingy coin-op palace.

The early era of mainframe computers also brought us the multi-user dungeon, text-only multiplayer adventure games that spread across university and research centre networks in the eighties. Pioneers like Richard Bartle and Will Crowther created online fantasy realms, which could be explored by groups of people who had never met in real-life, who may have been thousands of miles apart, but yet were able to help each other on imagined escapades.

There were practical benefits to these enterprises; researchers at Xerox PARC learned about virtual environments and information spaces through observing MUD players – the PARC's Jupiter project led to new ways of thinking about online collaboration for global businesses. But something more important was also happening – people were sharing ideas and interests in MUD space, and as they have done in countless online multiplayer games ever since – they were making friends and falling in love. In her 2000 report 'Social information processing in MUDs', researcher Sonja Utz, found that 74% of players she spoke to had formed lasting, meaningful relationships in these abstract, monochrome worlds.

Fresh starts

Online games remove our physical identity, and all the traumas and inhibitions that come with it; everybody starts equal, everyone is judged on their contribution. What you input is what you are. in the early 90s, MIT researcher Amy Bruckman referred to MUDs as "identity workshops" – they became places in which people could express different senses of themselves; it was possible to role-play with gender and sexuality within a safe, nurturing environment; people accepted each other. This has been the overriding case throughout the history of this genre, from Everquest to World of Warcraft and beyond.

We know the high-profile cases, the stories of Warcraft love affairs and marriages; but the important thing is the millions of stories that go largely unreported – of people forming guilds and making friends, and just getting along for years and years, enriching each other's lives. My fellow writer, Cara Ellison, has written beautifully on her relationship with a guild of friends in the online game Defense of the Ancients:

Some people think that gaming is a solitary hobby. But for me, DotA was a way to connect with my real-life friends through an experience that didn't include a darkened room serving overpriced alcohol we couldn't afford. We got to know each other by style of play and syntax of insults. We got to know each other better by issuing orders or coming to someone's aid. We talked to each other over the game like it mattered that we heard each other. And later, when we could afford to leave our rooms, we'd sit in a pub together and laugh endlessly at mishaps and in-jokes and personality quirks, as if our characters were part of ourselves.

Nobody outside of the game industry really wants to process all of this – it doesn't fit in with the accepted narratives of game history and culture. Let's look at Doom, for example, the poster boy of the Daily Mail's 'ban this sick filth' hysteria. Id's violent first-person shooter is an orgy of carnage and shotgun-splattered lunacy, and its popularity scared the bejesus out of the tabloid press in the 90s, who saw in it the wreckage of society. What they didn't see was the vast, creative community that grew up around the title – they didn't see how the game's lead programmer John Carmack had ensured that the code would be easily modifiable by fans. They didn't see the thousands of kids getting together online to form modding groups, to build their own worlds. They didn't see Half-Life developer Valve nurturing its own community in the same way, and employing talented amateur-level designers to work in-house on new projects. People are now hugely successful designers because they once fooled around with a bunch of Doom files with collaborators they'd never met.

Empowering communities

Game communities are empowering. For lonely kids growing up in big schools crammed with sports stars and bullies, they are a means of making friends and becoming a part of something exciting and fulfilling. I don't know anything about the 40-person volunteer team who produced Black Mesa, a fan recreation of Half-Life released last year to great acclaim, but I am amazed by them. I don't know much about the Call of Duty and Counter Strike teams now earning millions of dollars competing in global e-sports tournaments, but I know that games and their communities have changed their lives for the better.

Beyond them, you can look to the groups of Japanese kids who meet up in parks and town centres to play the popular local multiplayer game Monster Hunter; or to the clans of dedicated zealots still packing out the last remaining arcades for Street Fighter tournaments. You can see the vast network of volunteer scouts who contribute to the player stats in the Football Manager series of simulations. There is the incredibly intricate space game Eve Online, where communities have structured galactic democracies and complex economic systems.

And you can look to the community that has grown up around the simple adventure game creation package Twine ; people who have struggled with issues around their sexuality, their gender, their identities – all of these can be explored through playing, making and sharing games. Anna Anthropy who has created incredibly intimate titles like Dys4ia and Triad, has written a simple guide to Twine . Why not make your own? Why not ask others in the Twine community for help? They will help you.

Here is why it matters to me. I hated senior school. I was lonely, I didn't fit in, I found gangs of boys intimidating and I couldn't work out the rules. I wasn't specifically bullied, but I was … marginalised. I had computer games though, and through them I met some friends who played and swapped new titles, classics like Paradroid, Way of the Exploding Fist and Elite. One of those boys and I started making games together for the Dragon 32 computer. They were very simple puzzlers and platformers with crude visuals and daft plots. I couldn't code, so I mapped out all the levels on graph paper. We sold them at trade fairs where we met other gamers, other friends. It was awesome and it let me think about myself differently – enough that I could go on to study drama at university, enough to put those crappy years behind me. I don't know anyone else from school anymore, but I'm still friends with that guy. I know there are millions of stories like this out there.

Shared experiences

Games are about shared experiences, rendered extraordinarily powerful by interaction and ownership. All successful games have communities. There are forums, meetings, conferences, blogs, YouTube channels … every year massive get-togethers like Quakecon and MineCon draw in thousands of enthusiasts and developers. And unlike in similar events for film or music, there is rarely much of a division between the 'stars' and the masses. Geeks flow. Fans write mods and become developers, developers become fans of what their communities achieve. The rise of indie gaming has created a seamless strata between industry and fanatic – now anyone can download Game Maker and write something amazing that a community can form around.

Certainly, game forums, like Twitter, can attract hateful, damaged people, but they can also introduce you to lifelong comrades. Online games provide a playful space, unmediated by the social rules that clutter bars and clubs; in this sense, online games are a venue, an excuse to get together. And sometimes you need to create excuses to communicate with people – sometimes it's difficult to say, "can we just, you know, talk?" – but put a group of friends in an online game, with headsets and a bit of time, and conversation can flow. Even if it's about shooting stuff, it doesn't matter, there is connection, a connection it is difficult to make and maintain elsewhere.

Back in the 80s, what the staff in those universities and research centres knew, as they gave over significant amounts of processing power to fantasy role-playing games, was that this matters; this is a new way of communicating together. So by all means let's castigate those in our communities who seek to terrorise and belittle others – but lets do it because we know they don't belong here, not because we think they're representative. I have met countless amazing, wonderful people through games – I don't just mean the designers and developers I professionally admire, I mean the people who play and talk about them too. Because games are a form of communication, not a waste of time, not something silly or shameful. We are always communicating when we play, we are always together.

In his book, The Virtual Community, Rheingold wrote this about the internet: your chances of making friends are magnified by orders of magnitude over the old methods of finding a peer group. That is as true, perhaps ever truer, for games.

  • Game culture
  • Role playing games

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