Part 2: Knocking Down the Gates
In our last article, we talked about some of the ways in which community is created around Dwarf Fortress and why that community becomes so important to both the developers and players of the game. The Dwarf Fortress community doesn’t just serve a social purpose. In a very practical way, the players serve as the guidebook for this infamously difficult to understand game. A look over at r/dwarffortress illustrates pages and pages of stories, funny mishaps, and ways to make the game more appealing. Users debate the best types of mods to use, and share the hilarious (and sometimes disheartening) ways that their fortresses meet an untimely demise. When people want to know how to start unraveling this game, the first suggestion is always to head over to the Reddit forum and just start looking. Reddit, much like the forums, prides itself on being inclusive and supportive. Annie talks with the moderator, clinodev, to get a better understanding of the culture there.
“Moderating /r/dwarffortress is interesting. Because of the vast number of reddit users, and its presence on search engines, the subreddit is relatively likely to be the first and only Dwarf Fortress forum new players visit, which is fine on one hand, but also unfortunate on the other.”
Players come to the subreddit to get questions answered about starting out in Dwarf Fortress. Here, and on other Dwarf Fortress forums around the internet, community members help by answering questions, debating the latest updates, and sharing stories about their fortresses.
“We have a pretty good community going, and a very active ‘☼Bi-weekly DF Questions Thread☼’ (two each week, one long weekend, another weekday.) It keeps me well-aware of the trials and tribulations of new players in the community, and community affairs generally. I’ve begun to think of myself as a sort of new player ombudsman, if you can imagine, and spend a good bit of time encouraging people to go use the Bay12Forums, because reddit is sort of a back alley somewhere as far as official attention goes,” clinodev says.
He clarifies what he means here about reddit being a “back alley,” saying, “I often press the idea that while you can participate in ‘community’ here, ‘Toady don’t reddit,’ so if they want any influence on the development process, they need to go to the [official Dwarf Fortress] forum.” In theory, to really reach the ears of Bay 12 Games, community members need to go through official channels to make development requests.
So, as new players join the Dwarf Fortress community, they find their way to various forums, such as the Dwarf Fortress subreddit. Unfortunately, some will encounter gatekeeping practices by a small but vocal group in the community. Gatekeeping in games communities, more broadly, is a well-studied phenomenon. Megan Condis, Aaron Trammell, Suzanne Scott, Anastasia Salter, and Bridget Blodgett have all written about how women have been historically (into and including present day) kept out of the gaming experience through bullying, harassment, and threats of violence. This culminated in the events of GamerGate, which have left their marks on the gaming community as a whole.
What might this look like in real life? Kate, who has been a gamer for as long as she can remember, grew up in the early 90's wishing she could play characters that were girls like her. She was over the moon when Star Wars Jedi Knight: Mysteries of the Sith allowed her to play a jedi who was a woman. Over the years, she has struggled against the messages that girls are not good at video games and often found herself ceding these arenas to her brother and guy-friends. It wasn’t until doing her PhD research in games and disability that she realized how much society has influenced her choices when, how, and what kinds of video games to play.
Feeling welcome in the gaming community, by seeing who else is vocal about playing, what kinds of characters are available (and what kinds of characters are just objects to be gazed at), and what people are saying in community forums, all impact whether someone chooses to play a game or not. Women, people of color, LGBTQ+, and people with disabilities have all experienced moments in gaming when they are told either explicitly or implicitly that they are not welcome to play the game and be a part of the game’s community.
As we wrote about in Part 1 of this article series, when the idea of trans representation was brought up, “gatekeepers” (aka trolls), jumped into the conversation to issue vitriolic comments and threats of violence. These types of exchanges are almost unprecedentedly foreign within the Dwarf Fortress community, where the majority of members are overwhelmingly supportive of one another. The intrusiveness of this kind of behavior makes the negative and hateful things cut a little bit deeper. These few, but active members can create real problems, as clinodev states,
“No doubt half the commentators in that thread could narrow down who I’m talking about to 2–3 people … where someone calls out similar gatekeeping, and unfortunately it’s a real problem.”
Gatekeeping might take the form of attacking or misrepresenting a person’s identity, but can also simply be discouraging use of the forum or interaction with the group. When this behavior goes unchecked, especially by other forums members, it can discourage individuals from interacting in larger forum groups and eliminates important voices. For Dwarf Fortress, this is especially hard on development. Zach and Tarn are famous for not only crowd-sourcing the funds for Bay 12 Games, but some of the ideas and creative direction. “Everyone is part of this process”, the boys like to say. “Yeah, it’s a video game, but it’s also like this giant community art project. Everyone contributes, whether they donate, voice their ideas, or help new people learn how to play”.
Communities are diverse, and online forums are no exception to that. Each group will have a separate culture with different norms, sanctions, and official rules. There is value in these differences and because of that, the Dwarf Fortress community has created a niche for itself in almost every space imaginable. clinodev talks about how “Pretty much all of the official communications are either repeated several other places or at least linked when long … so I imagine it’s reasonably possible to be up to date on what’s going on from various sources”. If you are on Facebook, fans run a DF Facebook Page that allows you to stay up to date with most big updates. If you want to interact with the developers directly, follow Bay 12 on Twitter. And if you are more interested in real-time advice and the nitty-gritty of what Dwarf Fortress is all about head on over to the forums or r/dwarffortress. What’s important to remember is that these communities belong to all of us. It is each individual members responsibility to make sure that these groups reflect the world we want to create.
We’ve witnessed first-hand how positive the Dwarf Fortress community can be. When trolls have posted hateful things about our blog articles, many other community members have stepped in to have a conversation and tell them why what they are saying is wrong. In our last post, we asked people to not stay silent when others are being harassed, oppressed, or trolled, and you have come through. This came up again just last week when there were some less-than-polite comments directed towards Annie and Kate on Medium. Annie documented the call out, and the subsequent outpouring of support on her Twitter. This is the power a community — even a gaming community — can hold.
Playing games should be about having fun — whether we’re winning or losing. The complexity of Dwarf Fortress can often shy people away from jumping head first into the game. Luckily, the Dwarf Fortress community is full of players who are welcoming, supportive individuals. Their love for the game shows through their eagerness to make the game more accessible, easier to digest and to prove that sometimes it doesn’t matter if you win. Sometimes, it’s just about the adventure.
If you want to learn more about Dwarf Fortress, ask Bay 12 Games a question, or get to know the community, consider reaching out on r/dwarffortress or the Bay 12 Forums. You’ll find new gaming experiences, funny quips about the infamous Dwarf Fortress bugs and mishaps, tips and tricks, and you might make a friend or two along the way.
Annie Forsman-Adams is a student, educator and indigenous activist. Her work focuses on ending violence against indigenous women and understanding the intersection of race, gender, criminology and criminal justice. She became a member of the Dwarf Fortress family when she met Zach in 2013, and since then has become a vocal supporter for visibility and inclusivity within the gaming world. You can find her on twitter (@theothertuklus) where she shares what life is like inside Bay 12 games (and a whole lot of animal pictures).
Kate Ringland is an avid gamer and disability advocate. Having earned her PhD in Informatics from the University of California, Irvine, her research lies at the intersection of disability, games, and technology. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher at Northwestern University designing technology to support individuals with depression and anxiety. You can find more about her at her website: https://kateringland.com or follow her on twitter @liltove.
Acknowledgments: Special thanks to Amanda Cullen for helping point us in the right direction for literature and citations. Also thanks to Sev Ringland for his copy-editing!