The Communities Working To Give Gamers A Good Name Again
Playing video games in 2019 is a far different beast to what it was years ago, thanks to the increasing role of online communities. No longer do we have to miraculously align schedules for a LAN party, or worry about having enough controllers for everyone on the couch at home. Connecting with other people over a shared interest in gaming is now a matter of visiting one of many online communities across social media, streaming sites, and game forums.
For the people at the heart of several prominent Australian gaming communities, managing these online spaces is a challenging task, especially when toxic behaviour creeps in. However, it’s an ultimately rewarding endeavour, because their job is to help connect people through their favourite video games.
Community Management 101
Whether it be your favourite multiplayer shooter or smaller indie darling, development studios are increasingly enlisting the help of specialists known as community managers. As the title suggests, community managers check in on players to ensure they’re having a good time and provide updates on what to look forward to.
Further clarifying the role, Darcy Smith, Community Manager at League of Geeks and Project Lead of Armello, believes every team has a different view on the official capacity of the role.
“From my perspective, community management is all about building relationships.”
“I would define a community manager in a very broad sense as a conduit between the development floor and the public,” Smith said. “You relay important information between the people that are making the game [and the public], and you’re a part of that by being that person.”
In addition to relaying information between players and developers, Kelsey Gamble, Lead Community Manager of Bethesda ANZ, believes community management is also about connecting with people.
“From my perspective, community management is all about building relationships – through those relationships, you turn players into fans, and fans into advocates,” Gamble said.
Comprising of many moving parts, community management and adjacent roles vary wildly across different companies. Whether it be social media and forum moderation, content creation, event management, or even corporate communication and marketing strategy – community managers certainly have their hands full.
Jess “Jiggsy” Hodgson, whose community management experience includes high profile brands EA and Coca-Cola, likens the vocation to “herding cats in a thunderstorm” due to the hectic nature of the work – but that’s just part of the fun.
“I love that a decent chunk of my workday is being excited with people about new games, or events – it’s an incredibly fun space sometimes,” Hodgson said.
When Good Communities Go Bad
In early 2012, one of gaming’s biggest sci-fi sagas was coming to an end. Excitement reached unprecedented levels as players couldn’t wait to see how Commander Shepard would combat the terrifying Reaper invasion, and which hot alien slice they could get down and dirty with. BioWare’s Mass Effect 3 came with high expectations and delivered an almighty salvo of overwhelmingly positive critic reviews.
However, despite the universal adoration from industry critics, Mass Effect 3’s negative response from the public was as swift as it was devastating. Largely due to the game’s ending, review-bombing was rife, and a group of fans began a controversial campaign titled “Retake Mass Effect”, prompting a response from Bioware co-founder Dr Ray Muzyka. Eventually, Bioware released a free extended cut DLC to clarify some aspects of the ending – which some now view as a significantly dangerous moment regarding online fan outrage culture.
Real talk: BioWare/EA set a damaging precedent by changing the ending to Mass Effect 3. If you're looking for patient zero in the outraged fandom culture war, you can probably start there.
— David Milner (@DaveMilbo) June 21, 2018
Hodgson was working for EA (Mass Effect 3’s publisher) at the time, describing the mixed reception as “both confusing and heartbreaking”. Based on the friends made at the studio, he knew that “what should have been a celebration was soured pretty quickly” following the community backlash.
This large scale dissent has been replicated to an extent with the rocky launch of multiplayer-shooter Anthem, to the point where BioWare’s community manager, Jesse Anderson, revealed that the mass negativity affected the developers’ online presence. Having been in a similar position before, Hodgson empathises with the current EA and BioWare teams, stating it can be challenging to gather information and relay it to fans promptly due to the chain-of-command processes at larger companies — especially when different time zones are a factor.
“Would [Captain America] be proud of the way the community treated each other if he was looking after it? If not, we’ve got some cleaning up to do.”
Conversely, League of Geeks is based in a single Melbourne office, meaning it’s easier to collect information about bugs, priorities and timeframes, and then communicate the findings to players on a short turnaround — a fact Smith is grateful for. When he’s faced with a community-related issue — such as when Armello needed to roll back an update in February 2018 – honest and transparent communication is vital.
