[Cross-posted at Digital Culture at KCL]
I’ve been in an online gaming guild for over ten years. My very first guild was in Dark Age of Camelot and across a few guilds in that virtual space we got to know a lot of people, who then joined the same guild when World of Warcraft was launched in 2004. Since then friendships have stayed even as new members arrived and some originals moved on, even as some of us have moved games, some of us have stopped playing (and then restarted) and some have shifted from our main interest in massive multi-player online games to other types of games.
We’re now in the middle of a recurrent issue for such guilds that span different games with a new game (Star Wars The Old Republic) causing excitement, drawing currently actively players away from the game that most are playing (Rift), causing old friends (and some new) to join back up ready for the new fun and causing worry among those left behind about how we will continue to do the things we enjoy. Such a change echoes through not just our guild but across the general chat channels of Rift as every bug is met with a chorus of ‘when is SWTOR coming out?’.
The most important example of this is raiding. Our guild is a friendly more casual guild that still tries to see all the content and do the harder end raids. We’re always well behind the hard core guilds but we prefer it that way. But now we face a problem that the most desirable encounters we try to do twice a week are raids that need 10 or 20 players. We had just gotten to the point were if nearly everyone was online at a raid time we could do a 20 person raid and we were killing off regularly the two 10 person raids. However, now we are worrying if we’ll even be able to carry out the 10 person raids.
Such a change in the guild lays bare the existing academic and political arguments about, on the one hand, the free labor gamers offer to the companies selling their games and, on the other hand, the collapse of distinctions between producers and consumers of games. Free labor, as analysed some time ago (and perhaps as best analysed) by Tiziana Terranova is on display in the voluntary revision of our forum to make new space, on the work being done to recruit new members in the old game, on the discussions (our guild equivalent of planning meetings any organisation undergoes) and other activities, such as a trailer made about our incompetence to try to attract the right kind of person to the SWTOR section of our guild. The collapse of production and consumption, as seen in the work of John Banks and his colleagues and others such as Axel Bruns, is that all this work of organisation is what enables the games as a consumable product because without our raids the dungeon simply doesn’t happen and the game doesn’t create; it simply exists as an unused platform.
What strikes me as I live through such processes however, is not just how applicable a concept like free labor is or how the various permutations and theories of production and consumption work; but how even in weeks where I’ve taught such concepts they don’t quite seem to fit my subjective sense of what’s going on when I’m doing guild organisation. It may not be unusual for the subjective and the analytic not to be in synch, but I often can’t help feeling that concepts like labor, play, leisure, production and consumption are getting in the way of my understanding a situation that isn’t obviously any of these while also implying all of them. They feel like words built for and embedded in social and economic processes that are not completely the processes of a massive multiplayer online cross-game guild reconstruction, such as we are undergoing.
As my guild goes through this change, I’m going to try and use it to think through this uneasiness about concepts I value and use but which subjectively also make me feel uncertain. This is then, Part One in the articulation of this uneasiness.