I Learned from a Community | Lessons Learned at Ferrous Core Pt.3

I Learned from a Community | Lessons Learned at Ferrous Core Pt.3

A retrospective about the gaming community I ran for four years. This part focuses on what did not go well, lessons learned to be taken as advice by others running such communities.

This is part three in a series of blog posts about the gaming community I built and ran for four years based on the video game Destiny 2. This part focuses on lessons learned from the experience, and will likely be the last in the series.

Misaligned Mindsets

I sought for CORE’s membership to be open to players of all levels of interest and skill at the game. I wanted the community to accept differing focuses on cooperative and competitive content, differing progression goals, and differing levels of time investment, but with the clear expectation that we were a community focused on learning and growth, that scrub logic had no place here.

If you think of these two types of players as a spectrum, they can, and do, coexist in the same organization. The intent was that by having the experienced and competitive players present and available, they would at least passively “rub off” on the less experienced players in their gameplay and discussions, and at best seek to actively teach and pull the rest of the membership up in skill and knowledge. This I believe we executed on well for the majority of CORE’s existence. But, the guidance and emphasis that I was able to convey was insufficient within our first year to prevent elements of toxic elitism from taking hold, forming a fiefdom, and causing issues. Incompatibilities between a subset of players at each end of this spectrum, often in noisy and public fashion, led to the shuttering of our on-meta high-efficiency “hardcore” team as an official feature of CORE.

Formalizing a performance-oriented subset of the community focused on frequent, efficient, endgame raiding seemed to be a very good idea at the outset. That players who knew the content and knew the expectations could catch the express train so-to-speak for getting weekly raid clearances, and that this would in turn create more experts on endgame content who would pull others up behind them. But, I did not have the time personally to assign to this “hardcore” team both in my own participation and ensuring it aligned to the community principles and my expectations. Over the course of a year, I came to feel that some “strong personalities” in the team, and several explosive failures to integrate interested newcomers, were doing Ferrous Core as a whole more harm than good. Exclusion became the norm in this area rather than education, and with no clear pathway into this group this in turn bred animosity and contempt. With each failure to bring a newcomer up to speed in this setting, the relationship between hardcore and the general membership slid further into an “us and them” milieu. Shortly following the release of the year 2 Forsaken expansion, and more such blowups alongside, I came to feel that the situation could no longer be salvaged.

In writing about this it frustrates me to recall the number of issues that would have been resolved had newcomers to the hardcore team simply taking the time to understand this team’s expectations and mindset required above and beyond CORE’s base requirements. But this does not excuse the hardcore team, the admin team, and I, as we should all have put better guardrails in place.

No amount of blaming the user will fix a bad user experience.

From my perspective, with the label and enshrinement gone, although hardcore’s players essentially continued as their own cliques in the larger whole, the dramatics and in turn regular need for administrative acts fell away. But in turn I know that disbanding hardcore damaged the relationships I had with the people running it, people who I genuinely enjoyed playing with and whose inputs I valued in the admin team.

Toxic Personalities

One of the guidelines I have set for myself is that no social interaction I engage in is without value. Every conversation is an opportunity to walk away with more information or insight than I had five minutes ago, even if those learnings are as bleak as that the counter-party is someone who I would rather not interact with again. I, and I hope you, enter into most interactions trying to make the relationship work, trying to assume the best about people.

Unfortunately, that willingness to assume the best, to find good qualities in people, and in the context of CORE, lent itself to tolerating toxic personalities and persons exerting a net negative influence on the community.

There were multiple individuals with multiple red flags that they should have been politely ushered out far sooner, who were retained longer than was right. Some even were enshrined as “Proven”, exemplars of our community values. I failed to both see the warning signs in front of me, and actively convinced others who did that there were redeeming qualities or a necessity for fairness in play. If you’re unwilling or unable to commit your mind to making such a decision, that you repeatedly see the problems and think “yeah, but…”, you absolutely must have others involved who you trust that have such a sense for when something is not working.

We dealt with a lot of dumb issues while I was at CORE. If there’s any single underlying trend I would point to, it is truly incredible how many people lack basic conflict resolution and deescalation skills. Many of these events did not require any intervention, but the cattiness and petty bullshit that would stem from two or more incompatible humans being unable to tolerate or avoid each other was more disruptive to the community than I had realized in the moment, and an incredible waste of my time in retrospect.

