For the last year I've been very involved with a guild in WoW that is beginning, it seems, to break apart (as so many do after their core members reach 60). I've had a fantastic set of experiences that were possible only in this guild, but their apparent loss leads me, now, to reflect a bit on the nature of social groups, trust, and games. (And, it's refreshing, by the way, to write something here shaped more by my point of view as a gamer than by my research interests.)
Perhaps (no, surely) this reflection is prompted by how highly sporadic "being together" as guild members currently feels to me, something that previously marked our activities on an almost nightly basis. It is interesting that, when people talk about how guilds change, and perhaps end, they often point to one external factor or another (like raiding alliances), and this betrays the assumption that the guild, left to its own devices, would do nothing but continue -- that social stability is the rule, and fragmentation the exception. I'd like to push at that idea a bit (actually, a lot), and I begin by asserting that there is nothing in what a "guild" (or similar social group) is that makes its reproduction a given, all things being equal. The solidarity, the trust, that a guild can generate is better understood as a fortunate and intrinsically fragile achievement tied to a specific kind of game practice.
Social groups, including those in games (and the gameness is relevant in a specific way, but I'll get to that further on), are founded and sustained out of shared experience; this much anthropologists and some other social scientists know. Changes in external conditions can affect that experience, but other factors can as well, including sheer changes in size, in the life circumstances of participants, and in changing member interest. Whatever the reason, once that shared experience is no longer achieved (or its prospects highly attenuated), then the fragmentation of the group is basically inevitable.
This is, of course, not necessarily a "bad" thing. As time marches onward, things (people, circumstances) change, and it's probably true that, as Six Feet Under meditated upon, those in Western societies (broadly speaking) are not very good at (accepting, participating in) such endings.
So far, so what. I'm sure that some version of this take on human groups appears unremarkable. But I would like to add in a few wrinkles, which pertain specifically to what a gaming environment means for the above. Consider, if you will, the oft-spoken of analogy of WoW and golf. Isn't it interesting that golf can be played by the same group of people for years and not necessitate that one or more of the group wants to move on? Sure, players may get bored with a particular course, and mix things up now and then, but a group will play the same course hundreds of times. I acknowledge, in anticipation of what I will say further on, that golfing groups are not always so marked by social solidarity; golf can be a means to an end, in which case opportunities to "move on" and play with a different circle, are strategic. It is also the case that, as I've noted before, golf as a social activity is reproductive of class distinction, and therefore what's going on, even for a small, stable group of friends who play for years, is not entirely innocent, when viewed from a broader perspective. But the point is that, for those small groups who do hang together through a game for years and years, it is, from their point of view, very much about the being together, and what is more, the gameness of the domain itself seems to be central to that.
So what is it that makes games powerful generators of social solidarity, and what is it about WoW that complicates that? It is probably not a surprise to hear me move to the contingencies that games generate for the answer. Apologies to Dmitri and Constance, but I think we can do better than pointing to categories like "third spaces.” We can, I think, begin to get at what is intrinsic to game experience and the generation there of trust and belonging. Here's my assertion: the shared and intimate experience of (complex) contingency is a powerful source of belonging and trust. My ideal type for this kind of shared experience is the small-scale, tactically driven, and “real time” mutual coordination demanded of a group that is gaming together. The size here is important; the group must be small enough not to trade off tactical improvisation for strategic organization. Each plyer must coordinate his or her actions with others, and they must do it not simply in a reflective, leisurely fashion, but on the fly, in an embodied and urgent manner; the goal is to be able to act and react as a group, ready to face any new contingency that presents itself.
Of course belonging can be generated in this way in the everyday. Crisis moments, interventions, accidents and disasters -- all of these can and do generate belonging and trust for their participants. But we do not have these opportunities all the time (and we don't necessarily want them!). Life is uncertain, in a broad sense, but much of our everyday experience is routinized and rationalized. We are rarely called upon to improvise in this intimate way with others in order to act. Games, however, are designed to put us squarely in that kind of situation. They are socially legitimate spaces for us to encounter contingency, whether alone or with others, and it's frequently with others that we do it. Interestingly, in games like golf (or bridge, or bocce, or any other game entrenched in cultural practice), the game itself is not designed to change; it is essentially the same over time. And this is probably important, I would speculate, because comparing performance through time (either between players or in considering one player's changing competence) can be a great source of meaning. I think this is what draws many gamers with existing offline ties to make WoW guilds or similar in the first place -- we want to capture the immediate and contingent (protean) feeling of being together in contingent circumstances, something like the frisson that applies when an atmosphere of intense possibility brings those involved closer together.
