As a child of a first-generation immigrant family, I grew up—as many immigrant children do—in the subculture of my parents’ ethnic heritage, insulated by Korean language, Korean food, Korean church, Korean Sunday School, and Korean youth gatherings. I understand now why this was so important to my parents, but as a young girl, it was oppressive. I longed for weekdays, which allowed me to escape the eye of Sauron (my dad) into the safely-chaotic anonymity of public school. But even then, my relief was short-lived: I longed to connect with other kids but couldn’t relate to American movies or music. No one had taught me the rules of being an American kid. Making matters worse, I was painfully shy.
Books were an escape, but a lonely one. When a teacher introduced me to American board and card games, I started staying after school to play chess and checkers. For the first time, I had the language and tools to play with kids my age. Then my family moved to a rural area and it was back to Candyland at the dining table with my siblings.
Salvation entered my life in the form of 8 glorious bits. The Commodore 64 was a cast-off (to this day, I have no idea from whom), but it was our first computer. Beside the monitor was a box of tapes with names like “Pole Position” and “Lode Runner”. Figuring they were some kind of book, I popped one into the drive.
The adage “eyes like saucers” comes to mind. THEY WERE GAMES!! Secreted within the confines of my family home was a trapdoor to my own personal arcade. Cue hours of Impossible Mission, Summer Olympics, Donkey Kong, Archon II: Adept, and others whose names escape me.
I was Team Video Games and not looking back.
Unfortunately, there was a problem. Playing video games opened up my world—there were even some bragging rights—but my newfound camaraderie wasn’t with girls. Even then, tech (and video games in particular) was male-dominated. I was often the only girl amongst guys nerding out over video games. Because this was before the advent of cooperative game play, we had to take each other’s word on scores. In that regard, gender spoke louder than honor, meaning I had to play twice as hard for half the cred.
Since the gaming community was limited to the people physically around you, it was, by default, small, and soon I was out-geeking my peers by building my own gaming computer and logging dozens of hours of gaming every week. But now I knew my people were out there, and I (or my avatar) would one day walk among them. My access to dial-up services switched on the lights to a vast non-physical network of gamers. Jumping into a world of Internet Relay Chat (IRC)-based games exploded my notion of community: forged by commonalities, unhindered by physical boundaries. This new world had its problems; for instance, it was impossible to verify the authenticity of the person on the other end of the network. But I didn’t really care about that at the time because it was a joyful sandbox. My game communities just wanted to have fun.
In college, I built my second gaming computer. By the late 90’s, games had rapidly shifted to 3D environments with a far greater emphasis on competition. With no limits in the digital universe, competitive gaming spawned massive communities. As with all rapid expansions, this completely changed the expectations around what behaviors were acceptable. Until this point, I had never faced the kind of toxic behaviors that are so prevalent today in online gaming. What had been a pure experience, a powerful escape, and a welcoming social community became corrupted.
To feel accepted and safe as a female gamer, I learned to carefully curate the communities I participated in versus the ones I ignored—even if that involved some FOMO. Communities with some physical presence felt the safest, because some level of verification could be had with other gamers. When it came to engaging with new gamers, I avoided open forums and relied exclusively on word-of-mouth referrals from trusted friends. Ironically, while the activity was digitally global, I spent my time in gaming communities connected to my colleges or geographic location. All the legwork paid off; I have many fond memories of couch competitions with Goldeneye 007 and online mod playfulness in Quake with people I knew and trusted—some of whom I still keep in touch with even today.
Late in my college years, I started participating in physical gaming events. Local mom-and-pop gaming shops held tournaments, game nights, and mixers, a trend that followed the rise of Internet cafes in Asia. I would happily unplug my bulky home desktop and lug it over to the shop where, from 4pm to whenever, we would unglue ourselves from reality and fall into game wormholes created by developers such as id Software and Dynamix. Technically-competitive and intense, the camaraderie at these events was sincere. Games were a universal language for fun, and I had found my people.
But change is a constant. As gaming grew into a mainstream social activity, communities became more transient. There were fewer and fewer spaces—digital or physical—that felt psychologically safe. Weeding out toxicity became harder.
A beacon of hope came in the form of the World Cybergames, a Samsung-owned “Olympics of Gaming.” Samsung, in hindsight, had tremendous foresight. Not only did esports bring together passionate gamers, it pulled in people who simply enjoyed watching skilled gamers. I found that esports could bring together all the best aspects of gaming communities.
With diverse, fun groups of gamers and viewers facilitating incredible experiences (including cosplay) and attracting brands to sponsor and elevate those shared experiences, esports communities soon became my favorite spaces to spend time in.
There was a communal sense of fun in organized play: rooting for teams, predicting outcomes, and upping our gaming skills. In the beginning, esports activities tended to take place in a physical space, and it was nice to see familiar faces, or recognize like minds via gamertags. Esports would eventually shift online, but titles that created a physical space for competition always seemed to reap the benefits of friendlier communities. To this day, I believe that seeing people in the flesh encourages good behaviors online; it drives a greater sense of accountability. In the absence of seeing each other (physically or digitally), I believe future advancements in gaming technology will help drive accountability in communities by crediting positive contributions and documenting negative ones, giving the community a ledger that may be used to curate members. The success of games and game studios will hang on how they build and empower communities of all sizes, both in-game and out.
A case study for the magic that happens when strong community-generated experiences are supercharged with friendly competition is Grifball. Created by Halo community heroes and Rooster Teeth founders, Burnie Burns and Gavin Free, Grifball took advantage of cool new in-game tools that the Halo development team—Bungie, at the time—offered players in Halo 3. Grifball, a new mini-game type, was SUPER FUN to play, and I was fortunate to participate in many a fun, friendly competition of Grifball. The growth of Grifball was like the spread of forests. If you sincerely tend a set of trees, giving them room to grow, they’ll drop seeds which will encourage more growth. Soon, you end up with a vibrant forest where many other creatures have moved in to share in the bounty. Grifball was a super fun game type created by two chill dudes that always welcomed players to join them for fun gaming. That small group grew, then grew more, spawning offshoots of vibrant Grifball communities.
As part of Microsoft Xbox’s marketing division, I was part of a team building and supporting esports activities every year. Just as gaming had led me to community and a greater sense of self, I knew gaming was serving each player, viewer and esport athlete in an integral way. Gaming was a part of who they were; a way to share stories and connect with others. Some of the greatest pleasure I took from these experiences was the ability to place a spotlight on those stories, deepening the community by creating a stage with a megaphone on it. Why? Sharing is caring. I knew first-hand that gaming could change your life, make the world cozier, friendlier and more accessible. Having grown up in nascent gaming communities, I felt a great responsibility for how we built and engaged within one.
The thing about gaming: no matter how large it grows, there’s still so much room for growth. Not just in terms of technologies, but in the communities they serve. The problems that haunt society today persist where humans congregate; interactive media is no exception. Conversely, congregations of humans may inspire the exchange of stories, ideas, and activities, creating engines for personal, social, and economic advancements.
Like Burnie and Gavin, in the hands of gamers and streamers who care, technological advancements are keys to the creation of safe, empowering, enriching spaces. When communities can effectively manage harmful behaviors, the safer spaces created encourage new contributions that add value—even increase in value—over time as products scale up and audiences grow. The growth I look forward to is how we continue to empower gamers, and provide opportunities that lend themselves to building better, stronger communities.