“Even if we don’t want to, we need to start asking ourselves: what kinds of communities are we building?”
With that Kitfox Games communications director Victoria Tran opened her talk at GDC Summer this week about how game devs can better design game communities for kindness.
Tran pointed out that most developers do have some idea of the tone they’d like the communities around their games to have, but they too either don’t act on it or couch that goal in vague, “fluffy” terms like engaged, positive, or nice.
“That’s a really great goal, but it doesn’t concretely describe what actions to take,” Tran said. This is where she sees a need for community developers, people who take your vague community goals and figure out what that actually looks like, then work to build and nurture your community in that direction.
“You may think a violent FPS game will only attract violent, aggressive people, but that’s wrong,” said Tran. “Some of the nicest people can be found here. And the ultimate final tone [of your game’s community] is dependent on the structure of the space you set out.”
To help you better understand your role as a community developer, or to try and think like a community developer when nurturing your own game’s fanbase, Tran shared five key traits and questions to keep in mind.
Ambition: “Do I plan for and demand the best of my platform and community?”
Goals are important, says Tran; if you don’t set clear goals (in collaboration with your team) for your community, you won’t be able to achieve it.
Decisiveness: “Do I make decisions quickly?”
Building a healthy community means being willing to act quickly and decisively, and it will sometimes require you to ban some people.
Clarity: “Are my community expectations expressed and consistent?”
Tran emphasized the importance of “soft skills” in community development, noting that clear expectations are vital and must be communicated to your community in an effective, consistent manner.
Collaboration: “Am I working with my community?”
You’re not a lone wolf, even if you do happen to be a lone developer; Tran encourages devs to keep in mind that the community is their collaborator, and should be respected as such.
Energy: “Do I bring positivity to my community and lead by example?”
Leading by example and bringing the energy you want to foster among your community is key to Tran’s methodology.
Since the goal of her talk was to raise awareness about how to create kinder communities she focused on kindness as the example you want to put forth, defining “kindness” as a verb (not a noun) that requires continual practice and effort.
“Kind community design doesn’t mean chanting positive aphorisms into your community every day (though you can if you want to),” she said. “What it really means is creating a safe, low-pressure, helpful, and encouraging interactive space among the players, who in turn want to help each other.”
Tran is clear that kindness doesn’t mean thoughtlessly forgiving bad behavior or saying “we just need to be kind to each other” when a player does something offensive like use a slur; it means we “need to hold people accountable, think of the realities of the world, and set up our spaces to be both warm and progressive.”
She also pointed out that effectively designing your game’s community for kindness won’t necessarily be easy, quick, or a guaranteed path to big KPI growth and a huge fanbase; it will probably be hard and frightening at times, but the goal is to create a safer, more welcoming space for your players.
To achieve that goal, she again laid out five steps you can take to design social systems optimized for what she sees as kindness.
Rules: Social systems that shape and influence behavior
“Rules that aren't as helpful you think they are are things like don’t be a dick, or just be nice, just be respectful, et cetera,” says Tran. “These aren’t really that productive or informative, and often result in people disputing the rule’s meaning when they break it.”
To build a better rule, says Tran, understand what social systems are: the relationships between individuals, groups, and institutions. Social systems in place at libraries, hospitals, and workplaces have their own sets of unique rules which help everything function smoothly, and game communities are very similar.
You can see how rules flow out from a game’s stated goal by looking at a classic like Monopoly: greed is what Monopoly wants its players to cultivate, and all the game’s rules are designed to encourage players to compete for the most money. If someone breaks the rules, they’re out of the game, and the game continues to flow smoothly.
So what makes a good rule? Tran recommends five principles, taken from the World Justice Project’s expectations for the rule of law: rules should be clearly defined, publicized, stable, just, and applied evenly and quickly.
If someone breaks a rule, Tran recommends you contact them privately first with a warning; a public remonstration can often
“Shame and embarassment in public is usually more effective for making the person feel defensive, rather than receptive to change,” said Tran. “Give people a chance to improve and learn.”
If they just don’t understand, Tran encourages you to think of membership in your community as a conditional privilege that can be revoked. If they’re not getting the message, or they’re just a toxic troll, ban them.