So, what happens with WoW? As a far more complicated game than most which occupy this space in society, WoW not surprisingly doesn't work the same way (and, it is important to note, it wasn't designed to) as golf. Instead, WoW (and games like it, including most pen and paper RPGs) is a deeply modernist game, one might say, because of the centrality of measured and artificial progress inscribed in the architecture. The acquisition of competence in the game is architected to such a high degree that, while I certainly gain performative competence (in how to move, type, aim, click, etc), much of my progress is folded into hard-coded changes in abilities (skills, levels, until 60). These stand as simulacra of competence, but are really credentials, authorized by the institution that is the software itself. The contrast with a game like golf is remarkable (where similar proxies for competence are restricted to handicaps and technology, like better clubs). This point bears repeating. While small-scale grouping in the complex game that is WoW can be powerfully generative of trust and belonging, the level system works against this by making credentials stand in place of player skill. This means that the shared experience which underwrites groups in WoW is very fragile, because it is not possible when two or more players are at wildly different "stages" in terms of these changing credentials (not coincidentally, in my opinion, disjunctions between player competence and toon credentials are a continual source of meaning in game, such as in the relationship between one's gear, guild affiliation, level, and displayed performative competence).
Nonetheless, the existence of the ladder until 60 provides a shared framework which can anchor, if a group adopts a level cap, shared experience to a great degree. Think about how much those around the same level are thinking about the same quests, the same places, the same gear tradeoffs, the same increasing complexity of their interface, etc. Most importantly, this gets them all experiencing things together, especially when they're in the same group. And they often want to be, because they need to get to the same places. The shared and intimate experience of the contingencies of an instance, realized in grouping (again, at small sizes, where tactics are still important enough not to be sacrificed) lies at the core of meaningful social (as opposed to individual) experience in WoW, and therefore performs much like the golf analogy would suggest. But by being a skeleton around which shared experience can form, the level system (and any cap linked to it) has already sowed the seeds of its own demise, because it cannot be in place forever.
Also, all along, of course, consumption has been inscribed into the game, in the form of items, many of which are soulbound (and, therefore, are indistinguishable from temporary, elective skills/abilities). Once L60 is reached, that system flourishes; items become the new levels. But items, unlike levels, are tied to specific places, and specific kinds of gameplay, and therefore their single-minded pursuit takes players in different directions. After 60, the styles of gameplay (solo, small instancing, raiding, bg) multiply and, most importantly, it is no longer feasible for a group to impose anything like a level cap. The seeds of treating the group as a means, rather than an end, were there long before, but now find full flower as players come to realize in practice (if not in discourse) that their only chance to continue to "progress" is through acquiring (specific) loot (which itself has very clear gradations). This is such an overriding concern that players will willfully sacrifice the powerful experience of small scale and tactical grouping amidst contingency for the large scale and less intimate (because more bureaucratic, strategic – I’ll leave this aspect for another post) experience of raiding, driven all along by material desire.
So what happens to trust and belonging? They begin to vanish. Not because allying with a raiding guild was ill-advised, or because people's interests changed, but instead because the ladder of progress both built that solidarity and then, by shifting wholly from horizontally and universally-shared levels to loot, broke it. I suppose it would have been possible for WoW to have written the game without raiding, making harder and harder 5 (and 10) person instances until they could only be done through perfect execution. But this would have alienated many players who simply would never have been good enough to advance to the end. By changing the post-60 advancement to raiding (and BG), an almost wholly new set of competencies become involved, which allows for the illusion of one grand yardstick of competence that simply isn't there.
In short, belonging and trust are very fragile things, made even more so by a game that keeps changing its "rewards". We should not, I guess, be surprised that the game ultimately makes its players choose between treating their guild as an end in itself, or as a means to an end, and that too many choose the latter to sustain belonging. But I will be disappointed by it nonetheless. Anyone up for some golf?