Discipline & Pwnage

Dp2_1 So I've been having my usual beginning-of-the-semester chats with my graduate students about their projects and progress. I enjoy these, and I think they do to (they almost never complain about the thumbscrews, or -- more of a shock -- having to read Habermas). One of them, Krista-Lee Malone, is a master's student and long-time gamer who is completing an excellent thesis about hardcore raiding guilds. During our chat she said something about how these raiding guilds went about preparing her to participate in their activities, and it prompted me to follow up on some ideas from here. It's about Foucault, bodies, institutions, and whether the relationship between developers and guilds is changing in important ways.

Krista-Lee plays a priest (one with more purples than I'll ever see for my druid, I'm sure), and what she said was (paraphrasing), "I can healbot Molten Core in my sleep, but if I'm thrown into a new situation, I can't heal at all." While that's probably an overstatement, it suggests something about the nature of raiding guild discipline -- at least, pre-TBC. It turns out, and this is not unusual, that the guild power-leveled her toon and then taught her to follow a very specific and detailed script for the instances they were running, starting with UBRS and then through Naxx.

Michel Foucault famously argued that the power of modern institutions is driven, at root, by the ability to discipline people, or, more directly, to discipline their bodies -- to mold those bodies and order their actions in ways that allow groups to achieve institutional objectives effectively. To do this, they draw on practical techniques developed first in places like early Christian monasteries and the Roman legions. Bodies are organized, regimented, taught to sit, to stand, to kneel, to match their singular shapes to the demands of regularity -- no pinky out of place, the leg held just so. The effect of this "bio-power", as he most convincingly shows in Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, is not only effective institutional control over otherwise unruly subjects, but in fact a re-shaping of their selves. They come to see this discipline as consitutive of who they are, as shaping their very desires. The classic (and idealized -- practice is messier) example is the panopticon, where prisoners are architecturally situated in view of an invisible and authoritative observer. The guard watches from in a darkened room while they are laid out in a brightly-lit Cartesian grid. It comes to matter little if the guard is there at all, as the prisoners internalize the surveillance.

I'm not saying that Krista-Lee was a prisoner of her guild. Um, exactly. Foucault argues (in later works) that this disciplining of bodies is something taking place all around us, particularly as we learn to act within highly-regulated contexts, like schools, the military, hospitals, and airports. And, like the prisoners, he asserts that we come to accept and even celebrate the kind of self the institutions have made of us.

All of this is to get us thinking about to what extent hardcore raiding guilds should be seen in a similar light. The essence of disciplined bodies is that they are malleable; they can be shaped to perform in lock-step (literally) under a command hierarchy. The tension, of course, is that this strategic control always involves a tradeoff with the tactical, the ability of a group to respond on the fly, to emergent situations. For Krista-Lee, this effect was directly discernible -- while she enjoys soloing and quest-grouping, she felt lost in new instances, when there wasn't an explicit script to follow.

As I've pointed out, for WoW, this had -- before the expansion -- created a mutually constructive relationship between the 5(10)-person instancing and the large-scale raiding. While small-scale grouping not only allows for, it depends upon, tactical rethinking on the fly, large-scale groups narrow and leverage the set of available class skills (maybe hunters begin to leave pets behind, druids get pushed into healing, only one hemo rogue is called for) into more strictly-defined roles. The small-scale was, perhaps like boot camp in the military, an intense and necessary part of enculcating a set of competencies (what is a pull, sheeping, aggro), but one that ultimately is left behind, smaller in comparison to the institutional ambitions which these competent bodies now serve to realize. Rationalized systems of resource distribution, like DKP, along with political structures and communications tools, play a role as well for these institutions, harnessing individual desire into organizational discipline, to get the 40 people needed together all at one time, ready to down Onyxia, or tackle a world boss.

The reason I think this is particularly interesting for us to think about now are the cases of both WoW and Second Life and some of the recent changes these VWs have undergone. The downsizing of endgame instances in WoW, the availability of soloable loot roughly on a par with Tier 1+ in Outland, and (to my unsystematic eye) the prevalence of small group quests there with excellent rewards, all suggest that Blizzard's moving away from supporting the emerging institutions (guilds) of its creation, ones which had dominated server culture for pretty much the whole game. This is an interesting contrast with past TN conversations, like the one here.

