Bloggy XMAS Day 14: Community and Me

I’m going to be splitting up my Bloggy XMAS post into two parts.

In this post, I wanted to cover my personal history with gaming communities, mostly to give some context for the following post, on how we can join and form communities.

In college, I was deep into that predecessor of an MMO: the MUD.

  • Schooling overseas, so in a well-populated American time zone.
  • Plenty of free time, with the liberty to cut classes with no compulsory marking of attendance (A boring and uninteresting professor reading from a textbook or talking to the blackboard was easily replaced by actually reading the textbook on one’s own, at a faster speed than narrated aloud.)
  • Alone in a strange country looking for like-minded souls.
  • Strongly introverted.

The perfect ingredients for seeking out and finding belonging in online communities, really.

I’d easily spend a good 12-18 hours a day, just logged into the MUD. (Wandering off AFK to do other things now and then, of course.)

Heck, sometimes I’d even leave the computer on and stay logged in overnight. One’s character would be unresponsive, but one could always scroll back to check what had happened while one was asleep, and one year, I hit upon the idea of making my own primitive chatbot with the basic scripts of the MUD client. A trigger keyword spoken by someone else would produce a string of random responses. It was quite amusing to see others play with and discover the keywords that would produce unique quips, even after they realized there was no one at home.

It should be fairly unsurprising to all that I pretty much ran the full gamut of online community experience during that time.

I joined a guild. (That MUD automatically helped to form sub-communities with pre-existing guilds divided by one’s character class.)

I became a very active and enthusiastic member, participating in every event organized, voraciously eating up advice and knowledge from veterans.

There weren’t quite ‘officer’ ranks in those days beyond Guild Leader, Number One and Number Two, but informally, there were more active people in semi-leadership positions bringing newer folks on ‘raids’ – ‘runs’ in those days, comprising of 3-8+ people. As one gained more experience, I started becoming one of those people.

Being constantly online and presenting as a female character on that particular alt, it is also fairly unsurprising that I started to become a nucleus, a central core around which community or social networks form. (I’m sure you know at least one or two of those folks who seemed to be linked to everyone and know everybody.)

Especially when you mix in an extreme amount of game competency and a willingness to teach (or at least, lead and drag along – I was less mellow in those days) others. People respect game expertise and also want to follow because they either get to learn and benefit or profit without much effort, y’know?

You might expect that eventually, the official ranks followed as well.

And you’d be right.

I don’t think I sought it out beyond the initial application, but just kept being the stellar example of leadership that I imagined that I’d like myself, and just climbed up through the ranks through attrition, as each Guild Leader lost interest in the game or burned out or decided it was time to step down.

Damn, but leading is a helluva lot of work.

I think I lasted a decent amount of time, a year or two, perhaps. I was pretty authoritarian, channeling my best benevolent dictator impression – perhaps inspired by my home country’s ex-leadership. I like to think that I did good during that time.

Inactives that never contributed anything (or indeed logged on) were ruthlessly and regularly purged. I clamped down on stealing from the guild donation vault – stuff that was donated by other members and meant for newbies were being used by some more selfishly oriented members to lazily equip their alts (which were never used for anything that benefited the guild either) and wielded the kick from guild option (called “outcast” in those days) like a banhammer, enforcing rules that had never been taken seriously until then.

The goal, of course, was to form a tighter community of active participants that knew each other’s names and knew they could rely on each other. Social loafing and parasiting was discouraged.

(Yeah, I was fairly elitist in those days too. You were either ‘in-group’ or ‘out-group’ to me. I didn’t care about the out-group, they could go off and do their own things, far away from me. I wanted to cultivate the promising in-group intensely.)

It wasn’t all serious scary business. When I wasn’t being a fearsome GM-like individual (maybe 10-20% of the time, falling to 5% as the guild got cleaned up and filled up with a better quality of people), I was busy being an example of the kind of person and culture I wanted in the guild. Friendly, fun, cheerful, ready to help and respond to anything, with a very hefty helping of the strangely quirky. Kumquats were the official fruit mascot of the guild, fer instance.

At the same time, I guess I already participated in multi-guilding before the concept of MMOs was even formed.

