Community: The RPG

So two weekends ago, I went to NerdCon: Stories in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The primary reason for this was to network and promote my wife’s and my new editing company Ardre Editing. I expected to see some interesting panels and maybe have the opportunity to chat with some up-and-coming authors (which I did. Please check out Jay Swanson’s Into the Nanten), but what I did not expect was to be reminded about what it is that makes the convention experience great and, interestingly, what makes MMOs great, as well.

You hear the word “community” thrown around a lot as an important element in industries like online gaming and online video. “It’s the community that keep people playing our game,” “it’s the community around this or that YouTuber that keeps people coming back,” but what I think a lot of people fail to realize is that the communities in question do not exclusively contain the consumers. The best communities are those where creators and consumers are able to interact, and the lines begin to blur. This is what happened at NerdCon. A friend of mine, in her wonderful blog post about NerdCon, called it a “village.” It was just that. Attendees interacted with each other regularly (there were fewer than 3000 of us, and on more than a few occasions we ended up meeting people whom we had interacted with earlier in the con), but we also interacted with the guests themselves. I was in line getting coffee in front of Lev Grossman, and I talked to him for about five minutes about what I liked and didn’t like about his novel The Magicians, the frustrations of getting work as an editor, and just how his con was going. Time and again when this happened, the guests would say that they loved the vibe that the con had, and that “vibe” is what gave it that village feel… that community feel. We were creating this thing together. We were defining the vibe, and we were defining what NerdCon was going to be.

Sure, there was a schedule, but some of my favorite moments of NerdCon occurred outside the wonderful panels and performances: in the lobbies and halls where people were free to interact as content creator and content consumer with the assurance that everyone there had a shared love of stories and a mutual respect for one another. This is what makes the best conventions. And the larger a convention gets, the harder it is to maintain that community environment. Really large conventions like GenCon end up almost becoming a collection of mini-conventions with their own communities. There are people who go to GenCon and only play Shadowrun, or go and play TrueDungeon every year, or play Legends of the Five Rings all weekend. Those people have chosen to immerse themselves in a smaller community-driven con, rather than get lost in the vast ocean of the larger con. To those people, the point of a convention is to foster the kinds of connections and memories that I was reminded are so important that weekend in Minneapolis.

This, in turn, got me thinking about a discussion that I have with people fairly often: Why is it so hard for an MMO to die? Every year there is some MMO that comes out and is heralded as “The WoW killer!” As if finally this MMO is going to be so good that everyone will leave World of Warcraft and start playing it instead. How could they possibly continue to play a game that is so inferior to this new one!? Well the answer is that if all it took was a better game to end the life of an MMO, no MMO would last past its first couple of years. MMOs get better and better every year, and I’m not talking about graphics (though they can certainly play a part). I’m talking about quality of life improvements and gameplay improvements. MMOs are an ever-evolving gaming form, and each generation looks to the previous to see what they could improve upon with a clean slate. So why isn’t there a mass exodus of people from every MMO every three years? Why is it that after eighteen years, there are still people playing Ultima Online? Community. And nostalgia, but mostly community!

For example, I can’t tell you for sure why I finally left EverQuest back in 2004, or exactly why I left EverQuest 2 in 2013, but I can tell you that it wasn’t because a better game had come out. Tons of better games came out before those years! I tried many of them (there was a time when I could boast that I had played every MMO on the market. That is definitely no longer the case), and I always came back to my main MMO. No… Looking back on it now, I think I finally left, because I lost that sense of community. It’s like a Jenga tower. You lose little bits of it here and there for various reasons: John has a kid and can’t play as much anymore, Christine has a new job and doesn’t have time to play as much as she used to, Megan doesn’t have the money to keep paying for the game right now, Liam got bored with the content and decided to quit for a while. And, eventually, the tower starts to wobble and fall apart, but it’s only a tiny Jenga tower. It’s only my Jenga tower. It’s like one of those mini-cons in the umbrella of GenCon. In the giant Jenga tower that is an MMO, my tower falling doesn’t even register as a whole piece. It’s like someone accidentally nudged a piece while reaching for their Coke, and then put it back.

MMOs are so resilient, because communities are resilient. They reform, they absorb more people, and more mini-communities crop up. When they do eventually start to lose players in earnest, when the giant GenCon MMO shrinks to a mere 3000 players, it doesn’t die: It becomes the NerdCon MMO, and everyone knows each other. The whole game becomes one community: one shared experience between the creator and the consumer, and there is something special there that attracts people and makes them stay. It gets them invested in the community that they are helping to shape. And that is just as wonderful and valuable to those people as being part of a game that has ten million subscribers is to others. Because, to them, this is their game as much as it is the developers’.

And to us at NerdCon, it was our con as much as it was Hank’s and John’s and everyone else’s who brought us there.

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