The Power of Social Structure in World of Warcraft

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by: danah boyd

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 do to 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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