Designing Gaming Communities: An Anthropological Approach

Updated: Jul 12, 2019



*Informant's name has been changed to protect privacy.

Nergui didn’t even twitch as the white-haired man wearing nothing but a pair of boxers and a great sword appeared out of thin air and promptly jumped off the edge of the precipice falling to the lava below.

“Wait here,” he said.

I watched as he jumped off the side of the rocky outcropping, deployed his glider, and flew to a distant ledge. I had tried to make the jump six times without success. It had taken over an hour for me to get this far, and I wasn’t about to give up yet.

A purple misty portal appeared on the ground at my feet. I quickly teleported through and dashed to the refreshing mist that would save my progress in the Chalice of Tears. I followed Nergui to the edge of the mesa, and we looked across the inner chamber of the volcano as the white-haired man missed his jump and fell to his death again.

Nergui cast another portal and took off, hopping across the rocky protrusions that dotted the chamber. I waited patiently for the portal to transform into the thick purple mist that would signal that the mesmer had reached the next location. When the portal darkened, I quickly jumped through again. I very carefully followed Nergui up the butte that required several precise jumps—one step the wrong way and death waited below.


“Where’d the naked guy go?” Nergui asked.

“He was frustrated and logged out,” I replied. “Pretty much will need to redo the entire thing.”

“Friend of yours?” He turned away from the edge.

“My husband.” I laughed.

“If he can make it to the second mist, I can get him here."

“OK. He’s logging in now."

“Wait here." Nergui jumped down the butte, avoiding the flames that sprung up and licked the sides of the cavern.

I watched Nergui navigate across several small perches as he headed toward the beginning of the Chalice.

It would be another forty minutes before my husband made it to the second refreshing mist where Nergui waited to retrieve him. And, another thirty minutes after that before we made it to the end of the jumping puzzle and the chest that waited there. But we weren’t there for the jumping puzzle. It was a bonus, sure, but our goal was collecting the final two Mursaat tokens that were hidden throughout the volcano. Collecting the tokens was the first part of our journey on our quest to obtain the Aurora, a legendary trinket that would give us only a mild stat boost but provide an ethereal aura that would mark our prowess to all.


Nergui took the time to lead us to the two remaining tokens, and somewhere along the way, we had added a fourth member to our group. Nergui guided us all, and he never complained, not even after we failed many attempts to jump across the fiery chasm. It didn’t matter that he had to retrieve us again and again. This left me wondering… Why would he do this? What did he get out of it? Sure, he had the mentor tag above his head to mark him as a helper, but that was by choice, and he didn’t have to use it. We each tipped him a small amount of gold but, again, we didn’t have to do that either. Besides, there were much more lucrative ways in Tyria to make gold, ways that would give him a lot more than the time he spent teleporting us through this hell of a jumping puzzle. But, it was players like Nergui who made the Guild Wars 2 community.

The concept of community is an important one in anthropology, but defining it isn’t so easy. It could be defined as a group of people who have common interests and goals, but that doesn’t quite cut it. It misses that underlying nuance that permeates membership. And, it’s very possible to be a part of community and not have the same goals or interests as others within the group. In this situation, the community is divided into subsects that have common interests. However, in order for the larger community to thrive, there has to be some sort of overarching interest that ties them all together—even when those members have different ideas on how to reach their goals.

But what does this have to do with Nergui or the Chalice of Tears? Community is an important concept in the social sciences, but it’s also at the heart of online gaming. The game community can make or break the game, and the game designers are very aware of this and have been since the first MMOs. Back in 2011, gaming blogger Tobold argued that game designers have no influence over the behavior of the community and that acts of kindness are completely up to the individual. It’s true that as individuals we make conscious decisions on how we treat others, but do game designers really have no influence?

Raph Koster (2011), a renowned game designer, refutes Tobold’s claim when he writes, “Designers design the social environment by commission or omission.” While game designers can ignore community, the result will likely not be positive. Players will take it upon themselves to create the social environment and, as Koster notes, the outcome of that cannot be predicted. However, designers typically don’t ignore community when designing a game. They design very intentionally with the social environment in mind.

For example, the concept of factions or what we would call in anthropology, in-groups and out-groups, on a broader scale, is present in several MMOs. The Alliance vs. the Horde, Qeynos vs. Freeport, Imperials vs. Rebels are just a few. Many of these can be broken down into smaller groups, depending on the story that is created for the game world—guilds, close friends, race, class, etc. The games were designed this way intentionally with the purpose of building community connections.

Back when Star Wars Galaxies was in its infancy, there were strong ties created across the server between groups based on their faction. I can recall quite clearly, dancing in the cantina as our rebel warriors recuperated before heading back into the fight that raged outside in front of the Theed spaceport. The Imperials had attacked, and all members of the Rebel Alliance had been called in to defend the territory. Even so, we were losing, and we were losing badly. Game chat was on fire with calls for help, and when only a few members were left alive, I too, heeded the call. I wasn’t a fighter but, nevertheless, I quickly equipped a pistol and ran into the fray. I didn’t even have armor. It was just me, some flimsy dancing attire, and a pistol that was gifted to me—one I didn’t know how to use. Yet, even though everyone knew it was futile, the Rebel community cheered as I ran out shooting. I was dead in seconds, but it didn’t matter. What mattered was our ability to come together as a team, regardless of race, regardless of class, regardless of guild. In that moment, we were all members of the Rebel Alliance, and we were all willing to put our differences aside to take out the Imperial scum that threatened the galaxy. And, if death was the result of our effort, we died together, as a team.

