The community is important when it comes to talking about an MMO. This is an established fact; I wrote an entire column about how the community both is and is not an MMO, after all. But the tricky element when discussing it is partly that just “the community” is already a vague and amorphous concept. What actually is “the community” in the first place?
I’m going to go ahead and disappoint some people right now because this column is not going to lay down what I consider ironclad rules for defining an MMO community. Rather, I think this is something we all need to be ready and willing to discuss and consider because “the community” is such a vague concept it can be used for many different and sometimes contradictory points, and we need to understand that said vague blob is a vague blob as well as what that means in the larger sense. Community in MMOs is just plain weird.
Consider EVE Online. If I said that the community in that game consisted largely of people who enjoy some level of PvP, you would probably say that I’m right, especially if you recall that I’m also of the mind that economic PvP is still PvP. (Don’t scarper off to the comments just yet if you wouldn’t agree or want to personally say you aren’t into PvP and you play. I’m going somewhere with this, I promise.)
Would you still be as on-board if I said that the community in that game is one composed of chest-pounding alpha male douchebag competition? I think most of the people who would agree with that are people who aren’t playing the game. Most of the people actually in that community would disagree. And yet the image clearly doesn’t come from nowhere, even though I know for a fact that there are people who play the game without fitting into that demographic.
How about if I said that the game’s community is all about rewarding a dangerous space society where there’s always an element of risk but not the certainty? I think fewer people would agree with that, playing or otherwise. But that’s the actual stated lore.
The point here is that there’s a range, and there’s a lot of difference between what people who play the game believe, what people who aren’t playing the game believe, and what the stated lore is. And quite frankly, it’s not as simple as just tallying up players because as I recall, CCP’s actual stats show most players stay in high-security space or low-security, not the PvP-centric nullsec.
So how do we reconcile this? Well, we don’t.
I think the trick to understanding the nature of a community in and around an MMO lies partly in accepting that the amorphous blob actually is an amorphous blob. There are certain things that are true about the community as an aggregate that the game is designed for, but that doesn’t mean that it’s somehow a universal facet of the game and every player you meet belongs to an identikit group.
Consider, for example, that in one of my first grouping experiences in City of Heroes I had homophobic slurs thrown at me and got kicked when the group seemed to dissolve around me, only to see the group still together a little bit later. Was that indicative of the community that was legendarily helpful, friendly, and welcoming?
I’ve met hardcore content addicts in Guild Wars 2. I’ve met exclusionary, rude, absolute dickbags in Final Fantasy XIV. I made a couple of great long-term friends in WoW Classic, despite that game being stereotyped as hardcore and not welcoming of outsiders. Is everything we think about communities wrong?
No. But there’s a double-edged danger here. It’s very possible to start thinking of communities as universal blanket statements about everyone involved, and that’s inaccurate, but it’s also easy to start seeing smaller groups of players as being a representative sample rather than recognizing that you’d expect to find some outliers in a large enough group.
Let’s address that in order: The reality is that people are people, and that means there are a lot of people who don’t fit the general picture of the community. I know players who enjoy nothing more than mining quietly and doing PvE content in EVE Online. The community is not as simple as adding all individual players into a collective and giving them equal weight; there’s a character to the overarching community that goes beyond that.
But it’s also possible to mislead yourself, intentionally or otherwise, simply by looking only at your group of friends. It’s easy for you to see a group of fun people you’ve fallen into in EVE and think that’s everyone in the game, that right around the corner is another fun and inclusive and non-toxic friend to be made. And I think even the game’s most ardent defenders would point out that such a viewpoint is… well, likely to end with your ship blown up if you keep it up long enough.
Games get the communities their developers design for, and that may not always be the community you want to be a part of. That may also not be the community you personally fall into, even if you get lucky and find better people to surround yourself with than the aggregate.
A good rule of thumb I find is to ask yourself what kind of story you’d expect to read most often about the game’s players on websites or social media or forums. I’m sure there are people out there who just really dig the combat in Secret World Legends and don’t give a damn about the game’s world and story… but I’d expect to see a story about players expanding the story or writing fan novels or the like more than I’d expect to see that about EVE, for example, even though we do see warm fuzzy stories coming out of EVE on occasion. But I also wouldn’t expect to see a story about how the community harassed and berated a fellow player in SWL.
This is one of the reasons many veteran MMO players were left reeling by last year’s revelation that City of Heroes had a rogue server that not everyone knew about. It made the real community seem wildly different from the community a lot of people believed in, and it changed what people thought was true about that community and the people working on emulators. Subsequent actions have been closer to what was originally assumed, at least, but the players were still forced to grapple with that new truth.
All of this is not to say you shouldn’t try to get a sense of a game’s community. I certainly do, and I think a lot of games with a reputation for good communities really do have them. They usually have failings, of course (FFXIV gets praised for its community with good cause, but it does have obnoxious sides and some overeager zealots), but that’s not the same as the community being secretly bad – just as games broadly seen as having bad communities do also have good people in them.
But putting your finger on “the community” is tricky. It is vast and ever-changing, and it is more than simply tallying up players and using them as a final barometer. It’s complicated. Everything is complicated.