Aisha pulls from her experience with cooperative games to outline many practical tips for keeping your community members engaged. From getting members involved as early as possible and communicating clear goals, to defining roles members can take on and building in tiers of engagement.
Hello. My name is Aisha Blake and I am Director of Developer Relations at Pluralsight. I'm really excited to talk to you about two loves of mine, community and board games.
So little bit of story time. Throughout my career, I have been involved in a lot of different tech communities, a lot of different forms of tech communities. When I was first learning to develop websites and to teach... And yes, both of those things at the same time. I got involved as a volunteer for a nonprofit that was teaching women to code. Now I got involved with this particular organization because I really needed to learn both how to be a developer period, but also how to present that information. I had sort of been tricked into teaching a group of girls web development and robotics, and that was at my full-time volunteer gig. So I'm volunteering part-time so I can get better at my full-time volunteer job. It was a lot. But after auditing literally a single class, I was hooked. I was hooked on not only kind of guiding people towards the aha moment, the moment when you realize you can do something that you'd previously not even realized was possible. And that's great. Like, believe me, I am absolutely on board. Those are wonderful.
But the thing that really drew me in, the thing that kept me coming back and just volunteering constantly was the community that I found with this organization. I met some of my best friends to this day, working to serve this community of women learning to code. It became this absolutely enormous part of my life. Now another really large part of my life, which may or may not seem entirely unrelated is tabletop gaming. My partner and I are working on opening a board game store here in Detroit. And I love gaming for a lot of the same reasons that I really love being involved in tech communities. I get to meet new people. I get to challenge my own mind in really creative ways. I also really love that I get to help people discover their own creative outlets and methods of problem solving that maybe they hadn't considered before.
So Sentinels of the Multiverse is one of our favorite games. It's a cooperative game where each player takes on a different hero, the role of a different hero. And then together, the group battles a villain in a hostile environment. I stress the hostile environment because the environment literally has its own term. It is very much a part of the game. But anyway, every turn the villain lashes out at the heroes and then the environment takes its toll. And each hero gets a turn in that round. So the mechanics are really simple, but it takes time to get used to each of the heroes, and there's a ton of expansions. So you can play virtually endless different combinations. And in a lot of ways, Sentinels of the Multiverse plays out a lot like the educational tech communities that I've been a part of, sort of in miniature. A game of Sentinels can make you feel powerful. It can make you feel like you are the smartest person in the world and your team is just a well oiled machine.
But like a lot of games, a lot of cooperative games in particular, Sentinels can also kind of feel like a slog. So today I really want to share some learnings from my many, many games of Sentinels of the Multiverse, and I hope that they'll help put some of the issues that you might be facing in your communities in a perspective and hope that you'll come away with some practical ideas for keeping people engaged.
So first up I am a fan of robust and friendly onboarding and documentation, very big on documentation. So when I introduce a new player to Sentinels of the Multiverse or any game or community, I make it a point to clarify what they need to care about right now and what they don't. There are so many different characters, so many different paths that they can choose, and they don't already have some idea of who they want to play, what they want to be, or have experience with similar games, then I generally ask them to just pick at random. There will come a time when they need and want to figure out exactly what role to dig into, but for now I just want them to get started.
So once we're ready to begin the game, I like to do a practice around. It's low stakes, low pressure. If there's a new player, who's relatively new to the game, then I'll ask them to explain the rules. I may have organized the game, but it doesn't mean that I need to be the center of attention all the time. Not all of the information needs to come from me. And in fact, I think it's a lot more valuable to have members of the community as involved in that onboarding process as possible. So this makes for a really quick, interactive way for anybody who's new to get their feet wet. And for the team, the whole group to start figuring out how to work together.
Depending on how your community is set up. You could try to apply this same principle by throwing a welcome party for new members at a regular cadence or encouraging new members to start with a particular course, if you're doing a lot of teaching. Or you could appoint, or have people run as member advocates to help guide people through their first weeks or months. When we practice, it's usually a really tightly scoped single round. I don't want people wandering around doing things that aren't going to affect the final results. And that's not to say that a game should never exist purely as a gathering place.
