One of the fantastic things about being a gamer are the communities that we create as we join together in celebration of shared, nerdy interests. Especially in this digital age, almost every nerd-centric thing out there has some sort of community built up in love and support of it. Whether you’re part of a loose collection of fans swirling enthusiastically around a Tumblr dedicated to your favorite TV show or a member of an MMO guild dedicatedly logging in every day to play with friends and take down some ubermobs, there is a very real sense of community to the way we gather together. It is a fantastic and amazing thing to be part of one of these communities, but I offer a word of caution: don’t get too comfortable because that golden sense of security you feel may be a false one.
While it seems like whatever community you’re part of is a collective “OURS”, created by and owned by the fans, they’re usually not quite so egalitarian. It is absolutely true that these communities couldn’t exist without fan investment, but even for something as unofficial as a Tumblr, there are still moderators and owners that run the show and pay the bills. When you get into something officially owned by a corporation, like an MMO, many decisions are completely out of the hands of the players, even though it couldn’t survive without them. Sometimes the people in charge make decisions that the members of the community don’t agree with and ultimately there’s not much we can do about it. Sorry, it’s not a democracy.
If you’ve been reading any of my recent posts, you know I’ve been avidly playing Neverwinter for the past few months. At first it was casual and tentative re-exploration of the MMO world, but once I joined a guild, I was swept up into the excitement of playing a game with people that I really liked. Yep, I’m a little bit of an addictive personality and the game and my guildmates definitely qualify as shiny objects. Recently, though, I ran face first into an issue that rudely reminded me that the players are only playing at the whim of the game’s owners and moderators.
One of my guildmates, in the middle of running an instance, was dumped unceremoniously out of the game. When he went to log back in, he got a message that his account had been banned. This was so out of the blue, it took both him and many of us in the guild by complete surprise. Once he finally got a hold of customer service, he was told the ban was the result of ‘suspicious activity’. Over the course of a week and a half, that was pretty much the only explanation he got out of customer service. Never once was he given any concrete examples of what he had done to earn a ban, not even when they lifted the ban and told him he was on ‘probation’.
This player is someone I count as a friend and I like to think of myself as a good judge of character, so while it’s possible he could have been doing something knowingly and deliberately against the game’s user agreement and pulling the wool over my eyes, it would go completely against what I know of him. His ban felt incredibly unfair and the fact that it took so long to get customer service to so vaguely resolve it added even more insult to injury.
I’ve been around the internet for a long time and I’ve been part of many different digital communities, so this situation shouldn’t have shocked me as much as it did. You hope that the owners of the community you’re part of will be fair and just, but there is always the possibility that they won’t. It is a very cold dash of reality to have something you’ve felt so much a part of be jarringly disrupted by something so unexpected and unfair. I’ve seen this happen on both small and large scales: moderators who throw a hissy fit and shut a forum down with no warning, overtaxed but stubborn admins letting a roleplaying MU* die rather than share power with additional staff, faceless corporations shutting down a game to cut overhead despite a small but loyal player base, and so on. Having your heart broken so many times can make you wonder why you even bother getting involved in the first place.
Despite it all, the connections formed are real and that occasionally tenuous sense of community is what makes our geek culture so strong. It can be incredibly frustrating and terrifying to think you’ll lose friendships you’ve made because someone in a position of power is having a bad day, but I think it’s worth it. Ultimately, there are no guarantees in life and you have to take chances on experiencing the bad stuff to get the best out of the good stuff. My life is richer for having been part of these communities, no matter the ultimate outcome.
It’s important to note that we are not completely without agency in these situations. The last thing I am suggesting is that we lay down and take the abuse of a callous company or a power mad moderator. Speak up and defend yourself and your friends, but be prepared for the possibility that you may need to leave to ultimately resolve the problem. If the caretakers of these communities do not nurture and care for them, they wither and die as people leave, both loudly and quietly. Just because they don’t need to listen to us doesn’t mean we shouldn’t speak up when something unfair happens. I acknowledge my inability to make a private company or group adhere to my interpretation of fairness, but I also refuse to keep silent and just ‘take it’. They will know exactly how I feel before I take my business elsewhere.
Also, like the phoenix rising from the ashes, it’s hard to keep a good nerd community down. Many new groups are founded from the ashes of previous communities. How many guilds do you know that migrate from one game to another with a core membership base intact? What about forums that were created when a large percentage decided they were done with the abuse from out-of-control moderators? Nerds have a way of finding one another no matter what gets in their way.