Mini case study of an online game guild
Posted by jebehles
(I apologize for the length and tardiness–this ended up being much more than I intended to write. I could have written more, but I needed to end it somewhere!)
While most of the content in Net Smart has been both useful and relatable, none of it has resonated with me so much as Rheingold’s frustrated, “Don’t tell me that my life online isn’t real” (163). Partially because of introversion and partially due to being geographically dislocated from my support network, my “online life” is a very important part of my day-to-day. In fact, much of my former “real life” has become “online life” due to moving. Outside of my workplace, all of my social relationships (other than my husband) are based online, even if they didn’t begin there.
Rheingold’s discussion of virtual communities (guilds) formed in massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) was of particular interest to me because my husband and I ran one such guild in a game called Final Fantasy XI (FFXI), a precursor to World of Warcraft, which is mentioned in the book. Thus, I am providing a mini case study here to showcase Rheingold’s ideas.
The FFXI guild TEAMSeaSlug (or TSS—the name was derived from a Japanese anime popular at the time) began directly due to the building of social capital. My husband defeated a monster that only appears once per day and generally requires a small party (6 or more) of players to defeat. A player competing for the same monster requested my husband’s help the next day. My husband agreed to help this stranger, and they joined forces for several days. Over the course of these days, the stranger brought friends who also needed the monster, so my husband helped them out as well. Recognizing shared interests, a high skill level, and a shared need, my husband formed the guild with these new friends, with himself as the leader (and ultimate arbiter) and myself as second-in-command (serving a sort of “human resources” function for the group). Through this guild, my husband and I would benefit many times in excess of the original help he provided strangers who needed that monster—and we would help many others as well.
TSS was formed to solve a social dilemma. FFXI at the time was based very strongly on collaboration. Most high-end monsters and dungeons required large parties (12 or more players) to complete, so many well populated guilds (50 or more players) existed to conquer these challenges. However, with more people come more complexity, more opportunity for interpersonal conflict (I had recently left a guild due to such), and more chances of freeloaders (a particular pet peeve of mine). TSS solved this social dilemma by being a small (fewer than 20 players at its peak), tight-knit core group of highly skilled players who could take on much of the game’s content with much smaller parties. While there was still occasional conflict, the smaller group size meant it was worked out more quickly and cleanly.
This group was very successful for several years, likely because we fulfilled (completely by accident) many of the suggestions Rheingold lists for successful online social systems. For the sake of brevity, I am only providing two examples here:
“A small number of simple, clear rules, sparsely enforced, with an explicit expectation that the community’s own norms will emerge later” (166).
We only had two major rules: 1) Be respectful. 2) You get one “freebie,” (item, monster kill, etc.) after which, you are expected to reciprocate by continually helping other guild members. This rule built a large amount of general social capital (Rheingold, p. 221) between guild members, who were always helping each other out. It got to the point where if you mentioned you were frustrated by something, somebody would inevitably help you out without being asked, whether that meant they showed up to help you fight a monster or resources miraculously showed up in your in-game mailbox.
This rule also served to weed out free-loaders. Sure, many people showed up for the “freebie,” and were never heard from again–or they would stick around without reciprocating and get frustrated that they never got anything else—and were never heard from again. This suited us just well—we were only interested in those guild members who self-selected for reciprocity and generosity. While we preferred having highly skilled players, we would always make room for a generous person with room for improvement in their game skills.
More rules did sprout up as needed, but they were generally specific to certain dungeons—loot and resource distribution and the like.
“Social capital is also key to the power of online social networks, where individuals and groups can cultivate, grow, and benefit from it” (p. 218)
Rheingold contrasts networks and communities. If our guild was a community, then the rest of the guilds and individuals was a network. Our policy of reciprocity served us well, as it allowed us to build social capital on the network scale—our guild members self-selected for generosity, and they would rarely hesitate to help anyone in need, regardless of their guild affiliation.
Rheingold adds, “The same networks that foster norms of reciprocity also facilitate the flow of reputational information” (p. 221). As our guild members went around helping strangers and building their networks, word got around that TSS was a pretty good guild to work with—both highly skilled and generous. Each member was a bridge to another network, whose members could potentially reciprocate at any time. This helped us face our greatest weakness as a guild: our low member base.
The nature of FFXI was such that some challenges required higher numbers of players, no matter how skilled. In these cases, TSS was left behind, unable to muster the manpower on our own. However, because each member built their own networks based on reciprocity, we were able to call upon willing outsiders to help us defeat these challenges—and they came because of the social capital we built as a guild. Sometimes, this even resulted in growing membership for our guild, as people who came to our call decided to stick around.
There were still certain challenges we could not face. The short term solution was to individually join specialized guilds specifically for those tasks (some of which required 24 or more players). However, our long-term plan was to begin teaming up with other guilds like ours: small, highly skilled, with high social capital. Sadly, that never came to be, as the game developers made some drastic changes that eventually led us to quit.
However, TSS lives on, and some of those core members are among our closest friends. Our paths have crossed in subsequent MMOGs, and we teamed up successfully in those, raising the TEAMSeaSlug banner each time. Our paths have crossed in real life, as well. We have been to each other’s (real life) weddings. We’ve commiserated with each other’s frustrations and celebrated life’s milestones.
So when anyone questions the validity of online communities, I react the same as Rheingold: Don’t tell me that my online life isn’t real!
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