Another of our absolute favorite games is called Concept. And on your turn, when you play Concept, you get a card and then you choose a phrase from that card. And the goal is to communicate what that phrase is to the rest of the players. It's sort of like an alternative form of Charades. So instead of acting the phrases out, you are placing these markers and little cubes onto symbols on the board. And it may surprise you to know that I don't know the rules for this game. I have never read the rule book and I do not care to. And that's because we've decided that we are just going to pass around the cards and do this over and over again until we get tired. That's how we play Concept. And there are points. We don't know really how they fit into the game, and it doesn't matter. Because the point of that game, when we play, is just to enjoy the challenge of puzzling things out. We're not worried about competition or anything else.
My point is that you should be clear about the goals of your community and communicate those goals ahead of time to people before they join your community ideally. They should already know, when they come in, what they can gain by taking on a membership. What they stand to learn or accomplish. Who they're going to meet, what connects everyone. Why people come to this community. Getting back to the game though, the goal of Sentinels, in this scenario, is essentially that everyone has fun. Actually defeating the villain secondary. We deal with that after the fun. So to that end, it's absolutely vital that everybody has the opportunity to contribute regardless of their familiarity with the game. All the dozens of playable characters have their own themes, and mechanics, and their own ways of contributing to the overall success of the team.
Whereas many competitive games have you with a private hand, a hidden hand of cards, you can lay your cards out on the table in Sentinels of the Multiverse. Sharing your strengths and limitations with the group helps everyone understand where you can contribute and where you might need a little help. Similarly, wherever your community gathers online, it might be beneficial to have folks write up brief personal profiles. These can include things like subjects that people are learning right now, their favorite hobbies, topics in which they're willing to mentor other people. And even their preferred methods of communication. I do a sort of similar thing with my professional teams. I ask everybody to fill out a user manual, a personal user manual, and they dive a little bit deeper, but the overall goal is kind of the same. It helps you to articulate, even to yourself, what's important to you, what drives you and how you want to interact with other people. So that all sounds great, right?
So the downside. One downside to laying all your cards out on the table, is it can be tempting for more advanced players to help a little too much. With the benefit of experience comes... It becomes a lot easier to see all the different possibilities. So I encourage players to make suggestions, get creative, try to play to each other's strengths, but I draw the line at allowing a player to dictate what another player does on their turn. So that happens. That happens a lot more than you might think. A player might see a move that could help the whole group make a lot of progress, and then jump into direct without really giving each individual the chance to act in their own role. So even if that direction makes a lot of sense for the group as a whole, it might not be in the best interest of each individual player.
Maybe one person has to sacrifice a few hit points. Maybe another person misses out on a really great item. It doesn't make that solution bad, but what's important is that each person maintains their agency, and they can generally make their own decisions about how they're going to interact, how they're going to contribute to the larger group. Now I've played games of Sentinels where one player took it upon themselves to just sort of use everybody else as puppets, and tell everybody else how to play. And that's just not the kind of relationship that we had signed up for. So going along with that one person's plan, every single round, really took the joy out of play. The game became this kind of grind to complete an objective. And I didn't have to think, I wasn't being challenged, and I wasn't having much fun.
Consider all the different ways that people can contribute to your community. Are there operational responsibilities that they can sign up for? Can they be a moderator or a contributor or some other role? And is there a clear path to those roles? Can folks ask questions and encourage other members? Is there, is there some sort of community hub or space where they can have conversations? Are there committees that they can join? How can you guide people towards those kinds of activities, rather than directing them? How can you open them up to those possibilities?
So I go back to this post by Alex Hillman, on being a Tummler as opposed to a community manager, fairly often. And in it, he says that the majority of the value your members can get from being a part of your community is from each other's participation. In communities, as in games, try to think of yourself as more of a facilitator than a director or even a leader. As much as possible step back, and present opportunities for people to connect and to learn from each other. And that's the difference really between a Tummler and someone with what Hillman calls a cruise director mindset, which I think is both apt and very funny.