By contrast, the revamped estate tools in SL (which I'm sure many folks out there know more intimately than I), increase the amount of governance by island owners not only over a piece of property, but also over a group of people, and in fact these tools have thereby become deeply intertwined. To my eye, this enables the generation of institutional players on the SL landscape that LL has never had to deal with before. I'm not thinking first of the existing external institutions with a "presence" in SL, but rather of those entities that until recently we could somewhat reliably continue to think of as individuals, but which are now better understood as institutions. While the relationship of LL to some of its major content creators has been undoubtedly cozy, one can't help but wonder how long that will last -- institutions are competitive. The interesting thing about Second Life is the extent to which Linden Lab has had a "free-ride" for a long time, effectively being the only large institutional player in the arena. Social convention was emergent from the users, and was (is) something with which to contend -- a lot of time at Linden is devoted to this "community management". But architecture, the market, and "law" (others modes of governance, as I see it) were all firmly in Linden's hands. That's changing now, and the question is whether Second Life will fly apart at the seams once these other institutionalized interests find their footing.

All this is really just to wonder whether we're entering an era where the relationships between virtual world makers and the people involved them are changing. It is probably wise for us to get in the habit of thinking just as readily about developer/(in-world) institution relationships as we do about developer/individual player relationships. I actually think this will be a hard habit to break -- the idea of the game maker/game player relationship as primarily institution-to-individual is just one instance of the engrained tendency for those in industrialized societies to think about social institutions primarily as they relate to individuals.

WoW and SL both demonstrate, at a very broad level, different solutions to the emergence of institutions within their creations, an emergence that was, I believe, inevitable once resources began accumulating within these persistent and contingent domains. Foucault, like Weber, thought that people banding together to accomplish something was fine, but was wary of what happens next. Once any nascent institution begins looking for something else to accomplish, its primary raison d'etre has already changed. At that point, it's more interested in its own reproduction than in its original aims or purview. Once that happens, look out.

[Addendum: Ever-alert Julian Dibbell points to ShaunConnery's Rapwing Lair. Surely the script in Krista-Lee's guild never sounded so good.]


Comments on Discipline & Pwnage:

Mike Rozak says:

"Michel Foucault famously argued that the power of modern institutions is driven, at root, by the ability to discipline people, or, more directly, to discipline their bodies -- to mold those bodies and order their actions in ways that allow groups to achieve institutional objectives effectively.

This scares me more then the issue of whether games have to deal with players as groups whose motiviation is not just fuctional, but all about continued existence.

It's all fun and games until your guild turns into a RL paramilitary organization... or cult.

Posted Feb 2, 2007 12:38:46 AM | link

Pete says:

... or the developers get involved in the game and start cheating, then get the whistle blown on them by forum hackers: http://www.kugutsumen.com/

Posted Feb 2, 2007 5:18:03 AM | link

Ace Albion says:

"It's all fun and games until your guild turns into a RL paramilitary organization... or cult."

It would be cool if someone with some academic authority studied the Gorean BDSM roleplay institutions in SL with that in mind. It's certainly an accusation often thrown at that scene.

"They come to see this discipline as consitutive of who they are, as shaping their very desires."

That's the happiness in slavery many enter into submissive lifestyles to find. It is disturbing that this is the effect of high level guild play "grinding by rote". I mentioned this is some other discussion here, but I think these MMO games have it backwards- surely the selfless-soldiery should be the bootcamp, and the small teams of expert players solving problems in changing environments (like elite military teams) should be the pinnacle of the game?

Posted Feb 2, 2007 7:34:39 AM | link

ErikC says:

The article is interesting but moves from Foucault to other viewpoints. I personally think Asimov's 'the Foundation' series is more pertinent to MMOs once we move past the King Missile ("I'm an individual like all the other individuals") phase. The Kantian sublime, by the way, explains the same phenomenon but with the exact opposite perspective, our body conditions us this way, but our mind overleaps it.
I wonder what Foucault thought of Zen Buddhism, I am not controlling the mouse, I am the mouse...