It’s this level of connection, this level of community that games strive to achieve. Star Wars Galaxies is no longer a functioning game, at least not in the sense that it’s ran by the game producers. However, community had nothing to do with the game’s demise, and because of that strong community, the game can still be accessed and played today (“SWG,” n.d.). As Koster (2011) states, “Community ties are the single biggest predictor of retention.” The community was determined to retain that game, with or without the original creators. In the case of Nergui, he is just one member of a much larger community who took the time to create a positive experience for others. When looked at this way, Tolbold was right when he bemoaned the loss or lack of individual kindness as a detriment to the game. So, how do game designers merge the actions of the individual as a collective whole?

Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski believed that if the needs of the individual were met, the needs of society would be met. And, it is culture that meets those needs. Culture, according to Malinowski (1960), serves the biological and psychological needs of the individual. Within the game world, culture is provided through design to fulfill needs of those who are playing. Everything that the game designers create serves a function; therefore, there is a continuous cycle of need-activity-purpose-function that is embedded in the culture. It’s this contribution of culture that integrates the individuals in the community as a whole, because to achieve any goal, humans must come together and cooperate. The environment created, which Malinowski (1960) claims, “is neither more nor less than culture itself,” has to be maintained and reproduced as new needs appear. Game designers who can implement this cycle successfully, have strong and lasting communities that function well because they are aware of the feelings, drives, and needs of the individual which has a distinct group benefit. Essentially, game designers are creating a cultural standard of living through design and influence the community through the creation of necessities or detriments. Additionally, cultural needs of the community must be constantly reassessed for the derivation of new cultural needs.

This level of consideration is clear in the design of Guild Wars 2. Nergui had his own reasons for helping that could be examined further through systems of reciprocity. And, when questioned he said that he could relate to the struggles of others attempting to complete the puzzle and being able to help them progress appeals to his nature in real life (Nergui, personal communication, September 12, 2018). However, he was only able to perform these functions, fulfill his desire to be helpful, because the game was designed to allow him to do so. Nergui had a mentor tag above his head, an apple signal that could be seen anywhere on the map to let others know that he was willing to help. By design, the ability to see this tag from the map, opens avenues of communication between members of the community, regardless of vicinity in that zone. That is, players don’t have to be standing next to one another to notice the tag. Nergui is also a mesmer, a class that was designed with a teleport spell that not only benefits the mage but can be used to assist others. However, this does not make it easy, because Nergui himself, still had to be skilled in completing the jumps required for the puzzle. He has painstakingly become good at this activity, understands the frustration of the puzzle, and he enjoys helping others. The game was designed to meet these drives and desires. It took Nergui four hours to complete the puzzle the first time that he did it. While it might be natural to want the challenge to be easy, through its difficulty it aids in developing community connections. Nergui was able to reach out to others in the community to help them meet their goals. By design, there is a system of interconnectedness that brings everyone together.


In addition, Guild Wars 2 has designed game play in a way that does not create ghost towns or zones. No matter where players go to adventure in Tyria, they are likely to run into others—lots of others. This has been a death nail for game communities in the past, and those of us who played Everquest II can recall how bad this became when they implemented private guild halls, and the once thriving hubs for each faction emptied, cutting off any sense of a larger connected community. As players leveled up, and new higher-level zones opened, the previous zones saw a reduction in number of players, becoming long forgotten hallmarks of past populations. They were regulated to memory, campfire stories of reminisce. Players needing to achieve goals in these areas had to rally up friends, because meeting strangers willing to lend a helping hand would be unlikely. Meeting players willing to group outside of their guild, even more so. Guild Wars 2 designs quests, storylines, dungeons, and achievements in an integrated way that keeps players coming back to old zones, creating a community that is alive and thriving.

In this sort of environment, the needs of the individual can be met. They can complete old quests, storylines, and achievements. They can find others who are seeking to complete the same objectives, either out in the world at large, or through the ‘looking for group’ feature that allows for the creation of a variety of different events and specifications, including runs that are primarily economic in purpose. The ability to consistently interact with others of the community in a multitude of ways has garnered a positive environment that fulfills the needs and drives of those within the game world and strengthens the whole of the community. Spending hours helping strangers is not uncommon in the Guild Wars 2 community. Nergui is one of a million helpers in the world of Tyria willing to help others in the community reach their goals. The designers have designed a culture of giving that has created a welcoming atmosphere for newcomers and old friends alike. The level of thought put into the social environment has kept millions of people playing over the past 6 years. It’s good for the designers, it’s good for the developers, it’s good for the players. And, quite frankly, it’s intelligent design.

Bibliography

ArenaNet (2012). Guild Wars 2 [computer software]. NCSoft.

Koster, R. (2011, February 01). Designing for community. Raph Koster’s Website. [Web log

comment]. Retrieved from https://www.raphkoster.com/2011/02/01/designing-for-community/

Malinowski, B. (1960), original 1944. A scientific theory of culture and other essays. New York,

NY: Oxford University Press.

SWG: Legends. (nd). Retrieved from https://swglegends.com/

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