66.3, August 2019

Communally Designed Deception: Participatory Technical Communication Practices in an Amateur Game Design Community

By Alisha Karabinus and Rachel Atherton


Purpose: As it is often difficult to study professional game design practices from a technical communication perspective, this exploratory study seeks to discover accessible alternatives in amateur communities engaged in participatory design.

Methods: Using an exploratory, mixed methods single-case study model, we analyzed discourse and technical communication practices in a community focused on designing and playing social deception games across a network of digital platforms, with an eye toward how administrators, designers, and players negotiated design challenges.

Results: The amateur game design community observed here participates in professional design practices that can be mapped onto Eyman’s (2008) framework for technical communication in games. Communities such as the subject-participants in this study produce unique documentation tracing design processes in ways some professional studios do not (Sansone, 2014) and foreground user experience considerations in observable, archived discussions.

Conclusion: Amateur game design communities are as interested in maintaining strong user experiences and balanced gameplay as professional studios, as indicated by this study, and may use similar tactics to achieve results. The comparisons allowed construction of a framework for comparing amateur and professional designs in terms of tech comm practices. For technical communicators who must understand and account for world-making processes, demonstrating how amateur practice may compare to professional practice opens up new potential sites of study in the service of constructing game design ecologies.

Keywords: game design ecology, participatory design, professional practice, social gaming, transmedia

Practitioner’s Takeaway:

  • Amateur communities engaged in game design may demonstrate professional practice, despite utilizing different approaches, platforms, and technologies, and may be fruitful sites for study.
  • Although amateur communities are not driven by the need to entice consumers into engaging with a product, they are still focused on particular goals of player engagement and enjoyment, and so privilege many of the same product goals and qualities as professional game design studios.
  • For budding communities, students, educators, or would-be designers, robust communities like MafiEra, with their networks of communication and wealth of user-generated materials and documentation, offer a window into practices that can be modeled; amateur design communities represent a unique opportunity to learn and practice game design outside of the games industry.


Scholars have been arguing for studying games in technical communication for almost two decades. A few studies (McAllister, 2004; Lamberti & Richards, 2012) have considered links between games (particularly digital games) and rhetoric, and others (McDaniel, 2009; Mason, 2013; deWinter & Vie, 2014) have explored key relationships between games and technical communication through the lenses of procedural training, interfaces, technical genres, and documentation (respectively). Still, there remains a great deal for technical communication scholars to learn about the games industry, particularly with regard to actual design practice.

Citing the games industry’s wide economic and cultural reach, the necessary interplay between users and interfaces, the potential for large-scale understandings of users’ navigation of complex communication tasks, and the “real world” applications possible when technical communication practices are examined through the lens of game ecologies, Eyman (2008) made the case for the relationship between games and technical communication (p. 243). More recently, McDaniel and Daer (2016) took up this call to bring together games and technical communication in their study of n-Space, an independent game development studio (now closed), focusing on developers’ technical communication practices rather than specifically on the games themselves. Writing was a key practice they studied, but many of their findings dwelt on the interpersonal and communicative challenges faced by employees in an organization that must be highly flexible and structurally malleable, due to the intense work demands of the game industry. Reimer (2017), like Sherlock (2014), similarly analyzed developer discourse at Riot Games, utilizing developers’ patch notes and communications with players on forums like Reddit, but his study is still confined only to what the developers choose to present to the public.

These relatively few studies make strides toward understanding how technical communication can map onto the gaming industry, but, as we will argue, this work is difficult; McDaniel and Daer (2016) wrote that, “due to the proprietary, competitive nature of game development,” gaining access to game developers is a real barrier to scholars wanting to research in this area (p. 157). In this study, we offer a potential new site for study: participatory amateur design communities creating recurring games that inspire both a cycle of feedback and reams of documentation tracking the entire process, almost all of which is publicly available online. Utilizing two years’ worth of game design and user experience feedback, we analyze technical communication practices and world-building on both a game and community scale in one such example, MafiEra, an amateur design community dedicated to making and playing online social deception games. Drawing on Spinuzzi’s (2003) genre ecology work, Miles, Huberman, and Saldaña’s (2014) description of a single case study within a situated context and site, as well as Gee’s (2014) Making Strange toolkit, our study combines community discourse with other game-related artifacts to present a community functioning similarly to a professional studio, only visible rather than hidden, with all decisions, debates, and discussions on full display.

The Challenge of Studying Game Design

For technical communication scholars, the games industry could offer a great deal of potential—potential particularly relevant to students—yet insider practices, behaviors, and discussions in the design space are often opaque (Karabinus & Atherton, 2018; McDaniel & Daer, 2016). Indeed, designer decisions may even be purposely obfuscated to protect development teams from online harassment from disgruntled customers or bad actors (Schreier, 2017), which makes building Mason’s (2013) game design ecology difficult. So while technical communication is well positioned to enter the larger game studies pantheon via analysis of the broader games industry, due to the field’s unique ability to study work and fan practices, user experience, and interface design (deWinter & Vie, 2016), gaining access to the kinds of documentation and practices we need to see to perform that analysis is difficult (Karabinus & Atherton, 2018).

