Communities played an important part in the online gaming experience during the early 2000’s, and I think there are lessons in there for today.
Time for a story. It’ll be fun and egregiously self-deprecating.
My first Real Time Simulation (RTS) game was Age of Empires I, back in 1998 or so. And I loved playing it online. Problem was – the online experience really sucked because most of the players were jerks. The experience sucked and the game lagged like hell.
By 2000 I had joined my first gaming community. They were referred to as gaming clans, and you could identify its members by having a telltale tag at the front of a name. MNPE_username, JCV_username…and so on. There was also this entire notion of being anonymous. It was highly prized. Back to this in a bit.
Gaming clans were never really intended to be part of the multiplayer gaming experience. At least, I don’t think Ensemble Studios ever really foresaw them. People, in a way, spontaneously formed them. The most dedicated ones would then register a domain name and host Internet forums. I don’t think we even knew the term social media at the time.
I regret not keeping a long enough list or better records – but there were many, many, many clans. The vast majority had very short half-lives. They would be founded, exist for 3 weeks, and then die a cold death. Some would persist. They’d grow and thrive. And then later, they’d fragment and explode. They died a hot death.
A very few would be self-sustaining. In effect, they’d be founded, they’d get 7 members, and from there they would be successful…continuously refreshing the membership over time and maintaining just the right size to insure familiarity and community.
Different clans had different utilities for their members. Some of them were Elite Clans. In effect, a small group of 7 to 15 people would get together and trade insider skills and knowledge. You had to have a certain rank to even apply to be part of them.
Other clans were friends only. You were invited in.
Some clans were open. Anybody could join. So long as you were fun to play with, you were pretty much guaranteed to be in.
Clans served a few purposes. There was a reason why so many people joined them back then.
For one – they provided a source of gaming quality control. The online experience sucked back in then – with people flamming and dropping, cheating and yelling. More often than not it was unpleasant. If you knew a group of people who behaved reliably well, then the experience of the game would be all the more better.
Secondly – they provided a source of quick games. If a group of people routinely logged in at the same time, chances are they’d play together and have a good game. The tag provided the boundary for friendship. Or, it guaranteed a certain level of competitive quality in team play – which was important for people’s ladders rankings and tournaments. Gaming was (and probably still is) serious business.
Thirdly – many evolved to form actual communities over time, and evolved a set of social norms and commonality. For a very long period of time, pre-Skype-Facebook-Twitter-YouTube-MySpace, they formed a type of safe-place. You could remain anonymous and still be part of a community. And it was as though somebody in Korea was just next door.
After a game had become stale – the community frequently remained.
You might ask – “Why didn’t people play with their friends?” (Like they do now – like on Xbox Live…?)
Not everybody had broadband connections at the time. It was still rare in countries other than Canada, South Korea, and Netherlands. Secondly, not many people played RTS games, either. For sure, some people knew other people ‘in real life’, but this was the exception, not the rule. Finally, Xbox live didn’t exist. Console games were consoles. Online games were social in a different way. The distinction, I suppose, in the transition from kids in front of Nintendo to young adults drinking beer in the basement playing a console game – and the notion of virtual community anytime/anywhere gaming: was a distinctive split. You could only get an online social experience through the PC. This unto itself caused a different dynamic.
You could have an authentic community experience through a clan while being anonymous. Many people back then wouldn’t imagine doing anything online unless it was through a pseudonym. (This was pre-Facebook).
Many of these communities gradually faded. For one, Ensemble Studios began incorporating clans directly into the gaming experience. While this was nice to a certain extent, they removed a few sources of quality control, and an important concept of continuity of the community in case the leader leaves. Ensemble Studios, much to their credit, actually did what we now refer to as ‘community outreach’. And they were actually quite proactive about it at the time.
Clans continue to thrive in the First Person Shooter (FPS) genre, where the quality of the game is heavily dependent on the quality of those you play with, and where dedicated servers are highly desirable. Sony, through it’s massive FPS game ‘MAG’, might still accidentally cause a renaissance of the early-era clan.
There are quite a few takeaways for social media.
People sort other people. Not always. But often. In the instance of clans, people sorted themselves into groups based on the experience they wanted but couldn’t get otherwise. I suppose if the parts of what remain of Ensemble wanted to innovate, they could introduce an jerk-sort into the experience. Those who have propensity to ruin an experience for others could be grouped together and be miserable with one another in random match-ups.
Communities are much more than joint-utility seeking entities. To see them only in that light would be too simplistic of a model. But communities do, at least, seek joint-utility. Even 4Chan has its bouts of concern about the cancer that is killing /b/.
Communities might also self-organize so as to compensate for a deficiency in a corporate offering. Perhaps some companies can understand which deficiencies exist.
Finally, communities can outlast their original purpose. For how long they can survive I’m unclear about. But they do.
Community Seeking and Online Gaming in the Early 2000’s were really interrelated. I’m curious to watch how this next wave of social gaming will change the landscape that much more.