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.

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