Guild, game, tribe

This is a topic of great interest to me but it feels huge and amorphous and I’m not sure from what angle to tackle it. So, if I ramble even more than usual, forgive me.

It may be only for a certain type of player, or for a certain age of player; maybe those of us who are old enough to have been round the MMO block a few times, and too old to be all Facebooked and Twittered up all the time, or who don’t like the all-details-all-the-time model those places have. For me, at least (and I fit all those categories), it’s not so much about the games anymore but rather about the people who play them. It’s about the people we play with, even if we’re not literally playing with them. Basically, it’s about people.

Shockingly, I’m by far not the first to think about this. There are many posts floating around about this, but the “Players ARE content” article over on Muckbeast (discovered through Rick’s /random) says a lot of things many of us seem to agree with. I’m mentioning this mostly as a topic to return to — and it caught my interest so I suspect it may catch yours too.

Today, I’m specifically pondering how this has affected the guilds I’ve been in over the years. Guilds have always been, at least ostensibly, about the people in them, building community and social networks, but the big raiding games (EQ originally and then, explosively, WoW) have in a way perverted this. Raiding guilds aren’t necessarily about community first — many of them seem to be quasi-military organisations where each soldier knows his or her place, shows up at predetermined times, and has a very specific role to play within the guild’s main aim, which is to “clear raid content.” Apparently in some of the more extreme guilds it doesn’t matter whether you like your fellow guildies or not, because that’s not at all what the guild is about — put up, shut up, do your bit, or GTFO.

(Yes yes, not all guilds are like that, and I’m sure there are lots of fuzzy-wuzzy raiding guilds out there. Certainly there are more and more “casual raiding” guilds out there, who try not to fall into the drama-trap that seems to await all but the most tightly-run — read: draconian — hardcore raiding guilds. KWSN is a casual raiding guild in WoW, where the idea is to prevent raiding from causing envy, grief and fractures. Thing is, fractures and drama seem to be almost inevitable in a raiding-guild environment, because of the way raid rewards have always been set up with many players competing for few, very hard to get goodies.)

Conversely, many smaller guilds have always been about community first. It’s much easier (usually) in a smaller guild, because everyone knows everyone else, and often members know each other outside the game context as well. These small guilds appear to have done the best job of adapting to something most of us playing around 2000 didn’t expect to see: MMO-hopping. Family-style guilds change games with relatively little trouble, and the core of the network is independent of what game is being played.

Medium-sized or large, non-raiding guilds have a harder time with this. Here’s that Muckbeast again:

It is an incredibly common occurrence on an MMO that people start quitting not because the game is not fun any more, but because all their friends are gone. What a shame and what a failure that is.

And when people quit a game, in the vast majority of cases you end up just losing touch with them. Even today, when keeping in touch over the Internet is easier than scratching your butt.

There are quite a few things games can do to change that, but what interests me, especially with CoW’s recent growing/changing pains, is how social groups (guilds) can adapt. As far as community goes, games and game design can in my opinion only influence, encourage, and facilitate. They certainly can’t sustain community — people do that. I’m not trying to downplay how big an influence a game environment can have, but I do think there’s a point beyond which it’s almost entirely down to the meat puppets.

What sparked this post was the realisation that guilds used to be game-based, but that smart guilds aren’t anymore. We had our EQ or UO or AC guild and then our DAOC or WoW guild and maybe our EQ2 or  SWG guild, and they probably didn’t have the same people in them. The eventual guild-based adaptation to that was to go multi-game, and that’s almost an accepted standard now. But what happens when people stop playing for a while, for whatever reason? Usually, we end up losing touch with them again.

I’ve been fortunate enough to be in a guild run by smart and sensitive people who realised years ago that you could be a social gaming entity without necessarily playing the same games, or indeed playing games at all. I’ve been in KWSN since 2000 or 2001, I forget, but I haven’t actually played a game with them for any length of time in several years. And yet, I still (and always will) consider myself a member of that guild. A lot of that is down to those guild leaders and the community they built deciding that leaving a game (or all games) didn’t mean you had to leave the social group, and actively encouraging everyone to stay in touch, at least now and then. Granted, some people drop off the map entirely, but there are some who check in  few times a year, and many many members who check in, post, chat, and in all ways *are* a guidie except that they don’t play any games.

It’s time to abandon the idea of guilds being game-based and start embracing the idea of game-related social groupings. I’ve started calling it “tribe,” partly because the term appeals to me, but partly because it’s a more accurate designator (for me) of a loose-yet-close federation of folks who have at least one thing in common: an interest in gaming. It usually ends up going far beyond that, of course.

Casualties of WAR recently went through an adaptation phase when it became evident that Warhammer Online — the game we’d ostensibly all signed up to play together in that guild — turned out to not be holding everyone past the first few months. Some saw this as a sign of guild disintegration, and it’s true that the guild in WAR has gone through some rough times due to falling membership (though that is turning around very nicely now, it seems). For me, however, it was mostly a question of “Let’s make sure we keep in touch, okay?”

Maybe it’s my temperament, maybe it’s my previous experiences, but I never associate a guild with just the game it may have started in. CoW is not just a bloggers’ guild — hell, it moved far beyond that not long after it was created — and similarly, it was never just a WAR guild, at least not to me (and in fact it was the founders’ aim from the start to be a multi-game guild, which is pretty much a given for any but the smallest, most tightly focused guilds these days). It was about getting a group of people together with common interests and to some extent common attitudes.

So why do we as players still tend to have that knee-jerk reaction when someone says they’re going to stop playing a game? “Ah, that’s a shame, we won’t see you anymore!” You won’t see them in-game — that doesn’t mean you have to lose all contact with them.

I’ve met some great people in games over the last not-quite-decade, many of them through CoW in the last half-year, and I don’t intend to lose touch with them. This blog helps, but there’s a feeling of … family, I guess, for want of a better term, that you get in guilds and not so much through blogs. (It can be a small, tight family, but a large, rambling, fractious family is still a family.) So if any of you leave CoW, I will hunt you down! And if any of you aren’t in CoW and would like to be, head over there and apply — it doesn’t have to be for any particular game. Tell ’em I sent you.

This is getting long, so I’ll keep this for tomorrow: why do we still tend to defaut to the “you can only be a member of one guild” idea when in real life we’re part of a zillion social networks, many of whom overlap to a greater or lesser extent?