I'll quickly summarize one of my favorite stories from that post. So it talks about a staff member named Karina, who is a Tummler, and it breaks down the process of encouraging that interconnectedness between members into three steps. So step one is get curious and stay curious. So Karina notices that a new community member is walking in with a guitar and she asks for more details. She inquires further about the guitar. Do you play? Are you in a band? Oh, and she finds out that this new member really misses being in a jam band. Okay. So step two is notice patterns, patterns are opportunities to instigate. Karina recognizes that a lot of other members of the community play instruments. And then three, step three, give other people permission to participate. Karina pushes this new member, gently, to reach out to the group, to introduce themselves, and to ask if anyone would be interested in getting a band together.
And the result, a few hours later, is this really rich conversation where people are welcoming this new member and they're contributing all their different ideas about how this band could work. And they're learning all of these talents that other members in the group have. It's great. And a few weeks later, lo and behold, there's an update. There is now a community jam band, and it's beautiful. The games where I prompt people to bounce ideas off of each other and to really explore their options are at the very least the most entertaining. We end up with these really unexpected combos, and usually a lot of creative storytelling in the form of narration. Without those small, consistent nudges, it's really easy for each member of the group to just start focusing solely on their own progress and fall into the most basic attack patterns.
Personally, I always end up spending a lot of time reading the flavor text on all the cards. Flavor text is like text that doesn't really have any bearing on the functionality, the gameplay of the card. It's just there for entertainment basically. And a lot of the heroes in Sentinels of the Multiverse are based on existing comic book characters. So on the one hand, it's like I said, just entertaining. The flavor text is often funny. If you're familiar with the character that your character is based on, then you might pick up on references or call outs. You might laugh at a joke. That familiarity might even be comforting. Mechanically though, those parallels can help players understand how a particular character's moves are intended to interact with each other, and with any opponents. Incorporating familiar patterns into the fabric of your community can make it easier for members to adjust and operate within that community.
To give a few examples, I expect to see a contributing file when I go to explore a new open source project. I have a set of common red flags that I watch for when evaluating a code of conduct. And that helps me determine how safe a community's likely to be. The words mentor and sponsor are often used interchangeably, and so when I talk about those things, I make it a point to use their definitions as I see them.
In a game of Sentinels, whether you are a seasoned pro or you are just starting out in your first game, everybody pitches in to survive the environment and to take down an extremely powerful opponent. It is hard and the group isn't always successful. Sometimes mistakes are made. And sometimes everybody is just unlucky. It's important to celebrate the intermediate wins. Remember that our metric here in Sentinels of the Multiverse land is essentially fun had.
So highlight the clever plays and other memorable moments. Ah, man, remember when Ben did X, Y, Z, or what's, think about what strategies everyone's going to take from this game into their next one. Next time I want to try ABC. Right? So how can this apply to your community? Consider a monthly member spotlight where anybody can nominate anyone else. A newsletter, even negotiating discounts on training for your members. It can be really tempting to focus solely on the flashiest accomplishments and let smaller things, smaller things, fade into the background.
After a game I'll often ask, what was your favorite moment? When facilitating a discussion, I might say something like, what are you most proud of this week? At the end of the day, it's all about people. And there's a lot of joy to be had in both of these realms, especially if you mix them together.
So let's pull everything together into a really quick summary. So we want to build for multiple tiers of engagement. And by that, I mean, we want to let people participate how they want to participate, and make it easy for people to pick up different types of activities within your community. We want to lead toward collaborative solutions. So the bulk of the value of your community is going to come from members of that community interacting with each other. Use familiar patterns, where appropriate. And remember that wins of every size are worth celebrating. So that's all I have for you today. Thank you so much. I hope that this has prompted you to maybe see your community from a slightly different vantage point. And if you'd like to talk about community, board games, or both, please absolutely reach out.