"The one thing harder than playing games is talking about them" ~ KirbyKid
Continuing my examination of how people and gamers communicate over the internet, I recently turned my attention to the forum/message board format.
- Avatars for poster recognition.
- Supports multimedia (.GIF, images, movie embed)
- Reply/quote features
- Direct/private messaging
- Threads can store conversations like an archive
- Can restrict viewing or posting privileges to/from members
- Though searchable, filter features are primitive.
- The reply/quote features can easily clutter the flow.
- The linear chronological presentation easily misrepresents the flow of conversation especially when there are multiple, lengthy conversations.
- To contribute in any way to a thread (no matter how small or simple), one must make a post.
Remember, I have a strong belief in the intelligence of the average, avid gamer. I've presented my point of view clearly here.
With those ideas in mind, I want to use a thread from the neogaf forums as an example to illustrate that there are quality conversations and insightful comments made about games on a public forum. At the same time, I'll show how the cons (namely the strict linear presentation) of forum posts restrict and limit clear communication.
Here's the thread. Why does linearity in get so much criticism? Go ahead and read the first post/page. If you really like the topic, read the whole thread. When you're done ready try answering the following questions.
- What does the Original Poster (OP) exactly mean by the term "linear/linearity?"
- What questions/topics does the OP raise?
- Where does the flow of the various conversations go? Are they productive? Do the posters repeat themselves too much?
- Are there any side conversations that are not about linearity? Is so, how much do they take away from your ability to follow the on topic posts?
- What games are referenced in the discussions?
- What are the most well written/articulated posts in the thread?
Answering most of these questions is actually pretty difficult. After all, you'd have to read through all 364+ posts (or at least half of them) keeping track of the different conversations and various games mentioned while evaluating the arguments and rebuttals throughout. In other words, you'd have to do some work.
My theory is by restructuring the linear format of the thread and adding a few labels, the heart of all the conversations can be convey significantly more efficiently and clearly. With a new structure, instead of reading through the text looking for the posts, posters, or comments that interest you, you can quickly find what you're looking for with the labels while avoiding everything else.
So take a look at a simple restructured version of the same thread. I originally reorganized the thread in a mind map with expandable branches like the image above. Unfortunately, I can only share it via an expandable page of text. The names and the avatars have been removed (because of the limited software I used). The bolded lines are topic groups. Click on the + or - to expand and collapse the branches. Some of the entries are linked to their original posts, but most aren't. The +# or -# notes at the end of some posts indicate when other posters agreed/disagreed with that particular post.
- Is the new format helpful?
- Can you navigate the conversation more effectively?
- Did you find yourself diving through the material based on what caught your interests?
- Do you like the basic idea of having a more flexible, dynamic, and better organized presentation of conversations?
Interestingly, there are a few important posts made in this thread that bring up very important points.
- Different definitions of the term "linear" (gameplay/story/both?). When everyone uses different definitions, it becomes impossible to communicate on the same page. So when this post was made, why wasn't there more of an effort to set the rest of the discussion straight? Why didn't more posters specify which definition they used? Perhaps the context made most definitions clear enough.
- A comment was made about the lack of examples in the first post. Without examples and a clear start to a discussion, conversation will run into issues like this. The average, avid gamer uses some design terms well, but for the most part, he/she doesn't know or use enough terms well enough. (see my Critical-Glossary for terms). This is why it's best for most posters to keep things "jargon free" and simply use specific games to articulate their ideas.
- Apparently, someone in the thread discussed linearity in gaming about a year ago. How did that thread end? Are posters repeating the same ideas? Has progress been made? Can the new thread benefit from the results of the old thread? These are important questions.
In general there are a few things forum posters can do to improve the overall quality of their online gaming conversations.
- It is too difficult for gamers to make big statements. Even those who study game design have a hard time expressing such sweeping truths. So I suggest staying away from making statements like "all games are ____." Not only is it too difficult to make truthful and accurate statements about all games, all games on a system, all games within a genre, or all games within a series, but even if you managed to say something truthful, others would still have a hard time understanding and responding to you.
- To keep things clear and debatable, it would be better if gamers frequently use specific games as examples to support their ideas or raise questions. Not only would doing so help build a record of information that can be compiled later, but talking about a specific game gives everyone a chance to focus on one idea/example at a time. Furthermore, games can be tested, and support can be submitted on a specific game via images or video.
- Though it may seem like a great contribution to a conversation, simple opinions aren't very constructive. I think opinions are a great way to share information. However, simply saying game X is "good/bad" or even something as broad and vague as game X's story/level design/gameplay/etc is "good/bad" doesn't say very much. There's so much more to say and I believe that the average, avid gamer has more to express if only he/she takes the time to articulate it.
- Knowing when to stop and how to end conversations is an art. Some conversations in a thread end because a contributing poster stops posting or simply forgets to check back into the thread. We all have lives and distractions that take away from following up internet based interactions. So leaving without closure is the norm. But if you're part of an active conversation, it's important to know when the conversation is off topic or getting big enough for its own thread.
- Knowing that video games are complicated and that talking about games is very difficult, we should all expect more unanswered, open ended conclusions to our conversations than mutual consensuses. In other words, most conversations should end at either a mutual standstill of presented arguments, or at a point where one or more sides of the discussion must do more research.
- This should go without saying but rude, derogatory, inflaming, and sarcastic responses of almost all kinds should be avoided if your intentions are clear communication.