What are the social dynamics of MMO gaming guilds?

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Answered by: Janice, An Expert in the MMORPGs Category
Guilds. No longer a trade or manufacturing association of the days of yore, today the institution of the guild is alive and thriving in the world of MMO's. For those unfamiliar with online gaming, remember clubs in high school? Now, remember the cliques? An MMO gaming guild is roughly analogous to a hybrid of the two social constructs.

Guilds contain an assortment of people who are interested in the same activity, more or less. The Drama Club likes to put on plays; the chess club likes to--you guessed it!--play chess, and so on. Player versus player guilds like to group together to kill other players in character form, raiding guilds like to tackle giant monsters (known as bosses) for sweet in-game rewards, and casual guilds tend to have a more laidback approach and are more focused on leveling characters and enjoying game content.

Sounds fairly straight-forward, right? It would be--if guilds weren't made up of real people. Guild members enact the same behavior that any social association of three or more human beings inevitably does. Members of the same MMO gaming guild known colloquially as "guildies” will form both close and casual friendships. They gossip about one another. They both critique and criticize each other. They band together against intruders one day, and the next may blackball a member. They talk smack about rival guilds. Sometimes, they even fall in love.

The really interesting thing about MMO gaming guilds when compared to other artificially constructed social organizations is the distance and degree of anonymity that the internet provides. Gamers can essentially reinvent themselves in the world of the game. You can literally present yourself as anyone you want to be. You could, if you wanted to, construct a completely fictitious persona. And some do.

The best example would be the most lampooned of all online gamer types: the man who pretends to be a woman and plays a female character. On servers where roleplaying is encouraged, the allure of the fictitious persona is institutionalized, as players are required to assume the persona of the character that they play in the game.

The dark side of being able to be a completely different person online is that there is little to discourage boorish behavior. People are rude, and have nothing to lose by being so and only amusement to gain. A person, who would never dream of shoplifting, may unfairly try to garner undeserved in game items or currency (known as being a "ninja".). As a final example, highly leveled or geared players may find a sadistic pleasure in killing lower level and worse geared players repeatedly (known as ganking and criticized as unsportsman-like).

However, this happens less often than would be expected. Most people tend to be the same people in game that they are in real life. Guilds may contribute to this. As you develop friendships with the people you play with in the game, accountability increases. Guilds both encourage and incentivize the maintenance of interpersonal relationships in an anonymous environment.

Free and paid voice chat service programs like Ventrilo or Mumble allow guildies to speak to each other using their real voices, adding an extra level of interpersonal communication. Once a gamer knows what his guildies sound like (and vice versa) they become more tangible to him. Real friendships are developed and often confidences are exchanged. It is astounding to observe how much personal information is traded via public and private chat, particularly in light of the fact that this is taking place in an environment custom designed for anonymity. Over time, personal information like marital status, children, jobs, and sometimes real names become common knowledge among guild members.

These relationships can progress to the romantic realm as well. People may fall in and out of love without ever seeing their love interest's face and in-game emotional affairs are not an uncommon occurrence for those in unhappy marriages in real life. Naturally shy gamers may have their reservations assuaged by the anonymity factor. If self-conscious, you do not have to worry about your personal appearance. After all, no one knows what you really look like. In addition, online flirtations are emotionally safer. If reciprocated, the flirtation may be enjoyed without the risk of further committing oneself. If not reciprocated or embarrassed in some way, peace of mind is an /ignore command away. Sometimes these entanglements become serious. Almost everyone has heard the news stories of the newlywed couple who met playing online MMO games.

Human beings are social creatures, and despite the anonymity, MMO's are designed to leverage the social aspects of gaming. An MMO gaming guild provides a concrete framework for in game social interactions, which sometimes become as or more important that real life social connections, as evidenced by the example of the "bored addict". For the bored addict, gameplay has lost its luster, but he or she may feel compelled to log in everyday in order to connect with the online community which has become important to him or her. The behaviors evidenced within the structure of the MMO gaming guild proves that people will behave predictably, even in an environment that makes it possible to be autonomous and anonymous.

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