Dave’s top 10 musings on the encouragement of community in Multi-User Virtual Environments.

So, if you are interested in building a ‘community of learners’ in or around an MUVE rather than simply diving in, doing a set activity and then leaving this may be of interest. What I am exploring here is what it takes to move from an institutionally prescribed network of individuals, such as a cohort, to a community with members. This is the difference between being involved and feeling a sense of ‘belonging’.

What we have to consider is that a community is a social entity that exists within a culture. The elements that need to be in place to encourage a community to form and thrive are a hybrid of the social and the practical or in our case, the social and the technological. It’s not easy to separate these notions and as such some of the points below can be engineered in the facilitation of a community and some have to be driven by the community itself.

I have constructed the following points after considering the manner in which community is fostered in World of Warcraft (WoW), both by the form of the game itself and by the players. WoW is a good example of a working through of the challenges faced by those of us interested in encouraging communities in MUVEs.

Separating the ideas below into 10 points is a convenient simplification. In reality the notions tend to flow into one another and may call for a daunting Venn diagram at some point.

1. There should be shared or mutually supported goals.
These goals could be wide ranging and interdependent, including the social, personal, educational etc. Clearly, any community needs some basic underpinning goals bring members together with a sense of purpose. These act as a benchmark for progression and can help roles to emerge. This purpose of these goals could be highly focused as in the case of learning a specific skill or more nebulous, for example, having fun. Ultimately these goals should be best achieved or approached by collaborative means.

2. Members need to be able to control the presentation of their identity.
This could be a ‘genuine’ presentation of your real life identity or a version of your ‘professional’ identity. It could also be a fantasy identity wrapped up in a complex role play scenario. The important factor is that the technology needs to give the community member the ability to define their identity in a form that suits them. It shouldn’t be prescriptive for example providing a template for a ‘student’ profile. This is likely to restrict the vitality of a community.

3. There has to be a smooth learning curve.
These environments are complex, including multiple modes of participation and levels of interactivity. The social norms in an environment are often implicit and can only be learned initially by observation. The environment needs to have a number of simple structured tasks that beginners can engage with and make mistakes / discoveries in private before entering into more public areas. In the case of WoW the user interface options builds as the individual progresses through increasingly challenging tasks or quests. These quests start as challenges for a single player and gradually become more complex, requiring collaborative groups. This continues until the top levels of the game which require groups of 25 to achieve certain goals.

4. The MUVE should be part of a larger ecology of services.
No successful virtual environment exists without supporting services such as an associated website. These websites often give a back-story or rational to the environment. They set the scene and hint at appropriate uses / behaviour within the environment in question. They can also act as a reference point or a location to manage groups and events. In the case of elearning the MUVE will probably need to be supported by a virtual learning environment or some other form of group management system. The ‘guilds’ which are communities that form around WoW always have a home site. It is usually based round a discussion forum and news / events system. Many guild members would consider these sites rather then the game itself to be their ‘home’. The MUVE is just part of a larger landscape of tools and should not be considered in isolation. It is also worth noting that MUVEs tend themselves to be a collection of services including, text chat, search, instant messaging, object repositories, VOIP etc. The 3D presence of avatars is only one aspect of the MUVE and the way in which members of a community appropriate the other services within the environment can’t be easily predicted or guided. No community survives in a single tool or service. Often email actually underpins the interpersonal relationships in even the most sophisticated of MUVEs or social networking sites.

5. There should be flexible grouping systems.
Any healthy community will facilitate a range of events that involve the whole community right through to allowing private one-to-one conversations. Communities tend to contain multiple sub-groups or overlapping ‘communities of practice’. The MUVE and associated services should allow members to easily create and disband groups of different sizes. The rational for these groups will vary from the organisational / institutional to the social / private. A system that only allows formal, visible groups will not encourage a ‘ground-up’ flow of information and will reduce the opportunity for socialising. This form of sub-group socialising is one of the most important factors in an online community giving members a sense of belonging.

