Hangouts killed the Group star (or so I hope)

Questa mattina mi sono trovato su Google+ questo interessante post (in inglese) di Claudia Cangini, originariamente pubblicato sul blog “Gaming As Women”.

Condivido le sue considerazioni. La cosa più bella sarebbe avere una comunità di giocatori appassionati numerosa e variegata, in modo da incontrarsi spesso e con mille interazioni tra gruppi e persone differenti (uno scambio continuo e produttivo). Purtroppo il nostro numero limitato e la nostra grande divaricazione geografica non ce lo permette, per cui la videochat offerta da Google+ Hangouts, per ora, sembra essere il male minore.

Please, allow me a premise to this piece. I’m writing this about my personal experience, so it’s basically about Italian gamers, better still, only a part of Italian gamers (tabletop gamers, I’m not talking about larps). I don’t feel I know enough of the other countries scenes and am a bit worried, when people from a different gaming background will read this, it could appear obscure, offensive or simply prone to misinterpretation. Also I make some pretty strong assertions here, so it may well be I offend someone. I really beg the readers to turn their charitable reading dial to the max: if you see things differently I understand, but these are my feelings. Thanks!

That said, let’s try to convey my thoughts. I want to talk about something that is happening mainly on Google Plus and in the Italian gaming forum GenteCheGioca. It all started towards the end of 2011.

I really, REALLY wanted to try and MC Apocalypse World, preferably with someone more experienced than me, preferably not with my real life gaming group (AW is not their thing). I was talking about this on G plus and in the discussion we started wondering if you could play that game on a G+ hangout.
In a few minutes i had found 4 eager players and we set up to try and play in a few days.

It turned out Apocalypse World plays perfectly well on hangout. Sure, it’s not like being face to face but it comes pretty close. I played one of the best campaigns of my life with people I previously could meet only with many hours of travel. We were elated and started telling others of the fun we were having.

You see, in Italy there is this forum, GenteCheGioca, gathering a number of people who know each other and love playing together but live very far apart. Until now the only chance they had to play together was at conventions, say max 3-4 times every year. Suddenly they could do it every week. A number of hangout campaigns or one shots started to appear.
This was awesome especially for those who had no players nearby interested in the same games they liked. Some people passed in a couple of weeks from gameless to playing almost every night!

Then someone (maybe Matteo Suppo?) came out with the idea of a dedicated hashtag and a circle. We would start sharing the GcG+ (which stands for GenteCheGiocaPlus = PeopleAtPlayPlus) every time one of us found someone interested in this kind of things. Also, when somebody posted about starting a game or looking for players we would post to the circle and insert the hashtag to make search easier.

Hangouters are becoming a community in itself and I really like the vibe they’re giving out. They are a enthusiastic, welcoming bunch and constantly growing in numbers. Playing together is as easy as sitting down in front of your computer, so why not try a new game? Why not play with a new person?

At this point I should probably add that, in my opinion, things are working out so well also because we are a group of people mainly interested in a specific kind of games.
The initial group all came from the GenteCheGioca forum, a place all about indie games (or what are they called these days? Story Games? Whatever…). Anyway we’re talking about short manuals thus with short learning time and mostly quite short games with low or no prep. Many popular games are one shot or few sessions. The longest ones are probably less then 10 sessions long. As you can see the commitment requested in terms of energy and time is quite affordable even if you live a busy life.

Also we found out, and are definitely proving with hangouts, that these games really allow you to play with different, new people without any problems. What I am seeing right now is a big group of people that gathers in smaller group from time to time. The smaller groups continuously scatter and regroups around new games. I think it is awesome because it’s simply killing the concept of Group (please note the capital G).

First of all let me state it clearly: I hate gaming Groups. Not the people, of course, but the concept and all the weight and myths associated with it.
I hate that you absolutely need to find one in order to play, hate how hard it is do that in some places. Hate that, when you finally manage to find yours, you have to put up with things or behaviors from some members “for the greater good of the groups” that you wouldn’t tolerate in any other circumstance. I think everybody here is familiar with some horror story or the other about unpleasant situations and frustrations that people continue to bear cause they “can’t break the group”.
And when a major break up happens (like a friendship or a romantic relationship ending) that’s a tragedy cause one of the parties involved will be cast out and will have to find another group to practice his beloved hobby with.

Of course I know, there are also “good” Groups, gatherings were everybody gets along awesomely and is happy to be with each other. To my knowledge, they are a minority and often have a limited duration in time as just a slight change in the group composition (one member leaving/one new member arriving) can disrupt that magical balance.

I think this socially toxic situation is a direct consequence of a certain game design. If you think about how many volumes of how many pages certain manuals have, you’ll agree it takes a while to learn the game really well.
But often we heard the phrase “the system doesn’t matter, what matters is the GM and/or the group you play with”. That’s quite true as games like, let’s say for instance, D&D can be very thorough in describing how exactly you should proceed in order to fillet the orc but rely heavily on the GM or the group “attuning” for an awesome bunch of interactions and communication happening at the table. Each group develops in time its own set of ”unwritten rules” allowing the game to flow as smoothly as possible.

This is the main reason that makes it so hard having people move easily from one group to another: when you enter in a new group you may know your manual by heart but there will be a whole lot of unwritten rules you’ll have to learn from scratch. Who knows if you’ll like those? You can learn in advance just what’s in the manual, the rest you’ll have to discover personally playing with people.

Can you see the huge investment in time and energy here? First you have to learn the manual rules, then the group rules. If you are a GM that’s probably worst and better at the same time: you have to put in it an even greater effort, as the game relays heavily on you to be any good, but, since you are available to put the extra effort in, you are probably in demand among your fellow gamers and finding people to play with is easier.

Also the length of classic games is another deterrent to people moving cavalierly from one group to another. Campaigns lasting months or even years are certainly not unheard of. How can someone think of leaving in the middle of it? What would become of all that the other group members invested in that game?

I always loved my gaming but always thought these things were necessary evil. Now I know they aren’t (well if you like the same games I do, of course).
Since this new games and hangouts came along I am seeing the exact kind of gaming community I always dreamed of starting to come to life: a wide group of people who gather from time to time according to time availability, friendship, gaming interests. No pressure, no anxiety, no stress, no fear to be left out. There is always someone willing to play, you just have to ask. If you don’t like someone, simply avoid playing with him, you’ll have still a wide choice. Doesn’t matter where you live, it could be either a place thick with gamers or the middle of gamesdesert, it doesn’t make a difference, you’ll always have the chance to try that game you were interested into.

This technology and these designs are changing my favorite hobby face in a way I like very much. I really look forward to see where all this will lead.