Posted Feb 2, 2007 7:37:00 AM | link

Allen Sligar says:

@EricC

Heh...thats a good question, what does the relativist think about the nothingness?

I cant imagine that game play experiance for the Priest that only knows scripted instances is some kind of fun.

This is more a matter of what kind of organization she belongs to rather than that all large guilds are like this. OTOH most PVE oriented guilds tend to be highly structured dogmatic (and not very appealing) mostly because large raid PVE takes no skill set whatsoever.

Smaller instances as you say, do take a more varied, multiple skill set oriented group filling various roles. This is why PVP oriented guilds or large/small casual guilds are excelling past the type of mega-raid guild that WOW has bred (none of which seem to last longer than 1-1.5 years, and certainly not past WOW) in TBC.

At least this is my experiance on 2 of 3 WOW servers whose population I watch (2 PVP 1 PVE server)

Posted Feb 2, 2007 1:40:45 PM | link

greglas says:

Hi Thomas -- the title of this is just great. We should all aspire to such post titles.

One Q: you say "Foucault, like Weber, thought that people banding together to accomplish something was fine, but was wary of what happens next. Once any nascent institution begins looking for something else to accomplish, its primary raison d'etre has already changed. At that point, it's more interested in its own reproduction than in its original aims or purview. Once that happens, look out."

Is that last sentence you speaking or your reading of Foucault, or both? I've always been a little puzzled about Foucault's politics, and I think Foucault did his best to resist categorization. So, although I get (well, mostly get) his descriptive and theoretical points in D&P, I'm often at a loss to describe his normative voice. So I can see what you mean about guilds and discipline, if that is your view, but I have no confidence that this is what Foucault would think about it. Can you point me to some language.

I've got D&P, (Vintage (1995)) on the bookshelf, btw, if you've got it and can give me a page reference from there to clear this up.

Posted Feb 2, 2007 5:41:49 PM | link

Jen Dornan says:

I wholeheartedly agree with the notion that raid oriented guilds can be likened directly to other hierarchical organizations that rely on disciplined bodies. Foucault generally saw the increasing institutionalization, bureaucratization, and routinization of the body as a creeping evil resulting from changes in our social structures. He seemed to believe that this kind of behavior is based on those higher up in the hierarchy constantly working to reinforce the legitimacy of existing power differentials through symbolic, semiotic, and performative processes. In other words, the reason he thought people participate in these kinds of embodied discipline was because they are on the losing end of a diffuse power struggle permeating all social relationships.

So, I can’t help but wonder how we explain why people seek out these kinds of experiences? I don’t know the answer but I will admit I endlessly enjoyed being a healbotting resto druid in my guild.

Perhaps there is a natural human drive to feel part of something larger than oneself? If people are finding ways to satisfy this urge within MMOs, we are seeing much larger social urges driving in-game behavior than most developers imagine. This fits in with my belief that people are seeking all kinds of social forms in MMOs that are on the periphery of the kinds of social interactions we would expect. Beyond “fun” people could arguably be joining guilds for the very same reason people join the military or any other closed, disciplined group.

I totally love the idea of looking at relationships between developers and institutions as a way to explore these kinds of social relationships and structures being formed in MMOs!

Posted Feb 2, 2007 6:53:26 PM | link

Thomas Malaby says:

Thanks for the comments, all. In retrospect, I think ErikC is absolutely right -- there are a number of main points in the OP whose connections are not fully drawn. I suspect, however, that to do so would be a full-length article.

@Greg: Thanks re: the title -- once it occurred to me I couldn't wait to use it, even if the post came out of the oven a mite early (and I credit Dan just as much for the title -- it arose in private tells with him in WoW). In answer to your question, I am trying to give an account of how I believe Foucault saw institutions, and in particular the relationship between ad hoc political action and institutionally-organized action, though it's certainly my view at least. I may, I admit, be inferring a fair amount from what is in truth a limited number of tantalizing passages, mostly in interviews. The primary place to look for these suggestions is in an interview he gave (I'm not at my office atm -- I think it's in Power/Knowledge), where he is asked about activism. There is also his discussion of "subjugated knowledges" (I think in the same volume). I'd be happy to correspond with you about it with my copies of the texts at hand.