“Basically, I just try and be genuine and try and inform, and let people know how we got to a position, why we’ve made a certain decision, and just be open and honest,” Smith said.
Unfortunately, online behaviour can sometimes overstep the mark — receiving death threats is sadly part of being an online public figure – exacerbated by the intrinsic connection many players feel towards entertainment.
Smith says “people really hold games up to such a high pillar that there are so many emotions around it”, while Hodgson reinforces “there’s never a place for personal attacks or threats over any form of entertainment media”. Gamble herself has been subjected to online harassment, but has been supported by her employer every step of the way.
“I’m very glad that Bethesda genuinely cares about these things and there are policies in place to allow me to back away and take the time that’s needed to recharge and protect myself,” Gamble said.
She adds that longevity in a community management career is enabled by clearly defining boundaries between one’s professional and personal lives, while Hodgson prescribes “lots of coffee” doubled with plenty of time in the sun during times of stress.
Hodgson candidly admits his litmus test for how a community should be run is inspired by Captain America — wielder of America’s ass.
“Would he be proud of the way the community treated each other if he was looking after it?” Hodgson ponders. “Because if not, we’ve got some cleaning up to do.”
Crossing The Streams
Gaming communities aren’t exclusively for playing games; significant amounts of people flock to various streaming platforms like Twitch and Mixer to watch entertaining personalities, who often use video games as a common interest.
Streaming is also a great way to engage a specific game’s community. For example, League of Geeks hosts regular community streams where viewers can ask questions and even play against the developers. Additionally, video game mental health organisation CheckPoint hosts streams promoting mindfulness and a safe space to talk about what’s happening in real life. Plus, they also ran last year’s chilled-out fundraiser Great Games Done Slow, which will be returning in September this year.
“We’re still e-hugging every stream. It’s warm. Moist even.”
CheckPoint’s Community Manager, Pritika Sachdev, who entered the games industry following a love of the supportive The Sims community, views streaming as a great meeting place for people to check in and enjoy games together.
“You all get to experience something together, and that shared experience is what brings the community together,” Sachdev said. “I’ve streamed The Sims 4 a few times on the CheckPoint channel, and it’s such a wonderful time.”
“Not only do we chat about the game, but it’s a chance for us to just hang out together, talk about what’s going on in our lives and how we’re moving forward.”
Particularly evident for larger companies like Bethesda that work alongside streamers, Gamble praises the natural ability of content creators to spark relationships with people, which helps to create positive communities.
“I think streamers and YouTubers often do an incredible job of community management, and generally a lot of them don’t have it as a background — but they’ve got that natural instinct to want to build rapport and it comes across as this really genuine experience that I love to watch,” Gamble said.
For streamer Steven “Bajo” O’Donnell, former host of the ABC’s Spawn Point and the since-cancelled Good Game, jumping aboard the Twitch juggernaut allowed him to connect with fans better than ever.
“When I started streaming, this huge community who watched our show and who I hadn’t had much interaction with outside of Twitter came flooding in to chat directly with me for the first time, and each other,” Bajo said. “It felt like a long overdue meetup and conversation.”
“It was such a warm digital embrace, and we’re still e-hugging every stream. It’s warm. Moist even.”
Wielding a wholesome army of fans known as “Bajonians”, Bajo has also hosted various charity streams which have raised roughly a combined $45,000, and some of the associated streams are counted among “the top 10 moments” of his life.
Just like those who join communities to bond over games, streamers are a tight-knit bunch with meet-ups of their own. Despite a perception that streamers are competing against one another for subscribers, Bajo says “there’s enough internet for everyone”.
“Everyone is trying to make a living, and be an entertainer, and with that comes all the feelings of camaraderie and creative angst,” Bajo said. “Learning to be happy with the work you do, and remember who you’re doing it for helps a lot.”
Making Better Online Spaces
Clearly defined rules are integral to curating positive online communities, according to Sachdev.
“Since so many people turn to games as a way to relax or de-stress, it’s important that they feel safe while doing so,” Sachdev said.
This means creating a set of community guidelines that explains any given community’s purpose, what sort of content and language is permitted, and the consequences for breaching said guidelines. A zero-tolerance approach to poor behaviour is most effective in stamping out online toxicity within communities, such as the “big heavy banhammer” favoured by Hodgson.
