Online games have provided the impetus in the digital age for gamers to meet, form and sustain communities and to ultimately transition them beyond the game themselves.
This paper aims to highlight the positive effects video games have instilled upon gamers through it’s social affordances to serve as the catalyst for friendship building beyond the games themselves into the wider online community. Evidence will be drawn from both gamers and industry experts to support how video games are used to bind start, and bind communities, as well as explore common detrimental stereotypes associated with frequent participation of video games.
Keywords: videogames, multiplayer, community, online-socialization, discord, twitch.
Games are big business, eclipsing Hollywood and the music industry in size. “Nowadays the video game industry is bigger than Hollywood, it is bigger than the music industry and it still gets no respect”. (Goodkind, 2014). This quote condenses my thoughts on the lack of appreciation for the financial, and societal benefits of the games industry. Up until the emergence of the internet to the mainstream audience, the formation of communities was predominately facilitated by real-world, that is, face-to-face communication. Now, we have entered a new era of social opportunity for participants of many hobbies and activities, one of the more profound being multiplayer computer games. Today, online computer games have become the catalyst for the foundation of a plethora of communities across the world, and with the formation of these communities has come the social-benefits to participants to break through physical boundaries that real-life adheres-to that the cyber world does not. For many gamers, the social aspect has become the sole reason why they play online games (Frostling-Henningsson, 2009) and the growth of popular online games in recent years has directly benefited participants in creating friendships and amongst other players that can, as we will discover, transcend from the cyber world of a game into the real world thanks to the video game design that promotes social interaction and the supporting social tools that support these communities.
Stereotypically, there has long been a stigma associated with video games (Wang, 2016) in comparison to more passive mediums of entertainment such as watching television which provides no social benefits nor opportunities, yet amongst general society games attracted a stigma which could be argued is unjustified in this digital day and age – especially in the face of the proven benefits of video game-related socialization. The benefits of community formation and facilitation in online games has profound beneficial effects on players mental health (Foreman, 2016) as well as cognitive benefits (Granic, Lobel & Rutger, January 2014, p68), the companies that create these experiences translating into a healthy economic model and communities arising from online games will only increase in the coming years at the benefit to all gamers and their online networks.
Benefits of video-game initialized socialization.
One of the greatest roadblocks online communication circumvents is the presence of real life factors that operate to the detriment of communication such as physical distance, but also how as participants of an online gaming experience it is less likely for a user to be judged based on their ‘real life’ gender, sexual preference and religious beliefs (Trepte, S. Reinecke, L. and Juechems, K, 2012) as we are ignorant to these facts hidden behind the facade of our online avatars (Sung, Moon, Kang & Lin, 2011, p1). On top of those points, a supporting factor for communities forming within online games is also the pre-determined fact that you already know the other users within the community share the same like of the activity you are partaking in as you and that level of “familiarity promotes the acquisition of relationships, because of the interaction partners’ increasing similarity.” (Trepte. Reinecke and Juechems, K, 2012, p834). In fairness, there could be some predetermining factors of whether friendships grow based on game-specific metrics such as player skill and location – as the physical real-world limitations can affect your in-game performance at the detriment of your teammates (Claypool, 2007, p9). As stated by Steinkuehler, “constant conversation through myriad chat channels is not only necessary to navigate the virtual world’s diverse challenges (e.g., to barter virtual goods, to organize collaborations, to share information) but is the very fodder from which individuals create and maintain relationships of status and solidarity and, in part, in‐game community and cultural norms (Steinkuehler, 2006b).” Social interaction facilitated by video games not only aids an increasing necessity of voice communication within the virtual worlds but also provides a real-world benefit from an activity that is often criticized for the detrimental effects on participants such a negative psychological effects and ironically social competence (Sepher & Head, 2013, p5), however evidence has illustrated the role communities play in online games is a vital, if not the most pivotal cog on both player enjoyment and retainership as community interaction often defines the gameplay and experience of multiplayer games.
