Our podcast on griefing and countergaming, and the response to the shownotes, got me thinking about in-game communities and how we police them. What’s the best kind of game community—the one where the players make the rules and ‘police’ themselves, or one where empowered community watchmen—GMs, forum moderators, and the like—control, censor, and organize interaction? What are the tradeoffs? Is there really a difference?
Here’s an elaborate case study. Er. Anecdote. It’s not a direct response to anything. It’s just what I’ve been thinking about.
I spoke in the podcast about my crazy experience on a Garrysmod server last spring. While joining a server I hadn’t been on before, I was identified as a newcomer/trespasser, so a moderator seized me, ragdolled my character, and called upon all the ten other players on the server to construct an elaborate machine around my frozen, puppetlike body. They used WireMod to construct a CCTV circuit so I could see what they were doing to me. They welded a bunch of stuff to my arms and legs and exploded it. They did some rather obscene things to my character model. This all went on for maybe 10 or 15 minutes before I was released: I subverted the whole endeavor by calling the server denizens “good sirs” and complimenting their WireMod skills with overly-polite, sarcastic quasi-Victorian-speak. They found it hilarious enough to let me go.
Anthropologically speaking, I’d just experienced a ‘rite of passage.’ Something like a baptism or spirit quest. Psychologically and socially, raping ragdolled server-newcomers with a giant contraption built out of Half Life 2 props fulfills the same purpose as a circumcision ceremony: the victim has to undergo symbolic change in order to transition between two social states. My experience wasn’t official, but it fulfilled the same purpose and transformed me into a community member. When I was between those two social states, I was in a crazy position where I had no social identity at all, and that’s when all the nutcase shit happened. Hazing in sports teams or college fraternities performs the same purpose. To use technical athropology-style terms, I was ‘liminal’ when this stuff happened: I was on a threshold between two ways of being. It was like a spirit quest or some shit, man!
Despite the hilarious extravagance of my spirit-quest hazing ritual, it seemed to me like a more realistic approximation of community dynamics than anything I’d ever seen in multiplayer gaming before. The sheer number of options Garrysmod players have—the number of props, modes, tools, contraptions, mods, and so on—gives them a peculiar freedom unavailable to players in other, more-gamelike environments. In TF2 or Counterstrike, there’s no easy way to stage a transition ceremony: why stop shooting each other in the face? Our real lives are filled with transition ceremonies, so there’s a good reason to keep them out of games. Transition ceremonies aren’t necessarily fun. The’re complicated and cruel and maybe a waste of time. We play games at least partially to escape these kinds of social rules.
But these ceremonies cement communities. Though their participants get to transcend social rules for a short time, these ceremonies make the normal, ordinary, everyday social rules stronger. My hazing reinforced that server moderator’s power and leadership. It also highlighted the players’ sense of community by allowing them to demonstrate that I could only enter it on their terms.
I’m arguing that the lack of gameplay ‘rules’ in Garrysmod made it easier for these players to invent ways to demonstrate their community’s power. The lack of structure also made it easier for the players to construct elaborate community conventions—unwritten rules. Garrysmod is a haphazard collection of strange communities with baroque regulations: on some servers, destroying another player’s constructions gets you punished, while on others, people build only to destroy. Some servers are all about car-racing. Others are for ‘serious builders only,’ and demonstrating noobiness will get you kicked. Other servers are aggressively noobified. Some servers exist purely to stroke their teenage moderators’ egos. Some are elaborate roleplay worlds. Garrysmod throws away the structure inherent in most Source games, then leaves communities with ability to create their own structure. So this is what happens. An endlessly diverging community, a zone where anyone can build their own perfect little world and rule it like an absolute despot. Freer, in its Source-Engine chains, than Second Life.
If you’ll allow me to wax poetic for a moment: the unique lawlessness of this terrain makes it a surprising mirror for the human soul, even more acutely than a standard MMO like WOW or COH. Instead of relying on game mechanics for rules, Garrysmod communities have to create their own, cooperatively or despotically. There aren’t any standards: each server is radically different. Each game mode changes community interactions dramatically. I couldn’t predict anything about each server’s rules of social interaction until I’d figured out what game mode they were running. Even then, I could rarely guess anything until I’d been dunked in headfirst.
So, to return to the top of my post: Garrysmod is an example of a community-policed, low-rule-density environment. WOW is an example of a company-policed, high-rule-density environment. Garrysmod has no standardized ‘gameplay,’ no reward structure, no subscription fee. It’s creative and lawless, and despite its exterior wackiness, it produces creative and ‘realistic’ social situations, in both good and cruel ways. It mirrors the dark and sweaty interior of our psyches. Where else could I have experienced such a vivid, human form of hazing? Not that the hazing was a positive thing—it wasn’t. It was merely very human.
But you say: high-structure game communities can invent their own ceremonies of transition, too, can’t they?
I’m going to argue that there’s something fundamentally different about that kind of experience: it’s not terribly expressive. Or even interesting! User creativity is at an all-time low there, compared to the effusive nuttiness of Garrysmod. These WOW players are working solely with what they’ve been given because they have no other choice. I think this shackling of creative expression limits the height of community affirmation and the depth of community cruelty possible in standard, company-policed MMOs.
Real-world social ceremonies, cruel or kind, are where we really let our human creativity loose.
It makes sense to me, then, that a creative game would mirror the dark side of social interaction more closely than a stricter, limited game.
I’m sorry this stuff gets thick and academicish. That wasn’t the point of this blog– I wanted to write things about games without getting too deep in the academic shit. I wanted to make the kinds of things we discussed in my games class accessible to those of my gamer friends who weren’t interested in reading big-time games scholars like Espen Aarseth. If gamers are going to be self-aware and not a bunch of mindless dicks, they need the opportunity to talk about this stuff without taking an entire liberal arts degree first. I mean, I love reading some academic writing about games, but I wanted to write the kind of stuff on this blog that’s thoughtful without being overtly academic. I mean, hell, that’s work to me. Right now, that’s grades. I want to write for a living, and I don’t want to write for academic journals. Not right now, anyway. Capisce? Capisce. I’ll try harder in the future.