“[A positive community] means that people have a basic level of respect for each other that is enforced.”
While streaming, Bajo adopts the “ban, report, ignore” approach, stating that the more attention you give to trolls, the bigger they become. It’s also vital to address tensions before they become larger issues.
“If it’s something that has caused a big discussion, address it as not having a place in your stream and move on,” Bajo said.
Additionally, Sachdev believes it’s important to offer learning opportunities for minor transgressions, particularly in light of the internet’s propensity to “cancel” people for slip-ups.
“…Sometimes people will hear you, reflect on their behaviour and work towards becoming better, and that’s really important,” Sachdev said.
Smith also champions giving people second chances, but not to the detriment of his team.
“In the same way that I try to lovingly educate people, I will also not hesitate to educate people and be like ‘hey, this is not correct’,” Smith said. “My desire to connect and inform will not stand in my way of standing up for [League of Geeks] as well.”
This is also aided by League of Geeks’ deliberate strategy of being their own content creators, which feeds into their transparent communication while humanising the studio — something large companies like Blizzard struggle with, but is absolutely no excuse for negative behaviour.
“It’s so easy to [see] this large, ominous company [like Blizzard] that’s sort of amorphous and all-powerful, you know?” Smith said. “It’s much harder for people to turn around and be like ‘well, fuck you, Darcy — how dare you do this!’.”
Importantly, Gamble reinforces that creating positive online spaces is “mandatory” for community managers, meaning people feel safe while having robust discussions, not that everyone has to agree with each other all the time.
All good communities should revolve around what drew people in to begin with.
“[A positive community] means that people have a basic level of respect for each other that is enforced,” Gamble said.
Smith echoes this, stating that sometimes the difficult conversations with hyper-critical, hardcore fans of Armello who don’t take any “bullshit” are necessary to provide valuable feedback to the developers.
“While those conversations might feel bad sometimes, it’s also important for us to keep us in check,” Smith said. He points to the Path of Exile community management team at New Zealand’s Grinding Gear Games, led by Bex, as an example to follow, especially with how well the studio manages player feedback.
By clearly stating and enforcing a set of rules for a community, it cultivates lasting relationships with players, which Hodgson still sees looking back on the Mass Effect community.
“There are still thousands upon thousands of cosplayers, fans, and newcomers to the series who all love the world,” Hodgson said. “And an almost scary amount of people who still want to bone Garrus, who I’m pretty sure is some kind of avian.”
And of course, strong gaming communities are about much more than just selling games to people — evidenced by Bethesda’s recent #noRAGEgrets campaign, where the team inked up fans with randomly-chosen Rage 2-themed tattoos for free. While blind loyalty to brands is inadvisable, authenticity is what separates companies merely trying to get people to buy things and those that genuinely care about their audience.
Hey everyone, we'd like to introduce you to this guy here. He has NEVER gotten a tattoo in his life, but here he is randomly choosing a very real and permanent #RAGE2 tattoo 🤯
Talk about #noRAGEgrets!
What do you think about the tattoo he is about to get? pic.twitter.com/YZy2PQ0jZI
— Bethesda ANZ (@Bethesda_ANZ) May 10, 2019
“We don’t always manage to make everybody happy 100 percent of the time, but our main priority first and foremost is to the players, which I think is critical to authentic community management and something that can’t be faked,” Gamble said.
CheckPoint’s values are as authentic as they come, especially driven by the pro-mental health gaming community GamerMates, which Sachdev describes as “a primarily positive space where people reflect, encourage one another and grow together”. Thanks to her work with CheckPoint, Sachdev feels optimistic about how people who make games are fostering welcoming community, too.
“I’ve met some wonderful people from all over the country who are passionate not only about creating great games but are actively working towards creating a healthy and inclusive industry,” Sachdev said.
For budding game developers and community managers, Gamble believes that all good communities should revolve around what drew people in to begin with.
“Be real, be as transparent as you can, and focus on the reason why people have gathered together — to celebrate the cool game you’ve created.”
Chris Button is an Adelaide-based writer. He tweets at @BibbyBhoy – gentle judgement is fine.