Author Archive

There’s not really anything like it, every Saturday I get to go to one of our computer lab classrooms, jump around and yell excitedly about Blizzard Entertainment’s Starcraft II. This is CSL, the Colligate Starleague, founded by Mona “Hazelynut” Zhang over at Princeton University. It started in 2008 and has since has grown into over 240 schools competing around the country. About a year ago, my roommate, GenerallyAwesome, and I founded the George Washington Unviserity CSL team and ended up doing marginally well in the competition. Since, we’ve passed it off to enterprising young sophomores and then returned to our peaceful lives. GenerallyAwesome still competes regularly, and I go to be enthusiastic and get people excited because I’m actually pretty terrible.

The most important part about setting up any kind of offline organization like this is courage. As many of us are painfully aware, the impression is that online gaming isn’t one of the most popular things to be doing and so gathering offline to game and hang out isn’t something a lot of gamers will feel comfortable jumping right into. I felt a lot of this when we were setting up our team (GenerallyAwesome didn’t, he doesn’t care), but I remembered the immortal words of Starcraft II commentator and personality Sean “Day[9]” Plott: Love what you love and show that you love it, people will understand and love you for it. If you are unafraid of what you do and show courage in loving it, people will see that and those that love it too will show more courage themselves.

(more…)

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.

Hey, What’s in a Name?

Posted: October 2, 2010 by twinhits in Games and Life

My name is technically not TwinHits. Unless one has very strange parents, one would expect a more normal name for a person. But, alas, this is the internet and here on the internet, we name ourselves.

It’s not so much in the tribal sense of the word, there is no ceremony where the elders gather around the youth who has ventured onto the web for the first time, laying their hands on his shoulders and delcaring him ‘Starman2000′. Rather, it’s a very personal act. It’s what comes to mind when you stare at the required and empty name field when you start a new play-through on your RPG, or sign up on a new website, or even name your computer so it’s recognizable to you on your home network.

(more…)

This morning, Activision-Blizzard took a well-aimed shot at the basic premise on online interaction.

At about 9:00 this morning PST, Blizzard announced on the official Starcraft II Beta forums that “anyone posting or replying to a post on official Blizzard forums will be doing so using their Real ID — that is, their real-life first and last name — with the option to also display the name of their primary in-game character alongside it.” This change, along with several other less controversial additions, are aimed at making the Starcraft II forums more useful to developers. At the moment, the forums are infested with a mess of redundant and seemingly pointless threads where the forums are intended for constructive feedback from the Starcraft II beta testers. These changes will hopefully bring some order to the chaos and allow developers to shift through the madness without having to separate the troll from the feedback.

Regardless, the idea of being forced to post on an online forum with your real name is somewhat disheartening, and the massive thread count on the Blizzard official forums as well as well-known community sites such as www.teamliquid.net shows how important this issue is the community. The debate can pretty readily be divided into two camps: the realists and the idealists. The idealists point out that this change could deal the deathblow to trolls and flamers on the official forums and do exactly what the developers intended: make the forums into a place for healthy debate and discussion about the mechanics of Starcraft II. The realists counter that without the anonymity of an online alias, no one will post on the forums. The realists arguments range from concerns about potential employers learning about your closest gaming habits to shady characters being about to figure out your personal information with just your name. For the moment, at least, it seems the realists are winning.

The realists concerns aren’t exactly unfounded either, take this post for example. In order to alleviate concerns, a Blizzard employee named Bashiok posted his real name on the forums. In short time, a blog post appeared with his address, phone number, family details, as well as the fact that he lives with his mother. This news story about a gamer hunting down and killing a rival player in May keeps getting tossed around too as further evidence of the need for anonymity.

Internet interaction, particularly in online gaming, stems from a premise of anonymity. In online gaming, one can ‘escape’ from the day to day mundane and become something one is not. Whether it be a Zerg Cerebrate in Starcraft, an Night Elf Druid in World of Warcraft, or even a Star Wars universe Jedi Master, all these things are possible through the  shield of an online name. My name is clearly not TwinHits, but this is the name that I have chosen to separate my online self from my offline self. Without this shield of anonymity, what escape does the internet offer?

