Designing Communities for Kindness

How to better set up your (game) communities for kinder user experiences.

Kitfox Games
Aug 14, 2019 · 16 min read

By Victoria Tran, the Communications Director at Kitfox Games, an independent games studio in Montreal currently working on Boyfriend Dungeon, Lucifer Within Us and publishing Mondo Museum, Pupperazzi, and Dwarf Fortress.

What does a community developer do?

I sum up my role as “character development, but for communities.” Community developers, in a variety of ways, build up and direct the fan base in the direction we want it to grow. We design the places outside of the game that these communities will interact in, as well as the tone, the rules, and the experience they will have in these spaces. We create the systems that people use to interact with us, each other and, in some cases, the dev team.

Visual representation of me lurking in our Discord at 10pm to make sure everyone’s being nice

Devs tend to know they want a community, but neglect considering what kind of belongingness they want from their communities. And then those who do consider it might decide they want “positive”, “healthy”, and “engaged” communities, which is a great goal, but doesn’t concretely describe what actions to take.

How do you get there? That’s where community developers come in.

Setting Tone

If you want to start thinking like a community developer and how you can start to set tone, here are 5 mental qualities, as a community dev, to keep in mind.

  1. Ambition — Do I plan for and demand the best of my platform and community?
  2. Decisiveness — Do I make decisions quickly?
  3. Clarity — Are my community expectations expressed and consistent?
  4. Collaboration — Am I working with my team and community?
  5. Energy — Do I bring positivity to my community and lead by example?

Community Tone by Game Type

So what do you want your community to feel like and bond over? It’s influenced not only by your structures and rules, but also the kinds of games you make. It will attract certain kinds of people seeking a certain kind of experience.

The audience will be influenced by a number of factors, including: studio culture/voice, game genre(s), game tone, and number of players. From this, you can judge where your primary community demographic will come from, and how you can design appropriately. (Check Tanya’s blog Designing for Coziness for more on the game aspect.)

Examples of the type of community ethos a certain game may attract:

Mastery — comprehensive knowledge or skill in a subject or accomplishment
Example games: Dwarf Fortress, Darkest Dungeon, Cuphead, Monster Hunter

Competitiveness — having a strong desire to be more successful than others
Example games: Rocket League, Overwatch, Fortnite

Kindness — friendliness, coziness, generosity, trust, or inclusion dynamics
Example games: Boyfriend Dungeon, Ooblets, Animal Crossing, Slime Rancher

Of course, these are not exhaustive or exclusive— communities can be and usually are a mixture of many. But by knowing what type of community ethos you’re aiming for, you can appropriately plan for things such as:

  • What kind of community design you want/how you will promote it
  • Types of social platforms needed/their structure
  • Amount of moderation needed
  • What sorts of risks come with each community
  • And more!

This post focuses not on multiplayer in-game chats, but on the places players gather outside of the games, on places like Discord, forums, or Twitter. And here’s the thing — for a lot of us, online spaces have become our communities. The places where we socialize, learn the norms of the place, and find our belongingness. Essentially this can be thought of as something similar to the role of what the church, or large families once played. So, even if we don’t want to, we need to start asking ourselves:

What kind of communities are we building?

What is Kindness?

But if we talk about kindness, we need to define. Note that kindness is an VERB — it requires practice.

Kind community design doesn’t mean chanting positive affirmations into your community every single day. (I mean, you can if you want though?)

It means creating a safe, low pressure, helpful, and encouraging interactive space among the players. So even when times of tension or anger come up (e.g. a troll), they still actively work together to help make the space a kind and accepting place.

Superficial notions of kindness don’t suffice — when we are kind, it doesn’t mean we give people a pass for bad behaviour or just try and be positive all the time. Responding with “we just need to be kind to one another” when someone does something damaging brushes over the real complexities of life.

I think this tweet sums it up really well:

So, kindness in design means we need to hold people accountable, think of the realities of the world, and set up our spaces to be both warm and progressive.

Designing for Kindness

I want people to be mindful of how they love and interact with our games, and not just what they love. Maybe kindness isn’t talked about much anymore because either it’s become so ubiquitous in online spaces we take it for granted, OR we’ve become jaded by the very platforms we found solace in (and I mean… for good reason.) But the world can be a lonely place. Online, people can make genuine friends and form real connections they couldn’t otherwise. And I hope that connection helps them face the real world, too.

Every community has different needs, but these are the ways I’ve encouraged kinder community growth. These tips also won’t automatically make your community kinder or safer. That takes time and continuous effort.

