There's been a great new accidental minigame spawned in World of Warcraft recently. On July 29th, Scott Kurtz of PvP fame invited his readers to join him on the new Dark Iron server. The Horde guild Panda Attack grew rapidly: 500 members by August 1st, and then spin-off guilds. On August 1st, Penny Arcade called upon their readers to create an enemy Alliance guild. There are now at least six PA-associated guilds (Knights of Arcadia, Fancy Lads, Cardboard Samurai, Keepers of the Wang, Annarchy, CTS Dojo). Not to be left out, Ctrl-Alt-Delete formed Horde affiliate guilds on the same server: The Rapscallions and now the Bloody Carrots.
Now obviously this has had some unplanned consequences for the Dark Iron server itself. It has huge queues and major stability problems. But it's also done a lot, in the estimation of most of the people playing in these guilds, to reinvigorate their enjoyment of WoW. All of the comic creators have been talking about how much fun it's been to play, though it's obvious, especially from reading PvP, that there have also been the typical administrative and political burdens that come with guilds, complicating the simple spontaneity of the initial gesture by Scott Kurtz.
There's all sorts of things that interest me about this turn of events. It's not necessarily a precedent for anything, given that the readership of all three strips is almost all composed of gamers, but the interconnection of media audiences and their loyalties with the sociality of guilds and in-game rivalry strikes me as a good demonstration of the cultural potential of virtual worlds, their ability to connect to and amplify the connections between our lives and our popular culture. At a minimum, if I were a MMOG development team (or more importantly, a MMOG marketer), I'd be thinking about the potential for media cross-overs of various kinds (something that Second Life has done an adroit job of playing with recently.) Imagine a WoW guild of "Survivor" contestants versus a WoW guild of "Big Brother" contestants. A WoW guild of baseball players like Curt Schilling versus a WoW guild of NFL players. And so on.
But this isn't just about promotional stunts. It's about how even a minor twist to the tired norms of virtual sociality instantly renews the fun of being in the virtual world. Guilds are guilds are guilds: if you've played enough MMOGs, you know what they're all about, you know the likely configuration of people you're going to meet in a guild. You know where the sources of internal drama and political tension are likely to be, what the kinds of fun you might have are going to be like and when they'll happen. But just a small tweak, a new kind of anchoring of a guild in something outside the game, and hey presto! The virtual air feels clean and fresh and the excitement is back. There's a lesson, maybe more than one, in there somewhere.