Social structures that support de-geeked gaming

edited December 2006 in Story Games
James' thread has a lot of stuff about game design aimed at being more accessible beyond geek culture. I'd like to talk about structures outside the game that serve the same purpose. I'll begin from my personal experience, beginning with my answer to 'why does this matter anyhoo?'

I'm interested in playing more games with people I socialise with. These tend to be people with the odd hobby, but who use most of their leisure time catching up with friends, having meals, going to the odd film. They might have kids, or be arranging their wedding, or otherwise caught up in the big wide world. They're not the oft-cited "natural target audience for gaming" - sci-fi and fantasy nuts, committed theatre people, fan fic folk. They watch TV and have favorite shows without craving encyclopedic knowledge of them, and wouldn't put aside an entire saturday to rewatch a series through. They don't spend a huge amount of time on the internet.

My experience:

Earlier this year, I resolved to try and get my people together to play games - all kinds of games; card, board, rpg. Having been drinking deeply from various gaming sites (for a vicarious rpg fix) for the previous months, it seemed natural to me what to do. We threw together a local gaming forum, emailed out a bunch of people with a casual statement of purpose, and started posting content. The aim was to crank up enthusiasm for playing various games, and organise and lock down logistics of getting together. One of the main aims was to give that 'de-geeked' demographic a friendly entry to a lot of things I wanted to share with them.

From this perspective, bluntly, the site has failed. The people most comfortable with using the net as a time sink, and most familiar with social networking software are also the geekier and more culturally gamer. Hence, the site began culturally gamer, and all the formal injunctions I could muster ('this is just a site for people who like playing games to meet up and organise stuff', said ad nauseum) couldn't change that.

Moreover, a forum is a place you talk about stuff - in the main, people expound on what they know. As such, it's not hugely welcoming for people who are naive to an activity, and in any case creates the impression that to do this stuff, you really should also be talking about it in your free time. Wrong, wrong wrong. Bad Alex, no biscuit.

In sum, the forum created a virtuous circle for gamers to indulge their geekier habits (this includes me), and a vicious circle for people without gaming history to feel that they need to know lots of stuff to participate. Clearly part of having it in the first place was to have a personal sandbox to waffle with friends, and that's an ok thing, as is it's use for setting up games between old hands. But the site is not inviting/interesting to a large part of its original target audience.

So now I'm trying to take a different approach. I'm playing a game with a friend and neighbour next week, and we talked about it over a pint, set it up by email, and will probably meet up in person (another pint?) to draw an outline of a character and what he expects from the game. He doesn't care about the forum or any communities, he's just curious to try a new activity, so I won't blindside him with all that other stuff.

In future, when I think someone might be interested in playing an rpg, instead of saying "come to our forum!" I might tell them a bit about it and then send them a written invitation to a game on a certain date. This indicates that on this occasion we will do something a little bit different, but uses features recognisable from other, understood social situations (a party or dinner); hopefully, it puts across the idea that your obligation is to arrive open and expectant, and the host by their own wishes will have prepared you something interesting and enjoyable to participate in.

So in summary, and to open up:

1. My experience is that online forums are not a good structure to support introducing people to gaming, because by their nature they privilage prior knowledge and imply that the activity has a high buy-in (must talk to play) and participants ought to cloister together. Are there other social support structures we ought to examine, that are indifferent or may even be toxic to allowing non-gamers to participate in the activity of gaming?

2. Using more naturalistic approaches seems to be a better route. One approach is to treat it like an invite to dinner:- I'll make a bit of effort (because I like to) if you'll come ready for what I put together; you might need to make a bit of an effort (buy wine, dress nice, read an A5 summary) and we'll have a nice evening centred round an activity. Are there downsides to this approach? Are there other ways to do this, and what are their merits and disadvantages?


  • Yeah, even people who read their e-mails regularly don't necessarily participate in extensive conversations electronically. Face to face is still the best means for my generation, generally speaking, to get involved in something. Note that the kids will also ignore your forum - but they'll sit in a chat room for hour on hour.
  • Yup, exactly. My thinking is that email is the 'outside edge' of technological comfort you should reasonably assume; beyond that you start excluding people.

    Even email demands a modicum of caution; I'm so used to reading threaded conversations (and use software that supports it) that I'll happily to-and-fro with a dozen people for 25 messages to organise a single evening. That won't work for everyone.

    I reckon the safest use of email is a) to canvas interest/check a date and b) to finalise a meeting.
  • Posted By: Alex FThey don't spend a huge amount of time on the internet.
    I've heard of these people. Do they have two arms and ten fingers? Do they have their faces embedded in their torsos? Do they breathe fire?
  • Yes, but they're allergic to catnip and get trapped in mirrors, so we'll be fine.

    And as Jason points out, your internet may vary. People happy to clickabout the Yahoo homepage may find the conventions and setup of forum communication alien or forbidding (even if the forum says "For Everybody" at the end of ig :P). And I wouldn't be hugely eager to enter a chat room - its unfamiliarity means I don't view them as a comfortable space.
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