My background in community leadership is largely in competitive and PvP gaming. I have been a director in Goonswarm, a Deputy Commander in World of Tanks, and I am now overseeing the development of the Word of Lowtax in MechWarrior Online. These games, and more importantly their communities, all share important attributes which I am covering in this series. Here's a link to Part One of this series, focusing on leadership.
At this point I should mention that while I identify as a goon first, I have been exposed to a wide variety of groups throughout my travels. My experiences in war, diplomacy, and intelligence have given me familiarity with many communities, and the quirks that individualize them. I’m not here to give my personal opinion on what is right or wrong, I’m here to share my experience on what cultural flaws I’ve seen that your enemies can exploit - and the best way to fix them.
What Exactly is Culture Anyway?
Culture is a nebulous term. It's what differentiates our communities from each other. It’s a quality which adds spice to our online gaming lives. It’s the way that groups think about themselves, the standards they hold for the conduct of their members, the goals for playing, the behavior towards themselves and others they find to be acceptable. It’s why a goon will not think twice about insulting a ‘pubbie’ and why a recipient of that insult might not think twice about instantly declaring a blood feud. It’s what draws someone who might be a saint in real life to viciously scam, insult, and abuse strangers online, or, perhaps, causes a horrible person in real life to champion the side of justice and honor. It’s what lets some groups thrive under the stress of war, becoming legends, while other groups in the same situation ‘failure cascade’ into a mere footnote in the history books.
Why is Culture Important?
Culture matters because generally speaking you have more or less the same raw talent available to any gaming group. Sure, one might have more experienced players, or might have been a bit more choosy in picking people, but once you get over a few hundred members statistics say that you will have approximately the same distribution of talent, genius, prima donnas, leaders, etc. Sincethe raw quality of members in each group tends to be the same, a significant factor in who comes out on top is going to be the culture those people are operating in and shaped by.
Cultures that are able to develop their members’ skills, loyalty, enthusiasm and leadership are obviously going to win out over groups that have a poisonous and hostile environment. If your players don't want to stay, don’t be surprised when they leave or even betray you. If you give your players opportunities to have fun they can't find anywhere else, they will never leave you.
A lack of culture might be even worse - this is demonstrated by the propensity of newer alliances to break apart under pressure. Without shared history, it’s harder to trust that the other people you are working with will put the alliance’s well-being over their own. It’s also harder to get your people to log in, fight, and risk themselves for strangers they didn’t even know a month or two ago. Newer alliances are notorious for failure cascading, even when faced with a numerically similar opponent. They don’t have that shared culture to help them work together and trust each other. Culture is in large part what determines the winners and the losers - particularly in video games, as many numerically superior forces have found to their dismay.
How You Can Make Your Culture Stronger
Regardless of where you want your culture to fall on the spectrum of elitism, ‘e-honour’, or code of conduct, there are characteristics you can try to incorporate into your culture to make your community stronger. You need to have an identity, and you need to have depth.
When I say ‘identity’ I mean that your members should know what makes you different from the other groups around. For some it might be a win at all costs mindset, others might want to belong to a group that prides itself on respect within its community for conduct. It honestly doesn’t matter. People log in to play and have fun, and as long as they have fun the vast majority of people are willing to conform to whatever sort of ideals and group norms you are willing to impose. In fact, a lot of the fun comes from belonging to groups that are so different from the way we are forced to act in real life and getting to play a role ordinarily forbidden or unavailable to us.
If you want your members to have fun, make sure you set up an identity for your group that your players can enjoy taking for their own. That said, don’t get carried away with it. There are limits to what people will put up with, and if you try to say your identity is that of the Super Elite Brigade IV which never loses, history says that you won’t last very long the instant you actually do lose. If you define yourself by something that someone else can take away from you, you will forever be at their mercy.
You also want to try to make your culture as rich as possible. When you think of all the different aspects that go into a rich culture, you should try to introduce those elements to your community as well. The best cultures have rich histories of the ones who have went before and what they accomplished. They have sworn blood enemies they have been feuding with since the primordial beginning and steadfast allies who they have fought with to the last man. They have heroes who have been there to turn the tide when everything seemed darkest, and villains who have directed hordes against them.
It’s important to make sure your new and old players alike know and remember the stories of your community so they can take pride in carrying the torch for the new generation. If you haven’t been around long enough to make much history, don’t worry. Given the fast pace of modern MMOs, you can direct your rose coloured glasses back within month or two, as soon as enough new people weren't there to experience it.
Beyond just history, you also want your players to know the quirks of your group as it is today. You want them to assimilate as quickly as possible, put down roots, and make friends. The sooner they start recognizing that FC with the annoying dog, or the guy who always forgets to turn his mic off, or the other guy who is always drunk by 9:00pm, the sooner they will feel like part of your family. If you try to build a wall between new players and veterans, you will only make those new players learn slower and become discouraged more easily. With the high turnover rate in any group, it’s long-term suicide to not treat newer players like the jewels they are going to be in the future. If you set high expectations for them - and then help them actually achieve them - that’s one more weapon for your group to wield against your enemies.
A common theme of mine is that the rest doesn’t matter as long as you have fun. I would like to stress this again. The culture you make for your group doesn’t matter as long as you and your people have fun doing it. If you aren’t having fun, just ask yourself what else you would rather be doing in the game instead, then go do that. Also, don’t worry if it seems overwhelming. Guiding your culture’s development doesn’t require special training, or a genius level IQ. You just need to be aware that the need for a vibrant culture exists and do what you think will be fun to enrich it. Besides, if we all did the same thing, what fun would that be?