This Time, It’s Time to Connect

In yesterday’s post, I gave a bit (okay, a lot) of background into my experience as a World of Warcraft (WoW) player –focusing primarily on what prompted me to leave the game, but with promises to talk a bit about why I decided to go back.

So I’m back on the topic today, not only to talk about my impending return, but to talk a bit more widely about finding and forming connections online. Call it an experiment or case-study, if you will. Hey, if they can hold academic conferences in WoW, why can’t I use it for my own “research” purposes?

Before I jump right in to my story and explanation, here’s one thing to keep in mind: I haven’t actually returned to the game yet, so while I have lots of ideas about how this could work, I haven’t actually tried any of them yet.

The latest e-mail from Amazon says they have no idea when they’ll be able to ship Lich King to me. *Sigh*. (Have I mentioned I’m not the most patient person in the world?)

Now, Where Were We?

If you’ll recall, I left off my story yesterday by describing how I was very intrigued by the changes to World of Warcraft brought in by its latest expansion, but I still wasn’t ready to just jump back into the game.

Making a long story short, I began to consider that the opportunity to “see all the content” wasn’t the only thing that drove me through the game (as I had long thought) — but that on some level, I also appreciated the game as a social outlet: a means to connect.

What I didn’t explain yesterday was how this came about.

It started off innocently enough, I suppose. See, I don’t usually take much in the way of coffee breaks at work. Sometimes, I’ll get up from my desk and just take a walk around to get some fresh air and/or sunlight. However, for a while in November and December, I actually took breaks with a couple of my colleagues, one of whom is a WoW player.

We spent some time chatting about the “state of the game”, the changes that had occurred, and just general gaming talk. As we talked, though, I found myself becoming almost jealous of his situation. He was in a guild of friends — people he knew in “real life” (or who were friends-of-real-life-friends). They never had drama or stress in-game; they didn’t need someone to consider the needs of the group; the question of commitment wasn’t really present.

Instead, they used their in-game time to connect with each other. Some had moved out of town, others had changed jobs.  Some played every night, others played once a week. Sometimes, they’d go on raids, other times, they’d sit around doing their own thing while just chatting (text-based, or over voice).

Explicit and Implicit Commitments

As I thought more about it, I looked back on the groups I had been a part of when I had played the game. The first main one had, at its core, a group of college friends who started playing together when they spread out across the country after graduation. The second one was comprised largely of people who had been playing online games together for years.

And then there was the 500-person network that I helped co-lead. One of my frustrations with the group is that people always seemed to prioritize their own cliques over the needs of the team they had committed to.

What I realize now is that this is actually fairly normal. Most people will choose their friends over strangers. Where the network encountered issues was that we tried to shoehorn people into making commitments to strangers, without considering that they had already established friendships in the game.

In that way, the failure wasn’t a lack of leadership — it was a lack of understanding. I viewed the game as a constant pursuit of in-game excellence. But for many — maybe even most — of the people on my teams, “excellence” was of secondary concern. And that was why the implicit commitment they made to their friends would often trump the explicit commitment made to the strangers.

Raider Diversion

All you WoW raiders, a quick diversion for you all to clarify exactly what I am and am not talking about. Everyone else, this section might get a bit jargony, so you’re welcome to skip down to the next heading if you like.

I’m not talking about the difference between hardcore and casual players. That part, I do get, and I’ve always gotten. I also fully appreciate how absolutely useless those labels are — maybe now more than ever. But that’s not what I’m talking about.

What I am talking about is this: let’s say that patch 3.0 has just dropped, and pretty much everyone is just waiting for LK to come out. What would your honest response have been if you saw the following guild recruitment post in /2:

<Name of Awesomesauce Guild> is recruiting members of all classes for LK. We are a family guild whose goal is to have fun! We have 15+ level 70s and clear Karazhan weekly and we also do BG and PvP when we have time. We have tabard and 4 bank tabs. Pst for info or invite.

I can tell you what my reaction would have been. I would have rolled my eyes, maybe laughed to myself, and wondered who on earth would want to join such a guild. After all, Kara is srs bzns. Surely, they will recruit all sorts of fantastic raiders and will be sure to see all the content that comes out in Lich King… right? Not! Why would I, a progression-minded raider, even give them the time of day.

But here’s something I wouldn’t have considered back then. People are more likely to go to the mat for people they genuinely care about. You’re less likely to have loot drama, clique drama, arguments, forum flame wars and eruptions over vent when you’re playing with friends.

Here’s the bottom line. What I didn’t understand, but now do (I think!) is that putting connections and friendship ahead of progression doesn’t mean that you can’t be successful in-game. That guild recruiting in /2 may be a Twilight Zone killing guild today.