Reimer’s 2017 study reveals the biggest issue scholars face when trying to study game design practices: the gaps between what can be seen and observed, and what remains behind closed doors. Riot Games developers often participate in conversations with players on the Reddit forum dedicated to League of Legends discussion. Players report experiences, speculate on the game’s future, and make suggestions for changes, while developers comment (or not) as they see fit. Reimer (2017) included one of the latter exchanges in his examination of the iterations of Lucian, one of the game’s playable heroes. A player suggests adjustments to Lucian, and former Riot Games designer Daniel Z. Klein responds, reporting that some of these ideas had “been suggested around the office a bit, but [were] ultimately rejected” (p. 253). Beyond what Klein chooses to reveal, readers are not privy to those discussions; we have no way to witness the negotiation or the pros and cons of any particular adjustment. To study decision-making practices in game design, researchers must find a way to observe those very discussions, the practices in the moment, unfiltered through public-facing reporting (Karabinus & Atherton, 2018). As a solution to this challenge, we present amateur game design communities as viable alternative sites for research. Our subject, the MafiEra community, engages in ongoing participatory game design, and we have adapted a framework for determining its fitness, and the fitness of similar communities, for professional comparison.

Participants, Work, and Play

The MafiEra community is one of dozens of groups designing, facilitating, and playing asynchronous forum-based social deception games (Karabinus & Atherton, 2018). These games, unlike the party game version of social deception games, may take days or weeks to complete, and each game produces hundreds of individual messages. Community members play but also fulfill all the functional roles that might be observed in a professional gaming studio: administrators (executives) and project managers, game designers, and reviewers (Q&A testers). The result is a community engaging in iterative, participatory online design with high player expectations for game balance and strong attention to user experience.

The MafiEra community is housed within the ResetEra discussion forum (since late 2017), and games are primarily played on this main forum, with all discussions publicly accessible for forum members and nonmembers alike. A satellite site, Outer Mafia, provides support for extra discussion threads for individual games (such as secret chats for mafia teams), as well as hidden discussion threads for mentors tutoring new players and places for spectators to discuss ongoing games without disrupting play. The satellite forum also hosts hidden discussion for developing games, as designers work with reviewers (who serve as Q&A testers and design consultants). Most hidden discussions become public after the completion of a game.

Games at MafiEra are run in sets referred to as “seasons.” Each season begins with one or two flagship games, usually based on popular media franchises, such as Harry Potter or Game of Thrones. Several other games follow, and each season may end with a larger or more unusual game. Seasons last from two to six months, are carefully curated to offer a balance of game styles, and are designed with new player recruitment and retention in mind; one project team manages this scheduling, choosing the order of games and maintaining a system that determines which players are selected to play in each game and which are relegated to the back-up list of players available to replace those who may need to leave an in-progress game.

Each season features a sign-up thread, called an OT, or Official Thread, in which upcoming games are introduced for participants to express interest. After each season, administrators post a review discussion in which the community talks through issues from the season, such as game balance, player-proposed rule changes, and player experience. For our purposes, one of the primary advantages of this kind of community is that these major actions are visible and already exist in archive form; in the MafiEra community, player feedback and game design discussions are also visible and archived in these post-season review threads, making the in-the-moment iterative decision-making process fully available and thus creating a viable site for researchers to study game aspects like design adjustments, delays, discussions of mechanics and balance, narrative framing, and cancellation of ideas that prove unworkable. Similar to the work of McDaniel and Daer (2016) with n-Space, analysis of amateur communities like MafiEra may provide insight into professional design practices (Karabinus & Atherton, 2018).

Participatory Design as Transmedia Storytelling

Scholars have used various terminology and definitions for Jenkins’s (2003) concept of transmedia storytelling; for instance, Bechmann Petersen (2006) used cross media, Boumans (2004) used hybrid media, and Klastrup and Toska (2004) used transmedial worlds. Jenkins (2009) himself cited Dena’s (2009) cross-media and Rose’s (2012) deep media, saying they were essentially all the same concept. At a keynote in 2013, Jenkins explained that his term transmedia was really just a placeholder, as was his original definition, and that the term also became quickly embedded in Hollywood labor struggles regarding payment practices for the various content workers would produce in differing media for a given franchise. So, while Jenkins (2006) defined transmedia storytelling as “[unfolding] across multiple media platforms, with each new text making a distinctive and valuable addition to the whole,” where “each medium does what it does best” and “each franchise entry needs to be self-contained” so that “any given product [will be] a point of entry into the franchise as a whole” in Convergence Culture (pp. 95–96), the definition has since been widened to focus more on the multiple media and coherent whole elements and less on the franchise element.

