What causes a feeling of community? What creates a coherent sub-culture? Both my housemates play on the on-line multiple-player game City of Heroes, which is being startlingly abruptly shut down by NCSoft, the Korean company that bought the game some years ago. Watching my housemates, I find myself faintly surprised at the real distress I see in both them and other players I know of, as well as the pulling together of players to show NCSoft this is a real community and money-maker, and therefore it should not be shut down.
Out of curiosity I asked one of my housemates what it was about CoH that gave him that feeling of community strongly enough that he’d work with others to prevent its destruction. Here are his thoughts on the matter: the main group in which he participates in CoH is a group which gathered for a purpose: to play a superhero game. However, past simply playing the game, people often befriended each other outside the game as well, and the game community encourages each other to be better people.
Outside game friendship
This may not sound like much, until you remember that women on-line can achieve an anonymity impossible within face-to-face contact — and that anonymity consequently offers them protection against being constantly hit on by socially stunted morons who arrogantly and stupidly believe “no” does not apply to them. Further, this protective anonymity applies across the board, beneficially cloaking minorities, age differences, the disabled, and more as well. What matters in these games is not what you personally look like, so much as your choice of “avatar” coupled with what and how you “speak” on-line. To voluntarily eschew this protective anonymity means there is a great deal of trust — an astonishing amount — within the various groups existing within the CoH community.
According to my housemate there is also a great deal of moral and emotional community support within the groups he hangs out in. This is not to say all groups in CoH are like this, but rather that you could find them if you preferred that style of communication. He recalled a wide variety of conversations ranging amongst subjects such as politics, cars, how women were welcomed and well-portrayed in CoH, kids, and school. Further, when someone came on-line and was distraught for some reason, there were always folks who could offer support and encouragement and commiseration. Equally he recalled joys and triumphs being shared, and he noted how there was a shared history amongst the players in his group. For example, he told me the story of someone whose beloved but very old cat died of cancer over a period of several weeks, and how the community rallied to support the grieving owner. One of the players consistently urged the owner to get another cat, and the owner eventually did so, naming the new kitten after that player. Occasionally still the owner lets the player know how the kitten named after her/him is doing. It’s a sweet bit, I think.
Being a better person
Even more than the protective anonymity, it appears the CoH game is (actively?) welcoming to women and minorities. Not only is it possible to design and extensively customize your own characters, but it is possible to create a female character that is not an embarrassing caricature of women. The game emphasizes <i>player</I> choice in this respect: you can play a normal looking person of either sex, as well as a bimbo of either sex. The skin tone palette is very nice as well: completely aside from the alien colors or animal pelts, there are something like 30 or 40 shades for human skin. These range from darkest black to palest white, with all the shades in between.
Further, the designers often listen to player requests and making significant changes accordingly. For example, there were initially a few places where only male or only female non-player characters appeared, in exaggerations of socially acceptable sex roles, e.g. only male thugs or only female cage-dancers. When the players themselves objected, the designers added men and women across the board to all these locations.
Even though I don’t know how it carries over to face-to-face, I rather like the opportunity for people within CoH to learn other players are people first, and that “categories” such as abled-ness, gender, or minority status, are truly secondary. I think it’s a good idea too, to have several close friends for moral compasses when personal issues are confusing. Apparently that’s not the only opportunity the CoH players have, though, to be better people. According to my housemate, periodically someone will decide on a worthy charity and organize a drive within the game. These drives, however vaguely organized, can raise tens of thousands of dollars for the charity being so benefited.