One of the many excellent sessions in the ScreenBurn track at SXSW Interactive this year, the "How Gamers Are Adopting the Wiki Way" panel featured George Pribul (lead admin of WoWWiki.com), April "CuppaJo" Burba (Community Manager for Tabula Rasa), Angelique Shelton (GM of Wikia Gaming at Wikia Inc), and Jake McKee (Principal at Ant's Eye View) talking about the symbiotic relationship between gamers and wikis. Interesting factoid: WoWWiki is now the second largest English-language wiki in the world behind Wikipedia. At 3 million unique users per month, a full half of English-speaking WoW players visit WoWWiki every month.
One of the initial questions was the obvious, "Why wikis?" Pribul answered that forums, the traditional places where gamer communities gather, aren't very good formats for organizing information. Wikis not only organize information very well but allow community collaboration on data that changes over time. A question from the audience next asked about the significance of wikis for other industries besides gaming. Shelton responded, "Whatever people have a natural passion about, and any way you can enable your customers to come together and collaborate on their passion -- wikis are an amazing tool for that. Individuals can step up and take ownership of something." She mentioned that people often wonder why anyone would want to write content for free, and used a basketball analogy to counter that: even though you could get paid to do it in the NBA, people still play pickup games on the street. The social dynamics within a wiki give participants pride, attribution, and community elevation -- people get social status for sharing this information.
Burba echoed the value of social currency generated by wiki participation. "How would we even have something like the Linux operating system without that? Digital culture is headed towards being famous on the internet," and that's valuable even if you can't put a dollar sign on it. People enjoy creating documentation and "we should really encourage that."
A question from the audience brought up the topic of the two silos of the wiki and the game itself -- is there overlap? Do people meet each other in one space and cross over to the other? Burba cited the fact that EVE Online and LotRO have integrated web browsers within the games themselves as evidence that the silos aren't always completely separate. That's a good thing, she quipped, because "as an MMO developer you never want to give players a reason to the leave the game." Pribul mentioned having met his girlfriend via WoWWiki as evidence that actual social connections do get made in these spaces.
Moderator McKee asked what factors go into deciding whether to run your own wiki as a developer or allow the community to do it externally. Burba strongly recommended making the decision either way early on, because if you later decide to do your own wiki after the community has made their own, that can be bad etiquette. The Tabula Rasa team saw other companies having struggled with that and discussed it early on, going through a lot of "what if" scenarios regarding griefing and so on. They eventually made the decision to let the wiki go organic, let the community build the TR wiki, and figure out how to enable that. Tabula Rasa had the Wikia wiki and another community-run wiki that had started up in beta, and what ended up happening (surprisingly) was the two community wikis actually combined to make a single destination. NCsoft worked with the leaders of the wiki to ensure that only beta testers had access to the wiki while everything was still under NDA, and Burba talked about how that was a rewarding process to be able to be plugged in to what was going on with the wiki community. "Trust your users. Let the community run it, let it go -- the more they feel ownership of it the more they will effectively police and groom it."
An audience question brought up the topic of bad data -- what happens when people publish wrong information? Pribul noted that, at least for WoWWiki, that actually happens fairly infrequently. When it does happen, it tends to be very self-correcting because a lot of people will notice it and correct it. Unlike a lot of other wikis WoWWiki doesn't allow anonymous edits, but still gets a large volume of contributors -- yet the number of people they've actually had to ban is very low. Shelton agreed: "The larger community is always going to be a better police force than a single gatekeeper. The wiki communities never sleep and are more passionate about the info being correct in some cases than even the developers are!"
Next McKee asked George whether it was a positive or negative thing that Blizzard isn't more directly involved in WoWWiki. He answered that independence is really important. "You should feel free to say whatever you really think about the game." People are able to cover so much more when they don't feel like there's a big corporation bearing down on them watching everything they do. On the flip side, he noted that recently Blizzard has become much more open to WoWWiki taking information from their databases and even generally more interested in releasing information about the game than they had been in the past.
McKee followed on with the question, "so what happens if it's a developer that comes in and corrects a page -- would you want to publicize that or not?" Panelists differed on this one: Pribul said it tends to hinder things, and that the fundamental anonymity of the wiki is a good thing. Shelton, on the other hand, told an anecdote about Will Wright stopping by to edit a page on the Spore wiki and how that set of a flurry of activity from the community, who felt they had just received recognition and credit for what they were doing.
An audience question brought up the dilemma that "the wisdom of crowds doesn't always yield positive results." As a developer, how do you ensure things don't get taken in the wrong direction? Burba responded that the nature of the wiki doesn't really lend itself to generating content that goes contrary to the game's vision. Because wikis are primarily information-based, "it's usually a documentation project about what the game *is* and not much about what the game *should be.*" The dangerous territory she does sometimes see is more of the "telling you how to play your class" variety, but things in that vein often get edited out quickly because it's someone's opinion, not a fact. George agreed: "The people editing the wiki are passionate about it, so they're not going to be railing against the game the whole time because then... why are they playing it?"