This definitional shift opens more space for participatory culture, and it is from this angle that we approach the concept of transmedia in this study. Members of the MafiEra community engage in practices of worldbuilding and participatory design that function on two main levels: first, at the gameworld level, designers often create games based on popular media properties, in which the game itself becomes a fanfiction-like entry into the franchise’s transmedia world, and, second, at the community level, members in all roles participate in creating the “world” of MafiEra through iterative rule design and extensive documentation across various media. MafiEra has its own language, for instance, a language sometimes shared with the larger online mafia community and that sometimes diverges from the common language through community-driven nuance. For instance, in the larger mafia language, a “doctor” is a role that can protect a player from an attempted elimination, and the “town” or “village” are the so-called good guys, the uninformed majority attempting to solve the game. In the MafiEra community’s unique language, however, a “gamerunner” (who may be a facilitator elsewhere) is often the designer who also administers a game, and “lunch” (as in “let’s lunch that guy!”) has been adopted as a humorous replacement for the common mafia term “lynch” in order to remove racially charged language from the game (Karabinus & Atherton, in press).

Game Design as Ecology

The ecological metaphor for game design that we take up in this study has ties to genre ecologies (Spinuzzi, 2003; Mason, 2013) as well as other technical communication scholars’ ideas about how to contextualize game design in the wider landscape of professional writing, especially when it is tempting to understand games as singular textual objects to be played. The need to understand the different kinds of work that form the game design ecology can be best understood through Spinuzzi’s (2002) framing of genre ecology analysis as a way to study the day-to-day processes of discussion, documentation, and iteration as representations of how work happens, and, as Eyman (2008) argued, framing game design within this idea of ecology “moves [scholars] from games-as-objects-of-literary-study to games-as-designed-worlds” (p. 246). This shift makes game design practices the key object of interest, rather than restricting study to the games themselves, and opens up the wider scope of communities and practices as viable sites for research. We see this definition as also opening up space for understanding game design as practicing transmediation, especially when, as in the case of the MafiEra community we examine here, much of the work of design crosses between media spaces.

Mapping Professional Practice onto Participatory Design Communities

The gap that still exists between game design and technical communication in much of the existing literature seems to be related to the obfuscation of game design practices in professional studios that we have detailed above; mapping our existing conceptions of technical and professional communication onto the practices common in game design studios is close to impossible without access. To further study the link between game design and technical communication and with the concept of game design as ecology in mind, we will seek to answer the following research questions:

  1. Can amateur game communities with visible design practices be used as accurate cognates for professional game design practices? If so, what technical communication practices can be observed through the development of rules and play in the MafiEra community?
  2. How can observations of the MafiEra community help contribute to the construction of a wider games design ecology?
  3. How can the study of community participation and iterative design in persistent, ongoing games and game communities help technical communicators expand their understanding of world-making beyond the notion of fictionalization?


To explore MafiEra’s fitness for professional comparison, we drew first from the research model that served as foundational in McDaniel and Daer’s (2016) study of n-Space. In their study, they sought to understand developer discourse, as situated in their particular industrial context, within the conflicts and confines of the company. In order to best compare how MafiEra’s discourse stacked up against a professional development firm, we sought to model our work after this study in order to pursue direct comparisons. To examine the overarching professional practices of the MafiEra community, like McDaniel and Daer, we developed a single-case study design suited for examining the holistic factors impacting the community’s design, structure, and play patterns as reflected in both sign-up and review discussions bookending each season of games. Unlike McDaniel and Daer, however, we did not conduct interviews, deeming it unnecessary due to the amount of discussion we could observe in a more natural setting, because of the forum-based structure of the community. There was no need to ask community members how they worked or how they felt, as these moments could instead be observed firsthand. Like Reimer (2017), we studied records of past discourse, but unlike with Reimer’s reporting of Riot Games developers’ patch notes and forays into Reddit, MafiEra’s unique structure allowed us to observe the day-to-day development practices of the community.

In order to best observe multiple points of development and engagement within the community in terms of its professional practice, we collected data from the following streams of communication:

  • Post-play review threads from seasons 4–9, covering December 2015 through September 2017
  • Sign-up discussions (where new rules and changes were debuted, along with new games) from seasons 10–12

We chose these samples because they allowed for study of two very specific and important developments within the community. During the time period covered by seasons 4–9, the community struggled with finding a balance for mandating player activity levels. The second time frame was selected due to the community’s moving from one forum to another; during the move, some old members did not transition, and many new players joined MafiEra, so player engagement efforts were in the foreground during this time, with player retention a primary concern as the community worked to establish and maintain a firm foothold in its new home.

For the changes to the activity rule in the review threads, we scraped the full discussions and isolated everything relating to discussions of activity levels and how issues should be handled, as not everything pointed to leaning on top-down policies to improve games; game mechanics and player behavior were also frequent topics of conversation, as well as logistical issues, like handling time zone differences for players located across the world. This manual sorting also allowed us to remove banter and unrelated content, so we could focus discourse analysis on how the minimum activity rule developed over time. During coding, individual posts/replies were broken further into separate statements, with boundaries marked any time the participant changed the topic, resulting in 116 individual comments related directly to the slow increase of the activity minimum and its impact on the community.We coded these entries by using James Gee’s (2014) “Making Strange” tool for discourse analysis, in an effort to understand why and how decisions were being made by the community, and what factors contributed to the evolving rule.

