['The Game Anthropologist' is Michael Walbridge's regular GameSetWatch-exclusive column looking at gaming communities and subcultures. This week, he examines and appreciates the togetherness created by the online forums of a popular game-related webcomic.]

Forum moderators only have control over what can’t happen. It’s up to regular forum posters (and hosting needs) to mold the forums into what they are.

So when one thinks of Penny Arcade, it is defined as one of two things: the artistry and writing of Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins or the people who follow it. The Penny Arcade forums are property of Penny Arcade but only in the strictest technical sense of the word; it has become a beautiful monster, a living, breathing, curious creature that, while not necessarily obedient, is forever loyal.

The Penny Arcade forums are almost a decade old; originally managed Mike, Kara, and other close friends, the forums quickly grew into something to large for them to handle. Both the software and the people became issues that were too complicated, and moderators volunteered to take over (future moderators can no longer come from volunteers; they must be asked).

Over time, the various moderators and administrators have changed. Since 2003, Kevin Hamilton has been the admin that handles coding and programming, while Patrick Groome has been the admin that handles policy and posters for the last two years. I spoke to them about what makes Penny Arcade’s forums so unique.

I asked Kevin Hamilton and Patrick Groome about what makes the forums work so well and they are modest, giving a lot of credit to its members rather than to administration.

“As far as [moderating] tricks go, one of the things you eventually realize is that the administration is a small part of the forums, and what really keeps it running is the people,” Groome said. Hamilton agreed: “We have a role to play…but I think the fact that that is a manageable workload is down mostly to two thing: a low tolerance for stupid and a large population of great people.”

The credit is well-placed. When asked for examples of how the members act toward each other, Groome gave me plenty of examples. “We've had multiple relationships that started on the forums, and at least two marriages, one of which crossed continents. Every year at PAX a vast number of forumers room together, and there are constant meetups throughout the year."

"Robert [Khoo] also frequently makes meet up threads in SE when he's visiting a part of the country and takes a bunch of forumers out to dinner. Last year I came out to the states and stayed with forumers the whole time I was there, people I'd known for five years and never met in real life. The community is very close in real life, many forumers room with people they met at PA. When a member of the forums dies, everyone takes it very hard and there's normally some kind of tribute.”

I’ve experienced the politeness of a forumer myself. A message came to my inbox from someone who noticed I lived nearby. It said: “I'm from Ogden, just putting some feelers out to see who else from Utah is here. Are you headed to PAX this year?”

“I wish,” I replied back.

He had done a search on the Utah members. “What would you think of a small Utah PA forum gathering? Just brainstorming right now.” He later then said maybe we could grab coffee in Salt Lake sometime. He asked me for my gamertags and asked if I played pen and paper RPGs. I said I didn’t really but still liked it.

Soon after, he invited me to an 8-hour session with some people he had recently met. Here, a total stranger was willing to make friends with someone via a blind pm. I had to decline the session and never got to know him, but the opportunity was there. He was incredibly polite, and sounded and wrote like many of the forumers I see.

The forums, along with PAX and Child’s Play, have truly allowed Penny Arcade’s followers to bind up their identities in it. This makes Penny Arcade not just a product or content but a community, and a community that acts. On the Internet, this seems like a small deal compared to other websites, projects, or movements, but when you consider the context—a profitable web comic about video games that is frequently vulgar—it’s curious to see followers define themselves not just as a consumer of the comic but as having it be a significant part of their lives and identities.

The members are truly great, but policies do help. For starters, moderators strictly require that posters stay on-topic. The base of forumers stays large, though, because the range of permitted topics highly varies. A forum exists for aspiring artists and a forum exists for aspiring writers.

Another is a general advice thread that usually merits questions about sexuality, relationships, computers, or mental illness, but the topics range from “Here’s a picture of my foot. What’s wrong with it?” to “Should I move to Austin? What’s it like there?” The gaming forum is huge, but discussion of MMOs became so prevalent they were given their own forum, “Massively Multiplayer Online Extravaganza”.

There’s also Social Entropy, affectionately called SE++, which features much looser restrictions, much more insults, and dumbed-down threads about YouTube videos or crazy celebrity behavior (Debate and Discourse is the other broad forum, calling itself a “structured alternative” to SE++).

Kevin Hamilton approximates that 30-50% of forum posters cover varying forums but that the rest stay in the same one, giving each forum its own personality. The difference between the MMO and regular game forums and the pronouncedly different writing styles of the writers forum posters easily witness this.

Moderation is not heavy-handed, but enforcement still exists. Justice is swift and impersonal. One moderator wrote in the sparse jails and bannings thread, “Wiggin gets a couple of weeks off for continuing to ignore the New Comic Thread rules.”

The Penny Arcade forums aren’t perfect and free of conflict; Patrick Groome was able to name at least four forums being formed due to mini-Exoduses, one of which he claims left specifically because of his decisions. But he, along with other moderators and managers, remain optimistic. “It’s a mixed bag, but good mostly outweighs the bad. I don’t think you can pigeonhole the average gamer any more than you can the average film enthusiast or the average hockey fan.”

The main site and the forums are very different, but they have a simple creed to agree on. The Penny Arcade forums are a place for gamers to be themselves, a place where they aren’t “gamers” but normal people who happen to like games.