Those connections drove them to ensure that they weren’t letting their friends down. Those connections made them go look at EJ to optimize their gems and shot rotations. Those connections may have caused them to voluntarily passed on a loot drop because it was a bigger upgrade for someone else.

Those connections may well be the very thing that will lead that group of family and friends to a level of success that many so-called “hardcore” raid teams won’t ever be able to attain. And you know what? If they don’t ever see the inside of any instance besides Kara or Naxx? That’s fine too. Because they’re enjoying playing the game the way they want to, with people they want to play with.

That is what I’ve started to understand.

Back for a Brief Time

After the discussions with my co-worker, J (who got me hooked on WoW in the first place) and I decided to activate our free 10-day trials of the expansion together.

And you know what? It was fun. We went and explored the zones, completed quests and tried out new things, without the pressure of having to perform, or the artificial constraints of having to work together with people who we really didn’t know anything about.

At the same time, it was a reminder of the way I’d left the game. On the trial, I chatted with a few people that I had made marginal connections with — caught up a bit, mostly just about in-game stuff. But most people in those communities I’d left behind just ignored me. I hadn’t really made connections with most of them, so there wasn’t really anything to pick back up on.

I noticed how much I missed the chatter of people around me, both about things going on in-game and not. I missed the rare opportunities when a few of us would hang out in voice chat, and talk philosophy or the like. Yes, I also missed the teamwork and accomplishment.

If it was just accomplishment I wanted, I could have signed on for any of the dozens of pick-up groups that were running at the time. Deep inside, though, I knew it wouldn’t be the same as when I’d been running with people that I knew. And then I wondered — how much more would it have been if I had actually connected as me with more than just one or two of them.

Four Ways to Play the Game

And that, I suppose, is why I ultimately decided to come back to the game. In-game, despite all my best efforts to the contrary, I had actually connected with a handful of people on a personal level. Those people had become my social network, but because I failed to recognize the importance of those connections, I didn’t foster the relationships.

There’s a good reason that WoW is considered an MMORPG: a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game. It’s because playing the game involves sharing gamespace with other people. How you approach that shared gamespace, and the relationships that follow, will differ from person to person.

When I started to look back at my time in game, I was able to identify four main approaches that people took to the game. Different people would…

  1. Play without forming connections at all (in-game or otherwise),
  2. Make in-game connections, but not let their “real selves” connect at all,
  3. Make in-game connections, that bled over into real, out of game friendships, or
  4. Play with existing friends, strengthening and continue those connections across distance, etc.

Now, going back, I know that some things will be the same — I still would like to play with a tight team, to take on the game’s challenges, and see the content. But I know too that I want to do it with the right people this time. I’ll want to spend more time working on approaches 3 and 4. This time, it’s time to connect.

Connections in Azeroth

About 6 weeks ago, I placed an order with Amazon for a copy of “Wrath of the Lich King” — the latest expansion in the World of Warcraft (WoW) online game. At the time, it was supposed to ship by … well … yesterday, but so far, it’s not even on the horizon.

So, not knowing when I’ll be able to get back to playing, I’ve been left with a lot of time to think about what I actually want to do, when I get back in game.

In some ways, it seems as though this should be a fairly straight-forward process: for as much as there is to do in the game, the general idea is always that you advance your character to the max level, and then take part in the activities that are only available to max-level characters.

But even within that, there are many different ways to play, depending on what you want to get out of the game. After all, if you’re going to have a hobby, it’s good to have a reason for it (in addition to the obvious enjoyment factor, of course!)

The question lately has been — what exactly do I want to get out of the game?

Where I Came From

As I’ve noted before, up until mid-last summer, I played WoW on a regular and fairly serious basis. Now, “regular” and “serious” tend to have different meanings to different people. It’s actually quite a debate in the online gaming community, especially games like Warcraft. What might be casual play to one person is hardcore to another, for example.

For me, regular meant a few nights a week. In general, I set aside about 6 hours each week for group activities known as “raids”, which involve groups of 10-25 (or, in some cases, 40) people getting together to take on large scale challenges.  Initially, I participated in these raids as just an average raid member. My role on the team was to make sure I would help the team meet their challenge for that week.

I also enjoyed the more “alone-time” parts to the game. Some nights, I’d play the in-game market — crafting specialty items, gathering raw materials for resale, completing quests for in-game currency, that sort of thing. Others, I’d let my main characters sit for a while, and try my hand at a completely new way of playing by starting (and re-starting!) a number of alternate characters. Looking back on it, I guess this is the way that a scanner personality manifests itself in this type of environment 😉

A lot of the teams I was a member of had great potential, but never seemed to live up to their potential. In one such case, the leader(s) would occasionally try to rectify the problems, but often seemed to lack follow-through (for example: they would make rules, without having any intention of enforcing them). Seeing this, I stepped down from the team, and began “problem-solving” around some of the issues I’d seen crop up in the group I was a part of. Problems like lack of accountability, transparency and stability.