The combination of review thread discourse and community shifts allowed for a holistic portrait of the MafiEra community’s approach to game design and player management. We chose the “Making Strange” approach due to our own positions with relation to the community; Alisha is a member of MafiEra, who joined first as a player and later became a game designer, moderator, and administrator (currently working in scheduling and community management). Rachel is an outsider to MafiEra but has played various forum games for over 10 years and has designed, moderated, and administrated a forum game community for the past five years. While we both had experience working with online discourse, these different approaches—informed insider and informed outsider—allowed us to look at the community discussions from different levels of familiarity and work together to tease out what needed to be explained, explored, and further examined. Gee’s “Making Strange” approach provided a baseline for our coding and observations, but, due to our shared familiarity with reading online discourse and our understanding of proto-professional practice within amateur communities, we ultimately needed very little negotiation after coding, as we coded with 99.4% agreement.

In exploring development of the activity rule in the post-season discussions, we kept our coding scheme from the previous study (Karabinus & Atherton, 2018), but only to inform the repeated themes we observed in iterations of the rule, so as to understand how certain concepts were privileged in game and community design within MafiEra. Those codes were:

  • Accessibility
  • Administrative/community oversight
  • Balance & mechanics
  • Personal conflict
  • User experience


Tracking discussions and developments in the community-wide thread allowed us to gain a sense of what’s important for participants at all levels within MafiEra—a feature that allowed for observation of both development processes and player reception at once, compressing the player-designer feedback loop and allowing for “live” observation of the kind of rapid iteration Reimer (2017) studied with Riot Games. In studying these feedback threads, we observed development of ideas for player engagement, rule changes, community management, and game mechanics as they happened, without anything left out or filtered for presentation to the public; the audience is always both public and internal at the same time.

Moving from study of a micro-level change (the activity rule) to macro-level discussions of player engagement, recruitment, and retention also allowed us to witness multiple angles on how the community handled changes and issues within the games. From our previous study (Karabinus & Atherton, 2018), we knew that user experience concerns underscored nearly all decisions made by the community, but, rather than continuing to focus only on user experience (UX) as a lens, our expanded study here allowed for deeper exploration of how UX concerns manifested and were addressed within both larger, administrative rule-changes and within the games themselves, from the point of view of the participants. These postmortem review threads continue to provide the best window for even this broader view in studying UX in the MafiEra community, due to the need to study players’ emotional responses to game mechanics and events in a situated context to get a rich sense of user experience (Sánchez, Iranzo, & Vela, 2011).

The activity rule change was ideal for our study as opposed to some other changes in gameplay and rules because of the consistency with which it was raised as an issue and how the rule evolved over multiple seasons. The activity rule, and decisions around it, impacted play and design in various ways: Activity is related to player engagement and satisfaction, as well as how games function overall (without active discussion, mafia games stall). Player activity levels also relate to mechanics—a game that is not balanced may see less activity—as well as player recruitment and retention. At the beginning of the time period studied, the rule for participation was a single post during a “day” phase (approximately 24–72 real-time hours, depending on the game’s structure), and by the end of the period studied, the minimum requirement was ten individual posts during the day phases. Studying each season allowed us to see how the community responded to each iteration of the policy as adjustments were made.

We each reviewed data, taking notes on themes that emerged and tracking their development. In our previous study, we coded along strict themes, but with this look at micro- to macro-level developments, we coded more holistically, allowing themes to emerge as we studied design practices. Because of our different positions relative to the community, we had varying perspectives: Rachel could easily see common amateur game design processes coming through as well as common themes such as moderator roles and co-creation of definitions of activity; Alisha, with her extensive knowledge of MafiEra, including its history, operations, and group dynamics, was able to easily place developments into a larger web of context (which helped in clearing up whether a particular artifact was important or could be counted as less-relevant banter) and to offer perspective on community changes, particularly after the move to ResetEra.

Continual Iteration

With the development of the activity rule, we studied both the changing approaches to the problem of player activity and the level of discussion within each review thread. Similarly to Reimer’s (2017) study of continual iteration of the character Lucian in League of Legends, the community’s conception of the problem of activity, its relationship to other aspects of the game (such as user experience and moderator oversight), and its possible solutions were all co-constructed by players as they discussed the problem over the course of all the season review threads we studied. While Reimer’s (2017) case study of Riot Games indicated a community in which player input was highly valued but still subordinate to developer decisions, MafiEra’s flattened hierarchy, however, means those discussions functioned differently. In observing MafiEra, we were able to study cognates to both player-designer relationships as well as discussions between different designers and others who functioned as “employees.”

We observed both anecdotal and data-driven evidence provided in support of players’ proposed solutions, and, with time and several instances of iteration of the activity rule, it was resolved to the general satisfaction of the community, as evidenced by the drop-off in activity-related comments shown in Figure 1. While season 6 was not the end of the problem, the discussion about the nature of the activity problem there led to enough consensus that later seasons’ discussions were more about optimizing the rule with trial and error than they were about how the community wanted to conceptualize activity.