@Jen: Thank you for the comments. Foucault's answer to your question, I would surmise, is that we want to participate in disciplinary activities (boy, does that sound wrongly suggestive) because the power relations constituted through them are "productive" -- of lots of things, including pleasure (this discussion is in The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1). So, for example, we have wound up with a "confessional" culture, where confessing our feelings (in narrative) is seen as a source of pleasure, only because of a long history of insitutions (the church, psychiatry, etc) that made the expert interpretation of spoken secrets their purview. That book is really a core text for understanding Foucault's take on power, even if he somewhat contradicts his earlier, practice-oriented work (like D&P) by overstaing the power of discourse. His ethics of self-care (in his later work) seemed to be an effort to move away from this connection between power and pleasure, but I'm not an expert on that aspect of his work.

I guess one of the ways I can try to knit the OP's ideas together a bit more is to raise the issue of legitimacy and belonging. The rise of institutions within VWs intrigues me because it suggests a potential clash between them and the institutions that make the worlds, both of which may presumably end up competing for the right to discipline their subjects.

Posted Feb 2, 2007 10:05:38 PM | link

Thomas Malaby says:

Ace wrote:

I think these MMO games have it backwards- surely the selfless-soldiery should be the bootcamp, and the small teams of expert players solving problems in changing environments (like elite military teams) should be the pinnacle of the game?

I agree, and I talked a bit about this in the previous post to this one, here. There, I thought about how the code of these games (as opposed to, say, FPS's like Unreal Tournament) makes credentials (levels, talents, soulbound gear) stand in for competence. It's interesting to think about the 5-man and 25-man instances of TBC as part of a return to emphasizing competence over credentials, but my limited experiences in two of them -- Hellfire Ramparts and Blood Furnace -- did not bear this out. They were not difficult at all, especially when you compare them to, say Stratholme. But, there are many more to try, so it's probably too early to say.

Posted Feb 2, 2007 10:32:04 PM | link

Moses Wolfenstein says:

Thomas wrote:

"Foucault's answer to your question, I would surmise, is that we want to participate in disciplinary activities (boy, does that sound wrongly suggestive) because the power relations constituted through them are "productive" -- of lots of things, including pleasure"

I just wanted to mention that given Foucault's own preference for S&M and the like, as wrongly suggestive as that sounds it probably captures his perspective pretty well.

Posted Feb 3, 2007 8:41:49 PM | link

Thomas Malaby says:

Yes, Moses, no question. It would just be a shame if his claim were reduced to that association.

Posted Feb 4, 2007 12:26:25 AM | link

says:

Moses Wolfenstein said:

"It's interesting to think about the 5-man and 25-man instances of TBC as part of a return to emphasizing competence over credentials, but my limited experiences in two of them -- Hellfire Ramparts and Blood Furnace -- did not bear this out. They were not difficult at all, especially when you compare them to, say Stratholme. But, there are many more to try, so it's probably too early to say."-

Actually great equipment makes the first couple of instances trivial. Groups still in blues and without much resist gear are finding those instances quite difficult.
---

I soloed and small grouped my character into the end game. I eventually found a casual Raiding guild. They were regularly raiding Molten Core and the 20mans (ZG and AQ-20). I found that after basically exclusively raiding with no other grouping or soloing. That my skills in a 5 man group had atrophied. I found myself having to relearn how to play my character effectively in a group. I play a hunter and our guild actually allowed pets out for most fights in raids, so I didn't have any issues there. It was just the loss of the ability to quickly deal with changing tactical situations.

I would love to see the scripted boss encounters to become more dynamic. It would be nice to see better AI implemented on all encounters.

Posted Feb 4, 2007 2:03:27 PM | link

Bart says:

What you describe here is what seperates mediocre or average raiding guilds from quality raiding guilds.

