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Warframe is a safe haven for not only my son, but also for millions of individuals, in a world where online interactions can often be toxic.
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Warframe is a safe haven for not only my son, but also for millions of individuals, in a world where online interactions can often be toxic.

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Six months ago, my son Zac began playing a video game that I wasn’t familiar with. As a games journalist, this made me a bit uneasy. Warframe is an online sci-fi shooter game developed by Digital Extremes, based in Canada. It was first released in 2013 and, although it doesn’t receive a lot of mainstream attention, it remains one of the top games on Steam, with 75 million users registered.

In a far-off future version of our solar system, filled with conflicting extraterrestrial groups, the player participates alongside the Tenno, an old clan of warriors who utilize artificially intelligent fighters called “warframes” as their main weapons. Each day, Zac spends countless hours traveling between planets, completing missions and exploring, all while battling adversaries like the brutish Grineer clone army and the corrupted, monstrous Infested. At first glance, it may seem like one of many persistent online games, which continue to provide new challenges, locations, and items over time – similar to titles such as Destiny, The Division, and Final Fantasy XIV Online. However, Warframe has captivated my son’s interest for one significant reason: an incredibly friendly and inclusive community.

Although Zac is 18 years old, his autism spectrum condition makes it challenging for him to socialize in real life. He used to enjoy games like Minecraft and Fortnite, but as he’s growing older, his interests have shifted towards darker and more mature stories and settings. When I discovered that he had found a big gothic space opera game, I was concerned that he might encounter unsavory gaming communities – consisting of edgelords, griefers, and competitive wannabe pro gamers – who can make games like Call of Duty especially challenging for vulnerable individuals.

Warframe screenshotView image in fullscreen

Zac’s experience with Warframe was unlike any other. The players immediately showed friendliness, acceptance, and warmth. The game’s well-moderated and lively chat window was especially helpful for Zac, as it allowed him to ask questions and share tips without having to verbally communicate – a great feature for players with neurodiverse abilities. While in-game chat is common in live service games, the chat in Warframe is usually friendly and well-moderated. Other players have generously aided Zac in various ways, from assisting him in obtaining rare resources to guiding him to inaccessible planets. Some players have even given him weapons and items. By joining a clan, Zac has formed new friendships in the United States and across Europe, with whom he frequently plays.

Digital Extremes recognized early on that cultivating a welcoming community would be crucial in their development process. Creative director Rebecca Ford explains that the community team was one of the first departments to be formed. When mentioning the helpfulness of others towards her son, she acknowledges it, stating that the in-game chat is a platform where players can seek assistance and guidance regarding their gameplay experience. Warframe, being a complex cooperative game set in a futuristic world, has made this chat a necessary aspect for the team.

Rebecca Ford, Creative Director Digital Extremes (Warframe)View image in fullscreen

The game offers a rich and intricate world, spanning centuries and encompassing various planets, races, and battles. While there is a helpful encyclopedia within the game, it can only provide limited information. As with the early days of FromSoftware’s Souls games, players would turn to forums and chatrooms to seek guidance from others on navigating the complex and perilous worlds.

According to Ford, the developer made a deliberate choice to prioritize player-to-player communication in the early stages. Due to budget constraints, they were unable to implement a traditional tutorial for each system and mechanic. Instead, they wanted players to have the joy of discovering these elements themselves. In 2013, they introduced a secret boss who would send taunting emails to players if they killed other bosses, and there was a chance that the boss would attack the player in their next mission. However, the team kept this system hidden for many years, intentionally creating a legendary character.

Other players have reported that the development team is highly active on the in-game chat and Discord channels for the game. They hold weekly sessions for interviews and discussions, host a fan convention every year, and have set guidelines for how players can communicate with each other. Veteran player Karl Meyer, who first played the game seven years ago, stated that the developers are not afraid to be transparent with their personalities and openly discuss any mistakes that may have been made. They actively listen to their community and invest a significant amount of time and effort in engaging with them, showing genuine care and dedication.

Top live online games create a unique atmosphere and world, allowing players to freely express themselves within that virtual reality. This can be seen in popular titles such as Eve Online, where players control the course of a space war, and Sea of Thieves, where players fully immerse themselves in the pirate lifestyle and language. Another example is Helldivers 2, in which players take on the role of patriotic warriors and actively role-play in the game. Warframe also offers extensive customization options for avatars, allowing players to create their own unique builds and take on various quests. The game’s concept is similar to collectives of popular comic book heroes, such as the Avengers and Suicide Squad, where each individual within the group is distinct. For my son, who is a fan of comic books, his warframes often resemble his favorite characters like Deadpool, Viper from X-Men, and various manga characters. These warframes are a way for him to showcase his interests and identity.

My son frequently discusses his autism with others he meets in the game chat, possibly due to feeling self-conscious at times. However, I have noticed that this is not an issue and is simply accepted by those he interacts with. Recently, he began playing co-op with a gamer from Bulgaria who also shared that their friend has autism. They continued to chat and play without any problems. While it may seem like a small interaction, this kind of casual acceptance and affirmation is incredibly important to my son. It is interesting to observe how the game actively reflects its players and their experiences. According to community director Megan Everett, the game has even included quests that specifically resonate with neurodivergent players due to their close relationship with the community. For example, the Chains of Harrow quest features a protagonist on the autism spectrum. Additionally, issues like bullying have been addressed in narrative missions.

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This environment also provides a sense of security for a variety of players. The Warframe community includes a vibrant group of LGBTQIA+ members, who have formed squads, clans, and groups. The largest of these, Spectrum Syndicate, even offers their own merchandise. Additionally, the game itself embraces and delves into this aspect, creating a warframe without a specific gender in consultation with the community, and featuring quests that showcase diverse forms of love between characters.

Megan Everett, Director of Community & Live Operations Digital Extremes (Warframe)View image in fullscreen

According to Meyer, a strong gaming community has its own benefits. He shares a personal example, stating that during the Covid lockdowns, he found support and connection through playing Warframe. Despite the challenges, he felt like he was part of a community that genuinely cared. The game offered a distraction from the difficult situation, but at the same time, the clan chat was an emotionally intense space where members shared their fears, struggles with illness, and asked for advice. Despite this, the community remained united and checked in on each other, sending messages of hope, humor, and solidarity.

I am constantly concerned about the challenges that Zac faces in life – the difficulty in making connections that neurotypical individuals find effortless is something he will always have to contend with. Therefore, it brings me immense relief and joy to see him playing this game, interacting with other players, and being a part of a community. I had worried about what would happen when he became too old for Minecraft, but I now realize that there will always be other outlets for him. It is reassuring to know that video games continue to provide him with support.

At conventions, parents have approached us to express how the Chains of Harrow quest had a profound impact on their child. They were grateful to see a character on the spectrum portrayed as a hero in a video game. These moments are memorable to us.

They also remain with me.

Source: theguardian.com