How to help build a kind & positive gaming community
There's an assumption around these parts that toxicity and gaming communities go hand-in-hand. For every collaborative, supportive fanbase, it sometimes feels like there's another 50 crawling with bullies, bigots, and entitled you-know-whats.
Here at Waste, we don't believe toxic communities are an inevitability. With a little time, work, and proactivity, we reckon most games can craft inclusive player communities that celebrate and support each other without succumbing to all that negativity.
Here are three things you can do right now to help support your players and ensure your game's online community is known as one of the good 'uns...
1. Clear, fair rules should be clearly and fairly enforced
While we'd love to be able to give you a perfect community guidelines template, sadly there's no one-size-fits-all solution here. Just as every game is different, so is every community, which means the rules for one fandom may be completely unsuitable for another.
That's not to say your community's rules have to be complex or exhaustive, though, or particularly stringent, either. A friendly, cohesive community is absolutely within reach providing you're prepared to carefully, and consistently, enforce your rules – regardless of what they may be. After all, shared values and rituals are what define a community. Creating rules around that fandom - particularly if it's been part of the creation and evolution of those rules from the beginning - is entirely natural.
After all – one person's toxic behaviour is not necessarily another's. So make sure your guidelines clearly define what toxicity means to you and the people in your community, and understand that sometimes, unacceptable behaviour – for instance, veterans players openly mocking beginners' questions or progress – doesn't always mean people are breaking the rules.
While it's important to ensure that your policies are fair, reasonable, and clearly outline your stance on hate speech, harassment, and abuse in any form, it's arguably even more important that your moderation team enforces them. Mods should work to quickly take action against those who violate them. If players see that dissenters are swiftly and unceremoniously ejected, they might think twice about engaging in negative behaviours themselves.
Because toxicity is a social dynamic, this may mean that you will have to work with your community to shape, flex, and even amend rules as you go. And as what was considered toxic five years ago may feel tame by today's standards, ensure your toxicity counter-measures are routinely reviewed and updated in light of changing dynamics.
Yes, this takes time and effort – not to mention money to train (and retain) excellent community managers – but it's easier and cheaper to punish one or two unpleasant players early on than attempt to repair the reputation of an established community already infamous for its antisocial behaviour.
Don't forget; more players will be attracted to your positive community than be turned off by your zero tolerance to slurs and toxicity.
2. Find out why toxic community members behave the way they do
Okay, so this may sound somewhat counter-productive at first – particularly if you're running a zero-tolerance response to toxicity – but the first time you spot negative behaviour, make it a priority to quietly enquire why your community member is behaving that way.
We all know that our lives are messy, unfair, complex things, and rarely do we manage to contain our emotional baggage, let alone channel it in the right direction. Therefore, you need to know why this person is behaving negatively before looking for solutions to remedy it. After all, being kind goes two ways – and most people deserve a second chance. Are they looking for attention? Are they looking for control? Often understanding the behaviour is the key to addressing it.
Research into toxic behaviour in team-based competitive gaming identifies five toxic behaviours in Riot's MOBA, League of Legends: communication aggression, cheating, hostage holding, mediocriticising, and sabotaging.
But it also lists five contextual factors that may bring about toxicity, too: competitiveness, in-team conflict, perceived loss, powerlessness, and toxic behaviour in others.
It's important to understand what may trigger negative traits in your community members, realise that what's unacceptable in LoL may be absolutely fine in your community, and vice-versa. Context is key.
That's not all, though. A toxic community member may respond more positively to a thoughtful, caring direct message than the untimely wave of the ban hammer. And although you'll need to ensure that any offensive messages are swiftly removed as a clear signal to others that they are not tolerated, you can still take time to check in with the rogue member and ask if they're okay, right?
No, that doesn't mean you should expect your moderators to double as therapists – those kinds of things should always be left to the professionals – and no, not all disputes can be resolved this way. But if your first move is always to counter toxicity with kindness, you might find they learn from your example.
And you may also discover that the best way to fight toxicity is not by "fighting" at all.
3. Create positive reinforcement loops
While your rules need to be clear, fair and dutifully enforced, don't underestimate the power of positive reinforcement, either.
The truth is, it's often easier – not to mention less time-consuming – to publicly and visibly reward good behaviour than manage those intermittent bad apples. How you reward good behaviour is up to you, of course – in-game currency, skins, free subs; the choice is yours! – but if you routinely prove to your community that you see and value their good deeds, more good deeds should follow until, eventually, kindness sits at the centre of everything your community does.
This also means being mindful of the content creators you engage, too. There's no point in having a safe, inclusive online space if the streamers or YouTubers you contract to play your game are aggressive or abusive. It doesn't matter how many subscribers they have if those subscribers operate in ways that undermine the positive messaging of your community guidelines, does it?
Part of this is ensuring that even highly competitive games – games where fighting against your peers is damned near baked-in into the gaming experience, such as in first-person shooters or MOBAs – reward good teamwork, too. Sure, gamers might be opponents in-game, but that doesn't mean they can't be positive and supportive to each other in the community itself. Encourage collaboration and sociality behind your games as well as within, perhaps with community-based activities or fun, cooperative time-limited modes.
That's not all, though. Part of being a good community member isn't merely abstaining from toxic behaviours themselves – it's about building a fanbase that's prepared to stand up against toxicity, too. All too often, players encounter unacceptable behaviours, block, and move on. But if you build a fan-first community that's intolerant of toxicity – a place where these behaviours aren't normalised or ignored, but challenged routinely and directly by their peers – you'll organically grow a player base that's respectful and supportive of each other.
There's no such thing as a perfect community, just as there's no such thing as a wholly toxic one, either. Most fandoms are a smorgasbord of good and less-good people. But it's no accident that the most successful online communities clearly and visibly tackle antisocial behaviours whilst clearly and visibly celebrating positive ones, too.
We've all heard the old adage that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. If, like us, you believe in dedicating time and resources to building communities around your games early on rather than as an afterthought, you can build in – and deftly manage – player expectation right from the off. This way you can nip negativity in the bud before it blossoms into something more unwieldy at best... and reputation-damaging at worst.
Want to know more? The Disruption and Harms in Online Gaming Framework by Fair Play Alliance believes "every player deserves a fair, safe, and inclusive space to play". It provides a fantastically detailed and comprehensive catalogue of what we know about problematic in-game behaviours to empower game developers, publishers, community managers, and anyone working in online games or gaming services.
Is any of this easy? Sadly not. But it's not impossible, either. Get in touch.