Wednesday, June 11, 2014

[WoW] Illusions of Community Grandeur - Communities in Gaming

Going through University, I actually nearly switched my major from Computer Science to Sociology. I had a fantastic professor who really was passionate about the subject, and it totally shone through when she taught. It engaged me at a level that I hadn’t seen in my education before, or since. Now, I kept on with computer science when I realized I’d rather take a math test than write an essay—yet here I am, writing essays effectively one to two times a week for my blog. Go figure.

One of the things I loved about sociology was the study of people in aggregate. The sociology of gender; social norms and mores; deviance; and community. Linking that to video games it’s clear, especially in the MMO space, that community is an extremely important part. The Internet has changed what a community effectively could be, by eliminating geographical boundaries. People often mention the reason they still play WoW is because of their guild, or their community.

Wikipedia defines community as, “a social unit of any size that shares common values. Although embodied or face-to-face communities are usually small, larger or more extended communities such as a national community, international community and virtual community are also studied.”

A social unit of any size is important to note. A community can be your family, your guild, your server, your game as a whole, the entire gamut of gamers. It can also be aligned with ideas, such as feminist gamers, LGBT gamers, and Christian gamers; all sub-communities of both gamers and their respective shared values. Communities are important, because they shape, validate, and reinforce identity. When communities clash, the results can be illuminating, and/or infuriating.

But at what size does the idea of community become useless to the common person?

In a guild—even a large one with over 1,000 members—there’s a sense of camaraderie, and a set of shared rules, enforced by the guild officers. Sure, you get sub-communities, like the raiders, the questers, the pet collectors, and so on, but there’s still a shared purpose and commonality to the guild as a whole.

Even at a server-level, there can be a pretty tight-knit community. A friend of mine recently moved to the Alliance faction on US-Proudmoore in WoW, and commented that people were, “so damned friendly on this server, it gives me the creeps.” I’m proud of my server community. Proudmoore is the unofficial LGBT-friendly server in WoW, so there’s a large contingent of like-minded folks. If you go to Trade or General, people shut down homophobic commentary pretty quickly.

Numbers, yo.

According to Realm Pop, Proudmoore has 154,548 Alliance characters (the server itself is the 10th most populous realm in all of the US). I have absolutely no data to back this next assertion up, but if we assume the average player has 5 characters on the server, we’re talking about 30,000 people making up a community with a very strong identity. Probably less than that given how many of those characters are probably inactive, so maybe 10,000 to 15,000?

But Proudmoore has its trolls as well. In fact, I would argue that the larger a community, the less homogenous that community will be. You see this every day on the Internet, where even in the echo chamber that is Twitter you have verbally violent dissent. The community of MMO bloggers in which I participate in has polite disagreement and spats every now and then. While differences of opinion are fantastic (because otherwise, how do we grow?), disruptions to a community can be stressful.

Within a small, tight-knit community, it’s easy to enforce those social mores. If you can’t work with a person because they’re being disruptive, excommunicating the douchecanoe is a relatively simple thing to perform when you’re talking about a community of 30 – 50 people. Or even just chastising them. For a server, if most of the server is onboard with certain expectations and someone deviates from them, the rebuke is often swift. Hell, when you look at North American society as a whole, which is a MASSIVE community, and take something like sex versus violence, the majority of the opinion swings in a certain direction. But you have dissenters. And as time passes, the social norms about sex and violence are changing, albeit slowly.

Change can occur much more quickly in small communities, as well. How much easier is it to get your close friends and family on board with your opinion on ladies in gaming versus the Internet at large? But in those small communities, homogeneity also seems to be king. While a large community such as North America can tolerate dissenting opinions, because there are enough members to form sub-communities, a tiny one like your family may not be able to cope with 20% of their members (e.g.: you) having a different opinion or outlook (e.g.: being atheist, or gay, or a gamer).

Tzufit recently tweeted about the “WoW community”. While it is a large community, it’s hardly monolithic. Quite similar to a large city, actually. If you look at London, or Sydney, or Vancouver, or Seattle, while certain, shall we say, stereotypes hold, there are still a ton of sub-communities within each city, and those sub-communities are extremely diverse in their opinions. And it’s possible to be part of multiple communities at once, including ones that don’t generally overlap.

So is it useful to talk about the WoW community as an entity given how massive it is?

I think it depends on the context. If you’re talking about people who are playing WoW, and trends around the game, such as GearScore, or requiring ilvls higher than the content you’d be running, or general attitude in LFR, I think it’s a useful entity to discuss, as that is the commonality between those people—and frankly, I might be pushing that limit considering the fact that WoW itself has a number of sub-games, such as Pet Battling.

I think if you’re talking about a subset of jerks on the Internet yelling at someone because they didn’t like what was posted about WoW, but you have just as many folks saying, “Hooray, good for you!” I don’t think you can attribute it to that particular community. Not to mention, as Ghostcrawler once pontificated on at great length, the silent majority of people who just sit, read, watch, and play. Or they don’t even read or watch; they just play, and aren’t participating in the community outside the game, splitting your playerbase into a small, vocal minority and a large, mute (and effectively invisible) majority.

But at the same time, I also don’t think you can just wave your hands and say, “Nope, not our problem.” It’s similar to the post I made before about underrepresented people in games. If you are silent, nothing will change, so calling people out on their behaviour is probably necessary, or at least vocally disagreeing with it. Which is hilariously ironic, since that’s precisely what the folks who are yelling at someone because they didn’t like what was posted is doing. But that’s how change occurs in a community: someone or some people pushing for said change.

In my opinion, the word community gets bandied about a lot, but I think its usage masks just how large and disjointed WoW’s sub-communities are. Treating that many people in the same way as you’d treat your family or your guild isn’t really useful for discussion. Rather, I’d treat the WoW community as an online society, or gesellschaft. It’s certainly large enough.
#Community, #WoW


  1. Minor sidepoint, but that green section (male) on the pie chart is larger than the purple section (female). How do you figure there are more female characters?

    "While differences of opinion are fantastic (because otherwise, how do we grow?), disruptions to a community can be stressful."

    There's a significant difference between disagreement (polite or otherwise) and people just being assholes.

    1. "Minor sidepoint, but that green section (male) on the pie chart is larger than the purple section (female). How do you figure there are more female characters?"
      ~Derp. Good call, not sure what I did either. Today on "Talarian needs more sleep..."

      "There's a significant difference between disagreement (polite or otherwise) and people just being assholes."
      ~ Agreed 100%

    2. Changed the caption. Thanks for pointing that out!

  2. I think communities come in sizes as large as WoW. I think maybe you're trying to question at what size the definition becomes useless? And to me the answer seems: at no size is community as a descriptor useless.

    Compared to rival communities, like say Eve Online, we can definitely point to many, many things WoW players all have in common and which unify their ideas, purpose, and activities. As far as what gamers permit within their communities (such as bigotry or descrimination), I think holding the group accountable is exactly what communities are designed to do. The group is responsible for what goes inside it, because if it goes on it's because its permitted. Otherwise we get into questioning whether the group has lost control of itself or is being controlled by outsiders who force these things upon them. I definitely think an argument can be made for that, but I tend to err on the side of the argument that makes the community accountable. it's hard to say, and that gets kinda complex to figure out. I'm just brainstorming the possibilities. What do you think?

    How to reconcile differences within the community is a whole other question. But I think communities have differences and divisions, and that doesn't make them less of a community.