I'm in a raiding guild, and unfortuately my guild is somewhere in the middle of mediocre and quality.

Your average, mediocre raiding guild consists of dedicated players who can come into a zone, learn the encounters via several attempts, understand the patterns and mechanics, and re-create them each week. Once you master the mechanics, it's auto-pilot. Many of these guilds struggle without pre-published strategies and heavy mentoring from guild leaders.

Then you have your quality raiding guild that excels in these same zones. The players from these guilds, top to bottom, can master nearly any encounter (at those that aren't gear checks like resist fights) within an hour or two. Every player has a deep understanding of game mechanics, every class ability (not only your own, but others) that could help in the encounter, and a willlingness, almost an eagerness, to try new and different methods to conquer new bosses.

I'm thrilled at the lower raid size, it allows us to weed-out players that are just 'along for the ride' and are trained to simply press 3 buttons for a 4-hour raid over and over, regardless of encounter. I'm not saying your grad student falls into this category, but I know I have some people in my guild that need to be drug through a zone by 5 other players, hand holding every step of the way.

Posted Feb 6, 2007 2:31:30 PM | link

Thomas Malaby says:

@greglas: A quick reference that you requested, since I find myself in my office with the books at hand. The interview in which Foucault talks about local, specific political action as the proper cite is "Truth and Power" and it is reprinted *both* in The Foucault Reader (p. 51-75), edited by Paul Rabinow, and Power/Knowledge (p. 109-133), edited by Colin Gordon. The actual question that prompts Foucault's ruminations on this is on p. 67 of the Rabinow volume. Hope that's useful.

Thomas

Posted Feb 7, 2007 3:42:30 PM | link

Neils Clark says:

One interesting experience, from my hardcore raidings. The raid institution absolutely punishes individuals who seek to fall outside their rank-and-file instructions, and I think that the nature of these disciplines highlights another reason for entrance, to a great many raid guild members.

Once instance was the Twin Emps, about 6-8 monts prior to the expansion. A druid with excellent healing and damage gear had the desire to do damage, so much so that he refused to heal. The guild leader wouldn't tolerate it, since in his mind it jeapordized the group goal of killing the boss. He not only ejected the druid from the raid, but also from the guild - at the cost of a few other long-time guild members.

This guild leader was extremely aggressive, and at times violent and mean in his desire for progression. When we finally defeated the twin emps, and then after 3 weeks of hard work, c'thun, at each boss he rewarded each person with 200g ---- and the feeling of learning that script, and pulling it off ---- truly amazing.

The guild leader was certainly an aggressive force in driving the guild's progression forward. TBC may bespeak of a shift in how guilds play out, but we might want to look past their objective as solely for the specific scripts or (obviously) the gear rewarded when those scripts are successful. There are so many rich layers of reward - progression, completion, in-server and worldwide recognition, items, gold...

But don't think that TBC really put a dent in that pursuit. We haven't yet begun seeing people showing off the world-firsts, besides of course the French powerleveler (first to level 70). People had started raiding within the first few months of the original WoW, 2 years ago. People will complete tier 4 and 5 quests, if only to show off among their server-mates of 2 years. Some of the reasons for entrance have mutated, but many remain fully intact.

Guilds have been preparing and, in many cases, cutting their numbers. When people start figuring out the bosses of Kahziachkaistanipants (Whatever it's called, I don't pay attention), everyone's going to hear about it - from Silvermoon to Tichondrius.

Posted Feb 12, 2007 6:28:59 PM | link

Thomas Malaby says:

That's a great comment, Neils, and it connects with things I've been noticing post-TBC that probably call for another post themselves. In particular, the rise of, effectively, soulbound currencies (Holy dust and the like) could change the relationships between individual players, loot, and their guild significantly. While I don't think it's the end of DKP, it definitely refigures the nature of reward in high-end instances to something that, at least at first glance, would seem not to call for the massively rationalized systems of loot distribution that enabled guilds to actually *have* the players they needed to run an instance both the first (unsuccessful) time and the 25th (successful) time.

Posted Feb 12, 2007 11:19:18 PM | link