GDC Microtalks 2014 - Community Building


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A short talk from GDC's annual microtalks session on building community

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GDC Microtalks 2014 - Community Building

  1. 1. GDC Microtalks 2014 Emily Greer
  2. 2. I grew up in Austin, Tx on a 1-block street called Laurel Lane, a tight community that embraced equally hippies, bankers, a transvestite math professor and Laura Bush’s best friend. Our dinner table was elastic, every Cowboys game a neighborhood party, and I could go to any house at any time.
  3. 3. My mom got a job at Princeton when I was 11 and we moved. 25 years later she still regularly dreams of Laurel Lane. My brother moved back for a while, and childhood friends live there still, but I never recaptured that feeling as an adult until I joined a softball team.
  4. 4. A friend invited me because the team was short on females. I hadn’t played in 20 years but gave it a try since I like watching baseball. Turns out I’m slightly afraid of the ball but the camaraderie of the games and hanging out after were so fun I kept playing, just not very well.
  5. 5. 7 years later the team has gradually grown to become both our social center and a major support structure: camping trips, tailgates, bocce tournaments and bar crawls blending into assistance finding jobs, apartments, spouses or dealing with death or divorce.
  6. 6. “A sense of belonging appears to be a basic human need – as basic as food and shelter. In fact, social support may be one of the critical elements distinguishing those who remain healthy from those who become ill.” Dr. Kenneth Pelletier Stanford Center for Research and Disease Prevention Group friendships grant us a sense of belonging, of connection, of acceptance, that is the ultimate antidote for loneliness, much more so than individual friendships even when those have a significantly higher level of intimacy.
  7. 7. Communities have traditionally formed through some combination of physical proximity, ethnicity, and religious identity but increasingly form across long distances around games, hobbies, online pictures, and anything else that remotely connects us.
  8. 8. Frequent, regular contact is crucial to meaningful community formation: daily or weekly most of the time. People you see once a month will feel tangential to your existence but if they are there every day you’ll probably learn their name, just like on Cheers.
  9. 9. The interactions also need to be convenient: when people need to organize to make something happen it’s likely to stop happening fairly quickly. An event that always happens the same time & day, whether a church service or a softball game, is much easier to fit into your life.
  10. 10. How many of you have joined book clubs that failed? I’ve been in at least three with common themes: monthly was too irregular to plan around, people wouldn’t show if they hadn’t read the book, the original host would get busy and no one else would step up.
  11. 11. But it can’t always be easy: individuals need to feel that their presence, their contribution is important. While too much pressure can become overwhelming, nothing reinforces a person’s sense of value and place in a community than feeling needed.
  12. 12. It also needs to be connective across participants. While people talk about communities around tv shows, musicians, etc. if the communication is fundamentally back-and-forth between the celebrity and individual fans it’s an engaged audience, not a community.
  13. 13. Goals, especially goals that require co-operation to achieve fill a double role of connecting individuals and making them feel needed – it’s almost like instant jello powder for community. Team sports and MMO guilds particularly shine in this regard.
  14. 14. But for a community to have depth it needs to expand beyond communication around mutual goals and interests. In-jokes and banter get you pretty far but ultimately people need to talk about their lives to really get to know each other and connect.
  15. 15. Expanding beyond the initial limits of the community is most difficult in an online setting, especially where communication is asynchronous or limited and identities are anonymous. What’s the equivalent of the post-game pizza & beer that turned my softball team into much more?
  16. 16. The more forms of communication you provide, the better. The more they are group and synchronous the closer the feeling will come to hanging out. And they should never disappear when a match is over – where else will the requisite trash-talking occur?
  17. 17. It’s also important to allow for different levels of engagement and effort. Churches handle this well, allowing for the most active to join weekly events like prayer meetings and bible studies that supplement Sunday services as well additional volunteer opportunities on other days
  18. 18. This also allows for leadership to emerge. For a community to thrive it generally needs some organization and if it relies on just one person it’s ultimately fragile. My softball team went under for a year when the manager moved, but restarted with first 2 and now 6 of us organizing.
  19. 19. Which begs the question: what size is right? To sustain I’d say they generally need 2-5 stalwarts/organizers, and at least 10 members to start feeling like something larger than friendship. If joining is easy then sizes can balloon to hundreds, even thousands
  20. 20. But even before you hit Dunbar’s # at 150 any real feeling of intimacy and deeper belonging is lost unless subgroups emerge or are organized. Normal class sizes of 18-30 are probably the goldilocks answer: my softball team has roughly 20 people.
  21. 21. When all these factors together they can make magic. If any of you doubt the power of community for games: 8 months a year I spend my Friday nights playing a game I’m both mediocre at and lukewarm about because I’m deeply attached to the community that comes with it.