In October 2020, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) slipped into the engine room of a spaceship and said, “I can’t kill Poki, she’s so nice.”
Seconds later, she killed Poki.
The gameplay murder was part of a Twitch stream of Among Us, a massively popular social deduction game created by the indie studio Innersloth. While it premiered two years earlier, Among Us fandom boomed in 2020, fueled by pandemic boredom and internet celebrity interest. The point of the game is to work with “crewmates” to complete a series of tasks before “imposters” onboard kill everyone. But despite being a game rooted in quiet stabbing, its community guidelines emphasize a contradictory quality: Kindness.
This has much to do with Victoria Tran, the 27-year-old community director at Innersloth.
“I don’t know if you know this, but the internet doesn’t have a great reputation for being kind and nice,” Tran tells Digital Trends while on a call from her home in British Columbia, Canada.
There are trolls on every platform, and gamers have a particular reputation — earned or not. But Tran has seen the good of the internet. She experienced it while growing up on massively multiplayer online games (MMOs), like Habbo Hotel and Tibia. She’s made genuine connections online that mean a lot to her. So Tran’s thinking is: How can we make online communities better?
“A lot of my work is based on the fact that while I have the energy, and while I have this curiosity, I want to explore the ways that we can make the internet better and not be satisfied with stereotypes,” Tran says.
“In some ways, I’ve kind of trained my entire life for this.”
Tran is known in the gaming industry for incorporating kindness into community design. This means designing spaces inside and outside of games that encourage players to treat each other, and the people who make and run the game, with respect. Kindness design, Tran explains, can be facilitated through rules, establishing expected norms, treating players with respect, earning their trust, and creating a sense of hominess within the game and its social channels. Her philosophy is that kind communities beget further kindness: An audience that tolerates bad behavior allows for trolling. An intolerant audience will shut that down. Kindness design is what assists the creation of an intolerant audience.
“I’m concerned with how people love something,” Tran says. “Any thriving community is a place where people feel welcomed.”
Rachel Kowert, a research psychologist and research director for Take This, calls Tran’s 2019 article on creating these communities a “groundbreaking piece on how to better understand the structure and nature of communities and how they can impact behavior in and out of gaming spaces.”
“Her perspective is unique in terms of looking at the boundaries and structures of the social space as the foundation for the in and out of game behaviors of its community,” Kowert says. “She was one of the first to be vocal about these concepts in a public space.”
It’s a perspective she started cultivating in childhood. Tran credits her interest in communications and community to the fact that she often took on the role of the translator, both literally and of a new culture, as a child.
“Kind design starts with rules because how the game is structured facilitates the kinds of discussions and attitudes you want.”
“My parents were refugees from the Vietnam War,” Tran says. “They came to Canada, and they didn’t know English; they didn’t know the culture. So when I was growing up, I was a translator; I read government documents and tried to tell my parents what I thought they meant.”
Childhood also meant hours playing free online MMOs. The concept that she could connect with people — even say she has friends — in other countries was beyond cool.
“In some ways, I’ve kind of trained my entire life for this,” Tran says.
She went to university to study health care, graduated, and realized she hated the work. “I kind of had a giant mental breakdown,” she says. “I hated that I didn’t know what to do! So I literally started googling ‘what to do if you don’t know what to do’ and I saw something that said ‘start with your interests.’”
She thought about online games.
Tran became the community strategist for the puzzle game Unpacking, the communications director at Kitfox Games, and in November 2020 the community director at Innersloth. She is also the co-organizer for Game & Colour, a grass-roots organization founded to support game developers of color.
Innersloth is a team of 13 remote workers, and Tran is busy. Beyond community design social media, she works on marketing, public relations, branding, campaigns, influencer partnerships, and other initiatives. When asked what she does when she’s not working, she laughs, then takes a long pause. (She likes reading manga and baking chocolate chip cookies.)
Tran describes the role of a community director as the person who’s the link between game developers and game players, but more importantly, the person who facilitates the space where the community interacts. For Among Us, that means within the game and platforms where players discuss it, like Twitter and TikTok, where there are a respective 1.4 million and 2.9 million followers.
Creating and facilitating a kind community, Tran explains, is a multistep process that ultimately reflects the environment game developers want surrounding their work. It involves holding players accountable to a code of conduct, as well as being clear about what’s expected: It’s not enough to say “don’t be a dick,” Tran says. Rules need to be clearly defined, publicized, fair, and applied to everyone.” In practice, this means incorporating in-game design elements like making it easy to report a player for bad behavior or creating a list of words people can’t say in the game.
“Kind design starts with rules because how the game is structured facilitates the kinds of discussions and attitudes you want,” Tran says.
Tran advocates for establishing the norms of the space (demonstrating what’s an acceptable way to communicate and what’s not), building trust with the community through transparency, and charming them through positive encounters and the celebration of fandom. One of the ways Tran does this is as deceptively simple as it is effective: She responds to comments, even the comments posted by haters.
“If you’re going to post in a community, you should be a part of it. Putting in the time and effort can really change things.”
It pays off. For example, Tran recalls an event that happened soon after the Among Us TikTok account was created. She posted a video about a new map, it went viral, and suddenly it was flooded with “dead game” comments — people complaining, people saying they were over the game.
“It was just endless comments like that and I was so demotivated,” Tran says. “Then I thought about it and asked myself — what am I actually going to do about this? What I did was literally sit for hours and respond to as many comments as possible and not do it in a sassy way that some brands are, but in ways that were honest and I hope a little funny.”
Suddenly, she saw a shift. Other commenters joined the conversation, asking: Why are you bashing an indie game? Why are you hating something that people love playing?
“It was a complete tonal shift,” Tran says. “It’s an example of why, if you’re going to post in a community, you should be a part of it. Putting in the time and effort can really change things.”
Tran views the work as a continuation of the sort of online spaces facilitated by early YouTubers, like John and Hank Green and their Project for Awesome, and describes it as a “win-win” for game developers. Kind communities, Tran says, are simply good for business: They bring in an audience, but more so, they bring in an audience that shares thoughtful feedback and cares about the people making the product. (When Tran tweeted over the holidays after announcing the account would be taking a break, the Among Us Twitter followers gently scolded her.)
“It’s also really nice to have people care and engage with you in a meaningful way,” Tran says. “There’s a very human aspect within all of it that is really hard to quantify. I wouldn’t really want to quantify it anyway.”
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