The Responsibility Builds…

By the time I stepped away from the game, my journey had led me to co-leading a raiding network of over 500 people, some more active than others.

Within that network, I had my own raid “team” of about 15 people who had never really played the game at a higher level — it was like a “training school” for people who wanted to raid, but didn’t know how. I also co-lead a different team of 30, who had aspirations of great things but many of whom ultimately didn’t want to commit to their teammates.

In the end, I got burned out and frustrated. I quit the game, and figured I probably wouldn’t go back. After all, I’d had my chance at leadership, and failed. I had tried to problem-solve my way through the issues I saw, but yet found myself taking one step forward, but two steps back. And as many of us often do when burned out, I blamed myself for the failings, whether they were actually in my control, or not.

They say that WoW is a game that anyone can get into — that it has something for everyone. But by the time I left, I felt almost as though no one wanted to play the game the same way I did. Even if I didn’t know exactly what that meant.

When the Dust Settled

In November 2008, about 4 months after I’d cancelled my subscription to the game, the Wrath of the Lich King expansion hit WoW. Players around the world began raving about it. It was beautiful, creative, epic, expansive, immersive and (believe it or not), fun.

Even with all of the rave reviews, I wasn’t convinced I wanted to pick it back up and start playing again. My disillusionment had grown strong in the weeks before I left, and I saw no signs that returning would have any different outcome. The network I had built to 500-strong was in the midst of falling apart. The people I had played with had either left the game, or had goals that didn’t “feel” right to me.

For all that you can play WoW on your own, it ultimately is a social game — and as far as I was concerned, if I didn’t have a community I could feel a part of, then what was the point?

At the same time, I didn’t completely remove myself from the out-of-game community. I read some of the popular blogs about the game, and kept up with the changes and new things going on in the game world. I guess you could say that in some ways, I almost played the game vicariously. I knew everything that was going on — I watched videos of boss kills, read debates about the way the game had changed, even kept tabs on what was left of my old communities.

But I still didn’t go back. Something was still bothering me, and until I knew I would fully enjoy playing again, I didn’t want to step back in.

What Went Wrong

Being the problem-solver that I am, I first tried to figure out what had gone “wrong” the last time around. I spent some time blaming everything and everyone under the sun (including myself). It was my fault. It was their fault. It was no one’s fault. On and on I went, in circles, confusing myself in the process.

The things was, I knew I could go back, pick the game back up, and get right back into it. I could join up with a new team, become a member of another community (or maybe even connect with what was left of my old one), and maybe even accomplish some of the things I never had a chance to previously.

When I had been playing, I’d always wanted to “finish the game” — to beat the hardest challenges, to feel the thrill of working hard at something with a handful of trusted teammates, and to finally have everything just fall into place.

At the same time, I didn’t want to just “roll over” and dedicate my whole life to the game. I knew it was possible — there were plenty of groups all over the world who managed to “beat the game” with no more time commitment than I’d put in.

I’d sought out that environment, and when I couldn’t find what I was looking for, I tried to create it (albeit, with people who didn’t really buy in 100% — they thought it was a great idea, but when push came to shove, they’d be more likely to get shoved). Somewhere “out there”, I imagined there were players doing exactly what I wanted to do. But still, I’d failed.

Old Doubts Arise

Working through all of this was a slow process (and I’ll be honest, it still is in many ways — but I’m getting ahead of myself). Then slowly, I started paying attention to not only what I was thinking, but how I was thinking it.

I started actually listening to what I was saying, and what I noticed was that behind all the blaming, all the talk of failure, and all of the “why couldn’t I just make it work” questions — was doubts.

I hadn’t been able to find a group that I’d “fit” with before. What made me think this time would be any different? And what if — this was a big one — what if I was the problem, not those around me.

I’d been told I was a good player, capable of being in any one of the top teams on our realm. My teammates all respected me, and some of the people I led even went so far as to say I was the strongest raid leader they’d ever raided under.

Clarity Begins to Emerge

As I started to listen to my doubts, I began to notice common themes kept emerging. What I was hearing were actually doubts about my ability to fit in. Doubts about my ability to be accepted. Doubts about myself to find community.

I realized that while I’d been a part of a number of teams and communities — even leading them — I hadn’t really connected with those I’d played with. I didn’t make friends; I had almost more of a co-worker type relationship with the people I played with. Even in-game I’d been aware of this on some level. I left a guild (a collective of players that choose to band themselves together for various reasons) because I wasn’t comfortable sharing as much of myself with others as seemed to be expected.

In many ways, this wasn’t really a surprise. It’s something I’ve even written about before. I tend to be a pretty private person — while I can easily make an initial connection with people, I very rarely take it beyond that. I guess you could say that I’ve mastered the art of making acquaintances, but still struggle with the art of making real “friends”.