*** Note: Our community strategies MAY only have been as successful as they are because we’re relatively small. We don’t really have experience with giant mega-communities that million-unit-selling games tend to have, which probably need different strategies. ***

Rules

Social systems that shape and influence behaviour.

Understanding social systems is key to understanding communities.

Social systems are the relationships between individuals, groups, and institutions. They can predict and shape how your behaviour is influenced by the institution or group someone is a part of. For example, the way you behave and interact at work are very different than how you would behave at home. The same goes whether you’re in a hospital, a library, school, etc. These systems have their own sets of rules that allows the group and institution as a whole to function smoothly. Breaking the rules causes chaos or “resistance”.

Game communities are the same!

In the book The Forest and the Trees by Allan G. Johnson, he uses the board game Monopoly as an example.

Monopoly is a mini-social system with rules. Following these rules offer the “path of least resistance” to playing the game, but following them also impacts player behaviour.

That is, players are led down one path — greed. If you’ve played Monopoly, you know the whole goal is to control the board and winning involves making sure your opponents lose all their money and property. It’s a rule set that not only encourages greed and all the attributes that come with that, but makes it a necessary part of the experience. The point isn’t about if the game is fun or not, but that the rules encourage a certain behaviour for participation, regardless of personal values.

And if you refuse to abide by them, like by cheating? The other players will probably get angry at you, or they’ll kick you out.

So, when we talk about social systems here, it’s important to consider what you, as a person privileged to be setting the rules, do with this. What outcomes are you looking for, with your ruleset? What is the path of least resistance for community members? In Monopoly, it’s greed.

For Kitfox? It’s kindness.

Me when someone is not kind :’(

Especially for forums or Discord, where your community will probably be interacting with each other, you NEED to have rules for your community to clearly see so everyone is on the same page. And you NEED to enforce them in a timely, specific, and equal manner — mods can help with this. For reference, you can check the Kitfox Games Discord rules.

People will have different ideas of the rules and how they should be implemented. But, at the very least, these are the universal principles for the rule of law:

  • Clearly defined — don’t mince words
  • Publicized — easily to find and see
  • Stable — don’t randomly change very frequently
  • Just — seem reasonably fair
  • Applied evenly and quickly to everyone

Don’t fear rule enforcement. It helps drive more productive conversations and weeds out those that are there under false pretenses. Often what I’ll do when I know we have a BIG announcement coming up — meaning our Discord will be flooded with new people — is warn the community that the censorbot will be hypersensitive to more words. This helps drive the tone of what I expect from new people entering, and once the initial boom is over, I go back to relaxing the rules.

And don’t keep toxic members around because they “talk and contribute” to the space, and you’re afraid of silence. They take up space and drive away more genuinely interested members. Every forum needs rules to maintain the purpose and functionality.

Murdered me with sweetness here.

And when rules are broken? Often what helps is a DM their way with an explanation or a warning before any action is taken, rather than an outright call out for everyone to see. Shame and embarrassment in public is usually more effective for making the person feel defensive, rather than receptive to change.

There are going to be times you can’t monitor social — you’re at a convention, vacation, busy, etc. A good community shouldn’t collapse because you’re not around. The better your rules, the better your community can sustain itself.

Respect

Boundaries between devs, players, and beyond.

You are a person. Remind your community of this. You don’t have to be infallible, but they need to understand you are a living, breathing person with emotions and boundaries. If your community can’t respect YOUR boundaries, they probably won’t respect each others. Early clarifications, consistent actions, not ignoring concerns, and following through on community needs are key here.

On the flip side, remember: you are not their therapist. It’s okay to offer a sympathetic ear once in awhile, but there are boundaries for your mental well-being too.

Some of the most difficult things in community development are not the angry trolls. It’s the members who you know have your interests at heart, but cross some sort of personal boundary or seek a therapy-like relationship that you are not equipped to handle. These are hard to call out, and my tips for you here are difficult because it can’t be vague generalized advice. I will say that above all, it’s important to let them know that you DO care about their well-being and because of that, professional help is a better resource than you are.

Speaking of kindness though, Kind Words seems so wholesome and good.

For respect, you need to separate people from their behaviours — address what they’re doing, not who they are.

And if you get through to them? Give people a “golden bridge”. This basically means not holding something against someone. Allow people who might’ve voiced something undesirable to be able to exit/change their mind gracefully, with no shame.

Golden Bridge in Vietnam!

For example, maybe you’ve managed to calm someone down after they’ve come into your Discord angry that your game is delayed. A “golden bridge” allows them to stay in the community should they so choose, or to leave without a sense of bitterness against the studio. Instead of saying something like “I told you so” or making a snarky comment towards them to humiliate them further, you say something like “we all make mistakes!”. Even something as simple as “no worries” or “all good” works.