Figure 1. Activity rule discussion frequency by season

While Figure 1 shows the number of comments on activity in each season during the period studied, we offer those numbers merely as another angle on our discourse analysis, as a demonstration of how focus and attention on activity fluctuated throughout the period studied. In seasons 4 and 5, only the most basic activity rule was in place for mafia games: Players had to speak up at least one time per phase, but there was also no set penalty for those who did not. Enforcement of the rule was determined on a game-by-game basis. The postmortem discussion is similarly casual: In season 4 (S4), in particular, discussions around activity are generalized, entangled with other issues. For instance, prior to S4 (December 2015), players signed up to play and administrators determined which games to place them into, while, beginning in S4, players were allowed to select a preference for particular games. During review, players indicated this change may have potentially had a positive impact on player activity levels, e.g., players were more active when allowed the opportunity to self-select games. Other S4 activity discussions included:

  • The difficulty of keeping people in reserve to serve as replacements for players who needed to drop from an active game, while still allowing people to spectate games (user experience/administrative oversight)
  • Whether or not replacing players impacts the play experience for others within a game (user experience/administrative oversight)
  • Ensuring time commitments for games were clear up front, before players entered a game (administrative oversight)

In season 5 (S5) (March 2016), activity became more of a concern but was linked frequently to game balance and mechanics due to issues within a particular game (“Disney Princess”). Because that game suffered atypically low player activity, Disney Princess was discussed extensively in the review thread to determine if game balance and design was responsible for low player engagement, or if the low activity was a separate issue. But S5 also marked an important moment in the development of the activity rule, because a standard operating procedure for underperforming players entered the discourse. One player who also serves as an occasional moderator and reviewer suggested the warning/replacement model that would become a rule in season 6 (S6). Other issues discussed in concert with activity in S5 included:

  • Balancing player rosters with high and low activity posters (user experience/administrative oversight)
  • Rewards and encouragement for player activity (user experience/administrative oversight)
  • A mentoring system as a way to encourage new player activity and integration (user experience/administrative oversight)
  • Low activity benefitting mafia teams (balance & mechanics)
  • Comparisons of win rates to activity levels (balance & mechanics)

In S6 (July 2016), data about activity levels was heavily utilized within the discussions. Although the MafiEra community has always paid careful attention to statistics, collecting data on every game, it has not always been used heavily in the review threads, as many players seem to prefer contributing anecdotes and experience reports to talk about community direction. In S6, data was used to discuss an optional shift to a 5 posts per day phase rule, up from one in previous seasons; optional here too meant it would be up to gamerunners to include if they wished, rather than a firm community rule. Data from past games was also used to compare S6 to prior seasons. S6 season had the highest number of individual comments about player activity, and a sense of frustration imbued the postmortem discussion; there was a general concern that activity in games had been decreasing steadily for multiple seasons, despite active efforts to increase player engagement. The discussion that began in S5, about moderators following a prescribed plan of action when players do not meet requirements, resurfaced here and became a recurring theme, combining administrative oversight and user experience in such a way that made it clear both players and moderators/administrators were responsible for a smooth game experience. Other issues that arose around the activity rule in S6 included:

  • Conflict within games and its impact on activity (conflict and user experience)
  • The impact of low activity on game progress and advancement (user experience and balance & mechanics)
  • Designing smaller games (fewer players on the roster) (administrative oversight and balance & mechanics)
  • Concern that some players are holding back for fear their playstyle will not be respected or privileged (conflict and user experience)
  • Better definitions for activity as well as clearer expectations (administrative oversight and user experience)
  • Links between activity and recruitment/retention (user experience)

In seasons 7 (March 2017) and 8 (July 2017), activity was still discussed but significantly less than in S6, the peak of engagement with activity. In S7, the suggested 5 posts/phase rule gained popularity, and many suggested it should instead be 10 posts/phase (the rule that was ultimately implemented). The discussions in S7 focused heavily on this idea of the most appropriate number for a minimum as players, designers, and administrators work to balance user experience, play style, and game requirements.

S7 ultimately yielded the most direct comparisons to the kind of discussions invisible in a study like Reimer’s (2017). In MafiEra’s S7 review, we observed all considerations and concerns about different implications of potential rules, as well as what penalties should be implemented for players who did not meet minimum post contribution levels. There was significant discussion about the impact of various solutions on the game and on player experiences. Players, in particular, while continuing to couch their suggestions in anecdotes, often stepped outside their own experiences to discuss more overarching concepts and impacts. Discussion about the activity rule in S7 was so focused on the overlaps between administrative oversight, user experience, and game balance that little separation between these different considerations was observed; these concerns were always entangled.

In season 8 (S8), we observed the impact of the new 10 posts/phase rule and activity discussion was focused only on whether or not the new rule worked, weighing again the intersections between administrative oversight, user experience, and balance. Forward-thinking discussion considered the best way to handle penalties, with discussions about warnings for players who did not meet the minimum. Since S8, this system for handling activity has remained largely the same, with minor tweaks.