“Basically, just nip toxic members in the bud; don’t keep toxic members around because they talk and contribute to a space, and you’re afraid of silence,” said Tran. “They actually take up more space and drive away more genuinely interested members.”
Respect: Foster respect for boundaries between you, the players, the devs, and more
“A good community shouldn’t collapse because you’re not around,” said Tran. “So the next step in community design is creating a baseline of respect of you as a person in the community.”
Tran recommends that first, you be offline whenever you need to be so you create a communal expectation that you have off hours and won’t always be able to respond immediately.
Also, cultivate a culture of respect in your community; on Discord and in forums, allow yourself to be called out (politely) for your mistakes, and make sure that when others in the community disagree with or criticize each other, they do so respectfully.
“You need to separate people from their behaviors,” said Tran. “Address what they’re doing, and not who they actually are.”
Basically, try not to hold bad behavior against people; Tran recommends trying to offer community members who voice something undesirable a “golden bridge” which lets them get out of a conversation or your community entirely, without rancor. We all make mistakes.
“Basically, just don’t be petty,” said Tran. “Be someone they can look up to.”
Norms: Acceptable ways of communication
Establishing acceptable ways of communicating in your community is key to long-term success. Tran laid out two ways of thinking about this: mores and folkways. Mores are the expectations about important communications, and folkways are how people behave in casual, daily interaction.
“Mores we understand really well: rules should not be broken,” said Tran. “Folkways distinguish what we think is rude or polite, and often in community development that’s overlooked, but can plant the seed of unkindness when broken.”
As a community dev, says Tran, you have to decide what are the acceptable mores and folkways your community uses when talking to each other. Folkways are especially hard to define through anything other than example, so think through how you speak and chat
“You’ll become the de facto leader for setting the folkways, even if you don’t feel like you are,” Tran said. “So keep in mind how you interact and the jokes you make, because this will automatically be seen as the acceptable way to communicate.”
The better your fans understand the mores and folkways of your community, argues Tran, the better they’ll interact with each other.
Trust: Facilitating cooperation
“I don’t think I’m a perfect community developer; far from it,” said Tran. “But what matters is that your community trusts that you’re doing your best with the resources you have.”
Often, you are the primary and perhaps only window inside your game and your studio. So you need to build and keep trust; to do that, Tran recommends you stick to the core tenets of integrity, openness, action, and intimacy.
To show integrity, admit your mistakes when you make them, be honest (even when you’d rather not be), and keep promises. To demonstrate action, show a willingness to follow through on your promises and do things for your community. Show compassion and share your thoughts to be more open with your community, and try to find common ground with your community to build rapport and establish intimacy.
“This is partly dependent on your own studio acting responsibly; some things are out of your control,” said Tran. “Also, this will take time; you cannot rush this. This is a continual circle of events that needs to happen constantly.”
Home: Coziness for warm, personal experiences among members
“Say it with me: soft skills are valuable, they are so valuable,” Tran said. “Especially online when you’re missing most of the non-verbal cues that give context to how a person is feeling, your soft skills are imperative to creating a warm, relaxing space. Home, if you will.”
She acknowledges it’s hard to do this in one-way communications like email; forums and Discords are a better place, but they can be overwhelming.
Communication with others doesn’t actually guarantee connection; to create cozy spaces where community members can build a sense of home, Tran recommends you create small areas where fans with similar goals or interests can build community through repeated interaction.
She points to Kitfox’s own Discord as a good example: it has pronoun rolls, offshoot rooms for smaller groups to chat about a variety of topics (like what’s cute and good, or what’s yummy), and little servers and secrets for community members to discover and enjoy.
“You may find other ways to foster a kinder space in your places; this is by no means the only way to create home-like feelings,” said Tran, suggesting fun themes, metagames, or whatever your community enjoys.
“As you solidify your community pillars and uphold your community to the standards you set, the better their reputation becomes,” she added. “We’ve had people join Kitfox purely because people said it was a positive place to be.”
Ultimately, “Kitfox and any other studio exists to sell products,” concluded Tran. “But while we’re at it, we might as well do our best to make the places we touch a little bit more positive.”