Monday, January 19, 2009

Community Chest

In the open Sunday thread a reader posted a question about what I thought of the quality of the WoW community, compared to other games' communities. Not an easy question that, because there isn't just one WoW community, there are thousands. For example the community on the official WoW forums is fundamentally different from a server community, or the communities formed by a guild.

But in general we can observe two major trends weakening the WoW community, compared to other games: Size and soloability. There are so many WoW players, even on one server, that tracking them all becomes impossible, and people behaving badly can disappear into anonymity (not to mention the possibility of changing server, name, and look). At which point we are back to John Gabriel's Greater Internet Dickwad Theory. And as you can do major parts of the game alone, and aren't forced to rely on other players, cooperation is basically limited to the endgame.

So if you compare the WoW community of 2009 with lets say the EQ community of 2001, there are huge differences. In EQ you couldn't even level without a group, and a wipe could cost you weeks of progress. Thus there were server forums with "black lists" of people behaving badly, and somebody who had already left 3 guilds just would never have gotten into a 4th one. Being forced to rely on other players has its drawbacks, but it sure improved loyalty and community spirit.

World of Warcraft is a much more selfish game. There are even lots of bloggers singing the praise of selfishness and everyone for themselves. Funnily it is then usually the same people who complain about players in their raid group being less skilled or not dealing enough damage. If you consider the system of WoW, of guilds, of loot, and social dynamics, it quickly becomes apparent that the optimum way to improve your gear in the fastest manner is being the *least* powerful player in your raid. If you are undergeared compared to the content you are beating, your chances of getting an upgrade are the highest. Both because other players might already have that gear and pass it to you, and because you can use every drop. So to maximize progress for yourself, you would need to leech of better equipped or skilled people.

Obviously that is a tragedy of the commons type of problem. If everyone maximizes his self-interest, it doesn't result in maximum overall good. Communities which involve some selflessness can fare better overall than those in which everyone just looks out for himself. And that is something that happens even in WoW, in sub-communities, for example some of the more friendly guilds (mine included). Completely selfish guilds not only suffer from a lot more strife and guild drama, but also experience frequent throwbacks in progress, when the most powerful members do the rational selfish thing and go leeching of a more advanced guild, instead of having others leech of them.

As soon as you accept other values than pure self-interest, values like loyalty and friendship, suddenly the weaknesses of WoW turn into strengths. Suddenly you aren't dealing with leeches any more, but with people voluntarily helping the less advanced guild members, giving them a leg up. Which in turn not only strengthens community values, but ultimately lets the whole guild progress at a faster pace. A selfish guild is constantly rejecting people coming from below who want to profit from the others in the guild, while losing people to guilds above, and that process costs the guild as a whole a lot of energy and is unpleasant. A more selfless guild accepts differences in time spent and skill, and by making the best of it loses less energy to guild drama, enabling them to concentrate on overall progress. And we shouldn't forget that World of Warcraft is a game, a form of entertainment, so the relative values of harmony and getting ahead aren't necessarily the same as lets say in a work environment. What good are those purple pixels to you if they came at the price of lots of shouting, backstabbing, and guild drama? Would you rather log off at night having had a lot of fun, or would you rather log off angry and stressed, but with another 1% gain to your stats?

So, community values in World of Warcraft are definitely under pressure, but the battle isn't totally lost yet. Everyone still has the option of avoiding the most ugly aspects of the community, for example by choosing another game forum than the official one, or by choosing a friendlier guild. But those who prefer a dog eats dog environment, can choose that one too. The problem becomes one of carefully choosing one's company, which is not necessarily a game design problem.

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