Know that the people engaging in your community are not projects to be iterated and improved upon. No amount of redeeming qualities are worth the damage a toxic personality will do by their self-centeredness, disregard for others, or outright malice. Once it’s clear they don’t fit well in what you’re building or running, I would urge you to politely part ways as best you can.

Eroded Pedestals

As a refresher from my previous postings, we set a role called “Proven” with a purple name in our Discord. These were to be line members of the community who had distinguished themselves as examples of our principles, people to look up to for our newcomers. I allowed Proven’s value to be eroded over time; the bar was allowed to dip too low, and to be too prone to individual favor as to who should be considered an example to be looked up to. There were two primary problems that weighed on the decision to ultimately scrap the Proven role:

First, and lesser, over time we saw that the mere presence of Proven in text chat was suppressing discussion. Newcomers to the community seemed to be if not intimidated, then at least unwilling to leap into conversations where multiple Proven were participating, as surely these examples of the community always know best. Not an environment conducive to open exchange.

Second, and worse, the Proven role came to shield several toxic users, some of whom had backslid from previously exemplarific behavior into something less than. If only because of remembering the good times, these were affording many chances where they should have been walked out the door.

Be wary of what, or whom, you set on a pedestal, and be especially wary of guaranteeing status or standing in perpetuity. This is simply good governance, circumstances and people change over time.

I had originally envisioned “ribbon” awards a la those found in some forum based communities (e.g. ribbon images in forum signatures) as a means of conveying this information without enshrining the user themselves, but there is/was no such solution for a Discord-based community. The role-based differentiation was a mistake, but was unfortunately the best tool available for what was originally intended, and the next best alternative before us was to not bother.

Sensitive Subjects

Most online-communities have a no politics and no religion rule for very good reason. We thought we could do better. We set up a channel called The Debate Hall with the intent that instead of quashing such conversations, we could instead redirect them productively. We did our utmost to set clear expectations about conduct therein in line with our principles and not making it personal. Debate Hall conversations disabused me, and many others, of several misconceptions and outright falsehoods I had carried in my mind for well over a decade.

I still wouldn’t do it again. Debate Hall was a recurring source of problems and general waste of my time. I delivered more stern warnings and chat bans in this channel than I felt appropriate for the health of the community. It is very frustrating to have to tab out of the thing you do for fun, to go do content moderation because two grown adults can’t keep their heads.

That this occurred during the height of certain people posing certain “alternative facts” (read as: blatant disinformation) definitely did not work in our favor.

I also know full well I fell into the trap of tone policing. There were many incidents where I and the admin team took action at least in part on the tone and tenor of how things were said, and that a focus on maintaining civility and respect distracted from addressing other problematic behaviors. This allowed several bad fits to linger in our community at least a little longer than they should have otherwise.

If you’re not actively striving to correct the problems being caused by bad actors, you’re not fostering a healthy environment. If someone is throwing rocks in the pool, don’t try to turn the waves into ripples, get rid of the rock-thrower.

Limitations of our Platforms

Being along for the ride with Discord’s meteoric ascendancy to becoming a mainstream messaging app was a substantial reason for our growth as a community, but also meant that we experienced major feature updates and some scrambling to ensure everything was still working as anticipated. Credit where due, Discord has done a much better job in the last two years of proactively communicating updates and new functionality to server owners and community operators.

We encountered minor functionality limitations with Discord in the inability to display cosmetic, reward, recognition or inside joke ribbons or flair on users. The most effective means was use of the Roles hierarchy, which is already prone to unnecessary bloat even with our limited hierarchy. Pay close attention to your Roles hierarchy, and prune it aggressively lest it get out of control.

Discord does not do an effective job of differentiating an admin, mod, or privileged user just having a conversation in text, from the same giving formal direction. Announcements are easy enough to set apart in a discrete channel or with consistent formatting, but when wading into an argument to say it’s time for those involved to go touch grass, you as a moderator really have no first-party option to clearly denote that this is you speaking in an official capacity. Reddit, for the issues it has with volunteer moderators, does provide a truly excellent feature in allowing for mods to make posts “speaking as a moderator” with distinct, eye-catching formatting. Discord would do well to copy this outright.

If you’re considering applying to Discord’s partner program, do away with any 18+ / adult content. From the outset, just knowing my immediate friends who I brought in and and their interests, we implemented our own controls to prevent inadvertent access the NSFW channel and any future-state similar channels.