In mainstream media, games have often been highlighted for their perceived ability to transform gamers into ‘video game addicts’ and encouraging the narrative that games offer no benefits other than turning you into a violent killer (Their, 2018). This narrative, could be argued as low hanging fruit that even America’s president is propagating (Polygon, 2018) of paper-thin discourse to sensationalize an issue that not only holds little merit according to researchers (Salam & Stack, 2018) but also manages to ignore the positives that games as a medium offers in a world where socialization is increasingly migrating online since the popularity explosion of social media in the mid 2000’s. One could argue if the benefits of video games, primary, video game facilitated socialization was to be contrasted against these same frequently occuring counter arguments evidence demonstrates the positive effects video game has on it’s participants.
Interaction by design
Game publisher Electronic Art’s president Frank Gibeau recently asserted that development of singleplayer games are on the decline and development is strongly moving towards games that offer multiplayer abilities (Thang, 2018). With that assertion it could be assumed that a significant portion of the sales regarding multiplayer games is due to the enjoyment, and from there – the benefits to players socializing with friends and meeting new players to bond and form friendships with – game developers know this and in the year 2018 you will be hard pressed to find a multiplayer game that doesn’t strongly prioritize communication amongst players close to the top of their list, so much so that industry experts predict than in the coming years single player games, which of course offer no socialization affordances will become a rarity and are steadily on a decline (Thier, 2017). The success of games and their respective communities are increasingly being driven by the developer’s priority to promote player retention by releasing new content, encouraging communities to interact and maintain within the games ecosystem due to the known relevance of game-oriented social networks to gamer retention and promoting a healthy community (Tseng, Huang & Teng, 2015, p614). It is this attention to communication-related abilities that enriches the experience of the gamers by encouraging socialization by design.
When you load up virtually any AAA game (AAA classification means a game the game has a high budget for development and promotion, often leading to gamer-expectation of top quality) that includes a multiplayer option and a way to access the games social features within the main menu – the interface that includes buttons to select depending on what you want to do, you will almost always find a button referring to a ‘Friends List’ that allows you to view your existing friends online, with extra option including joining their session (joining the current game session they reside in), or asking to form a party. UX (User-Experience) in games has an important role to play in providing an aesthetically pleasing and elegant interface to provide as little friction as possible for gamers to navigate through the games, encouraging a positive experience to keep the gamers coming back. Gamers are also notified when a user on their friends list signs on or off, as when a friend logs on you are more likely inclined to contact the user asking if they want to join a session together. As stated by a gamer, “I stay with the game because of the online friends I’ve made. If I log in and none of my friends are on, I will usually only play a short time or not at all. It’s the people that keep me coming back.” (Koivisto, 2003, p2). To further facilitate communication amongst gamers not only can gamers talk via text messages but continuous voice communication allows gamers to more-easily speak to one another and has even shown that gamers are more likely to increase trust in another player (Williams, Caplan & Xiong, 2007, p427). This level of attention to communication and social-related features is no accident and whilst game developers have their eye on their margins, this – what could be asserted as an aggressive push to encourage communication with other games is a healthy benefit to games being able to socialize with either pre-existing friends or by discovering new users within the games world and making the transition from a fellow participant to a friend and arguably the primary reason for users logging back in future sessions (Koivisto, 2003, p7). Taking into account the previous statements, online multiplayer sessions not only offer much enjoyment to the participants, but their shared enjoyment is derived from the sum of all of the parts, the players themselves.
