Stew Bradley

Growing up, I loved video games; from real-time strategy (RTS) and role-playing games (RPG), to puzzlers and first-person shooters (FPS)—games like Halo, Call of Duty, and GoldenEye were formative in my childhood. Going to LAN parties with friends, where people get together in the same place to play video games, was a favorite way to spend our weekends. But after college the responsibilities of adulthood pulled me away from gaming. And it wasn’t until an old gaming friend shot me a text over the holidays that I decided to jump back in.

Our gaming crew formed during our high school and college days, and most of us have never met in person. After a 15+ year hiatus, it was remarkable to me to find the same group of gamers still regularly playing together. The core group had endured job changes, starting families and other obligations life brings. On top of that, the underlying technology we used to play and communicate had evolved radically (keep in mind, when this group formed iPhones didn’t exist). Yet, the group remains as vibrant as ever.

Why is this? What dynamics exist in gaming that enable groups to be so resilient? I'm still thinking through it, but here are a few things that came to mind:

  1. Shared passion and cooperation: Gaming communities form around a shared passion for games, and an interest in the culture and lore surrounding them. With groups often forming around a specific game type (e.g. shooters, role-playing). Experiencing a game as a group heightens the excitement of progress. The feeling of personal achievement as you master a game is amplified as a shared experience with other players. This creates a sense of camaraderie that encourages people to keep coming back.

  2. Integrated social systems: As gaming has grown in popularity the social side has become an integral part of the experience. Gamers use a variety of social systems to communicate and work together. Messaging apps like Discord keep players connected across different games. Multiplayer services like Xbox Live, make it easy to join friends and share achievements. Games themselves are often designed with social mechanics such as team leaderboards or guild systems, which foster a sense of accountability among the group—as dropping out would negatively impact other players' ranking. These social systems help enrich the game experience and enable groups to maintain an on-going dialogue. They provide hours of immersive entertainment, as well as opportunities for friendship and connections that can extend beyond the game itself.

  3. Finding new friends is high friction: Online gaming is a big space, and parts of it are notorious for being toxic. Game chat—the in-game feature open to all active players—makes it easy to meet new gamers, but is also where most of the toxic behavior happens. Platforms like Discord and Xbox Live allow friends to create party chats and avoid game chat altogether. When compared with the prospect of finding new friends in the hellscape of game chats, sticking with existing friends is an easy choice. Because of this, game crews tend to stay together

  4. Content: The proliferation of video game content over the past decade has had a major effect on de-stigmatizing gaming and keeping existing gamer groups engaged. Movies, shows, streaming, and YouTuber channels have all helped to create interest and normalize the activity of gaming. This content is major source of fodder for group discussions.

  5. Competition: The rise of esports has been a huge boon for gaming as well. Esports tournaments featuring some of the best players in the world draw hobbyists into competitive scenes for their favorite titles. Esports is also a great source of new strategies and techniques for players who are motivated to improve. The idea of practice wasn't common in games ~15 years ago, but that has changed. Gaming groups now regularly convene for practice or warm-up sessions before joining ranked matches.

It's clear that gaming groups have found ways to create a shared culture and maintain enthusiasm over the long-term. What other ways do the design of these systems stimulate the longevity of communities? And how can these dynamics be leveraged in other areas, like education, business, or healthcare/fitness? These seem like questions worth exploring.