What we can learn from Video Games and their successful creative communities

Video games are often the target of heavy criticism in the wake of violence. But these virtual worlds and what drives people to engage in them can also teach us a lot about how to build sustainable communities.

In 2001, when my little town of Abbeville in Picardie, north of France, was connected to the French DSL network, I pretty much quit TV to discover a world of high speed information. I connected myself to Europe and the world through video games, my main occupation being Quake 3 Arena at that time. I was born in a connected world where you could design the game you wanted to live in.

How accidents can shape the future

Quake 3 is a first person shooter in which you are confronted with other players in virtual, spatial and futuristic worlds. Released in December 1999, this game is the little brother of Quake 2 and Quake1, which was published by ID Software, which is father of the Counter-Strike engine motor.

The fun story about Quake 3 is that was released by mistake due to a leak from ATI vendor in March 1999, which allowed people to test the game in its early phase of development. This wasn’t really planned, but forced ID to adapt: since the game was already out, they decided to create and release a Q3test in April 1999 and opened the game to the community.

The fact that somebody leaked it shows that there seem to have been people who were interested in contributing to the game and giving feedback to the coders. This « accident » became a defining characteristic of Quake 3 and determined how it evolved with the help of its community.

I grew up playing Quake 3 Arena with French and other European players. In this world that I couldn’t fully understand at the time, the company ID Software enables coders to access the game’s code to be able to create « mods », which stands for « modifications » of the game.

After a short search, I found that 129 mods have been created for Quake 3 and 129 propositions of variations of the original game had been made. So thanks to the community, there are now 129 versions of the game with different configurations – that’s what I call diversity.

The rivalry for the lead mod

Two main teams developed the lead mods and created two different worlds:

  • OSP (Orange Smoothie Production) created a world in which physics and weapon switch are slow and the game is mostly based on your ability to aim and team play.
  • CPMA on the other hand created a fast paced game in which movement is more important than aim, since they used so called « air control » (which means that you can turn in the air and run and turn without losing speed)

Both mods had their own developing team, testers and version. There were regular updates of these versions with new features, which the user community would test after being uploaded to the servers and then give feedback on how they liked the new features, and how the flow and balance of the game changed. Many players created their own servers to try out modifications and settings to then connect these to other servers. In science fiction, such a connection of servers is called a Metaverse.

You could discuss complaints and feedback with others in a forum or, if you wanted to take it into your own hands, put together a team to fix the problem or create another version of the game (what we call forking). And so appeared a vast diversity of mods: OSP was the mod used in international sponsored competitions where players could win cash prizes, while CPMA players became purist and hardcore in their philosophy.

Virtual Worlds
ESWC in Paris Bercy, 2006

A rivalry arose between these two communities, who competed to win over the newcomers. As the motto of CPMA « Play more Promode! » shows, CPMA players would always try to invite OSP players to give it a try. But every player was free to choose his prefered mod, switch between mods or even take on the role of designing new skins if you had the skills.

Developing shared culture and vibrant communities

The community website ESreality.com, which still exists today, also played an important role in creating a community spirit and a shared culture outside the ingame time. The site was developed with love and passion by its fellow members and still the node all activities in the field. It also already used advanced reputationnal currencies and let members put out weekly updates on different subjects such as weekly awards, popularity and new columns.

See how up-to-date the Esreality site is and how it gives visibility to its community with its multi-gaming news feed.

Frenchfragfactory is another French platform that was created by a team of coders called SARL, whose members, 14 years later, are now all moms and dads who are still very active in the WordPress plug-ins scene.

Creator’s culture: you design the world

What I discovered in this world is something I would like to call a creator’s culture:

If it is not yet there, I create it; if something doesn’t work, I fix it and share the fix with others; if it served me, it might serve them.

We were free – free to create, improve, propose and try. Just like children discovering an infinite playground, we played for hours in these spaces.

I grew up in a virtual world where developers could create their own maps and skins, share them and propose them on servers that other people would then defrag or develop further. The community invested much time, love and passion in it (whether you like the game, the graphics or the music) to share the best possible video and performance with the world. Watch Stunner3 to see an example of this. Every day there were tournaments, new versions, maps, and performances of people that didn’t know each other but were able to create things together and help them evolve as one.

I was very involved in the community: as a « newser » at Frenchfragfactory, as the coach of two great teams in Quake 3 Capture the Flag mod: S? and aAa as well as the French national team, with which I won the European Clanbase Nation cup for the 3rd time in a row in June 2004. I also became coach of aAa, news writer for their website and admin for the ESWC in Futuroscope and Paris for Quake 3. When I began my studies in Paris 2005, I quit playing.

Now, in 2012, a few years later, I still follow the Quake 3 scene and international competitions from time to time. It’s always a pleasure to see how it has evolved and what new games and tournaments have been created. It’s interesting to keep track of the field and watch how it has become a national sport due to the recent success of Starcraft 2 and Shoutcasters Notoriety like Pomf & Thud in France or HDHusky in the US.

What can we learn from these communities?

Why are these games so dynamic, whether there is sponsoring or not? How has the ecosystem been able to survive with thriving communities over time? What is the engine that creates and fuels this giant creative cooperation?

My answer is passion. The same type of passion you can find in music, sports and community oriented activities. Contributing was like a natural behavior, because they loved to share and do things that make sense. The game became an evolving product that suited our needs because it was open to contributions from anyone. Today Quake is still seen as a major reference in the world of computer games.

The lesson learned from this is that if you open what you do, you lose some control but at the same time enable a flourishing eco-system with a diversity of content, derivatives, remixes of the original creation, an effusion of creativity and experimentation to develop.

This is also the case at Xonotic, a free and open source first person shooter developed by the community for the community. You can learn more about it in this video. In this kind of organisation, it is no surprise to see a programmer that posts « brainstorming power-up models » in a forum and invites members to contribute to design a new version.

Community gaming
Quake 3 Arena from ID Software, 1999

Lessons from the virtual world for the real world

  • Open the communication with your community. This will create an enviroment that is dynamic, consistently evolving, where there is continuous collaboration, innovation and there are few laws, forking is possible and experimentation encouraged.
  • Turn your community into a game with rules, governance and freedom. What if we would take our democracy and monetary game into our own hands (a field that we have left to others for too long in my view)? What if we turned our company organisation into a game in which each of us was free to switch between projects?
  • Claim back our right to create and decide on the rules. By this I do not mean voting for a guy that will represent you; I speak about voting, experimenting and having a word in discussions that influences how the game you are playing develops.

Header image credit: CC gnackgnackgnack// Article originally published on Ouishare.net

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