The next audience question dealt with the validity of a corporate-run wiki versus a player wiki from the perspective of the users; is one more valuable than the other? Burba responds: "I'm biased, I'll say that up front, but I believe the community should be empowered to be autonomous and not feel like the developer or publisher is going to come in and censor them in any way." It's a lot harder to foster that when it's a corporate wiki. It's a lot harder to stand up to your boss who might be angry about something he saw on the wiki and defy a request to change it. Shelton added that there may be cases in which your community might not be self-empowered enough to really handle the job of documenting your product or service, particularly outside of the gaming world. In that case, you might want to appoint someone specific as a formal leader (ideally someone outside the company) to take ownership of it and be its champion. McKee piggybacked on Burba's comment to stress that having a community manager inside the company who is empowered to actually stand up to others above their job level is hugely important, and "a lot of companies miss that."
Another audience question brought up the self-correcting nature of wikis and whether or not there's some critical mass of users required to get to that point. Shelton said, "There are many different tipping points, and it's not fun to work on a wiki by yourself... but to be honest, I've seen wikis with 5 editors succeed." With a small number of very involved editors you end up with a core community setting the structure and tone, and then other readers tend to start coming in to handle the smaller edits. But the core team needs to be "smaller than you think -- even for WoWWiki it's basically a few hundred people at the core doing something like 80% of the edits (George nods agreement)."
From the audience: is there a formal structure within game companies that exists to react to all this input from players? How do you create a feedback loop with your players? Burba answers that at an MMO company that's one of the most important things you can do: "set up that feedback loop so players feel they're being heard." There are many ways to do that; Tabula Rasa has a feedback form for players to submit comments that go into a web ticketing system. Reports based on that collection are sent to the developers every week, then during Feedback Friday they make announcements about new features and changes in order to close the loop on many of those issues.
Another audience member brought up the difference between information-oriented wikis and collaborative fiction wikis, and why don't we see more truly collaborative lore production happening in gaming wikis? Shelton responds that there are more truly collaborative-style wikis out there, and that Wikia has tons of them -- 5 different fan fiction wikis just for Star Wars. Burba spoke to the legal issues inherent in actually absorbing fan-created content into a game and the difficulty of wading through all of the intellectual property issues that brings up -- "but it would be cool if that could happen more often." George mentions that there are some fan fiction micro-communities within WoWWiki as well, they just don't tend to manifest themselves in the more well-trafficked informational areas.
The next audience question followed on to the IP issue as relates to fan sites serving ads and making money off of intellectual property owned by someone else (the game developer) -- how do companies feel about that? Shelton responds that the "eco-system of fan wikis and communities have been around for a long time" and that even sites like TechCrunch and IGN exist to write about someone else's products. Most companies tend to see it as an opportunity to keep people engaged and interested in their products and keep them talking about them longer. The same questioner followed on with, "But the official game guides are becoming a lot less relevant now," and that surely companies can't be very happy about that trend. Shelton answers that the official strategy guides are always going to have a time advantage -- they're going to be ready on day 1 whereas the wiki won't be well-formed until day 10 or 50 or 100. Burba adds that as a developer, you're really not making a lot of money off those strategy guides anyway. Plus, people buy them so they can have it sitting right there and not have to switch back and forth from game to web... or have them in the bathroom (laughter). And in that way they retain value even though the wikis can change over time and the guides can't.
Someone who manages a wiki about wine (Vinismo) asks about an issue he's faced with users: "When you let users build content, they protect the content -- so that's a virtuous circle. What happens when cliques form and it becomes a vicious cycle hostile to newcomers? Do you intervene?" George appeals to openness and low barriers to entry: "We have many ways for people to come in and find a way to contribute without throwing around a lot of policies and guidelines. We'll give advice on how someone might want to change something, but we won't shoo people away for making mistakes." So lots of different kinds of micro-communities end up forming within the greater community -- people who only edit the UI sections, people more interested in the fanfic stuff, etc. -- and we try to make rules that fit everyone. Shelton responds in a similar vein and makes a contrast between Wikia wikis and a site like Wikipedia, which has "gotten to the point where there's so many policies and rules -- they're kind of like America and we're more like Springfield, IL. And beyond that, most smaller wikis are more like this room." If you have problems within that context, you don't feel as intimidated about being able to go and work it out with community members who are approachable.
McKee ends the session with a final question: if there's one thing you want people to take away from this, what is it? George replies, "It works. People enjoy doing this and want to get their information on the internet." Shelton's final though is that empowering the community is hugely important. "It's a new medium and somewhat scary... having worked previously at Microsoft which is a very closed company, I was surprised to find out that out of basically chaos all this great stuff happens." She adds a reminder that "it's a wiki, so you can't really break it." Burba's advice is to developers: "Don't be afraid. I'd say that about user content in general. Passionate people create good games -- that's one of our internal mantras for TR -- and with wikis you have a bunch of passionate people creating something as well."