Returning games to communities

Over the past decade or so, I think most of us have realized to some degree or another, that stuff like Twitter is… generally kind of harmful. Not in all ways, of course. It’s good for reporting certain kinds of breaking news events such as hurricanes, or riots. It may be good for raising awareness about certain topics; a lot of social progress has been made that likely wouldn’t have happened without twitter, with obvious examples being #MeToo and a lot of Black Lives Matter activity. These things are really important.

But, I think a lot of us originally thought that Twitter was going to be more like “a community”; a place where we could talk, share our feelings, debate important topics, etc. Like a chatroom or a forum, but one that everyone is on. I think it’s safe to say that with regards to this dream, Twitter was a complete catastrophe. Trying to actually talk or be a person on Twitter is very impossible, and most of us have learned this now. I think this was also the idea with the design of internet in general early on: that it’s this completely open zone, and anyone can contact anyone, at any time, unsolicited. At this point, I think most of us have recognized that that wasn’t a great idea.

I’ve listened to a bunch of different podcasts wherein sociologists, computer scientists or other experts have expressed different theories about why exactly that is, but one general idea that seems to be somewhat agreed upon at this point is that there is some sort of upper limit on how many people can meaningfully be “in a community” together. The most famous one of these is Dunbar’s number (150), which sounds like a reasonable number, but we also don’t need to get too hung up on a specific number. The important concept is that millions of people can’t be in a community together. Communities can have two people in them, or 10, or 100, or maybe even a few hundred. But not a million.

Online games

The concept with the “online game” is that there are tons of players out there, and you can just hit play and find a random (ideally match-made) opponent, and bam! You’re playing your favorite game. You can play as much as you want, you can play at 3:30 in the morning, etc. There is something really appealing about this. But the basic fundamental problem with this kind of arrangement is the contextlessness for that match. You don’t know this person. You don’t have any play history with them. In almost all cases, you won’t have any future with them either. You’re just playing against a random person, usually one match, and then you’ll never see them again. A random match-made opponent is kind of like some quote-tweeted Twitter user whose opinions strike you as completely awful.

It’s funny, because I think I’ve accepted that as so natural, such a “normal” way to experience games… and it’s really not. It’s totally artificial, and the result of specific, ideologically-charged reasons.

The ideology behind such an arrangement is that the context doesn’t matter. That we are simply going to see who’s better. Nothing else matters. It’s like this pure, Libertarian dream-scenario where there are no “people”, only quantifiable productive agents in a free marketplace of skill. It is institutionalized ideology manifested in software.

In that highly artificial, hierarchical and de-humanized context, is it any wonder that people are toxic to each other? That people are kind of their worst selves in this situation? I still know people in their 30s who are super nice, but once we enter into a League of Legends match, all the sudden they’re jerks to the random teammates/opponents. Playing a match against random people is an empty, almost entirely meaningless act.

Something I noticed recently playing MTG online is that the non-ranked modes are so much better than the ranked modes. By better, I mean healthier: players play a much wider range of kinds of decks. The game is more alive. The reason for this is simple: you have hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of players all competing with each other and getting the extrinsic reward of placing them higher in a hierarchy. This compels players to do the obvious: look up and obtain the best net-decks they can, and now you have a situation where half of the playerbase is all playing the same deck, in a game whose basic premise is one of limitless customizable asymmetry!

By contrast, think of a MTG cube that you might have at your house, and a group of 5-10 friends that might be playing with you as part of that smaller community. Or the smaller community of a local game shop. Or the smaller community of your Discord. In this context, not only are people not really incentivized to be “net decking”, they’re also incentivized to be nice to each other. Their matches have a context – a before, and an after. Their matches get retold as stories. Players can build identities are players who play a certain way. Players are no longer some faceless opponent boiled down to an Elo integer. Players are allowed to be people, and MTG decks are allowed to be MTG decks.

Communities vs. languages

As someone who has made games and had situations where no one was playing them, I can tell you that when no one plays a game, it’s rather indistinguishable from that game not existing in the first place. Games really exist when they are played by and in communities. Even if you’re playing a one player game, if it’s something that resonates with you, you really want to talk about it. Some of my best memories of Fallout 2 were not necessarily of the game itself, but of instead coming into school the next day and telling the stories about the crazy things that had happened the night before to my friends who were also playing it.

In a similar way that we all probably need to be gravitating away from Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and towards smaller communities, I think we need to be doing the same thing with games. That doesn’t mean that there can’t be popular games, though. Games themselves, or software, can be thought of as kind of like a language. Maybe you and I both speak English, we both play Magic, but we play or speak within totally separate small communities.

That said, right now there’s a huge amount of attention going towards the same 10-20 or so games, and if the “reduction of community-size” that I’m calling for means that there are fewer games that basically everyone plays, fewer games that are utterly dominant, then that seems like a positive thing, too.


Here are some suggestions that I would make for the future of games:

  • This one goes first, because it’s my favorite suggestion. Instead of “click a button and play against a random opponent”, how about you create a game, and then send someone a link/code that lets them join that game (similar to how Jackbox games or Among Us works). We pick the actual humans we want to play with. (Brett Lowey and I had a big discussion where we realized we wanted to do this if we ever did an online multiplayer game.)
  • As to “play any time, as much as you want”: Encourage and support playing games against bots. Bots are good! Make “vs. bots” play feel like a real way to play the game and not some “practice mode” feature.
  • Consider how your game will be played in a community. What kinds of relationships, stories, or perhaps even problems might my game be cultivating? This is NOT a call to turn all games into “social games” or party games or anything like that. Whatever the kind of game is, I think this should really be considered.
  • Don’t rank players against other players. We need to figure out some ways to show a player that they have improved, without necessarily telling them what percentile of all human beings they’re in, or that they’re the 136,414th best player in the world. Any changes we make are going to have some downsides, and it’s possible that one downside of what I’m suggesting might be that it becomes a little bit harder to know what your “true” skill level is. I’d argue, even if that’s a downside, it’s worth it.

That last one is a big one, I know. We’re all about this “celebrity worship” in our culture, of knowing who the BEST BEST BEST player ever is. I think that there’s a lot of reason to be skeptical of this as a value. I think what we should be concerned with is cultivating a good community, and good games to play in that community; focusing on those people who are actually in our lives and care about us and what we think and what we have to say, rather than living in a fantasy world of “temporarily embarrassed non-pros” obsessed with climbing some ladder.

Maybe you have some ideas on this topic; I’d love to hear them. Thanks so much for reading!

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