Ask Not What Your Game Can Do For You…

A History Of Communities
Gamers exist in communities. Whether we’re grouped by the faction we’re a part of, the server we play on, the game we play, the genre of game we play – or some combination thereof – we exist as part of a community. We joke about it, make fun of the people that believe in such things and perhaps even dismiss it openly.

But, as games continue to become more complex, so do our interactions. Growing up, I could count on one hand the number of my peers that owned the same gaming system I did (ah, Fairchild, how I miss you). As time went on, gaming became more and more common. I would meet like- minded people at “cart-swaps,” meetings of console gamers in the area where we would swap a game we’d grown tired of for a fresh (albeit slightly used) game we could waste hours upon. With the home computer, the BBS took the place of many of our cart-swaps, and although we’d still meet to trade games (now on floppy disks, and not always “used” – more like “bootlegged”), we still knew one another and took pleasure in being in the company of like-minded individuals. Our “area” might have grown a bit larger, but most interactions were still what we’d consider “nearby.”

When the almighty internet arrived on the scene, we were no longer interacting with people even remotely nearby. Our interactions grew to involve people all over the world. You might be arguing about the effectiveness of the Overload button in System Shock with someone from another continent in a news group, hunting WADs for Doom through Usenet, playing a favorite MUD or just chatting with friends in ICQ.

When popular MMOGs hit the scene, gamers were already familiar with the concept of “community,” but such a concept suddenly became much more relevant. Instead of people simply sharing the same interests as you, these people were now participating in your shared “world” and facing the same challenges as you – and sometimes they were the challenges you faced.

More Than Neighbors
The first MMOG community I became a part of was in Asheron’s Call, in late 1999. I wrote about my (admittedly pathetic) attempts to be a viable combatant on the player vs. player server, Darktide, under the penname Kwip. My stories earned me a bit of recognition in the game, and I gained a number of friends through my mis-adventuring. Even outside of the game, I would often take the time to correspond with people through email or message boards. They’d offer playing advice, I’d reply with tales of abject failure. My girlfriend, Becky (now my wife), became a regular figure in my stories as Kwipette, and we were often joined by poor souls who were convinced they would be the ones to show me how to level properly.

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Corresponding with these friends became an important part of my daily routine, and I spent more time talking to them than I did talking to my neighbors. I had a friend in France and could name each of her cats, but didn’t know my neighbor’s first name. We exchanged holiday cards with people we had never met in person, and our neighbor refused to unchain her door when we dropped off homemade Christmas cookies.

Were the cookies that bad, or was it simply that our geographical neighbors had less in common with us than people who lived 3,000 miles away?

A Diagnosis, And A Community Responds
In mid-2000, Becky was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Multiple sclerosis is a chronic, often disabling disease of the central nervous system. Symptoms may be mild, such as numbness in the limbs, or severe – paralysis or loss of vision.

Becky was 24 years old. I’m not saying there’s a great age to be diagnosed with such a disease, but allowed to choose, I think most people would choose later in life. Much later.

We struggled to come to terms with this throughout 2000. When 2001 hit, we made up our minds we were going to take a pro-active stance. Becky wasn’t going to sit around and see what happened, she was going to fight back the only way we really knew how – she created an MS Walk team. Together, with a few of our friends and family, we formed a small team and set about raising funds.

Most of the friends I had were already signed up on our team, so I turned to my co-workers for donations. That earned me a whopping $20. This was better than nothing, of course, but if I was going to hit my goal of $100, I would need more help.

I talked about it with Becky, and with her blessing, I posted a story on my website about what we were going through. Then, I fired off a quick email to the Asheron’s Call fansites, letting them know I had updated with an important story. Saying a loud prayer, I went to bed that night, hoping it would be well received in the gaming community. After all, here I was – a notorious goofball – suddenly turning to them with this serious and sad story.

I tossed fitfully that night, wondering if I had just opened our personal lives up to mockery of outrageous proportions. I dreamt of hitting not only my goal of $100, but maybe even – gasp – $200!

The next morning, I checked my pledges. I was already over $3,000 – including a $1,000 pledge. To say I was shocked is a bit of an understatement. Letters poured in – people who had a family member suffering from MS, or knew a friend with MS, or just had similar experiences with another debilitating disease. When we attended player gatherings, people would come up to us to offer their support, share stories with us, ask us questions about our experiences. They would get involved with us. The next year, I began playing Dark Age of Camelot, and when I posted another request for pledges, they answered just as loudly as the AC community.

Year after year, these people continued to be involved. Not only were there the AC and the DAoC communities – whom I considered “our” communities, games we regularly played – there was the sudden interest of gamers outside of those games. Wil Wheaton linked to us. Tycho and Gabe from Penny Arcade posted a link to us, giving away prizes to people who pledged.

Our community – gamers – got involved. More than our neighbors, more than our parishes, more than our companies, our fellow gamers were there when we needed them. It wasn’t a matter of money. It was an outpouring of support, of concern, of hope.

Support For Today And Tomorrow
At the 2005 Walk last year, I walked without my beloved Kwipette for the first time. She was bedridden, in the beginning of what would be a four-month ordeal, as MS took hold of her body and caused serious neurological damage.

I walked that day, feeling more alone than I had ever been in my life. I took every step, fighting back tears, as my thoughts kept shifting back to my wife, unable to so much as lift her head without becoming violently ill from the lesion that had formed on her brain.

But at my side were my fellow gamers. A number of local (and not-so local) gamers had traveled to Lancaster, PA to join our team. We carried sponsorship from Three Rings Design, Inc. and Monolith Productions, Inc., who both took an active role in helping us get more pledges. Developers from Mythic Entertainment and Turbine, Inc. were at my side, taking time out from their incredibly busy schedules to walk with us.

They are my friends, my monarchs, my guild members, my heroes, my enemies and (quite rarely) my victims. We share little in common, except the love of moving around pixels on a computer. But when I swallowed my pride, faced my fear and put a call for help out to the world, they are the ones that answered.

Is my situation an exception? Not at all. In fact, we rate relatively low in the field of gaming charities. Child’s Play, perhaps the most famous gaming charity of all, has raised over a million dollars in donated toys and money, in just three holiday seasons.

We are gamers. We are a community. And sometimes, we do good deeds.

Shawn “Kwip” Williams is the founder of N3 (NeenerNeener.Net), where he toils away documenting his adventures as the worst MMO and pen-and-paper RPG player in recorded history.

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