Then again, internet anonymity hurts the legitimacy of the internet. Anonymity allows for less scrupulous characters like trolls and forum flamers to exist with little fear of repercussions, the very bowels of the internet exist almost purely because of the veil of anonymity. Without this premise, the internet would be much closer to the real world, being able to take advantage of the accountability and legitimacy of ‘real life’ interaction. Unfortunately, this argument doesn’t hold so much with the younger generation as more and more people accept communication on the internet with just as much weight as real interaction. Fellow bloggers Sir WalterstheGreat and I both have extensive experience with communication on the internet developing into a offline and online friendship

Yes,  Blizzard’s announcement is just one forum, and if this was any smaller of a venue the idea might not be so troubling, but who doesn’t know the names Starcraft and Blizzard? These are influential names in gaming. If the effect is not felt with this first implementation, scheduled sometime before the 27th, surely there will be changes when Blizzard changes the World of Warcraft forums as well.

I for one, am curious simply to see what will happen next when this change takes place, and I’m willing to accept it for now. I don’t post in the official Starcraft II forums, and don’t plan to after this change takes effect. My question for the community is this, as an experiment in online-offline integration, what does this mean for the internet as a whole? If this works, what do you think will come next? If it doesn’t, do you think there is hope for a safe, public, yet still escapist internet?

TwinHits

Guilds as a Force for Learning

Posted: April 2, 2010 by twinhits in Uncategorized

Imagine that you go to college for the first time and have no friends. Sad, but quickly you find a group of people that you like and you hang out with them regularly. With this group of friends you can better learn as a study group, better enjoy time spent outside of class , and have people you trust you can go to for support. Now instead of a college, think of your favorite online video game. Take the friends you made in that game and you have your college friend-group. Imagine now that in order to make your group of friends more efficient in helping each other and enjoying college, you form an institution and make a government. You appoint a leadership, establish procedures and rules, make a community mechanism for friends to communicate when they not with each other. This is a internet video game’s guild. When I was thirteen, I played online with my favorite Star Wars computer game and for the first time and discovered the video game guild. I was jealous of their stature and poise, their fancy titles, and the support they enjoyed from each other all for having a couple letters in front of their name. I remember my first moment was in a crowded guild-run server, two guild members were off in the corner whispering to each other when I stumbled upon them. I had no idea what it was about, and it probably  wasn’t about anything important, but in my mind I could imagine all the important words going on between them. They were probably talking about mind bogglingly important guild business, I thought. A few weeks later, Star Wars: Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy would be released, and I would seize on the opportunity to found and lead my own guild, The Order.

Guilds are institutions. They develop governments, rule systems to insure fair play, distribute rewards, and punish dissident members. Leaders take themselves and their governments very seriously, putting their gametime into their roles as leaders over their intention of enjoyment. An example of this is fellow contributor, WalterstheGreat, who is the first officer for a small guild in World of Warcraft. He could describe it better than I, but imagine entering a game in order to have fun and instead of going out to kill some gnolls or do an dungeon, you are constantly whispered questions about the raid tonight or their friend’s application status, concerns over the behavior of other members or the failure of the raid to succeed as expected, and other guild business. It never stops, soon your gametime is, as Walters describes, a second job. Not spent enjoying the game, rather typing as furiously as you can. Unless you are a super nerd like me, this isn’t how you want to spend your time, and it’s not exactly the classic image of the modern day gamer, but what followed my founding of The Order would be nearly six years of exactly that. I met hundreds of people, learned valuable lessons about leadership, learned valuable lessons about myself, and developed bonds that I will have for years to come. Most of that time, I would spend like Walters does, a bureaucrat and a leader, giving my game time to the community rather than to myself. The most important result, far more important than any accomplishment of The Order, would be that I became a convert to the incredible power of the guild as an institution for learning.

Guild provide gamers with a simulation of leadership. Whether it be a squad based game like Counter-Strike or Call of Duty, a longer teamwork based rewards game like World of Warcraft, or an incredibly open game like my own Jedi Knight Academy, you have the opportunity for leadership. The players that lead guilds have to be real leaders, it’s not just a title. They have to keep their guilds running, retain existing members, recruit new members, all the while consistently providing whatever services their guild offers. Whether this be weekly scheduled events, guild versus guild contests, or organized role-play, someone has to keep it all going. These guild officers sacrifice their time to do things any real group leader has to do. The skills required to lead a guild are little different than those required to be a middle manager, a politician, or in my own case a technical director, they all share the same common leadership skills. Before, leadership skills were hard to teach, our schools are not exactly set up for it. Now opportunities to learn are all over cyberspace in video games. Perhaps most importantly, is that there isn’t anyone sitting you down and teaching you how to be a leader, you have to do it yourself and make it up as you go along. Sure, this is bad, and a lot of guilds will fail along the way, but the guilds allow leaders to learn from their mistakes and apply their lessons right away, an excellent learning simulation for leadership. Curiosity asks what will happen as these young leaders, enter the workforce for the first time in the next few years and what changes they might bring.

 

~TH