The negative influence of community

Chris over at Levelcapped has started a series called The Theory of Geekdom where he’s exploring “…why geeks are the way they are, what it means for them, and what it means in their relationship with the non-geek mainstream.” All he’s got so far is an introduction, but knowing Chris it’s going to be an interesting series. No pressure, buddy!

As grist for his mill, I wanted to share one micro-experience I just had, as relates to gamers and community and how negative we can be, and how that negativity influences (some) people around you.

I got into the Firefall beta yesterday morning. While I was at work I had the client download, so as soon as I got home I jumped in and played a few missions and really enjoyed myself. But I only got 10-15 minutes before the dog needed walking, dinner needed eating and so on. During this downtime I was pondering the game and everything I didn’t know about it, so the next time I had a moment I jumped on the forums to learn what I could.

Sadly they were typical game forums. Some people trying to give honest feedback and other people shouting them down, calling them inferior gamers, telling them to learn to play and so on. And that was in one thread (the guy had voiced his opinion that the first missions are a bit too hard since he’d died several times).

I quit my browser and got ready for a scheduled Guild Wars gaming session. That session got cut short after about an hour so I fired Firefall back up.

And I didn’t really like it. I played for all of 5 minutes and then quit to play TERA.

So, I play the game and enjoy it. 5 hours later I play the game and don’t enjoy it. What changed? The game obviously didn’t change. I did. And what changed in me?

Suddenly I was seeing the people around me as “those assholes from the forums” instead of as other gamers having fun, and now I didn’t want to have anything to do with them, so I was playing the game like a single player game. Instead of banding together with other players and helping them burn down enemies I was avoiding people and looking for empty spaces to play in.

Just to be clear, the Firefall forums aren’t any worse than the forums of any other online game; I’ve yet to find an ‘official forum’ that wasn’t absolutely vile. And also just to be clear, I’m not a fan of trolls. I do, however, know a troll. There’s a kid I work with who finds trolling endlessly amusing. He legitimately enjoys getting people aggravated and upset and sees absolutely nothing wrong with it, and in fact finds it hilarious. He can’t understand why I don’t also find it hilarious.

In all other aspects, this kid (who is also a gamer) is a really nice guy. In spite of being a troll, he’s always willing to lend a helping hand and get things done. He’s the kind of guy who always lets everyone know when he’s running out to get lunch or whatever, and asks if we want him to pick up anything while he’s out. He’s generally well-liked in the office. I even like him…when he’s not trolling.

But I digress. The point is, if you’re a troll you probably think it’s really stupid that I let what goes on in a forum influence the way I play the game associated with that forum. And I even know, intellectually, that it’s stupid, but this is an emotional thing. I try to deny it but the fact is, I now think all Firefall players are asshats and I’m going to treat them accordingly. Which of course is just going to detract from the in-game community in some small way.

The worst part about gaming forums is that 80% of the population can be friendly and helpful, but the 20% who are trolls are going to make the entire place feel like a cesspit. When you ask “What key do I use to take a screenshot?” you won’t remember the person that simply replies “Print Screen” but you will remember the person who replies:

First, search the forums before you ask your dumbass question. There are a 100 threads asking how to take screenshots. Second, how the hell did you get into this beta if you’ve never played an online game before? You must not have ever played a game if you don’t know how to take a screenshot because every game uses the same damn key. Maybe do a little research before you open your mouth and prove to the world what a dumbass you are. I swear I miss alpha when these forums weren’t filled with stupid noobs filling up the place with stupid threads like this one.

So how do we fix this? I don’t think we can. I think this is a symptom of a greater disease. Until we culturally start thinking more about the impact we have on people around us, any anonymous gathering of gamers is going to be vile because there’s always going to be a few trolls who are determined to make it vile.

The only hope I have for the future of Gamers is PAX. When all these people gather in person, the 80% tend to overwhelm the 20% and the overall vibe is really positive. Why? Well first, some percentage of trolls moderate their behavior when they’re in danger of getting a fist in the face. But aside from that, how is it that the gamer bullies are overwhelmed by the friendly gamers dressed like Pikachu? I think it’s because everyone is 100% devoted to being there at PAX. I think on forums, a lot of us are there to get info and get out, while the trolls are just hanging out in there all day trying to piss people off for laughs. Because of this, although they may be 20% of the population they’re generating 60% of the posts. [making numbers up here]

Aside from better moderation (which is a minefield for the moderators) I’m not sure what the answers are. I just think it’s a shame that so many communities are undermined by people like my troll co-worker (scariest part? he’s a psychology major. Or maybe psychiatry… I forget which) who take delight in making others miserable.

A final word: This post focused on the negative side of community but of course there are many positive sides as well. I’m not denying that. Though I’d argue that most positive communities are smaller and somewhat exclusive.