Social Networks and Vermont Gaming

I may have accidentally drunk the Kool-Aid.

Back, way back, in the summer of aught-six or aught-seven, some folks I know launched RPGBomb.com. At the time, it was one of many attempts at tying together the social networking phenomenon and the broader gaming community. I remember one of the hosts of Dragon’s Landing Inn had plans for a site called CritOrMiss. RPGLife.com took off in the same time period; that one’s still going, it seems. There’s also been a host of player finders utilizing the same technologies of social networks, like tagging and Google Maps — Nearby Gamers is a key example.

At the time these sites were taking flight, my primary point of contention with all of them was they were duplicating structures that already existed in social powerhouses, namely Facebook. My thought at that moment was: “Instead of spending time building a whole new site, why not hook into an established user base, otherwise known as Facebook, and build a killer app for social gamers?”

There are several good reasons why you wouldn’t want to do so, the least of which are not protecting user’s privacy and maintaining control over the platform which runs your network — the latter being a lesson spectacularly well-taught by Ning when it pulled the plug on free social networks this past summer. Even so, it seemed to me that the thing a network owner would get in return, drastically lowering barriers to entry to a mere click of a “Become a fan” button, as liking something was known back then, was probably worth the trade-off.

My tune has changed since then, but I can’t really pinpoint the changeover or even turning points. Now I look at the Connect with Facebook feature of many websites with distrust. I don’t even want to connect my Facebook account to a random blog’s comments section, let alone turn around and attach that same service to a website I manage. It’d feel too much like setting people up to get into some kind of privacy-related trouble.

Last November in 2009, Brennan, Alex, Sarah and I were sitting around the table at Vermont Pub & Brewery, talking about possibilities for publicizing what at the time we called Burlington Board Gamers, the thought of making it a Facebook page didn’t even come up, that I can recall. If it did, I probably discounted it because at the time Facebook was locked up pretty tight, in terms of search engines. Google’s crawlers couldn’t find much. So, because of that, we wound up going in contravention of my own cherished notion “tap into an existing user base and save the hassle of building it up from scratch.”

So we used Ning for a while and we hit up against the inevitable walls: software as a service sites make their money by commoditizing every little feature and point of customization and eventually the money runs out.

From there we moved on to an independently-hosted site with the kind donation of space and bandwidth from a fellow traveler. We also took the opportunity to transform and rebrand as Green Mountain Gamers, joining the social networking endeavor with a movement that rose earlier to have more frequent public opportunities to gather and play games in Vermont.

Unsurprisingly, it’s not easy. One’s still at the mercy of software developers, whether that’s waiting on an upgrade or dealing with the fact that some element just isn’t going to get better any time soon. That’s in addition to the usual job of community building and management. How do you encourage people to visit your website and participate in activity? We’re still working on that one.

Elsewhere, the Langdon Street Cafe uses Facebook to invite people to their Games Unplugged evenings. Zombie Planet in Albany, New York, uses Facebook statuses to announce the arrival of new product in the store, special events and whatever’s going on at the moment. Carnage and TotalCon are both on Facebook, as well. They’re all taking the tactic of tapping into an established audience with free tools.

Speaking of Carnage, I’m hoping that’s where Green Mountain Gamers makes its big splash. In low density rural areas without a lot of internet connectivity, the number of people online is an even smaller fraction of the whole than in more populated regions. We’ll be handing out cards and flyers for Winter Weirdness in Montpelier, which I hope will get the word around even more effectively than the usual routes. Getting the word out at Carnage did wonders for Northeast Wars the two years it was back. It’ll work just as well for Green Mountain Gamers.

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