I've been part of a gaming community since its very beginning, and I've seen many decisions in these years. The most recent decision is quite confusing to me because it seems irrational to me.

Before the decision, the staff members were subdivided in supporters, moderators, and administrators. The sequence is obvious: supporters have the least technical power whereas administrators have the most. Moderators are in between. In the last years, the admins were mostly absence due to stress and other stuff and mainly managed the technical site of the community: keep the servers and the forum running, take care of urgent technical matters, etc. In game, however, moderators took the lead and took care of most matters: problems between users, small technical problems, organizing small events, etc.

You can say that moderators were the people where your problem went to first, and if it couldn't be solved, it would be redirected to the admins (which basically happened in one of ten requests). The most recent discussion changed the system crucially: the rank moderator has been removed and all moderators have been promoted to administrators.

It actually seems like a good decision because the now promoted moderators are in game and help out even more so the workload on the "real" administrators become less. However, after some time, users suspected that the promoted moderators have been just promoted on a formal level, not on a technical level since some technical request just couldn't be solved by the promoted ones.

Today, the staff announced that it is true. The promoted moderators have the same technical level as before, just their formal level has been increased. Their argument for their decision is that most new users request an admin for basically every inconvenience and just skip the moderators. On the other side, the project is relatively large (8000 monthly active users, 7000 are regular users, project is steadily growing) and it takes some time that the information is spread.

Right now, the users of the project are confused, some even demand to return to the old system. They complain that it's not clear anymore who can do what, and they don't know anymore who is best suited for their problem. I understand the complaint of these users. Who do you turn to if everyone is basically the same, but actually is not?

(Currently, there are 28 team members: 15 are supporters, 13 are admins, and 2 of them are the "real" ones.)

I'm quite confused. Is it a good idea to make it look like everyone can handle your problem, although there are technical differences between the staff members who seem to be the same?

  • The problem is some confusion between "type of requests they respond to" and "technical access to solve a problem". Maybe the real issue is that technical administrators are too busy responding to in-game requests versus solving real problems. In technical support, the person who answers a phone and responds to the problem might be a level 1 support engineer. The person who is working on really difficult solutions is level 4 and only responds to issues triaged by level 1. – Greg Chase Aug 14 '15 at 18:07
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    I don't think I've ever played a game where I can speak to an actual admin, perhaps one solution is to make it impossible for a new user to skip the moderator level. – Carl Aug 14 '15 at 20:26
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    Perhaps you could call the mods "Administrators" and the admins "System Administrators", therefore showing a distinction between the "Administrators" (people with authority) and "System Administators" (people who can access the system). – wizzwizz4 Sep 15 '16 at 17:33

In my experience, you should have as few people in the highest level of access as you can. These are the people that can do anything and everything to the community servers. Passing this type of access out to untrained people is asking for trouble. Everyone makes mistakes and one of these untrained users will type the wrong command at some point. If they don't know how to fix it, then you may have larger problems. In the worst case scenario someone will rage quit and take down your server because they are mad at you and you gave them access to the server.

With that said, though, there is the possibility of the administrators granting access to specific things to the lower level of moderators. Perhaps a game server needs an occasional reboot due to lag. I've granted my moderators permission to restart a game server with the understanding that I log all such restarts and if I see it being abused I will not only remove their ability to restart the server, but also their moderation position. I've also granted my moderators that ability to update the game servers when an update is released. If this process fails, they need to contact one of the administrators. If it doesn't fail (which is much more common), then the servers will be updated quickly and accessible to players. The benefits of this arrangement are great for my administrators (they don't have to be around constantly) and great for users (quick response to lag and new updates).

In your case, I agree that the situation is confusing. To me, it seems like the administration team was attempting to reward the moderation team with a "promotion". Everyone likes a promotion! They probably didn't like that they were being contacted directly so frequently. The down side is exactly as you describe, though: the new administrators have the same level of access and users are confused as to who can solve a problem.

I think there are two possible solutions to this problem:

  • Set up permissions on the server in such a way that allows the "lower" administrators the ability to perform common - non-destructive - administrator tasks. Allow them to use these abilities to solve most issues. If they encounter a situation they can't solve, then escalate it to the "higher" administrators. With this option, all of the administrators can perform the common tasks and solve a majority of the problems. The users should see an improvement as well. Hopefully the more difficult situations are rare issues. I'd expect those to be things like "database is down", "game update failed", "server is turned off".
  • Switch back to the tiered levels of moderator/administrator and make it clear what each level can do. Users shouldn't jump the moderator level if it is a situation that the moderators could have resolved. This will require training the users (good luck) to jump through the correct hoops in order.

Personally, I went with that first bullet point. It was work when setting up the permissions initially, but once that was done it removed me (as an administrator) almost completely. Now I can focus on the moderation side and interact with the community instead of worrying about when the next update will come out and whether or not one of the administrators will be around to issue the update command. The moderators feel more empowered too, because they can solve most of the issues themselves. Users are also happier because issues can be solved immediately rather than "waiting for an admin to come online".

I personally dont think that promoting all moderators to administrators and abolishing the role of moderators is a particularly good move. As explained below, to me it seems moderation and (technical) administration are two different tasks and both of them are needed in an online community.