Don’t be petty — be what they can look up to.

Soon, they will trust that you are doing your best when you have time with them, and not that you’re neglecting or ignoring their needs. Just like how a community may expect you to act a certain way, you must also set expectations for them.

Norms

Acceptable ways of communication.

Once respect is established, we move onto norms, which is a further dive into the acceptable ways of communication within the community.

There are two kinds of norms:

  • Mores: norms that carry great importance (like laws, chat rules, etc.)
  • Folkways: norms about casual, daily interaction.

Mores we understand well — rules should not be broken. Folkways distinguish what we think is rude or polite, and often in community development, this is overlooked but can plant the seed of unkindness when broken. That’s why, as a community dev, you have to mentally distinguish what you think is acceptable ways of your community will talk to you and each other. Rules are easily defined — politeness is not.

WHY EVEN PROVIDE A GOLDEN LUMBER OPTION, HARVEST MOON???

For example, a folkway we have in North America is that you shouldn’t stare at people when you’re in an elevator. It’s not illegal to stare but… it’s pretty rude, and kinda weird.

For online communities, a joke in one game community might not fly in another. So while you can’t necessarily make rules on politeness, you can influence it.

You will become the defacto leader for setting the folkways. Keep in mind how you interact and the jokes you make, because this will automatically be seen as the acceptable way to communicate. The more your community understands the norms of discourse — what is considered appropriate, or not — the better they interact with each other.

A lot of people think it’s anonymity that creates trolls, or what I will very scientifically call “jerks”. But it’s not just that — after all, anonymous acts of kindness also exist. I argue it’s when you have a person, plus anonymity, plus an audience/community that tolerates their behaviour that creates the jerk.

When you have people come in, with anonymity, known social norms, AND a community that isn’t receptive to their meanness, then you’ll get a normal person. Or at the very least, they’ll see this community isn’t for them.

As you solidify your community pillars and uphold you community to standards you set, the better their reputation becomes. We’ve had people join Kitfox purely because people had heard it was a positive place to be in. Most newcomers see how people interact, see the reputation your community has, and naturally go along with this. It’s a pleasant (and beneficial) circle of events.

Trust

Facilitating cooperation.

Then we move on to one of the hardest things to create — trust.

I don’t think I’m a perfect community developer. Far from it. But what matters is that your community trusts that you are doing your best with the resources you have.

You have to understand that if you are in a public-facing position, the community is literally RELYING on you. They have no other way of getting a sense of the studio usually unless it’s through you. It’s a difficult line to straddle — being understanding of both the developer side and the community side, which is why you need to be able to have your players trust you and what you do.

So, in order to create trust, there are 4 core tenants you need to do your best to adhere to.

  • Integrity: admitting mistakes, sometimes acting against your own interest/financial gain, keeping promises if made (and if broken, explanations why), and revealing biases.
  • Action: Trust isn’t just lip service — you need to do things for them, or at least try. Though for it to grow, it needs to consist of more than one act and last through some time. Being reliable, trusting them with information, interacting with them, getting feedback and doing something about it, etc.
Community member explaning when they started trusting us.
  • Openness: You’re going to need to give a bit in order to receive. Show compassion and share your thoughts. Expressing yourself gives other permission to do so. And when asking for and receiving feedback, be open to understanding it instead of defensive.
  • Intimacy: The less of a stranger you are, the more you interact with people, the more exposed they are to you. Create shared experiences, find common ground (which should be easier because they’re there for your game), etc. The more of a rapport you build, the more trust.

ALSO WILL TAKE TIME. You can’t rush this. This is a continual circle of events that need to happen, constantly. The more consistent, the better.

A Discord member explaining why they appreciated our presence in the community.

There are different ways you can show you’re sincere, but keep in mind these aren’t some sort of… “mind trick”. You have to uh, be sincere about being sincere, and the trust will build slowly overtime. Every positive interaction you have with the community builds this trust.

To be fair, I am one community dev. I am able to keep track of mainly everyone in the community, and they get to see it really is just one person answering them. This has disadvantages, but one solid advantage is that they know and understand it IS a person. It’s me!

Home

Coziness for warm, personal experiences among members.

Say it with me: SOFT! SKILLS! ARE! VALUABLE!

Especially online, when you’re missing most of the other non-verbal cues that give context to how a person is feeling, your soft skills are imperative to creating a warm, relaxing, safe place — a feeling of “home”, if you will.

I think a lot of people equate the ability to communicate as being equal to actual connections with others, which is false.