A product of game-facilitated socialization is the presence of clans, which is a group of gamers that have formed a team, which can compete professionally but can also be used as a route to identify a particular group of users are in a group together. In addition to forming a means of communication and friendship in-game, it can be argued that the perseverance of clans helps promote tighter bonds enabling – and depending on the clans structure may possess the mechanisms necessary for a transition from online to offline friendships (Trepte, Reineckle & Juechems, 2012, p838) enabling gamers to have a social network available both in the digital and the real world. In support of friendships transcending from the games world is that studies have demonstrated that individuals who are within physical reach are more likely to become friends (Fehr, 2008) – a possibility supported by real-world limitations requiring game developers to match gamers up together based on location. The presence of clans in video games is regarded as the of the most enjoyable factors in multiplayer gaming (Lee, Choi, Kim, Park & Gloor, 2013, p883). From the ability to communicate in-game, the tools are then available for gamers to form bonds with other players by considering joining an existing clan or creating your own which has been proven to positively benefit player relationships and to in return expand their respective social networks.
Communities by design
To complement the game mechanics that encourage communication lies a plethora of tools and events outside of the games to maintain their respective communities. For primary communication outside of games, gamers have migrated in droves (Rosenberg, 2017) to a text and voice-based client called Discord, a chat application that enables any gamer to host their own channel (which can have one or more rooms defined by hashtags). Discord has quickly become the go-to tool, catered specifically to the gaming community for community interaction not only outside of the game but as the default chat whilst gaming even when a native voice-chat solution exists in-game. Discord has become an ideal tool for clans to meet up, as the platform is game-agnostic even if the game changes – the medium for communication remains static. As Discord CEO Jason Citron recently stated – “As Discord grows we are seeing a steady stream of new and growing communities dedicated to specific games and genres, and more people connecting with friends than ever before” (Rosenberg, 2017). Popular channels have tens of thousands of users online at any given moment, creating a thriving hub for gamers to communicate, discuss strategies, find players to form a squad with and more and with more than 45 million registered users and over 200 million messages sent per day (Chaykowski, 2017) it is hard to dispute the prime position in the games community it has in regards to social interaction.
Where Discord resides in text and audio, the Amazon-owned Twitch.tv covers the video aspect of interaction amongst gamers with a service for streaming. Twitch is a service allowing gamers to stream, which simply put is broadcasting your screen and generally you as a host for games to tune in and watch the gamer play games. Accompanied in Twitch streams is a chatroom connected to the stream where viewers can interact with the host, but other viewers. Whilst the thought of any potential appeal to watching someone play games may elude you, popular Twitch streamers have exceeded 150 million channel views and many have tens of thousands of ‘subscribers’. These subscribers, who pay a monthly fee to support their favourite gaming personality enabling them to earn upwards of $300,000 (Williams, 2015) annually making it a viable lifestyle for the streamers and creates a sense of community amongst the viewers as they feel involved with the channel. Twitch merges communities with the shared-passion of video games and enables viewers to experience and interact with each other. Twitch is the 800-pound gorilla in the streaming space, forcing Microsoft’s Mixer and Google’s YouTube Gaming to play catch-up to carve out their market share of the exploding video game streaming business (Boyle, 2018) desperately trying to get the eyeballs of the wider gaming community. The examinations of Discord and Twitch features and showcased the functionality of these platforms to highlight that the efforts of online-gaming community preservation and sustainment go beyond any one game and to illustrate the abundance of secondary-services, to games themselves, that operates as an outlet for gamers to converge and interact with one another and to support the games that interest them.
In conclusion, we have explored how profound a sense and presence of community play in online games and how game-facilitated communication provides benefits to both gamer and game, often complimenting each other in many areas including health benefits for players and monetary benefits for developers. Games strongly prioritize social interaction amongst users via easy to consume interfaces that promote communication to existing and new friendships – creating a chain of events that can lead to friendships that formed online to extend outside of the game and potentially to the real world. Online games consists of a huge community across many platforms, from the games themselves to the supporting-tools such as Discord and Twitch to maintain and support the communities that reside in the digital world of online games. In a world where each passing day we gravitate towards more frequent internet-mediated socialization, the advent of online games not only provides many opportunities for community formation and sustainment but also affords the ability to transition these friendships outside of the game themselves.
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