Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The unskilled labourers' guild, Azeroth local 666

You know, I once wanted to be a part of the carpenters' guild, but I've never been much of a joiner.

But seriously, folks, words have meanings. The names we give to our online associations are meant to represent the practical motivations for associating. After all, there must be a reason to put up with each others' bullshit ... right? So what does it mean to be part of a guild?

Not much, these days. The concept has degenerated along with the activity which spawned it. Your only choices are the generic:
1. L33t-kiddies. We r teh awsum doodz n we liek killz all!!!1 Easily impressed by phat lewtz and calling everything from toast to political parties teh gay!!! After all, if you spent 500 hours farming the same instance, you must be good! Otherwise u r teh gay! Guild name formed out of any permutation of flame/skulls/dark/legion/chaos/wolves/squad/blood/etc. (!!!) Will delineate in greatly detailed forum posts how they're above such things as arguing on forums.
2. Church ladies. The main requirement here is to lack any capacity for critical thought whatsoever. Never argue or you might make someone cry. Guild name usually a vague Sindarin rip-off. Easily impressed by cosmetic items bought at the game's cash shop. Constantly reassuring each other of how "mature" they are though it's never quite clear what they're being mature about since they have nothing to discuss. Sure they've never bothered actually learning anything about the game they're using as a chat room, but as long as you can yammer on about the weather and politely pretend to give a rat's ass about the daily lives of people you'll never meet, you're golden. OMG cookies! Faux-shakespearean rolesaying a plus.

In both cases, joining is as easy as asking. Of course, you'll be forced to register on a website with forums mainly used for introductory threads. Hi, I'm Bob, I like games an I think this game is awesome! OMG so do we!
You'll also be made to formally state you accept the guild's terms of conduct. No worries. This is purely a gesture of obeissance, your symbolic subordination to the will of the group. At any rate, it's always the same few paragraphs touting "respect" -  read "conformism" - copied and pasted for over a decade from one guild's website to the next, from one game to another. While gamers' lack of self-awareness in this as in everything else always grates, one can't entirely blame their assumption of such generic facades for their meaningless associations. They have merely adapted to environments which deny meaning, which provide no criteria for differentiation. Denmark a prison? Why then the world is one.

A guild ideally designates not only a group of players but its character, the particular niche they have or are planning to carve out for themselves within the greater game world. When there is no such niche to carve, no territory to claim, no incentive to specialize, no constraints within which to work, then players themselves are reduced to faceless, interchangeable unskilled laborers. Grinders. Farmers. Peasantfolk.

A guild implies a trade. In an idealized virtual world, a true MMORPG, individual players would be forced to choose a single race, a single class, and skill variety would be sufficiently restricted to promote the acquisition of only one or two gathering/crafting professions out of dozens. High-quality crafting facilities would be cooperative projects and an assemblage of players would gravitate toward a particular branch of activities. Resources would be location-specific within the game world, further encouraging specialization depending on whatever patch of virtual dirt a group of players manages to secure for themselves. If you happen to be sitting on a fine patch of forest, then members of your guild would be motivated to specialize in cutting and re-growing those trees and various lumber-related activities, from arrows to castle support beams. The crafting facilities you build will likely reflect the use you expect to get from them, again based on your location.
While you likely would never reach something as specialized as a "carpenter's" guild, localized, depletable resources and restrictive personal skill specialization are much more likely to yield player associations with a more trade-oriented philosophy.

Various game mechanics would also go a long way toward punishing the lack of standards evidenced by both leet-kiddie and church lady groups. Competition for limited resources in itself would push leaders to recruit competent participants, not just brown-nosers to sing in tune with their idiosyncrasies. If communal goods are at a premium and can be stolen, then trust becomes paramount and it becomes important to distinguish the truly trustworthy from mere backstabbing sycophants. The more game activities acquire consequence, the more important players' reliability becomes, their purposeful involvement in the activities of that virtual world as opposed to simply logging in to go through the motions every night. When players can directly or indirectly affect each other, ethical behavior becomes a reality - from PKing to anti-PKing and everything in between. This also does a great deal to turn the meaningless rolesaying of WoW-clones into actual roleplaying: if you say you're a Lawful Good warrior of justice, what the devil are you doing hiding in bushes waiting to ambush passers-by? Guilds become segregated by the acceptability of such behavior.

And so on. It's important to note here that the difference between an idealized RPG guild and its current WoW-clone incarnation is best expressed as a series of lacks, culminating in a homogenized lowest-common-denominator lack of options. A lack of repercussions, of ramifications, of possibilities for interaction within the game world, have all contributed to an environment where, regardless of whether you look at a leet-kiddie or church lady guild, the principal virtue is conformity to the superficial whims of guild leaders who, in the absence of any pressure toward success, surround themselves in convenient echo-chambers. The cusp of this degradation of the guild concept was quite well exemplified, as with the rest of the MMO genre's decline, in WoW's early years. As World of Warcraft gradually abandoned true objectives for PvP, crafting interdependencies, control of resources, then abandoned world PvP altogether and dumbed down then shrank its PvE, it razed off layer after layer of demands on players - thus removing opportunities for players to show their quality.

At WoW's launch we used to interview guild applicants. We'd invite them on a couple of instance runs to see how they act. We'd do a background check on the forums to see if their names popped up in any scandals. We'd ask around other guilds about them.
Two years later, with everyone simply farming the same instance of the month and the game world as a whole serving merely as a transit hub between instances, with tanking reduced to an AoE cry, healing to a skill tree specialization and damage to single-minded min-maxing, with both meaning and difficulty removed, guilds had already become a free-for-all open-invite affair. The farce of guild charters which has persisted since then is merely a smokescreen masking the utter lack of meaningful choice, as relevant as the list of rules nailed to ten-year-olds' back-yard clubhouses, window-dressing for thoughtless cliquishness.

These are not guilds. Their clannish behavior aside, they are not even clans in the old FPS sense of competing teams. And, despite the nature of MMO gameplay as mindless unskilled farming, they cannot even be called unskilled worker unions... at least not until they rise up to demand their rights. You have a right to quality. Demand world conflict, demand controllable resources, demand an interconnected, persistent virtual world. Demand an environment giving you the right to call yourselves "guilds" again.

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