The Better Digital Community

Author: Dom Rottman

It is with good reason that children and adults alike are admonished to not interact with strangers on the internet. Yet often, it is when interacting with people we know on the internet that we cultivate the most toxic behavior. In a reversal of conventional wisdom, my relationship with people who I met as internet strangers have turned into friendships–insofar as the medium allows–while my relationships with those I know and are connected with have not grown on social media’s account. The reason for thus, I believe, is because my internet strangers-turned-friends have a unique shared joy of playing a variety of video games.

For myself and many several others it was not my choice that fellow players have been brought together through chatrooms and voice calls. Some of the most challenging content in video games requires one to not only play with other players, but actively communicate as well Difficult content in games such as Destiny or Warframe and MMORPGs like World of Warcraft require active and typically vocal communication between players in order to overcome the challenge. In competitive games such as Overwatch or League of Legends communication across team members is a large if not essential factor in victory. Consequently, when a game’s community is established, it concerns not only the interactions between developers but the players’ interactions with each other. The platform Discord has been created to facilitate the interactions of and build relationships amongst a game’s community. Discord servers can have numerous voice and text channels with various moderation tools and can range in size, from servers open to the public that are open to a game’s entire community to small invite-only servers for a gaming clan or group.

Though the primary function of gaming communities is, of course, to achieve success in certain games, it is not uncommon, if by accident, for gaming communities to turn into communities built on more than simply gaming. Certainly, it is not an overnight process nor does everyone necessarily participate, but one game may turn into a different game, one voice call goes on well after the raid has ended, and ere long something is born that at least shadows what we call community.

But is this not the purpose of social media? If not to build new communities, then at least to enhance and augment existing ones, to over great distances keep one in contact with one’s friends?

To be sure, social media does well to bring back into contact individuals long since out of touch. But beyond this–arguably more of a secondary than primary function–social media grants no benefit towards community building that cannot be done as well or better through other means. In fact, social media platforms are ultimately detrimental to one’s relationships and as community. This is because social media rewards selfish behavior.

It is perhaps more apt to say however that social media is a selfish mechanism. This means, firstly, that when used for its own sake its users behave selfishly; but it also gives us an out: using social media as a mere means towards an independent purpose is not necessarily selfish. For example, one can look at social media’s use in communication in activist groups, myself using it to notify people of a new post, and advertisements are also a case of using social media as a mere means–though that latter case might be selfish for other reasons. To use social media for its own sake is to “play its game” so to speak, to engage in the business of posting, sharing, and most importantly, accumulating likes.

Games and business overlap when they share a foundation of competitive relations. But the essential difference between competitive games and business is that games have an end, while business, in theory goes on without end. Though games can get emotionally heated, especially among competitive people, games, and therefore their accompanying emotions, have an end. Yet this is not the case of social media, for it, in theory, will never end on its own accord; even if Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram themselves were to end–though they are not designed to, for they are businesses–then social media as a phenomenon at least will not end. Therefore, the “game” of social media is actually more like a business, and rightfully–but more sinisterly–so, as community, supposedly a foundation of social media, is also not designed to end on its own accord.

The business of social media is one which endlessly accumulates the digital capital of likes, followers, shares, etc. Like in the world of business as the world of social media, the more capital one has, the easier it is to get more. Yet outside of the greater potential to acquire more of it with more ease, digital capital otherwise has no utility, for it can buy nothing; there is no market, for nothing is exchanged; its products, posts, if they have any inherent value, have inherent value that is not exclusive to social media and is likely better expressed through other means. Therefore, social media simulates a business insofar that the two can be adequately compared, but only so far and in such a way that any and all of the cooperative potential of a businesslike structure is deliberately excluded.

But what makes social media so sinister is the alleged foundation that is in reality a thin–yet evidently fairly convincing–veil of community. It is, after all, called social media, not competitive media. Ultimately, therefore, social media simplifies and bastardizes community by turning what ought to be a simulation of cooperative relations–the sort of relations on which a community is based–into competitive relations. It is through this sinister transformation that social media becomes not a benefit, but a plague to a community.

If it is said that a community is in fact built on competitive relations–if not all or most, then at least some–I would say that while competitive relations may exist and even be likely to some degree in a community, it is certainly not a sufficient property for a community, and it is hardly a necessary one. A community does not need to have an Olympic games or other sports competitions, for example, or even markets, for it to flourish.

I would not argue that a gaming community is itself a fully established and functioning community. However, unlike social media, it more accurately simulates a community. My theory is that this is because in games such as those mentioned earlier in the essay require cooperation with other players. In fact, the very first relationship between players in certain games who have nor met prior is a cooperative one. The more a player plays the game, the more they get accustomed to cooperative activity. The more the same players play with each other, their personal cooperative relationship with each other strengthens. Thus, the development of cooperative bonds and cultivation of cooperative behavior is a natural function of playing certain games. Therefore, since cooperative relationships and behavior are a significant part of if not the very foundation of communities, it is no accident that gaming communities, both on the level of a game’s entire playerbase and smaller gaming groups or clans, actually succeed in simulating community. Of course, this is not to say things are all hunky-dory all the time in every gaming community. In fact, if it was, it would not simulate community as well as it does since all communities have issues and the occasional asshole.

It is also worth noting that general complaints of toxicity within a community most often rise in games that also have a dominant competitive element as well, such as Overwatch and League of Legends. On the other hand, games such as Warframe or Destiny for example, where player versus environment gameplay is dominant and player versus player gameplay is infrequent, inessential, or simply bad, sometimes receive general praise for the community’s helpfulness, even though bad eggs are present and usually given more attention. Beyond such isolated incidents, a general complaint of toxicity is most likely to come from someone who is outside the gaming community. Certainly, this is an issue worth addressing–a gaming community’s hostility to outsiders–but it’s not like this doesn’t also happen in our everyday lives. In gaming communities, like in any community, toxic behavior always has social repercussions and consequences. In sum, Social Media–In and of itself–is detrimental to community because it creates negative and unnecessary competitive relations and cultivates generally poor and selfish behavior. Cooperative Video Games on the other hand, with all of their often-undeserved stigma, promote cooperative relationships and behavior naturally as a function of playing.

Now excuse me while I post this to Facebook and Twitter–merely–for people to see and read this. Digital capital be damned.