Season 9 (S9) did not have a proper review thread, because the season was disrupted by the move to the new ResetEra forum, but review was instead conducted within the sign-up OT, which served as ongoing review rather than postmortem discussion. Conflict within one game contributed to this as well, presenting an issue that needed to be immediately addressed. Discussion flared about abuse of the activity rule and what should be done if players followed the letter but not the spirit of the rule. Little was resolved, but conflict was added to the intersections of administrative oversight, user experience, and balance in S9’s brief review.

Player Recruitment and Retention

In October 2017, the MafiEra community, along with thousands of other users, exited the NeoGAF forum amid controversies over the owner and leadership (Alexander, 2017). The shift to the new ResetEra forum presented the community with the opportunity to rebrand (the community had been known as Gafia, or NeoGAF Mafia) as well the challenge of rebuilding its playerbase, as not every member made the transition at the same time (or at all). Membership temporarily dipped, but, due to the vast number of members registering for ResetEra (membership is, at the time of this writing, in excess of 40,000), numbers quickly climbed again. The need to stand out in order to recruit new players amongst other communities also restarting, is apparent in the first ResetEra sign-up thread in particular, in which messages were geared specifically to both old and new players, and sign-ups featured heavy use of images, infographics, and information about current, upcoming, and past games.

The OTs during the referenced time period were developed first by ex-MafiEra administrator “spider” and, then, when spider left to focus on ResetEra moderation, by a team of administrators working in collaboration to develop clearer rules and onboarding documentation. These efforts to create more streamlined documentation serve as another example of worldbuilding, particularly in the context of attempts to recruit new players. In the landscape of the new forum community, MafiEra’s branding was a gateway for potential players; infographics, documentation, and community histories in the OT helped demonstrate what the community had to offer for potential new players.

Figure 2—while referencing insider information, such as the names of well-known players—also serves to demonstrate the persistence of the MafiEra community. Since 2014, the playerbase and number of games have both grown. People keep coming back. New people stay and become returning players. The message is clear: ResetEra newcomers, don’t you want to play a game?

While several games run in the MafiEra community prior to the move to ResetEra featured custom images designed to advertise the games, with the shift to ResetEra, these images were more often used to advertise the games, serving not only as ways to anchor players in the world created within each game but also as marketing to entice potential players to sign up. In this way, community members tell the story of MafiEra on multiple levels, focusing both on the worlds of the various games and on the world of MafiEra itself, as in Figure 2, which combines data about MafiEra as a forum game community and about individual games. Although MafiEra’s efforts are not directly comparable to professional-level marketing, they represent effort toward expanding the audience and broadening community participation. In Figure 3, we see games themed on television shows The Love Boat and games like inFamous and Dark Souls.

Figure 2. Excerpt from MafiEra infographic, as published in ResetEra’s first Official Thread for signups

After the move to ResetEra, the community also formalized a mentoring system, debuted in these OTs, as a method for increasing new player engagement and retention. Although these are not design decisions that impact mechanics, they do further demonstrate the community’s commitment to continuous improvement.

Figure 3. Past themed mafia games presented in an OT as recruitment attempt for new games and players

Democratic Discourse

To understand MafiEra as transmediated and participatory, we had to look holistically at the community’s methods for worldbuilding. Because there are no prescribed guidelines or formal models for running such a community, “worldbuilding” here involves every decision made by participants, in every role, from players to administrators. In doing anything, the community’s participants construct everything. Because of that, hierarchical roles diminish somewhat in the season-ending discussion threads. While administrators may begin those discussions, they seed the original posts in each discussion with particular topics that have been raised by members in chats on instant messaging platforms or in game or discussion threads, nothing is off limits, and all members’ voices and opinions carry weight.

McDaniel and Daer (2016) observed a similar flattened approach to discourse in their study of n-Space, where the popularity of face-to-face (rather than digital) discussions led to a freedom to communicate around and across rank. While McDaniel and Daer address issues of cross-cultural negotiation, as above, and the challenges of engineers working with artists to find ways to meet their shared goals despite different priorities, this flattened approach to discourse seems to foster shared approaches to problem solving, a feature observed in the MafiEra discussions, particularly with regard to the development over time of the activity rule.


Using the studies we have modeled and referenced here (Reimer, 2017; McDaniel & Daer, 2016; Sherlock, 2014), it is possible to build a framework of game design and development we can compare to MafiEra, and we can begin to answer our initial research questions:

  • Can amateur communities such as MafiEra serve as viable sites for game design research?
  • If so, what technical communication practices can be observed in MafiEra, and how might these observations contribute to the contstruction of a more robust game design ecology?
  • How can this study contribute to researchers’ views of game design practices? Can these observations contribute to a broader sense of “world-making?”

