by Brad King, Assistant Professor, Ball State University
When Britannia opened for business in July 1997, there was a land run. Of 100,000 people. Within days, the new homesteaders had snatched plots of land, set up businesses and built homes. In other words, they created a community. They had taken ownership.
Not that it was all roses. There were problems. There was no infrastructure available. No way to address wrongs. Britannia was a jumbled mass of human chaos.
This place was the epicenter of the first commercially success massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG). This “persistent world”, which existed whether or not players were logged into the game, changed the way we viewed online communities. Suddenly, the worlds that had existed simply in text formats (e.g. The Well, CompuServe, QuantumLink) became graphical.
That’s a technological leap, though. The other leap came from the people. Thanks to Ultima Online, thousands of people could exist in a virtual space in real time. Everything existed within a communal space, which meant Richard Garriott, the designer, and the rest of the Ultima Online team had to figure out how to foster and negotiate that community of people.
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What does this have to do with journalism? The answer is everything.
MMORPGs don’t have much to offer in terms of developing the traditional journalism skills. These games can’t teach students how to vet sources, how to interview, how to copy edit, how to hit the streets and find stories.
What they can teach journalists is how to build, foster and interact with an online community. As news organizations and journalism schools struggle to find their way in the shifting, interactive landscape that seemingly appeared out of nowhere, the answers to many of their questions lie in the history of computer gaming.
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The founding of the first interactive communities, the Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs) and other interactive, multi-player text adventures is incidental. However, one of the first MUD developers, Richard Bartle, who would go on to become one of the foremost experts on game players, began studying how people interacted with each other. And it’s his expertise where we can begin to learn about communities.
He published a study on the taxonomy of gamers, outlining the four types of interactions players have and how those work together in communities. The player types — Achievers, Explorers, Socializers and Killers — lay the foundation for not only what elements need to be present within a game community (although this can easily be extrapolated for any community) but also what precautions and rules need to be in place in order for these communities to thrive.
This “simple taxonomy”, as Bartle refers to it, enables community managers to begin to quantify the actions within any system and subtly shift the environment to encourage different actions, ones that are more conducive to community building. Community designers could, as Bartle said, tinker with what the players could do, change the rules of the world, create a more interactive environment or build more direct action. (Bartle, 1996)
This taxonomy and the resulting analysis of communities, which Bartle began in the mid-80s, has become the foundation for how virtual worlds are developed and managed.
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Bartle’s ideas, which are really more of an evolution of his thinking over the course of a decade, have found their way into the work of other luminaries who begin writing about the growth of online Web communities (which are graphically dissimilar than Internet communities, but functionally the same).
Amy Jo Kim, one of the early community moderators for Ultima Online, developed her own principles — independent of the taxonomy — based upon her experiences with players. Still, many of those rules, such as creating a space for the community to exist, echo Bartle’s taxonomy. (Kim, 2000).
In short order, other technologists without computer gaming backgrounds began examining the foundations of Web communities (Weinberger, 2002), the ways in which these communities developed (Lessig, 2000) and how these communities spread across mobile networks (Rheingold, 2002). These writers explored in greater depth how communities sprang up, were fostered and sometimes died. And much of what they found aligned itself neatly with Bartle’s work.
While each of those works examines communities ranging far outside the basic taxonomies, they each seem to agree on four basic principles for building communities and four basic rules for managing those communities.
The four principles — Good Content, Simple Navigation, Simple Interfaces, Decentralized Controls (King, 2008) — align themselves with the Bartle’s Taxonomy in this way: The content is for achievers and explores, the navigation is for achievers, the interface is for socializers and the decentralized controls allows for the thwarting of killers.
The four rules — No Free Riding, Rules Compliance, Rewards, Ad-Hoc Growth (King, 2008) — not only offer guidelines for punishing Killers, but also for encouraging Achievers, Explorers and Socializers.
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Which brings us back to Britanna.
Garriott and crew realized rather quickly that it wasn’t enough to simply create a world and then hope for the best. The developers were far too busy building new stories to manage the community in any logical fashion (a reality of which most journalists can sympathize). So they hired community managers.
Those managers — there were only two — became the voice of the players inside the company and the voice of the company within the community.
One of those managers, Carly Staehlin, said the initial task was daunting. Players were posting across the Web. There was no centralized location. On top of that, executives with Origin Systems (where the game was originally developed) and then Electronic Arts (the current publisher) were concerned about the types of conversations occurring, which prompted the marketing and public relations departments to push for control of the community moderation.
Garriott and his team, though, resisted that temptation, instead making community management its own independent entity within the company. Within a month, the community had turned from a chaotic, sometimes vitriolic mass, to a self-organizing and self-governing group because of the hands-off moderating, which amounted to everything from answering questions on the official forums to visiting the forums where players set up their own communities. At Ultima Online’s height, Staehlin said roughly 32 percent of the of the 242,000 subscribers were actively engaged in the forum.
“You have to have some forum moderation for sure, and if you do that and create an etiquette,” Staehlin said. “You get people to care about the community and they will keep it clean. We allowed the developers and such to interact with the community whenever they wanted. But the worst flames have to be handled by a moderator. You need to have someone in a position to do that. An hour or two every couple days. It’s one of the simplest things to manage.”
In other words, the company treated the players as equal partners in the game process. They weren’t considered as an afterthought. They weren’t considered incidental to the process. They weren’t there to be the recipient of corporate-speak. They had a voice within the organization, a way to redress concerns and a way to provide constructive feedback that changed the way the developers upgraded the system.
That the game still continues, 12 years later, with more than 100,000 players is a testament to this system.
- Bartle, Richard. 1996. Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDs. http://www.mud.co.uk/richard/hcds.htm (accessed Sept. 16, 2009).
- Kim, Amy Jo. 2000. Community Building on the Web: Secret Strategies for Successful Online Communites. Peach Pit Press.
- King, Brad and John Borland. 2003. Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture from Geek to Chic. San Francisco: Osborne/McGraw-Hill.
- King, Brad. 2008. 8 Rules: What it Takes to Build an Online Community. http://www.thecultofme.com/2008/06/09/8-rules-what-it-takes-to-build-an-online-community/ (accessed Sept 16, 2009).
- Lessig, Lawrence. 2000. Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace. Basic Books.
- Rheingold, Howard. 2000. Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution. Basic Books.
- Weinberger, Dave. 2002. Small Pieces, Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web. Basic Books.
Brad King is an assistant professor of Journalism and an Emerging Media Fellow at Ball State University. He is also on the advisory boards for South by Southwest Interactive and Carnegie Mellon’s ETC Press.