In life, a lot of the way we behave is drawn from the social groups we hang out with and the wider culture and societies we grew up in. Humans are social animals. We know what kinds of acts will make our friends like us more, and we also can look at high status figures in our groups and try to be more like them. We also fear being shunned or cast out of the group.
There are also reasons why (most) people don’t do things that local culture feels to be anti-social. Negative consequences include being thrown out of the group or being punished by group appointed peacekeepers — eg. guild leader, forum mods, or even the police or feds. And for anyone with social anxiety (that’s most people to some extent), fear of those things happening – particularly social exclusion – is very strong.
So if a group culture can reinforce positive behaviour and punish problem behaviours, if we could encourage groups to take on board behaviours that we want to see, that could keep problem players and behaviours under control. This is a particularly timely topic right now, when parts of the gamer community are fracturing because of differences in the behaviours they are prepared to tolerate (or reward).
That fracture will never be repaired. Moderate gamers could make common cause once the ultra hateful total-war-against-women faction are pushed out though, and that is very likely to happen.
The other baseline for talking about gamer cultures is the notion of geek social fallacies (GSF). This goes along with the idea that gamers are poorly socialised geeks – I don’t think this was ever true in the main (you can tell this by the number of us who hold down perfectly decent relationships with friends and family), but there is a subgroup who cling tightly to that self-identity. In any case, their social groups were always likely to feel angry and oppressed and that they need to be loyal to each other because regular social humans won’t want them.
Time was, your guild was your portal to multi-player gaming. They are your team, the people you play with regularly, the people you train with regularly if your game has group content that is difficult and/or competitive. At the more competitive ends of the spectrum guild leaders, with their power to kick people out of the guild, are pretty much dictators. Players who want to maintain access to the social and gaming benefits of the guild need to not piss the guild leader off, or they risk being thrown out. Alongside the dictatorial guild leader, hard core guilds tended to be quite fascist in their demands that players should put the needs of the group above their own. Loyalty was demanded, ‘treachery’ punished, and the way to prove yourself could be made arbitrarily difficult. The rewards were good though – being part of a tight knit cadre where you could schedule your weekly routine around your hobby. Shared victories. Great memories.
When servers were more limited, a guild would care about its server reputation. Players would care about their reputations. If a player showed some bad behaviour, you could report it to their guild leader who would probably tell them to knock it off. Sure there were always some bad boy guilds who felt they were so superior to the common folk that normal rules didn’t apply, but they were never the majority.
So guild culture is set by the guild leader, and every player in the guild contributes to it.
What has changed as MMOs have become more gamified is that being able to play at the desired skill level of the rest of the group has become more important to this social cohesion. It becomes harder and harder to keep a social guild together when the best X players are heading off every week to do hard, well rewarded content and everyone else is sitting around. I don’t say social guilds are impossible, they work very well when everyone is very clear about their expectations (one of those expectations is that ultra hard-core players will probably go find an ultra hard-core guild and stop trying to turn the social guild into something it is not.)
And as that changed, suddenly guild leaders felt more pressured to keep ‘problem players’ (could be anyone with poor impulse control) in the guild if they are needed for the raid team. Other players felt forced to put up with a horrid guild culture to sustain that raid access. Suddenly the only criteria are ‘can they play well’ and ‘will they turn up regularly’.
It’s not true of every guild or even most. There are plenty out there who continue to require that members behave like grown up human beings and not lord of the flies. Players who value that will be able to find a home. There will also be plenty where ‘don’t talk about politics’ is one of the pieces of guild culture.
But now times are changing again. The hard-core, never a huge proportion of the player base, has less of a grip on access to group content. Group finders, raid finders, these things all make that need for guild membership less total for a player who wants to see the endgame unless they are committed to the most challenging content. In truth, staying with a game long enough to see endgame is probably less prevalent than in times past. At the same time, the gamers who used to make up those hard-core guilds have gotten older, and in many cases more mature. It is more accepted now that people will want to plan their game time around families or other commitments. And also, the real problem players tend not to be good team players anyway so wouldn’t fit the disciplined guild team model. There are exceptions. Some of those are connected with larger game culture (such as griefing being widely acceptable in EVE). And finally, people are more likely to game in groups dominated by people they have met outside the game, either online or in real life. So the culture and the leadership doesn’t stay in neat game silos.
The key point though is that the culture of this type of group is dominated by the leadership. And that a lot of players will go along with being led if the results lead to fun gameplay for them. And they will do it without too much critical thought about what they are being asked to do, and will be willing to swallow a lot of objections if it means staying in the group. This is more of a human weakness than anything specific to guilds.
So how can games encourage better guild cultures? I’ll leave this as an open question, because I think it is less of an issue now than in the past. If there were hard rules in the game to discourage problem behaviour, guild cultures would automatically improve (for those who need improving). Less requirement for organised grouping is more likely to destroy guilds, rather than just change them. And it’s hard to reward people such as guild leaders for basically being decent human beings.
