In a toxic online world, Warframe is a refuge for my son – and millions of others

Six months ago my son Zac started to play a video game I knew very little about – which, as a games journalist, I found slightly disconcerting. Created by the Canada-based developer Digital Extremes, Warframe is an online sci-fi shooter, originally launched in 2013. Though little discussed outside its fanbase, it is consistently one of the biggest titles on Steam, with 75 million registered users.

Set in a distant future version of our solar system, riddled with warring alien factions, the player takes part on the side of the Tenno, an ancient warrior race that employs barely sentient cybernetic fighters – the warframes of the title – as their primary weapons. Each day, Zac spends hours whizzing between planets, carrying out missions or exploring, all the while fighting enemies including a brutish clone army known as the Grineer, and the diseased, monstrous Infested. It sounds like a dozen other so-called live service games, which run indefinitely online, constantly adding new tasks, locations and items – the likes of Destiny, The Division and Final Fantasy XIV Online. But Warframe has held my son’s attention, and there’s one key reason for that: a remarkably friendly and welcoming community.

Zac is on the autism spectrum, and although he’s now 18 years old, he still finds it difficult to socialise in the real world. For years he loved games such as Minecraft and Fortnite, but as he’s getting older, he’s into darker, more mature stories and worlds. When I saw that he’d stumbled across this big gothic space opera, my worry was that it would bring him into contact with gaming’s less savoury communities – the edgelords, griefers and furious wannabe pro gamers who can make shooters such as Call of Duty a challenging place for vulnerable people.

Friendlier fire … Warframe. Photograph: Digital Extremes

But with Warframe, the experience was different. Straight away, other players were friendly, welcoming and accepting. What helped Zac from the outset was the game’s well moderated and extremely vibrant onscreen chat window, which allows players to ask questions and share tips and experiences, without having to talk – a major bonus for neurodivergent players. And while in-game chat is not unusual in live service games, this place is, for the most part, benign with good moderation. Other players have gone out of their way to help Zac, assisting him in finding rare resources such as argon crystals, and escorting him to planets he’s not yet unlocked. They have also given him weapons and items. He joined a clan a few weeks ago and has made new friends in the US and throughout Europe, who regularly play with him.

According to Digital Extremes, they realised very early in development that building and keeping a welcoming community was going to be essential. “The community department was one of the first on the team,” says creative director Rebecca Ford. When I mention how helpful people have been to my son, she nods in recognition. “[The in-game chat] is a place you can go and say ‘I really have no idea what I’m doing’ or ‘does anyone have advice for this build?’ Warframe is a complex cooperative hard sci-fi world. For us that channel has been a necessity.”

Rebecca Ford, creative director Digital Extremes. Photograph: Digital Extremes

And it really is complex, with hundreds of years of in-game history involving multiple planets, races and wars. The game has a built-in encyclopedia, but it will only get you so far – eventually you need to chat with other players. It reminds me of the early days of FromSoftware’s Souls games, where players would meet in forums and chatrooms to discuss what the hell they were meant to be doing in these obtuse and dangerous worlds.

Ford says that the developer embraced this player-to-player communication early on. “We had no budget to put in the industry standard tutorialisation of every system and mechanic,” she says. “For the player, discovery is the most fun. In 2013, we added a secret boss who would taunt you via the in-game email if you killed any other boss in the game – and there was a dice-roll chance that he would attack you in your next mission. We denied the existence of that system for years. That was intentional, and now that character is a legend.”

According to other players I spoke to, the development team is extremely active on the game’s in-game chat and Discord channels. They stream weekly interview and discussion sessions, they hold an annual fan convention, and they enforce rules in terms of how players can talk to each other. “The developers bring their personalities and faces to the game,” says veteran player Karl Meyer, who first tried the game seven years ago. “DE aren’t afraid to look us in the eye and admit mistakes, discuss them and engage us and our ideas around changing things and making things better for everyone … [they] genuinely love engaging with their community and spend a lot of time and energy doing so.”

The very best live online games set a tone and a world, and then give players the freedom to express themselves within that fiction. We see that in Eve Online, a space war game that’s essentially controlled by its players. It’s there in Sea of Thieves, in the way players embrace the pirate lifestyle and language. We’re seeing it now in Helldivers 2, with players actively role-playing as zealously patriotic warriors. In Warframe, every facet of your avatar’s appearance and abilities can be tweaked and personalised, creating highly individual builds, and the game offers a vast array of quest types to test them on. The game mimics the best comic book hero collectives, from the Avengers to Suicide Squad: every one is an individual within the gang. My son has warframes designed to resemble his comic book heroes – Deadpool, Viper from the X-Men, a whole lot of manga characters I don’t know – and these provide him with a way to display and share his interests; they’re signals of who he is.

My son often mentions his autism to the people he meets in the game chat, I think because he is sometimes self-conscious, but it’s just accepted. A few nights ago, he started to play co-op with a gamer from Bulgaria, and when the subject came up, they simply typed, “my friend has autism too” and the two of them carried on chatting and playing. It doesn’t sound like much, but this kind of casual affirmation and acceptance is vital to him. What is interesting is the way in which the game actively seeks to reflect its players back at themselves. As community director Megan Everett explains, “working so closely with the community, we have actually put quests into the game that really resonate with neurodivergent players. With our Chains of Harrow quest, the protagonist is on the autism spectrum.” Bullying has also been a theme of narrative missions.

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This also feels like a safe place for other diverse players. Warframe has a very active LGBTQIA+ community with dedicated squads, clans and groups, the largest of which, Spectrum Syndicate, even sells its own merch. Again, this is supported and explored in the game: a non-gendered warframe was designed in collaboration with the community, and story quests explore different forms of love between characters.

Megan Everett, director of community and live operations, Digital Extremes. Photograph: Digital Extremes

When I ask Meyer about the benefits of a strong gaming community, he has his own example. “It’s cliched to say, I know, but during the Covid lockdowns, Warframe helped,” he says. “Regardless of what was happening I still felt part of a shared experience and community, I felt that people still cared. The game took my mind off of the grimness of everything, but saying that, our clan chat was a tough and emotional place; clan mates sharing their fears, confessing they had Covid and were unwell and scared, players looking for advice and asking others what they were doing to stay safe. Throughout all of this I witnessed and was part of a community checking in on each other making sure everyone was OK, sending messages of hope, hilarity and camaraderie.”

I always worry about how tough life is for Zac – how making connections that neurotypical people take for granted is a struggle for him, and always will be. So to see him playing this game, chatting with other players, being part of something, is a relief and a pleasure. I’d fretted about what would happen when he outgrew the embrace of Minecraft. I should have known there would be other places for him to go. I should have known video games have still got his back.

“We’ve had parents come up at conventions and say, [the Chains of Harrow quest] changed my child’s life because it was the first time they’d seen heroic representation of a character on the spectrum in a video game,” says Everett. “Those things stay with us.”

They stay with me, too.


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