In our community, after an initial coincidence of the moderation and administration team (that could not have been avoided due to a lack of people willing to step up and take responsibility), we finally decided to clearly separate the roles and tasks of moderation and administration.

In our community, administrators are seen as belonging to the technical team, which is headed by the main trusted system developer. Even though in principle, they have the privileges to moderate too, administrators do not implement site policies or judge the quality of content. They therefore do not necessarily have to be deeply knowledgeable about the site topic. Their tasks are purely technical and depending on their knowledge and experience contain for example

  • user administration, such as help people log in
  • resolve minor technical issues
  • suport the system development team by taking over specific tasks such as improving the layout of the site or help test and implement new features

As administrators have some kind of "root access" to the platform our community runs on, they are not elected by the community but appointed, approved, and supervised by the (head of the) system development team. Their role is clearly not (site) political.

Conversely, moderators are expected to implement the site policies and defend the interests and needs of the community. In our community, moderators are expected to be able to help judging the quality and appropriateness of the content posted, therefore a non-trivial knowledge about (parts of) the site topic is necessary, whereas a deep knowledge about how our platform works from a technical point of view beyond using the software, is not necessary. Conversely to administrators, moderators are elected by the community.

Members of our community who fullfill both roles, do so by maintaining specific accounts costum-taylored to the corresponding tasks. For example when helping a member regain access to his account, I have to log in as an administrator.

As I see it, clearly separating the roles of (technical) administrators and moderators does not only publicly clarify which member has what privileges and tasks, but it also helps maintaining accountability. Also, technically knowledgeable people who would not necessarily be good moderators (or are not interested in moderation), can still still help running the site as administrators. Separating the roles of administrators and moderators generally offers members the possibility to help the community in accordance with that they are good at and enjoy doing.

I think it's a good idea to promote the moderators up to admin. But not to make it seem like everyone can handle your problem. That's like going to a police officer and asking him to fight a fire. I see your issue with only two admins being able to solve technical issues, I think you should have the 2 admins train the rest of the promoted, new admins on how to run servers and solve any technical issues that come up. Being just formally promoted to an admin must come with its responsibilities or they might as well have stood as moderators.

The pros of this is that:

  • All admins will now have the knowledge to solve any technical issues
  • The issues will not only go to 2 admins but now the community will be able to any admin and ask for help
  • The new admins will still have time to interact with the community because not all of them are busy fixing issues
  • If the 2 "real" admins decide to go inactive for a long period of time, the others will still be able to take care of the community while they are gone and not worry about things shutting down

Once you are finished training the new admins, have them establish throughout the community that they will now all be able to fix any technical issues. It will put the community at ease and give them the sense that they can go to any admin for help and not have to worry about them not being able to take care of their situation or problems.

@GregChase asked an interesting question about whether the problem is more with the former moderators lacking authority within the system to perform administrator tasks despite now holding the formal title of Adminstrator or whether the problem is more that the new administrators now have the authority to administer but lack the skills to do so.

Consider the US Navy. US Navy enlisted ranks have a separate system of Rates and Ratings. A sailor's Rate is what would be called in other contexts a rank - for example, Petty Officer Third Class, Seaman Recruit, Seaman First Class, etc. They define a sailor's pay grade and basic level of authority (all other things being equal, which they rarely ever are). A Rating is a professional designation or specialty - for example, Seaman First Class John Jones could be an Electrician's Mate while his brother, Seaman First Class James Jones might be a Hospital Corpsman. If a ship captain was looking for someone to help with wounds, he would probably be more concerned with finding a Hospital Corpsman than in searching for a person of a specific rank.

Also, consider the system of honorary university degrees. Honorary degrees are a way to allow certain people to hold the title of Doctor, wear the fancy robes, and pontificate at ceremonies, but not to actually teach classes, perform research, or do any of those day-to-day things that real university professors do. It's a social award, and there's no problem with treating your former Moderators as Honorary Administrators (they get the fancy robes, the title, the avatar flair, etc. but are in practice still Moderators) if you so wish.

The question now becomes what you want your system to be like. Do you want to have a system where there is a single rank of Administrator but where some Administrators are considered to have different specialties and different functions, or are you envisioning a system in which all Administrators can do all Administrator tasks if they are smart, brave, etc. enough to do them?

If the former, there is still the possibility of going back to the old system, and/or implementing the old change as a new non-rank designation (a la @wizzwizz4 's "Administrators" and "System Administrators"). You could also define it as non-rank designations that attach to the basic "rank" of Administrator - Moderation (or Social, etc.) Administrator and Technical Administrator. All Administrators would hold the same basic social dignity, avatar flair, funny hats, etc. of Adminstratorship, but would have different day-to-day functions. The number of non-rank designations could be arbitrarily large and/or include their own ranks. For example, "It looks like you are having a problem with our moisture vaporator system. I will need to refer your support ticket to an Administrator who is a Certified Level 5 Advanced Expert Double Elite in the Binary Language of Moisture Vaporators. I'm a Level 2 Bocce Speaker and a Level 6 Hyperdrive Remotivator."

If the latter, the solution is training. Why are your new Administrators not able to take on the tasks that the old Administrators do with ease? Do they need technical training? Management courses? Adult basic literacy? Basic Math for Administrators? Advanced Math for Administrators? Figure out what it is and train them in it, or refer them to places where they can learn the necessary skills.

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