The MUD allowed alts. The alts could belong to different organizations. My guild was primarily a social guild that allowed for aspirations to middle-of-the-road raiding. I wanted more and I knew the culture of the guild couldn’t quite support the high-level stuff (at least not until more people leveled alts of the right class – balance in those days and in that game was non-existent. You just couldn’t defeat certain mobs with all representatives of one class, especially a class with a lower damage skill and was meant to stay at home producing healing potions for other higher-damage classes.)

Naturally, I applied for and got in to one of the premiere ‘raid’ organizations in that time, in that place. Social networking really helped, just like real world job applications, I guess. One of my previous guild leaders was in-game ‘married’ to one of the top players of the MUD. I got to know both of them, and they were my ‘in’ into that organization.

It was a great place. It was a really special organization, formed from a group of people who had broken away from a pre-existing organization and had enough social clout to actually get the imms and coders to create an organization with a new name. (All that stuff was hard-coded, so it wasn’t as easy as it is now to birth new guilds.)

They were fun-loving, but really serious about raids and the cream of the crop – these were players with the oodles of time to run and learn every hard mob, and kill them repeatedly for the good gear that made all their alts big and bad and powerful; these were players who, in their time, had served as leaders of guilds; these were players who read and studied the code of the MUD or wrote item databases for the rest of the MUD to use or knew how to solve mysterious riddles, map changing mazes and ridiculous amounts of trivia about the MUD.

We were, of course, brought together by a certain amount of personal greed. We wanted to kill the biggest and baddest mobs. We wanted no one else to have that level of wealth and to monopolize it all and get richer.

It was the best of times. And the worst of times.

8-11 people cannot sit together in a room (even a virtual one) waiting for a mob to spawn without getting to know each other’s names and socialize and chat.

The culture in those days was to do our best to kill the mob for as many times as there were players, so that everyone would walk away with an equal share of the loot. Mobs would respawn every 15-20 minutes later, or some other set amount of time per area.

(It’s easier for mobs that just need 3-5 people, and a lot more challenging the moment we start talking 8+ people. Someone eventually devised a point system – adopted by others on the MUD later as our members spread it to other orgs – that I think eventually found its way into Everquest in the form of DKP.)

It was also a ton of time spent, and prevented people who didn’t have that sort of time from ever joining the top echelons.

And when there are people and greed and limited loot, there is also eventually drama and fallout.

Oh, I don’t think any of us ever stole from each other. The number of people we’re talking about was just too small for ninja-looting to be successful. When there’s only 300-500 players on a MUD, period, your name will be forever blackened and your reputation dust if one ever tried that. But there was plenty of hostility and rivalry and elitism versus other groups, other organizations.

A divided culture like this only lasts as long as there are enough people to sustain all the little small sub-communities.

When Everquest came out, the MUD lost players to the newfangled graphical interface thingie.

When WoW came out, well… even fewer people stuck around.

I’d burned myself out on guild leading some time earlier. An introvert and a hermit like me just cannot fake it for that long without running out of energy eventually.

I’d burned myself out on leveling more characters in the MUD by seriously overdoing it – the crowning ambition was max’ing out 5 characters simultaneously – I did it, I was really darned happy about it, I used nearly every power-leveling trick there was in the book, and shortly after, nearly every power-leveling trick was nerfed into the ground by an immortal/coder that wanted to close all the bugs (I don’t think that was me though. That coder was intently following someone else to learn what they were doing – the one I’d learned the tricks from, really, and I never abused the worst ones as much as they did,) and I could never get used to the non-cheaty rate of experience gain again.

I’d burned myself out on the slow pace of change. You think waiting for MMO expansions and updates these days is bad? Try a MUD coded by unpaid volunteers. Takes months to change, like, a typo. Take a democratic debate and umpteen meetings to maybe propose that something ought to change, and if the bureaucracy of players who are afraid of change don’t shout the idea down or tear it to shreds, the lack of any actual manpower to code the agreed-on change means that nothing happens anyway.

The names that I was familiar with were no longer logging in regularly. They’d gotten sucked into Everquest. Sucked into WoW.

The community wasn’t broken overnight, but it was never the same as it was in its heyday.

I clung on a lot longer than I really should have, afraid of loss. Loss of reputation, loss of my name, loss of self-image, loss of characters and gear and treasures (stuff auto-deleted in those days if you didn’t log in regularly, it’s not like commercial MMOs these days that keep your records forever.) I spent a long time pining for something that could never come again and complaining to anyone who would listen about the present horrible state of affairs, while not actually enjoying the game I was logging into out of habit’s sake.