Connection is when people feel heard, seen, valued and can derive strength from the relationship. So we need to design for these moments.

Mineko’s Nightmarket

Through more one-way communication, such as from Twitter, newsletters, or Facebook, you’re limited in your ability to establish “home”, but you can use the tone of content posts, captions, and replies. Little moments of “joy” are nice. Obviously, you are more than just a robot sent out to ban people for breaking the rules.

In forums and Discord, there is more flexibility and opportunities to create this feeling, but there’s greater difficulty in keeping it consistent, since it depends on the members interacting within it. Discords, just like mass conventions or crowds, can be an overwhelming place to be in. Eventually Discords seem to settle down to several main chatters, and it’s easy for quieter or more busy members to fade out. To foster more kindness in our Discord, for example, I put in“hideaway” spots to specifically create softer, warm chatter.

More selective rooms allow for further similarities/goal orientation between members, encourages repeated interactions between members, and manages the density of the community from feeling too overwhelming.

Kitfox Discord uses “cozy” channels — notably, “#cute-and-good”, “#food-and-noms”, a private Discord for Kickstarter backers, and a silly secret channel. (Can you find it?) These channels — other than the backer channel — don’t have any immediate value related to Kitfox. However, they bring a sense of humanity to the space, and/or a sense of refuge for when other channels are more chatty.

Darkest Dungeon Discord

You may find other ways to foster a kinder place in your spaces. This is by no means the only way to create “home”-like feelings!

As you solidify your community pillars and uphold you community to standards you set, the better their reputation becomes. We’ve had people join Kitfox purely because people had heard it was a positive place to be in. Most newcomers see how people interact, see the reputation your community has, and naturally go along with this. It’s a pleasant (and beneficial) circle of events.

Conclusion

Designing kinder communities and moderation is not just about risk management. Its lifetime value will reward you — people will want to interact and they’ll stick around for your future games to come, even if it’s not necessarily their thing.

Of course, at its very core, regardless of the spaces we create, Kitfox — and any studio — exists to sell products: games, t-shirts, limited edition box sets, whatever. But while we’re at it, we might as well do our best to make the spaces we touch a little more positive.

Let me be clear though — this isn’t some mass strategy dreamed up to get user retention and ~hit KPIs~ and ~maximize the synergy~. Kindness is based on being genuine. You must actually want the best for the people in your community.

Kindness, to me, is like a candle. Some kindness will create a small glow in people, some kindness doesn’t light anyone’s candle at all. But MAYBE it’ll set someone’s candle on fire and create a huge ray of light in them. There are different intensities and who knows where it’ll spread. Maybe it’ll light other candles and create warm glows of kindness in other people who really need it.

I know this has an impact. I know this affects people. I know this because there have been times where I’VE been saved by a small gesture or a little message, from someone online. This post was based partially on my own experiences as a confused, anxious, person. But it’s also rooted in the now, where I’m blessed to to have a job that allows me to interact with a community I love very much.

They’ve shown me time and time again that kindness is capable even when we are all a little unsure, worried, or down. That it’s okay to turn to a stranger and talk about something silly and nonsensical, and be accepted for that.

Everytime we choose kindness, we make the world around us a little bit kinder and braver. We don’t want to just survive as an industry — we want to thrive. It’s not impossible to combine technology and creativity with compassion and ethics. For me, meaning flows from connection. From being a part of communities that are bigger than me, but nevertheless value and include me.

If we can create kinder places online, people can form real connections they couldn’t otherwise. I hope that connection helps them face the real world, too.

And if you thought this whole thing, especially the end, was dumb and cheesy, I hope some kindness hits you so hard your jaw breaks from smiling too much.

Spiritfarer

tl;dr?

The user experience in games is important, but combined with a warm, friendly user experience in the community? That’s good design.

Kitfox Games Development

Game development posts and thoughts from Kitfox Games.

Kitfox Games

Written by

Games with dangerous, intriguing worlds to explore. Currently: Boyfriend Dungeon, Lucifer Within Us, Dwarf Fortress, Mondo Museum • kitfoxgames.com

Kitfox Games Development

Game development posts and thoughts from Kitfox Games. Biz dev, leadership, marketing, community management, art, game design, and more.

Kitfox Games

Written by

Games with dangerous, intriguing worlds to explore. Currently: Boyfriend Dungeon, Lucifer Within Us, Dwarf Fortress, Mondo Museum • kitfoxgames.com

Kitfox Games Development

Game development posts and thoughts from Kitfox Games. Biz dev, leadership, marketing, community management, art, game design, and more.

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