My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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the power of social structure in World of Warcraft

Earlier this week, i was talking with Joi about his “research” on World of Warcraft. He was telling me about how some of the social norms get maintained by members in the community (and particularly within guilds) and how newcomers learn the social structure.

The thing about World of Warcraft (and many other MMORPGS) is that people who fail to work within the social structure get penalized. Most tasks cannot be done without collaboration. Guilds are the formalized version of groups that gather to complete tasks and the most effective way to achieve within the system. Achievements have a measured component – leveling, possessions, honor points, ranks, etc. Pissing off one’s guildmates is foolish because it results in being left out of quests and other group activities needed for advancement. Also, since most quests require groups to work together seamlessly, people practice. They also get to know each other and joke around because the level of intimacy is super helpful in team building. Personality compatibility is necessary both within a guild and also essential when guilds team up with one another.

Joi told me about a teenager who was fucking off and how members of the community reprimanded him. He told me he thought it was a fantastic environment to learn sociability, to learn team work and to figure out how to compromise. The structure and incentives were so explicit that even the most socially clueless individuals could work out what they needed to to do advance.

I’m very proud to be a feminist, but a pro and con of feminism is that it destabilized social structure. There was a time when women knew what they were expected to do. They could hate it, resent it, rebel against it, but the norm was there. Those norms were hugely oppressive to women but they also provided a framework to work within. Today, we have no structure and i live in a mecca of people trying to “find themselves.” How do you build an identity from scratch without having it pre-defined? For many, this seems to be a hard task. Personally, there are days when i revel in my ability to escape gendered norms and then i dream of being a Hollywood-image 1950s stay at home mom. Even in my chaos, i realize the power of structure.

I think that it’s fascinating that some gaming systems have worked hard to create a formalized structure such that people know their positions and can visibly see how certain actions help them ascend. Are we building structures in our virtual lives because they are easy to compute? Because we desperately desire a structure where we know the rules? What does it mean that many active gamers were the types of individuals alienated historically for being socially deficient? What does male dominance in gaming mean given that men historically defined the social structure? Is it possible to build structure that is not oppressive?

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8 comments to the power of social structure in World of Warcraft

  • The existing structure vs start from scratch quandary comes into play a lot in terms of relationships and marriage. As much as I hate the HIStory of marriage and the way it expressives possessiveness and smacks of religion, I chose to express my queer relationship that way – and get “married” – because the existing language of commitment and permanency and familial ties to my partner was one my family and I understand. Publicly declaring our relationship in those terms – no matter how oppressive and stupid marriage and the laws and customs that surround it are – worked for us. I like the idea of modding an existing structure/role and making it my own. Like butch/femme roles, too. And now there’s no question who Terra is to me or what the terms of our relationship are – to the random who asks me out “sorry, I’m married” *flashes ring* or to my Mom, who’s deciding who’s coming on the family dinner/event/intimate gathering.

  • I think you’d find that face-to-face dice-and-paper roleplaying games, specifically D&D and AD&D, were extremely influential in building the interpersonal and social skills of our current Nerd Overlords. I’ve noted in many business meetings through the years that the Roleplayers fall into obvious self-recognizing cabals, leaving the non-Roleplayers aside.

    All it takes is somebody mentioning “saving throws”, and the groups coalesce.

  • tony

    structure vs. anarchy? I think everything can be oppressive to someone,somewhere. Shouldn’t it be the greatest gain for the majority(or is that what happens in male-controlled structures)? or at least the best fit for the most? Rule-wise that is.

  • As you pointed out, the social rules in Warcraft are a product of what works in the environment in concert with the role playing cultures that came before. The unspoken rules of punishment and reward for social performance. I agree that trying to “find oneself” is a new phenomenon, but not so much due to lack of structure, but to a structure which has gained prevalence in the upper middle class with the lack of urgency to survive and prosper, i.e. with leisure. In other words, “trying to find oneself” has actually become an accepted phase in life, and a label by which people add structure to their lives and try to avoid the consequences and sanctions of the community! But anyway, I am probably just playing with words.

  • maybe even in that game there are some social rules that couldn’t be known in advance, thus it could be more than a mix of stablished social rules, and jokes. maybe we r always creating new rules and, only maybe, that is what feminism is or used to be about. and if it is not, lets get less feminist and far more queer, day by day! we just cant go away from strctures, its all about restructuring. u can even be a hollywood 50’s image that does not stay at home!
    and yes, structures r always oppresive thats why we must renew them again and again and again …

  • Games themselves have power structure… Dungeon Master, Level 10 drow-elf mage trumps 5th level cleric. Hot chicks in bikini- if played by girls trump dwarfs with big.. umm.. hammers played by boys.

    Virtual lives imitate life

  • Courtney

    I’m sorry, hapto, but I don’t think you know what you’re talking about. Big hammers trump bikinis in roleplaying games any day. And nobody has any way to know if that hot chick is being played by a real girl — or woman — or not.

  • Clemente Boyster

    Any time you have a game that is played by thousands of people simultaneously you are going to have a caste system. It only makes sense that people who are playing and taking the game seriously weed out people who aren’t. well, at least the serious gamers will come together while the social gamers will come together. The socially deficient people have to adjust — just like in the real world.