  • Everyone who joined our server attested that they were over or under 18 either in our intake form or in conversation in the intake process; minors were accordingly given an Under18 role which explicitly denied access to the “back room” family of channels including NSFW and the Debate Hall.
  • Additionally, the NSFW channel could only be accessed by our members if they opted in to the corresponding NSFW role.
  • The channel itself was marked as NSFW both by name, and via Discord’s own NSFW channel flag in settings.
  • We documented all of this in order to make it clear we were going above and beyond Discord’s requirements. )

… And then with the advent of the partner program, Discord comes along and says “yeah we don’t want any adult content in Partner servers. Maybe consider using that NSFW channel flag for spoilers channels about TV shows or something.” 🙄 We felt that even with Partner status out of reach, and being okay with that, Discord had shifted the goalposts on paying users (I still maintain a Nitro sub) to make themselves look good to potential investors and is likely to do so again when they deem convenient. This is par for the course with most social media, but you must understand and plan around it up front.

To that ^ end, have a backup plan. In our case, if Discord were to ever turn evil, shut down, or arbitrarily decide we couldn’t use their platform anymore, we would have jumped to Slack and a Teamspeak 3 server. This is by no means a one to one match in functionality, but would have been good enough. Develop the familiarity with your backup plan platforms so that if this happens to you, you can at least try to roll with the punch.

I also urge you to give some thought to knowledge retention. Read-only reference channels in Discord can work, but can also quickly bloat, become stale, and are not easily searchable. Our solution here was initially a WordPress site in order to be both our public-facing internet presence, but also to host some evergreen content, guides, etc. Eventually we replaced WordPress as it was a bit heavy and difficult to maintain due to the cocktail of themes, plugins, and dependencies. WordPress is also seen as a soft target by many attackers scanning the internet. I was relatively comfortable with WordPress originally as we accepted no user input anywhere on the site, but keeping it and the relevant plugins patched became a problem. On dropping WordPress we adopted Wiki.js in order to allow for our members to make their own edits and provide their own content quickly and easily using Discord OAuth. This was much easier to administer, and allowed us to be much more fast and loose with allowing the general membership to type something up and ship it to the wiki, or at least capture/copy and retain quality Discord posts.

Game devs, please respect the user’s time

The game developers of the world have much to learn in how they implement and support in-game community structures. Devs, any decisions you make that create overhead for clan / guild / community leaders to administer and maintain their in game organization is taking away their time to enjoy your game.

Bungie capped their in-game organizations, “clans”, at 100 users. Add in the fact that our best option for doing so was (and still is) a shit web UI with no bulk select feature in the members list, and no effective tools for understanding user activity at a glance. We had to do this upkeep across five clans on Bungie.net at our peak. This was a constant burden to maintain, not only in periodically kicking inactive players from the clans to free up slots, but in doing so to ensure groups of friends could be in the same single clan in order to share buffs and bonuses.

Bungie, if any of your employees ever read this, not only was this upkeep in Bungie.net a pointless and unnecessary time sink, it was such on players who not only played your game, but went out of their way to create the conditions for fun and friendships that kept your game afloat through the bad times and content droughts. I would rather have no formalized community structure in a video game than have one that is actively burdensome to maintain.

What was fun, became a chore

Streamers and other content creators talk about this consequence relatively often, as to how and when they experience burnout. Multiple times throughout my time with CORE, I sat down at my computer intending to log in and play the game, but instead had to push out an announcement post, or process probationary to full member promotions, welcome and set up an influx of new members, free up player slots in the in game clans, respond to emails, DMs, messages, and at worst deal with problems covering the gamut from technical issues, to petty spats and abusive behavior.

I had created a raft of additional workload around the thing I did as a reprieve from the responsibilities of my meatspace life. I did what I could to encourage our membership to step up, take on an administrative task or two, and help spread the upkeep workload. But my desire to tinker and iterate constantly created upkeep, busy-work to be done at times when I wanted to play and socialize. Once I stopped playing the game I founded the group for, all that was left for me personally was a never ending stream of administrative overhead and interpersonal bullshit. If you decide some day to organize and maintain such a community I hope you’re better at not letting resentment build around this lost “me time” than I was.

I sometimes wonder if I inadvertently created an engine that required constant upkeep and delivered me dopamine hits for a job well done, but in doing so created an engine that could not be turned off, that others came to rely on, and that in time delivered me reward that felt stale, thankless, and unsatisfying. Worse yet, did I create such an engine subconsciously? One deliberately flawed to maximize happy brain chemical hits? And if so, am I prone to doing so again elsewhere in my life? This possibility I’ve come to fear, and an answer has not been forthcoming.

Image credit to CORE member Luna