In trying to establish MafiEra (and similar communities) as cognates for professional game design studios and professional game design practices, we compare directly here to what McDaniel and Daer (2016) observed at n-Space. In that study, the researchers observed “cross-disciplinary challenges…due to differences in expectations or goals between professional roles. For example, an artist desires graphical fidelity, but an engineer wants to reduce the polygon count for faster rendering” (McDaniel & Daer, 2016, p. 160). We saw similar negotiation as game designers and administrators discussed the activity rule for players, as some privileged user experience while others were concerned with impacts to game balance and mechanics if penalties were enforced (such as how remaining players would be impacted if inactive players were simply removed from the game). Just as with various practitioners participating in discourse at n-Space, the different participants in MafiEra are all working toward the same thing: smooth game experiences that entice players into engaging with the product. Some discourse is missing here, however. Much of the less-polished, creation-stage discourse is seen only in the individual game design threads on the satellite site Outer Mafia; what appears in the postmortem review threads is post-game impressions and suggestions for the future. The discussion is cyclical (this happened, and impacted players in this way; here is what we should do in the future) and reveals the kinds of internal discussions not visible in studies like Reimer’s (2017), but it is not quite a complete picture, though deeper study of the community’s functions may reveal even more of the day-to-day work of design negotiation. The focus on data, statistics, negotiation of mechanics, and the ongoing creation of documentation, however, does further align with n-Space’s “specialized texts” and the “unique work done by game developers, work that requires artistic and technical expertise” (McDaniel & Daer, 2016, p. 161). The n-Space study also addressed, in detail, some of the technical challenges faced by developers, such as the work involved in repurposing a PC game for the Nintendo DS. While games at MafiEra require few technical considerations such as these (all are text, supported with few images), there are other comparable negotiations taking place each season as members discuss the optimal sizes for game rosters, the level of mechanical complication that should be included, and how to integrate new players into the community. The challenges and decisions are not the same, but they are comparable, and studio designers and members of this amateur community are working toward similar measurable ends.

Toward a Game Design Ecology

To address our final research question, we looked to Eyman’s (2008, p. 246) framework for mapping game ecologies and technical communication practices as well as our own findings. Table 1 demonstrates how Eyman’s framework can be used to measure an amateur game design community’s fitness for contributing to research models and for assessing whether or not a particular amateur community can be compared in general to professional level design. As with Eyman’s framework, these categories are not totally separate; some practices or systems may fall under more than one element, depending on the individual community.

As Table 1 indicates, MafiEra’s use of paratext and interfaces may diverge from professional examples, but still maps effectively onto the framework. With MafiEra, “interfaces,” as one considers them in a AAA effort, like a Grand Theft Auto or Elder Scrolls, do not exist; there are no nested menus and player HUDs for information. But information is delivered to players in a prescribed way, so that from game to game, players have certain expectations designers must meet: role cards are written in a particular form, phase timers are used, code keeps track of players’ post counts and allows for specialized searching not otherwise supported by the ResetEra code. These features (and others) serve as the interfaces that ensure seamless play.

As for documentation, not only does the community maintain meticulous records of all games played (including data on player activity), but since everything happens in text, everything is archived: all play, all design discussions, all versions of rules and rule changes. There is a record somewhere of nearly every action the community has ever taken, from official documentation on policies to unofficial banter and chitchat. In this way, communities like MafiEra may present truly unique opportunities for study, because, not only do the processes align with professional testing and design practices, MafiEra’s records may be more robust than those kept by professional studios. In McDaniel and Daer’s (2016) study of n-Space, developers indicated that many conversations about changes may happen face to face, without records tracking suggestions and changes, and Sansone (2014) indicates many game design documents, while robust in the beginning of design processes, may not be continuously updated as games move through design stages, so records of changes made (and why) may not be kept. This is one of the reasons we have continued to pursue research within this community and have begun to expand to studying other communities, such as Mafia Universe, and, like Small (2018), modders as well. Amateur communities may not yet be ubiquitous sites for technical communication or game studies scholarship, but we hope to continue demonstrating their fitness for filling access gaps in study of game design practices.

Table 1. Mapping MafiEra onto Eyman’s framework for game ecologies and technical communication practices (2008)

Eyman’s Framework (2008) MafiEra’s Practices as Comparative Examples
Environmental/in-game action Present in both the premise for individual games, and the actions players take using their various in-game positions, roles, and capacities. Example: Individual game themes create environments (a Twilight Zone game fosters paranoia); individual in-game roles utilize mechanics that change game processes.
Paratexual development MafiEra maintains vast resources about the history of the community, with records for all past games and past players. Although not created by the MafiEra community, players also utilize the numerous user-created wikis and strategy documents that exist for mafia games. Finally, in line with Eyman’s (2008) reference to the Leeroy Jenkins video that has become a legendary entry in gaming’s cultural zeitgeist (p. 247), MafiEra has created its own memes and emojis that see frequent use in games as well as in discourse around games. Eyman (2008) here also uses paratext to refer to interfaces, and, while MafiEra’s structure does not require graphical interfaces, there are prescribed structures for in-game documentation (design spreadsheets, structures for resolving in-game action, consistent structures for gamerunners delivering information to players) that serve to increase positive user experiences and reduce confusion and problems.
Documentation MafiEra has always produced guides, from early player guidelines on in-game play strategy to more recent efforts to create more streamlined, efficient guides for everything from beginner game design to how to create an informative and usable game thread. The introduction of more robust coded tools, as well, like the vote tool (a coded platform for counting in-game votes), has required extensive documentation for gamerunners that must be expanded as more features are added. The satellite site, Outer Mafia, currently houses more than a dozen such guides for players and administrators.
Infrastructural processes As we have put forth here, in the MafiEra community, these infrastructural processes exist on the internal level of the games themselves, but also on the macro level of community creation.
Research As more researchers look to fan-made game mods (cf. Small, 2018) and—we hope—other communities like MafiEra, research a stronger aspect of the framework. As it is, it is our position that this and our previous study demonstrate the potential for research in amateur design communities. MafiEra administrators also occasionally formally survey player preferences and research other communities’ processes as they seek methods for improving their own.