But I was running out of people who would listen, as well.

This isn’t meant to be a negative or depressing post, so I’d cut the long story short and say that the revelation finally hit me that I needed to go cold turkey with it all.

It helped that I finally found an alternative game that didn’t follow in the same vein as the fantasy-style vertical progression raid game that I’d already burned out on.

City of Heroes was a great introduction to the world of 3D, with the transient social nature of PUGs that lasted only as long as the game session, and a community that pretty much existed only in whole on a web forum, divided into smaller server sub-communities.

Having burned out from the old game, I went the ol’ antisocial solo loner route on this one, with only a real life friend or two joining me from time to time, minus a couple abortive attempts at joining a supergroup. There just wasn’t any real need to form tight exclusive communities, though I did participate in the occasional fun event brewed up by someone on the forums. Those were mostly one-offs.

Since then, I’ve had plenty of other community experiences.

Many attempts at belonging sputtered out. I tried to join The Older Gamers, mostly for RIFT, and found it a little too megaguild for me, with too many crossover games and too many players a little too casual for my tastes.  There wasn’t anything wrong with it, but a general lack of focus, and my interest in belonging to the community diminished as my interest in the MMO did.

I joined some random guild in Age of Conan and tried my hand at ‘real’ MMO raiding – which wasn’t perhaps the best place to do it in, given the schizophrenic item stats and lack of researched information on what was effective or no, and my lack of a common raid language given that I didn’t play WoW or EQ but only ‘raided’ in City of Heroes.

(It took us a disgusting amount of tries and total raid wipes, until someone finally realized the off-tank taking one dog add was being a bit too insanely gungho in assuming that they had to stay put in one spot in order to get healed by the bear shaman, and running out of defensive cooldowns too quickly. *ahem, that was yours truly*

All it took was one quick demonstration by the other tank/healer pair that kiting around the pillars was ok and perfectly acceptable, and the problem was solved. The rest of the raid could now take as long as they liked to work on the main boss.

Frankly, I was privately amazed that it took that long for them to figure out what the problem was – or whether they knew and were just trying to figure out a way to tell me. One quick direct whisper would have sufficed.

Anyhow, Age of Conan, and thus that guild, died too quick a death for us to progress any further beyond that. And I was already having timezone clash issues.)

I joined some other random guild for Warhammer and Aion, and mostly found out that I didn’t quite fit into groups of young teenagers or barely twenty somethings that liked to run around in a big group killing other people, mostly by outnumbering them, and getting killed in turn, when outnumbered, with little to no effort at improving this equation as a team or analyzing what went wrong.

But there have also been decent enough successes.

I’ve been neighborly in A Tale in the Desert, where communities are formed in a geographic sense, by the people who settle down next to you. There’s a certain tension still in trying to maintain one’s own separateness and independence from communal efforts, which may eat you up and spit you out with nothing much to show for it besides burnout if one is not careful, but also room for being generous and helpful and becoming real friends with people whose chat or company you enjoy (as opposed to just being polite and civil acquaintances.)

There’s the MMO/games blogging community, which is interesting for being asynchronous. Posts are put up in one’s own time. Posts are read, commented on or linked to by others in their own time. But still the network of recognizable names (or faces/voices) form over time via our shared interest in games and talking about them.

I also think I’ve hit a very good balance in my present MMO, as compared to my two old extremes between being too special on the MUD and being no one special in City of Heroes.

In GW2, I’ve lucked into a small, stable, social not-too-casual not-too-serious guild that I can run with for smallscale WvW. (Dungeons and guild missions used to be possible, but timezone clashes are now an issue, more’s the pity.)

The game’s design allows for a WvW community that isn’t too closed off and elitist, so I can still log into the server’s voice chat and easily find the current big group running at the time to join in to get my zerg on.

Ditto that for raids, with a big enough megaguild that also espouses openness rather than exclusion, which gives rise to a large enough cycling OCE/SEA population and sufficient leadership to actually get stuff done.

Nothing lasts forever, of course, but I’m certainly appreciating it while it does.

My main take-home message from this meandering of my MMO history is that there’s plenty of different styles of community out there. It may take a bit of doing, but it’s possible to find one that can suit you and your needs.

Also, don’t get surprised if it doesn’t last forever. Hell, even many marriages don’t last forever, these days. But appreciate the good moments while they happen.

Then try, try again.


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