The Quest for Community

It’s Saturday night and I’m watching five friends eagerly arrange their dice and characters. A blank grid is set in front of us, with endless possibilities to be found. We’re gearing up to play Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), a scene familiar to over 10 million players world wide. Our Dungeon Master (DM) dims the lights and begins our quest as we listen with rapt attention.

Yet, I have a confession to make.

I have never been a Dungeon Master in a D&D group. I sit comfortably as a player and adventurer, enjoying the puzzles, combat and loot awaiting us, but its never been my job to look behind the screen. The experience unfolds in front of me just for showing up at the door.

However the idea of the DM as akin to my experience as a Community Manager dawned on me a few weeks ago and I keep coming back to the cross-over. DM’s manage their players, enforce rules, and learn with the adventure. They support, gently challenge, and create new pathways of connections. The best of the best make lasting memories with just a blank grid. Community Managers do the very same within their Community. Below are three ways that Community Managers and DMs share their role.

  1. They set the stage.

“You walk into to a town square that is well lit, lively, and jovial”/”Hi, welcome to Widget Community! Here is how to get started…”. The role of DM is to paint a scene for your players. Should they be worried? Excited? On edge? Similarly- your role as Community Manager is to illustrate the experience for your members. What type of Community are they coming into? Is it full of artifacts and resources they can dig through? Or more about supporting and challenging the best ideas to rise to the top? If your adventurers are unaware if they’re walking into a friendly tavern or a rough-and-tumble part of town, they may step on a few toes. Community members, without guidance and a warm welcome, may shy away from engaging further in your Community.

 2 . They know the rules, the math, and the crystal ball of outcomes.

“You deal 4 damage to a monster ten feet away”/ “Here are our Community metrics for FY18” . As a DM preps for their games (a process that can take days) they get up close and personal with all the gritty bits of the system. How damage is taken, how it’s dealt, move speed, and the world norms. Community Managers have a pulse on the inner mechanisms of their data. Equally, both groups use a mix of exact science and fuzzy numbers (ever try calculating the monetary value of connection?) to get a picture of where they need to go.

3. They revisit/ rework/ revise/ revamp.

“The goblin you interrogated five months ago has come out of hiding with ten of his friends and now has some questions for you”/ “Hey team, let’s try a new landing page layout to see if we can drive more traffic to our forums.” The role of DM and Community Manager is ever-evolving. Maybe your group has collectively decided that finding a town lumber is more important than saving the king (spoken from actual campaign experience). In Community, perhaps your wonderful member onboarding is leading members to the platform but not helping them engage, or your account creation process is so long that people are giving up halfway through. Both scenarios require quick thinking to get the job done, and leave the encounter excited for the next challenge.

As a player, I have learned to respect and admire the myriad work our DM does (by the way, this month just so happens to be DM appreciation month). Hopefully in your role, your Community recognizes the same work and dedication you bring.

Community Management: The Game

Is running a community like playing a video game? I would bet at first glance your community doesn’t have much in common with the Mario franchise. However, online game communities were some of first to arrive on the scene, and their experience makes them perfectly suited to advise our work. Raphael Koster  gave a speech at the Game Developers Conference (GDC), titled “Still Logged In: What AR and VR Can Learn from MMOs.” (For those drowning in jargon short-hand, the terms in the title refer to Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, and Massively Multiplayer Online environments). Koster, a celebrated game designer, did not come to the GDC to talk games. Instead, he outlined the implications of digital society that goes unchecked. While I encourage you to watch the video, below are some highlights of his speech that connect to our role as community managers:

  • If you host an online community, you are on the hook. Koster believes that there is no room for error in this message. No matter your team size or the scope of your project, it is your sole responsibility to manage users in your community. Designing a community is like making pasta; if you let the water boil and put the pasta in, it will cook; Left unchecked the water will boil off and the stove will catch on fire.
  • People repeat negative behavior. This is a trend that holds true to many virtual communities. People who troll rarely do it in a singular instance. Consider banning a user by blocking a credit card from being used in the instance of an online game – with the average American household owning more than 8 credit cards on average, banning a card is simply an annoyance – it agitates rather than resolves the issue.
  • Corruption happens. If you elevate admins to “god” status and allow them to interact directly with members, an imbalance can emerge. While this may not pose a problem in your community (and may even be an intended effect), it is important to consider the social hierarchy your community possesses, and how it might be leveraged in unintended ways.
  • We import real world biases into virtual worlds. Koster draws attention to the fact that, in real life, men who are of shorter-than-average height are less likely to get promotions and earn a lower salary. In virtual reality worlds, characters with a shorter stature earn less experience points and level up slower. This example invites us to think about additional preconceived notions we bring to the worlds that we are creating.
  • People use virtual spaces as a form of self-therapy. This observation has implications that are both positive and negative. Giving people a form of community, especially where they may not have had one before, can be an empowering tool to foster a sense of connection. However, many communities are shocked to find manifestations of mental illness – and are unprepared to handle them. Understanding and being prepared for these occurrences can be of utmost importance, to your users and to the health of your community.

Koster pulls together ideas of what it means to be a walking video game client, an argument for solidarity in community management, and the future of complete virtual realities. Whether we apply these ideas to an intranet or World of Warcraft, we are ultimately working with individuals in a way that will shape the future of online citizenship, for good or bad.