6. Members need to feel a sense of ownership.
This ownership could be of objects, ideas, skills, identity, role etc. This is why it is essential to have a persistent presence in the environment. The artefact or concept could be individually or collectively owned, it should also be possible to trade certain items in a bartering, monetary, intellectual, or social economy. Some artefacts will have a relatively fixed value while others will loose value over time, such as certain skills / knowledge. This erosion of value over time can be one of the prime motivators for frequently engaging with a community.

7. There should be an opportunity for roles to emerge.
The notion of role is closely related to that of identity and group. Members of a community are not equal in power or responsibility. Members are comfortable being part of a hierarchy of roles. This hierarchy is likely to be more subtle than classic corporate structures it may be relatively ‘flat’ but whether it’s explicit or implicit a community will have an understanding of the differing roles played by its members. With roles, as with group structures, there is a clear distinction between those ascribed institutionally and those acquired or built socially. For example, in WoW each player chooses a fantasy role from a list prescribed by the game i.e. dwarf, elf, healer etc. These roles come with certain skills and a back story and therefore help the player to find their place within the grand narrative of the environment. If the player engages with others in the environment then social roles may emerge which go beyond the initially prescribed role. These may be based on skill, reliability, trustworthiness, sense of fun, leadership qualities, pastoral qualities etc. They might build on the institutionally prescribed role or diverge from it. The overall point here is that members need to play a role within a community whether true to themselves or fantasy. They also need to feel that they can change their role or reshape it if necessary. In WoW and in many MUVEs this is often achieved by members owning multiple alternative characters or avatars. This clarity in individual roles but fluidity to move between roles within a community is a powerful aspect of virtual social environments and is in contrast to many real life communities.

8. There has to be frequent opportunities to generate and exchange capital.
I use the term capital in a broad sense i.e social, economic, cultural, intellectual and practical / skills. If the environment does not allow a free exchange of capital then that capital rapidly looses its value and can be challenging to generate. The MUVE and games like WoW are very effective at generating and communicating / exchanging all five types of capital mentioned above. The services that make-up an MUVE such as Second Life are carefully designed to create opportunities to generate and exchange capital. In this sense a community could be seen as a social phenomenon designed to appropriate and further these opportunities. Many environments fail because they are too restrictive and stifle the flow of capital or are too prescriptive in the provision of channels for capital.

9. There should be a combination of structured and ‘free’ activities.
The ‘authority’ (and there always is one) should provide a number of structured activities. In WoW these are the quests which are discrete goal orientated activities that give a sense of focus and progression to the game. They also help to reinforce notions of role and identity, encourage collaboration and give a sense of a shared experience. All healthy communities engage in structured activities which relate to their overall goals. Often these activities lead to some form of socially recognised and visible symbol or reward such as, attaining a higher level, receiving a new piece of kit to wear or placing the letters ‘D’ and ‘r’ in front of a members name. These symbols may only have meaning within a single community or there meaning might extend out into a larger society. The environment should also allow or facilitate informal or unstructured activities. These activities are likely to help the formation of new peer / interest groups and can be a good opportunity to take a break from the more public requirements of community membership.

10. Members need to feel they have influence within their community and over their environment.
Members want to feel they can create and destroy aspects of the environment and that their presence influences the flow of activities, ideas and thinking within the community. This concept is interwoven with that of role, especially in relation to mentoring which is a crucial mechanism within a community. If a member does not feel they have the influence they deserve relative to the investment they have made in a given community then they are likely to disengage. Sometimes this problem can be corporate and effect an entire environment. Many of the disputes between the members of WoW or Second Life arise when the authority in question reduces members influence over the environment or their roles. Often the mere visibility of an action taken by the authority reminds members that they do not have total freewill. This can lead to a reduction in members wiliness to buy into or even ‘believe’ in the environment and therefore reduces their sense of belonging.

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