Building a community in an online place or virtual world
Time and time again I see driven and excited people come together as a guild or clan, progress well but ultimately fizzle out and die.
Whether it’s because of loot drama or a tyrannical guild leader, the main thing stopping a guild from becoming successful is survival. As I’ve touched on before, World of Warcraft is an easy game. The thing holding you back from that elusive Server First is not player skills; it’s teamwork and logistics.
Now, teamwork and logistics are huge topics for another day. What I want to talk about today is something that you will need to develop and foster while your raid team or guild starts to coalesce. Alongside the implementation of a DKP system and a good raid schedule, you must also develop your community.
A good community is perhaps the main thing that holds back many new guilds. Many old guilds also take it for granted, letting it gradually waste away; a community can not be just left to hang, it must be gently cultivated, nurtured and looked after!
So, perhaps we should start with the definition of the term, and go from there:
What is a community?
A community is often defined as a group of people living in the same locality, governed by the same laws or rules. It could be as small as a group of friends that meet up at the same place and have their own ‘house rules’, or it could be as large as international ‘gaming community’ (although communities that span the globe don’t tend to have the same rules as localised ones). For the sake of this article I’m going to be talking about community sizes you often find in contemporary online games and virtual worlds; in clans, guilds and corporations.
Online communities tend to consist of 5 to 100 people. While some communities are larger, they often splinter into ‘cliques’ – groups of friends that stick very much together and don’t really add anything to the community itself. Generally, I wouldn’t recommend trying to run a online community that has more than 100 members, but if you’ve successfully grown a community and you see no reason to stop… see what you can do!
A community, then, in an online game, is a group of gamers that come together in the same place (albeit virtual, it’s still a place!) and live by the same rules, as laid down by the leader of the community (at the start, anyway!)
Creating a place for the community to exist
For an online community to come together, the members need somewhere to hang out! For an online game it’s obviously guild chat or a forum. For smaller clans it might be an IRC room, or a mailing list. As I already said, these are virtual places, but they are still places; places where thoughts and emotions can exist and run wild. A community needs a place where its members can be. It is vitally important if a thought needs sharing, or a question posed, that a place exists for that interchange.
Creating a place for the community to exist is as simple as creating a guild or chat room. A forum is also incredibly useful for the sharing of thoughts in larger communities (I’ve listed a few free forum providers at the end of this article).
The rules of the community
Once you’ve created a place, the next step is to define some common rules that everyone adheres to. I’m not talking here about draconian commandments, but I am talking about rules that add flavour, or define who you are. Perhaps a roleplaying guild might require all of its members to stay ‘in character’. Maybe you’re a player-killing clan that only has one rule: kill anything that breathes. It might just be as simple as ‘play your best and aim for server number one’.
It’s these rules that will bring your community together. Through common rites, rules and goals you will begin to trust each other; it’s only with that implicit trust and security that the community can continue its growth and become a ‘true community’.
The levels of community
M. Scott Peck was an American psychologist that had a huge body of work, but most importantly for this article, he focused a lot on communities, their characteristics, and how the phases they go through in their development.
He proposes 4 distinct stages that a community goes through (hopefully they make it to the end!):
- Pseudocommunity – As the name suggests, this isn’t really a community. Members often cover up their differences, for the sake of survival, or a common goal. This is very much a community of ‘survival’; a group of players see an opportunity to improve their survival, so they group up!
- Chaos – When the psuedocommunity ultimately fails (and it will, given enough drama), the members start to go to each other for help, or guidance, or to vent their differences or grievances. This is the first stage of bonding, and trust-building! It goes beyond plain survival here — the members are trying to improve their survival!
- Emptiness – Eventually, differences are laid aside. Egos, or ego-related issues are suppressed. This is where the strong individual urges are destroyed and the community is actually born.
- True community – After making it through all of the previous stages, the members of the community are in complete empathy with one another. Arguments will arise, but they will be settled in a timely fashion without things becoming too heated. Motives are never called into question in a true community – it’s way beyond that point! – any members of the community that made it to this point are in it for the long run, perhaps until the day they die (or quit!)
These stages are very easily mapped onto online communities. Using World of Wacraft guilds as a base for the examples:
- Stage 1 – A guild forms. The leader has normally chosen a purpose for the guild’s existence, but that’s the only thing keeping the guild together. ‘A place to farm easy epics!’ or ‘Become number one on the server!’ are two common goals for a guild at this stage
- Stage 2 – It’s the guild leader’s job to get the guild to this stage as soon as possible! Stage 1 is quite destructive (and some guilds never leave it), and real progress and melding as a group can only occur once there is discourse and argument about how best to do things. Most WoW guilds that get to this stage can survive for a long time; simply getting the members to care enough and discuss issues or boss strategies is an achievement!
- Stage 3 – Once the rampant egos have been squashed, or removed, a guild might make it to this stage. This is when people start sharing real life issues and empathy starts popping up. People earnestly care for each other. It’s around this stage that people start turning up for every raid – and if they don’t, they’re very apologetic about it. Being let down by a member of the community is rare at this stage.