Normally, I don’t know that I’d care much about this. After all, I’ve lived pretty much my whole life as a private person, not really opening up to others all that much.

So … Now What?

Just writing this has got me in quite an introspective mood. As you might have guessed, the doubts that I encountered haven’t been fully resolved in my head, although I have made some headway in that regard.

Clearly, I have already decided to give the game another shot — I’ll explain how I came to that conclusion in a bit more detail in my next post — but for the moment, you’ve already read nearly 2000 words of introspection (congrats, and thanks!) so I’ll just close off with a hint of where all this rumination has been leading me.

The question that came out of all of this, out of all of those doubts seemed to be… could playing World of Warcraft actually be an opportunity to change that — to grow and learn to make connections?

Stay tuned. :)

(And, as always, I’d love to hear your comments and feedback!)

Weekly Reads: Battlestar Galactica Edition

I spent much of my spare time during the past week watching Battlestar Galactica (the new version). It was my first exposure to the show — new or old — but from what I hear, I might have had my geek cred revoked if I didn’t. Midway through the second season, I can’t say that I’m necessarily hooked, but I do find it a fascinating show to watch.

For one, it’s deep. Want an action show? Sure, you’ll get bits of that here and there. But it’s a show that is not so much about blowing things up as it is demonstrating all that goes into making a society. From culture and religion to politics and control, from love and desire to hatred and jealousy, from morally right to lawfully right, it’s a show that dares to look at the unvarnished side of humanity — all the while, showing that it is our imperfections that make us what we are.

What’s most phenomenal is that it does it all as a cohesive story, with a flowing plotline. It’s not so much a TV show with independent episodes, as a space drama that just happens to be broken up into 1-hour blocks. Seeing the connections, understanding the relations, and discovering the patterns are part of what is so engaging about the show. So, I’ll keep watching.

Besides, I now understand the namesake for Fathom-Lord Karathress in World of Warcraft’s Serpentshrine Cavern. Although I dare say that FLK was a touch more of a pushover than Starbuck 😉

If you would like to pass on anything you think I might be interested in, post the link as a comment to this thread! I’m always looking for new things to explore. Note that comments containing multiple links are flagged for moderation, so if your note doesn’t show up right away, don’t worry!

Made Me Think

You’ll probably notice a theme in this week’s set of links. There’s a good reason for that. This week, it seemed as though a lot of what I read was really connecting with other reads. Maybe it’s something in the blogging water, or maybe it’s just a connection that my subconscious was wanting me to make. Either way, rather than listing everything I found, this week I’ve tried to pick a select few links that I think show the common thread most clearly.

The Number One Dream Killer: Doing What Works (from Zen Habits). The subtitle kind of gives away the “punch line” for this one. In this post, guest author Jonathan Mead argues that what really kills our dreams isn’t that we do what doesn’t work… it’s that we do what does work. Why I pulled it out is that this is an article about comfort zones — and, more specifically, about how staying with “what you know” (and with “what works”) doesn’t really get you anywhere. The take-away message is that if you want to actually live your dreams, you’re going to have to step out of what you know works, and take a chance on something that may not.

Succeeding by Helping Others Succeed (from Steve Pavlina). A lot of times, we know what “works” for us, and it’s really easy to focus only on that. In this back-to-basics article, Steve Pavlina points out that success isn’t just about us as individuals. If you really have something that works, what good are you doing if you just keep it to yourself? Instead, Pavlina suggests looking for ways to help others succeed — and then takes that as a jumping off point for launching yourself into a whole new direction — for both your life, and your career.

Top 10 Tools for Landing a Better Job (from Lifehacker). And what do you do when you’ve established your new direction, and now just need to get there? For most of us, there are two options: you can either do it on your own as an entrepreneur, or you can do it with others who are already doing it. When it comes down to the nuts and bolts of getting that dream job, this list from Lifehacker is a good place to start. While the tips may seem a bit obvious, it never hurts to review even the basics. Current economic climate or not, the little things do still count.

20 Steps to Better Wireframing (from ThinkVitamin). This ThinkVitamin article is targetted to designers and developers who find themselves tasked with the creation of wireframes — those basic outlines which help determine the future form of an application, website, etc. Now, such a topic may not seem to fit the “storyline” I’ve established above, but stick with me on this one :-) First, for some people (like me!) being able to create and design tools that people actually use is part of how we succeed by helping others succeed. The things mentioned in this article provide a good starting point for that career path. That’s the most obvious connection. But when you take the steps out of the designer context, you’ll realize that it’s applicable not only to developing outlines for websites, but also for outlining the life you want to live. Drawing on your experiences, being clear on your objective, and not letting yourself get lazy are good advice for life design, too.