Fans are far more than just customers. Sadly not all of the gaming industry understands or more importantly appreciates this distinction. Consider this analogy; I am a customer of Vodafone. I use their services for a monthly fee and that is the extent of my relationship with them. I do not write about my experiences using their products, nor do I create guides regarding their use. Neither do I arrange social events around their services. Fans conversely do all these things for the games that they love. Furthermore they do not do these things solely for their own benefit. There is a lot of ultraism in fandom. It often contributes towards a vibrant community which is a great marketing and promotional asset for any games developer. Being free, it also has the best price.
Communities often arise organically, with fans creating websites, podcasts or live streams. Bridges are built with other likeminded individuals and informal networks develop. Cross promotion and collaboration stems from such affiliations. Often specific groups or individuals gain prominence within these social groups, through their own hard work, dedication and content creation. More often than not these figureheads have not actively sought such a position. It simply occurs through the dynamics of human interaction.
Now this raises some interesting questions. Do such high profile individuals or groups have a burden of responsibility? As so called digital ambassadors is there a need for greater self-regulation? I believe there is to a degree. Creating guides, sharing experiences or collating data are benign and neutral undertakings. Providing news or opinion is far more complex and does require responsibility and self-moderation. However there is also a reciprocal requirement that those who read specific sites or follow certain individuals should exercise their common sense. It is a mistake to put people on pedestals.
In the past gaming communities have usually evolved independently of the commercial entities that run the games. Many resources reside outside of the official forums. For more recent titles such as Guild Wars 2, this process has been more centralised under the auspices of the developers. Information and content created by players but it is more often than not it is found within the official forums for that title. I may be wrong but I have never been aware of either SWTOR or Guild Wars 2 having the same sort of independent community as such titles as LOTRO or WoW. Fan based resources can be a great asset but when they reside within the purview of the developers or publishers then there is scope for problems.
In recent years many niche areas of fandom have grown in appeal. This usually happens when an activity or pastime gains mainstream attention and becomes more widely accessible. Cosplay for example is something that in recent years has become increasingly popular. It is no longer perceived as the prerogative of a small niche group and is beginning to become quite a major marketing and promotional tool. Some perceive this process as democratisation, where others see something they love being usurped by those that simply wish to exploit it for financial gain. Is the community simply growing or is it being reinvented at the expense of some and the advantage of others?
Fandoms and the resulting communities can be socially complex and highly fluid. They also seem to have distinct life cycles. With regard to gaming there most certainly is an expiry date for most communities. The natural attrition we have seen in the case of LOTRO and its fan base is a perfectly normal thing, linked to the games lifespan and individuals ongoing engagement. However during a community’s lifecycle, many players benefit from the services that are provided, via guides, podcasts and events. However it should be noted that the opposite can also occur. Dedication and enthusiasm can turn to bitterness and distain. Some forums and blogs maintain a very adversarial relationship with the former object of their affection.
Involvement in a community has its ups and downs and can be very hard work. However the rewards and the pleasure that it brings can outweigh any negatives. So I advocate involvement and participation for those who can. This can take all manner of forms. It is not mandatory that all blog, podcast or live stream. Just reading, supporting and expressing an opinion is a positive contribution. It is also prudent to temper ones emotional investment in such communities as nothing lasts indefinitely. Fan sites and podcasts come and go, as do the games, TV shows and source material that drive them.