The Guild Counsel: PAX East panel explores online communities

There were two things that really stood out for me at PAX East: the ridiculously long lines and the throngs of fans who happily sat down together to play games face to face. On the surface, PAX East might seem to be about who has the best card deck or who has the quickest twitch reflexes, but it's actually much more than that.

We've looked at the growing importance of online communities and the relationships that have been created by them, so it's little surprise that PAX was full of players who were there to meet and play with friends they met through gaming. And among the many panels this weekend, there was one that explored this very issue. The speakers were all experienced managers of online communities, and they shared their stories of how they got started and why these communities are so important. Read on to hear their stories.

Never too old to game

Derek Nolan is the co-founder of 2old2play and also hosts a podcast of the same name. He explained that he was a gamer who was looking to play with older gamers -- people who had grown up, had some life experiences, and were a little more mature than the typical gaming community. He set the minimum age at 25, and his goal was to form a community of gamers who shared a common background as well as a common interest in gaming. They started with about 25 people and have grown to about 35,000 members. He hosts a yearly gathering in Chicago, and players from all around the world gather to participate. As he put it, the gatherings give you the chance to meet people whom you haven't actually met in person. But he adds that these relationships that form online are just as valid as the friendships you form around your drinking buddies or other real-life friends.

Filling a void in Florida

Ross Furman is the founder of SFX360, and like Derek, he decided to get started when he had to move to Florida and was still looking for a way to meet up with gamers who shared a common interest. He realized that there was no gaming community in Florida and worked on filling that void. His motto was "Bring gamers face to face." Over time, they grew to over 100 members and started up a website devoted to XBox 360 gaming. In the five years that followed, the site has grown tremendously, and he's hired a staff of writers. To him, it's all about creating those relationships that start from gaming, and he emphasized how important it is for players to have the opportunity to meet face to face.

Yes, girls can game!

Morgan Romine is the manager of the Frag Dolls. She got her start while in college, playing EverQuest. She was immediately hooked, particularly on the social aspect of games. She was a member of many different guilds and was a presence in the community. Eventually, she also got into FPS games and joined up with some clans.

She became interested in Shadowbane and brought her guild there for a while. Even though they didn't stay, she was such a presence on the forums and in the community that she was hired as a community manager for Ubisoft. While there, someone suggested that she start up a group of female FPS gamers, because at the time, there weren't many out there.

What's unique about online gaming, she said, is the fact that we all start with a blank slate, and from that anonymity, are defined by whatever commonalities we all share. Everyone initially starts off with something in common -- gaming. It's actually a "selective community" -- people become part of it by the interest that they have. Over time, people build your personality and who they want to be, but everyone has the power to choose what to reveal and when to reveal it. Online, no one knows your gender, economic background, or ethnic background, unless you announce it.

Trolling is one result of that. But on the flip side, you can form very deep bonds because you can share whatever you want. You can connect with someone without any other judgments getting in the way, people whom you wouldn't normally talk to because they're older than you or live across the country -- that problem doesn't exist in online communities. You can build a relationship on the most intimate things, and that can last for a long time.

From depressed to living the dream

Hamza Aziz is the Community Director of Destructoid. He shared a very poignant story of his growing up and the importance of online communities in his personal life. When he was young, he struggled with obesity and depression and even contemplated suicide. Through pure luck, his best friend got him into gaming, and he considers the day he joined Destructoid as the day his life was saved. He and the other founders wanted to get to E3, and that was their original inspiration for founding the site. But over time, it grew to the point that it's the largest independently owned gaming site. They have three million readers a month, and his job as Community Director keeps him very busy, but he considers himself to be living the dream. Being part of Destructoid has given him confidence, and he's amazed at how much more social he has become, both online and in real life. He is thankful for the opportunity he's had at Destructoid, and he appreciates how much it's changed his life. Destructoid has worked hard to pay it forward, raising thousands of dollars both for individual members who have needed help and for larger charity organizations.

Pros only

Stan Press is the Community Marketing Manager for Astro Gaming, and he shared a much different story about how he came to run an online gaming community. He got his start in FPS games and eventually met up with some friends who introduced him to the professional gaming scene. As he explained it, the competition was intense, but the prizes they were winning were as high as $60,000. As he gained valuable experience from being part of the team, he decided to use his marketing background to take it to another level. He eventually joined up with Astro Gaming and has turned his gaming background into a great career.

He pointed out that it's easy to not consider other players as real people, but over time, you start to make friendships that last a long time. He said that when you find a community, it can help you find roommates, best friends, love, even a job. Most importantly, online games can point you in a direction that you never thought possible. He said that despite the ups and downs of the professional gaming scene, he thanks each one of the players he's met, because they all helped him get to where he is today.

What's interesting is that each of these people is a pioneer in a way, trying to create some organization and give a sense of order to the Wild West of the online world. They also all took on risks -- they weren't sure exactly what they were getting into as they started up their communities, and many of them expressed surprise at how large their communities had grown. Their stories also reflect that desire to find a common link to fellow gamers, whether it's based on age, gender, location or even playstyle. Given the fact that, as Morgan put it, we all start off with a blank slate, it seems to make sense that people would want to find a common bond with others that goes beyond just a love of gaming.

There's no doubt that online communities, and the friendships that come from them, are growing in size and popularity. But the real question is whether these relationships will ever be accepted into mainstream culture. As real and as valid as they are, there's still a lot of skepticism from many over the fact that they don't involve face to face contact. Only time will tell, but as these panelists all explained, there's something uniquely special about the bonds that we form from online games.

Do you have a guild problem that you just can't seem to resolve? Have a guild issue that you'd like to discuss? Every week, Karen Bryan takes on reader questions about guild management right here in The Guild Counsel column. She'll offer advice, give practical tips, and even provide a shoulder to lean on for those who are taking up the challenging task of running a guild.
This article was originally published on Massively.