The issue of what to do with a problem guild is larger than ever, especially when they aren’t limited to a specific game. How to stop people whose idea of fun is making your life miserable. And how to make sure they know where the lines are beyond which it isn’t right to go. But most players, most of the time, will not have to deal with problem guilds.
Why is it that in pick up groups in FF14 or SWTOR, other players seem more polite than they do in WoW? (This is based on my observation).
- It’s the culture of the game. They are all similar in other respects.
- WoW is just that much larger. While the good runs vastly outnumber the bad ones, you are just more likely to run into that one bad egg in WoW. And people always remember the bad experiences more.
When we talk about game culture, we are discussing something that describes a whole swathe of behaviours ranging from when you are ‘allowed’ to roll need on loot to what kind of discussions you are ‘allowed’ to have on the in-game chat channels. Unlike with guild culture, there is no single person with authority to reward or punish behaviour. Instead, in MMOs, the rest of the player base will tend to make its feelings known. Come out with something homophobic (for example) in public chat on a more tolerant server and expect to be a) reported and b) slagged off in chat by many other players, some of whom will be more influential on the server.
Every game and every server will have its own cultural quirks, but there are still a few general observations. There are always exceptions, of course.
- Competitive PvP games tend to have more aggressive, anger-tolerant communities
- RP servers tend to be more sociable and well behaved
- Games where everyone does things with their guild tend to have quieter chat channels
Sandbox games also offer many more opportunities to grief other players. Where the game does not explicitly prevent behaviour, it is very difficult for the rest of the player base to show their distaste for it.
Gamer culture is currently in flux. Here’s my brief rundown though. In the beginning of computer gaming, through to the early 80s, gaming wasn’t particularly strongly gendered or associated with bad boy behaviour. It was geeky for sure, but it was also really common when I was at school to go round your friend’s house to play on their ZX Spectrum or BBC B computer.
The gaming industry had a crash mid 80s. After that, when it was being rebuilt, marketing people decided that their core audience was going to be young men. They were dubbed core gamers. Games were marketed explicitly to them. And the core audience responded. Games sold. The industry did well. A lot of gamers got very entitled – after all, video games were for young guys, along with guns, beer, titties, fast cars, and Maxim. All the advertising tells you so. So the majority of AAA gaming was aimed squarely at this group.
Some of the other gamers drifted away to new hobbies. Others kept on supporting the games they liked but drifted further from the mainstream. Why even buy a console if the only games it will have are genres you don’t like? We could see this pattern breaking up though. Nintendo proved with the Wii that there was a huge market longing for fun family games. Sony ran with Japanese RPGs, massively popular among the non core gamer group. Themepark MMOs picked up a lot of female gamers.
So back to now when there are a large number of gamers who don’t fit the core gamer archetype. Games of all sorts are getting out into the mainstream, helped by smartphones and mobile gaming.
In addition to this, a subset of gamers identify as poorly socialised geeks. It doesn’t matter why this is exactly except to note that gamer communities have been accepting to them and have been their safe spaces to hang out. Add to that the guild/ group mechanics of liking to follow strong leaders and we can see how vulnerable these people (mostly guys) are to being used as massive griefing machines by bored sociopaths who don’t see why the boundaries of the game end at the client – or to put it another way, they want to play MMO PvP in real life. It would actually be better for a lot of these people to just find a game they like and play that, they’d be fine in EVE if they would just stay there. They might even enjoy it.
But now gamers are up in arms. Core gamers feel as though they are fighting for their ancient rights against the legion of social justice warriors who would like to play female characters in decent armour. Everyone is against game journalists. And the ultra arseholes are taking an opportunity to punish women (also other minorities but the level of abuse that female devs and journos get is shocking).
The oddness to me about GamerGame is that it all seems so pointless, unless you buy into the culture war. No one is going to stop making video games that appeal to young men, there’s no much money in it. We have known for years about the close links between the gaming industry and journalists, anyone who was paying attention knew that. So all that we have left is a small number of people who think its fun to make death and rape threats to women who get out of line. Then a larger number of people who are tired of the sexism in the industry (again this isn’t really debatable) and have decided this is a good time to make a stand. Not to mention the usual 4chan suspects who are trying to fight a MMO PvP fight for the lulz. And a load of people in general who are exploring what tactics work to get their messages over on social media, and mostly just annoying each other a lot.
Just as an experiment, I retweeted a headline from the examiner “#GamerGate revealed as misogynist and racist movement from 4chan” ; within a minute I had 5 tweets from strangers telling me how bad examiner is or that 4chan doesn’t work like that. None of them were rude. And 6 other people had retweeted my link. It wasn’t harassment. But my retweet got to a lot more people for a lot less effort than the attempts of the people who wanted to tell me they thought it was incorrect. In social media, it is very hard to suppress the message.
Gamer culture is changing, though. The trolls will increasingly be excluded, because everyone else will realise they just make them look worse. But social media right now is like the Wild West, it cannot yet be tamed.