Here Comes Democracy

Posted: April 28, 2011 by twinhits in Game Research, Games and Life, New Media, Uncategorized
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I’ll probably start off with this story in every blog post that I write in my life, but when I was thirteen years old I had the honor to found and lead a clan called The Order in the game Star Wars: Jedi Academy. What proceeded was a five year journey that would change my life. I met hundreds of people online, made friends around the world, and most importantly created just the kind of organization that Clay Shirky describes in his book Here Comes Everybody. Clans are different then other online communities, but still operate below the ‘Coasean floor’ and still use the interaction of promise, tools, and bargain in order to achieve this. Still, online game communities serve as excellent models of organizing without organizations and raise interesting questions about the democratizing effects of online social tools.

Online communities in video games go by a number of different names and these names can highlight some very important differences. In Jedi Academy, communities are called clans, while in most other games they are called guilds. Some games have different names for their communities according to the content of the game. For example, both Second Life and EVE Online refer to their communities as corporations reflecting the economic nature of the game-play. In general, however, games that come with a developer supported interface, tools, and other systems that allow the players to create and maintain communities are called guilds. For games that do not support communities, players create their own systems in order to organize clans. For example, in the games Counter-strike and Jedi Academy, the game does not support the creation of guilds. Still, players band together and create communities anyway, usually signified by changing avatar’s name to share some characteristics and staying to one server or location. Clans are an important example of organization below the Coasean floor because of this fact: players go out of their way to create organizations where there were none before and where none are required or even supported, but they do it anyway. There is little value to an organization like a clan other than the enjoyment of it’s members. Without modern social tools, creating a world-spanning organizations simply in order to enjoy a game would be too costly compared to their value.

Shirky borrows the idea of the Coasean Floor from a 1937 paper called “The Nature of the Firm” by Ronald Coase to help show what online social tools do for group forming. The Coasean floor is the point which transaction costs are high enough that no matter how valuable an activity is it is not worth creating an organization to do it. Before online social tools, communication and organization costs money, of which there is none for online gaming communities. The internet, the mobile phone, and other technologies changed this. For example, it no longer matters how much time it takes for a message to reach point B from point A; it matters how long it takes for the recipient to notice they have a message. Clans operate below the Coasean floor, regardless of the fact that there is no system to support them, they create themselves anyway at very little cost. “Loosely coordinated groups can now achieve things that were previously out of reach for any organization structure, because they lay under the Coasean floor.” (Shirky, 47) Applied to clans, this means that anyone can form an organization around a game they enjoy, even if the game does not support such organization.

Clans are created through the interaction of promise, tool, and bargain, just like how Shirky describes other online organizations are created. For guilds in games that have a goal, joining a guild means joining with a promise to progress in the game farther, earn better rewards, and work together better. For clans, the promise tends to be more like “let’s identify together in order to make the game more interesting.” Games with guilds tend to have a lot more replay value, are updated consistently, and are much more populated. People create clans in order to increase replay value in games that aren’t constantly updated with new content, joining or creating a clan is like making your own content. In the case of Jedi Academy, this is often done through role-playing. In Counter-strike, this is done through inter-clan tournaments. The internet also offers a number of tools that are critical to the formation of clans. Most importantly of all is the design of the game itself, Jedi Academy‘s game-play is a much better equipped game to foster the development of clans than Counter-strike‘s game-play is. Both games however, support game-modding, which means to literally add in your own game content. This allows players to customize their games and create game content that supports their clans. Finally, communication programs like X-Fire and online internet forums make communication between members easy and easily allow players to connect to the right place so that members can play together.

Most interesting of all is the bargains that clans develop. Shirky writes that “A bargain helps clarify what you can expect of others and what they can expect of you.” Clans establish joining procedures, codes of conduct, complicated hierarchies and ranks, and even governing documents. These governing documents are particularly interesting, because nearly always in both guilds and clans democracy is the basis of the governing system, usually combined with some sort of oligarchy. Observations have shown that nearly all online communities (but particularly clans) will go out of their way and force the vote into their system. The vote is a powerful bargain, giving every member of the organization a say in what is going on. However, the most successful online gaming community, the Syndicate, is governed by the benevolent dictatorship of it’s founder. Contrary to what is anecdotally the best model for governing an online gaming community, players will still design their communities with democracy in mind.

An often found model of clan leadership is the ‘officership’ model. A few selected members, titled officers, make the decisions for the organization as a group. These decisions can range from who to recruit, who to promote, what server to play on, to various game-play related decisions. These officers are often selected by the other officers, but vote enters anyway generally through two ways. Between the officers, decision making is always done through a majority-rules vote. Also, any larger issues that the officers do not feel they can make alone are submitted to the organization for vote. The Syndicate runs with an officership model also, except that the officers serve simply to advise the guild master on the best course of action, however what action to take is the guild master’s responsibility to decide. This model, as long as the guild master acts to the benefit of the organization, is far more efficient because it reduces the transaction costs of the leadership of the clan. An organization within an organization that suffers just the same benefits and problems with online social media as the organization does as a whole.

Why then, are communities forcing the vote into their bargains? One could use this as evidence that new social tools are indeed democratizing the world, that guilds and clans are examples of a new age where democracy and the vote are the default mode of governance. However, before this claim can be argued, one has to ask oneself an important question. If we find democracy in guilds and clans in America, will we find it in guilds and clans in other countries as well? Will the vote be held to the same respect in China, or will authoritarianism be the default governing style of online gaming communities? What about in the middle-east, will theology be forced into every governing document, or does that one depend on the game’s content? Where does the officer oligarchy fit into the picture, if most guilds and clans use a combination of democracy and rule of the elite? I would like to say that guilds and clans can be a case-study of the internet democratizing the world, but I’d be willing to guess the answer is that we have just gotten really good at teaching our youth about the importance of the vote. So much so, that they force it into even the smallest and seemingly most inconsequential of groups: the clan.

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