Saturday, January 10, 2009

The guild as a social contract

One of the most interesting things you observe in an MMO as opposed to single-player gaming is how the rules of the game inform the culture of the players. If the best loot in an MMO was available from solo quests there would not be nearly so many guilds, and the ones that you did see would be far less structured and more social. But since the best loot is obtainable only from 25-man raids, guilds exist (ignoring PVP in this example). This part is obvious, but the game design decisions of how loot and dungeons work all contribute to tendencies in your player culture.

There are a couple interesting posts about loot and fairness. Matticus tells about one situation that makes him question loot systems:

A paladin decides to take a break from raiding until new raid content because he already has all his gear from the current raid content, ahead of everyone else.

And Gevlon the Greedy Goblin defends the paladin's decision and tells of one of his own:

A player decides to quit his guild after an extended break in raiding due to holidays.

How do both these players make you feel? Is it fair for them to leave in these cases? Both situations incurred the disdain of the two players' guildmates, and spawned lots of comments from posters voicing their disapproval.

There is something very basic going on here when people feel an instinctive negative reaction to these situations. We are a social species. The rules of the 'game' we have played for thousands of years as a species are similar to the rules of an MMO. We can't do as well individually as we can as a group. A guy living in a shack hunting his own food won't do as well as someone in an organized village. We need families and communities in order to supply us with the best security (it's easier to defend a city than a shack), food (it's easier to grow and store food for a large group than for one person) and education (it's more efficient to train groups than individuals) and so on. We all know instinctively that we depend on the group we are a part of for our own welfare, and that we can all contribute to the group effort as individuals. Individually, one guy can decide that since everyone else is contributing to the group effort, he might as well sit back and enjoy the benefits of everyone else's work and secretly do nothing. Sure, everyone wants to get the most for the least effort. But we immediately realize that the entire thing breaks down if everyone decides to cheat the system. The village burns down and we're all living in our individual shacks like idiots. So what do we do? We all enter into a social contract, one so basic and universal that it rarely needs expressed in its most fundamental form: Do your fair share to help the group and the group will help you. If anyone tries to do less than their fair share, we immediately react negatively. It's a fundamental instinct. Some psychologists believe that cheater-detection is hard-wired into our human brains. Try this simple test on yourself to see if you agree.

This all manifests itself in an MMO like WoW. A guild is like a village. We enter into a guild because we want the best loot available and we need a group to get it. By doing so, we enter into a social contract so basic it rarely gets actually written in a guild charter: the guild will help you provided you do your fair share. When someone brazenly breaks this contract, such as ninja looting and gquitting, we react with immediate disgust so powerful it manifests itself physically in some people. We feel the same way every time someone isn't "pulling their weight" by being prepared with consumables, farming for crafted gear they could use, or showing up for raids on time. When someone tries to do less than the group but expects the same share of the reward, we instinctively feel negatively.

The two situations above are a little less clear-cut than a ninja looter. There are several factors in play and we might ask for more information before passing judgment. In the case of the paladin, he was the only holy paladin in his guild, which is not uncommon. Blizzard's current loot itemization means that holy paladins are the only spec out of 30 that want the gear they do. They are the only spec with such a unique set of gear choices and, presumably to avoid frustration, Blizzard has designed dungeons to distribute their gear way more than 3% of the time. So naturally the holy paladin will tend to gear up faster than his raidmates. (This is more generally true of tanks and healers.) So I think it's fair to feel that the paladin didn't hold up his part of the implicit contract: that the guild would raid the current tier of content as a group for gear. He didn't get geared up faster due to exceptional effort on his part, but due instead to the design of the game. He should not expect others to put in more effort than him for the same reward, which is what he's doing by taking a break and effectively saying "Thanks for the gear and good luck."

With Gevlon gquitting, I think it's unfair to decide after having got a lot of gear from your guild raids that the raiding schedule of the guild is suddenly not for you. However if things change within the guild and their schedule is consistently unfavourable for you, how long do you wait and how much effort do you personally contribute to trying to improve the situation from within? I think everyone accepts that there has to be a limit. Everyone's probably got a different opinion on that. I do find it interesting how often someone is judged by how they act in their final days as a guild member, once they have neared that point where the decision is made to leave. Someone who waits for one last piece of gear on which to "blow their DKP" before leaving will be judged much more harshly than someone who deliberately avoids taking gear, knowing that he is likely to leave. It's a question of whether you've "paid up" when the contract period ends.

It's interesting to see how a guild will structure their DKP system and guild rules around avoiding these situations. I think guilds would create better rules and structure if they start out by thinking of the guild as a community with a simple social contract.

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