In other amateur communities, this framework may still apply, just in different ways based on the type, size, and needs of the community. While both Alisha and Rachel’s experiences with amateur game design center on forum-based games, these are not the only kinds of amateur communities; other types of communities may require different platforms. Additionally, MafiEra’s hierarchy is largely flattened, as we previously described; this is not the case for all amateur communities, and, in instances where there is a clearer divide between administrators and players, the practices of development and documentation are likely to be more complex for a number of reasons. In many forum roleplay communities, for instance, administrators build the world of the game and set events in motion while players create characters and interact with the world and the events; in cases like these, players may be consulted about gameplay mechanics and UX, but administrators cannot make all their discussions public without ruining necessary elements of mystery and surprise in future events or sacrificing their own ownership of their created game world. MafiEra’s structure, too, with clearly delineated seasons of games, lends itself well to routine review threads to discuss changes and problems among the community and regularly iterate and reiterate designs; for amateur games running for months or years without end, design infrastructure may simply look like an open dialogue between players and administrators where issues are resolved as they arise. Regardless of any one community’s particular situation, we believe the above framework is flexible for researchers and technical communicators to apply to different types of amateur design communities.


In this article, we argue in favor of the long-developing link between games and technical communication, and, specifically, for a new link between amateur game design communities and technical communication. For practitioners, amateur game design communities can still present an opportunity; fan and player networks and communities are integral to games, and groups like MafiEra provide an excellent example of design and iteration in a participatory, transmedia framework. This model can help guide practitioners in fostering and sustaining game communities for professional titles. In short: Fostering and sustaining a community requires attention not only to the game itself but to the player community. Players should be as involved in determining the rules of engagement for their community as they are in digging up Easter eggs and analyzing the narrative of the game. Amateur game designers are experts at building this into their spaces, and, in addition to modelling successful practice, they can be a useful addition to practitioners’ community manager teams.

Jenkins’ (2006) conception of transmedia includes world-building as an integral part, but he defines world-building in the context of fans trying “to fully experience any fictional world” that has already been created: “Consumers must assume the role of hunters and gatherers, chasing down bits of the story across media channels, comparing notes with each other via online discussion groups, and collaborating to ensure that everyone who invests time and effort will come away with a richer entertainment experience” (p. 21). In this sense, then, transmedia world-building means finding and collecting what is already in existence, with the goal being to curate a comprehensive and cohesive world of fandom without necessarily creating anything new. For amateur designers like the MafiEra community, though, the experience is about meshing desired elements of the source text with systems amateur game designers want to build, adapt, use, or maintain. Meshing Game of Thrones with mafia creates an entry in the transmediated worlds of both Game of Thrones and mafia, but the resulting game is something new rather than found and collated, in line with an expanded sense of worldbuilding that accounts for both fan participation in mainstream media narratives and participatory amateur game design practices.

For technical communicators who must understand and account for world-making processes, as with game developers who must actively engage with fans and players, watching amateur design processes can be key. Iteration and, above all, participation in design decision making in MafiEra allows not only for player buy-in with mechanics and rule changes but for open discussion of the systems and processes that underlie the surface level of any one game. Metadiscourse like this brings players in not only to discussions of narrative and story but also to discussions of user experience and mechanics. Users’ conception of their own experience shifts from “this game was really fun” to “this game ran very smoothly for these specific reasons.” Participation also becomes an expected and integral part of the world of the game community (as opposed to the world of the game), so, rather than fostering an oppositional relationship between players and administrators, MafiEra and similar communities build equality into the worlds they create. Thus, what may be simple at a glance—a bunch of friends playing a text version of party games—is revealed, through deeper study, to be a complex system of participatory design and a strong potential site for research.


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About the Author

Alisha Karabinus is a PhD candidate in English at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. Her research centers on experience; she studies experience in games and gaming culture, and student experiences in writing and rhetoric. Prior to her graduate study, she worked as a writer and editor in gaming and tech news, and currently serves as co-host for the long-running Not Your Mama’s Gamer podcast. With Rachel Atherton, she received the 2018 SIGDOC Best Paper Award for previous research in their ongoing project on amateur game design communities. She is available at akarabin@purdue.edu.

Rachel Atherton is a PhD student in English at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. Her research interests mainly lie in the intersection of technical communication, public or community writing, and data science. She has also done research in media studies and in feminist mentorship. With Alisha Karabinus, she received the 2018 SIGDOC Best Paper Award for previous research in their ongoing project on amateur game design communities. She is available at ratherto@purdue.edu.

Manuscript received 1 September 2018, revised 15 April 2019; accepted 17 April 2019.