- Stage 4 – Often referred to as ‘spiritual community’, this is a stage that very few guilds will reach. This is where you start finishing each other’s sentences. There is an overwhelming feeling of inclusivity, commitment and consensus in a true community. A single leader also becomes less important at this stage; the community tends to govern itself through rational discussion that can only occur in a truly safe environment.
Peck defines true community with lots of shiny, happy terms, but the key values of a true community are: a safe place, a spirit (shared wisdom/love), and a place where everyone feels involved and included, without the fear that their feelings will be ignored, or attacked by other members.
Obviously, if an online community can reach the 4th and final stage, they’re going to be around for a long time, and perhaps span multiple games. The community transcends individual games; it becomes a lot more about the forum, voice coms, or even real-life meets!
Most guilds will only ever reach Stage 2 or 3 though, which is generally fine. A lot of progress will appear when people lay down their differences and egos, and focus on actually working together. If a community never progresses from Stage 1, you are in for a short, wild ride. There might be some progress, but it will be fleeting. Many flash-in-the-pan guilds recruit heavily, get bullied around by a guild leader, progress a bit, and ultimately dissipate to other guilds — these guilds serve a purpose though… they gear up people for other guilds with strong communities!
How to build a community — an example
Let me give you an example of a community that’s started from scratch. This could be a tiny fledgling guild started in The Barrens, or it could be a clan of Counter Strike players that bumped into each other in a random free-for-all game.
The first step is obviously to create a place to exist. This might be a forum, or a chat room, or just guild chat. It’s not hard to create a place! As long as the tools are there to facilitate communication, that’s all that matters. In general, though, a forum is the best solution for almost every kind of community — it allows real-time communication, and also threads of thought that can be answered at a later date. A forum also acts as a ‘group consciousness’, storing information from the past for future generations! Freedom of information is very important!
Once you have a place, you need some rules. This is the great part of online communities: your set of laws and rules can be incredibly flimsy, or very restrictive — whatever works! You might choose to have an almost non-existant rule set (our guild only has one rule, for example: ‘Don’t be an asshat’), or you might have a huge charter that lays down what you can and can’t do while in that community. I’ve seen roleplay guilds that have entire ‘rules of engagement’ laid out, that everyone must follow!
The most important thing is that these rules must be inclusive. Freedom of speech, as is the freedom of information. You are building a community not a tyranny. The members of the community must be able to speak their minds; they must be able to share their passions and concerns. It is only through concensus of opinion and inclusion that a community can grow upwards through the 4 stages!
The exception here is when someone (often the leader, although it could be by group agreement too) oversteps the line and needs correction, or removal. Racism is a common example of ‘excessive’ freedom of speech, as is misogyny in a community that includes girls. Religion might also be a sensitive subject in some cultures. Basically, any avenue of conversation that might push people out, rather than include. If a community reaches Stage 4 — true community — most codes of conduct are self-governing; it’s the early stages of a community that need the most hand-holding and guidance.
Once you have a place, and some rules, the community will begin to flourish. A little guidance might be necessary though! A community is nothing if it’s not used. What good is a forum, chat room or guild chat if no one actually uses it? I’ve seen WoW guilds with maybe 1 or 2 new forum posts every week; needless to say, their communities were incredibly weak — they just exist to raid, and never get past Stage 1.
It is someone’s (or everyone’s!) job to make sure the community grows. Encourage people to log into the forum and ask questions. Expect other people to assist you during your travels. If someone asks a question — answer it in a timely fashion!
You are trying to develop a group where everyone feels included, where you can put your entire soul into it without the fear that your investment won’t be returned. A community is only as strong as its members make it — if there is some rule, or some person (a tyrant!) that prevents people from dedicating themselves fully, your community may never get past Stage 1 or 2.
As with everything I’ve written, there’s always some exclusions or special cases that need mentioning. The common factor of Stage 3 and 4 communities is that they don’t have a tyrant leader — they have a shared leadership, with the members defining the rules and delivering justice. In fact, once a community progresses out of Stage 2, a leader might find himself with very little to do; problems seem to get solved on their own, and eventually problems just don’t arise!
Unfortunately, many online guilds tend to have tyrannical leaders. I’ve seen many guilds on the cusp of Stage 3 crushed by a tyrannical guild leader that’s afraid to lose his grip on control of the community. Some leaders are perhaps only playing to lead, rather than create a great and thriving community.
This isn’t to say that a leader has no place in Stage 3 or 4 communities! Their role tends to become more of a ‘spiritual father’ (for want of a better term), guiding the community in times of unrest. As online communities are nearly always recruiting to replace quitters, it is also the leader’s job is to remove new members that don’t gel with the rest of the community; although the members themselves might force new people out, if they don’t fit.
I said I would provide a list of good, free forum providers, so here they are:
Free Forums/Guild Portals
If on the other hand you are a smaller clan, how about getting an IRC room on QuakeNet? (It’s a very comprehensive guide!)
If you have any questions about the issues or topics raised here, I’m more than happy to answer them. You can ask them in a comment, or email me using this form.
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