The Guilden Age

In my post “Me, Myself, and I” it is likely I may have given some of you the impression that I am always a loner, that I have something against organizations. But while in the real world it has often been my observation that ALL large organizations of humans seem to become corrupt and impersonal, in virtual reality I see their value. Most of my avatars end up belonging to one, because it can be hazardous and frustrating trying to run an instance all by yourself with elite bosses. Okay, I have pontificated about virtual relationships, virtual combat, virtual money yadda yadda yadda; I guess it is time to discuss virtual organizations.

Since the first humans formed themselves into villages, tribes, cities and then nations, we have been grouping together for mutual defense, for more efficient hunting, to exchange knowledge, and and to discuss mutual interests. It is no surprise, therefore, that as virtual humans (or elves, or orcs, or whatever) we are doing the same thing. In City of Heroes and City of Villains, these voluntary associations are called Super Groups and Villain Groups. In World of Warcraft, Guild Wars, and most other medieval-theme online gaming worlds, they are called Guilds. (Am I the only gamer with a humongous secret crush on Felicia Day after watching The Guild at http://www.watchtheguild.com/? Yeah, right. Totally out of my league. Dream on, Matt.)

What is a Guild? Before the advent of online gaming, I would have known only one definition. Rather than looking back to it, let’s set the way-back machine for the early Middle Ages and look forwards. Professional organizations of craftsmen with specialized skillsets began to be called guilds because of the gold they held in treasuries for group-related activities. The word guild thus derives from gold. (This tradition continues today in games like WoW, where your guild usually has a guild bank with game gold put into it by members for the use of all needy persons in the guild.)

In the Middle Ages, of course, guilds were not about gaming, but about standardization and competence. If you wanted to become a successful blacksmith, weaver, goldsmith, stonecutter, or whatever, you became an Apprentice to someone who already was recognized as a master. Fetching water, preparing materials, pumping the bellows of the forge, you made yourself useful, gradually being taught how things were done, until you became a Craftsman or a Journeyman, whereupon you were allowed to actually go out and practice your skills for pay. Eventually upon passing tests and being adjudged sufficiently competent at the skillset, you became a Master and could take on Apprentices of your own, passing on what you had been taught. If you continued to improve you could become a Grand Master. All this worked well for centuries. The guilds had a monopoly, usually granted in letters patent from the local king, and so they could control the quality of work that craftsmen performed, maintaining dependable standards. They also, of course, controlled prices, and restricted the flow of information to people outside the guild, both of which eventually led to their downfall after the eighteenth century.

Interestingly, in World of Warcraft, we see a similar classification of crafting skill levels. if you want your avatar to be a blacksmith so that he or she can make armor and weapons from metal, you start as an Apprentice. As you craft items for use or sale in the game (for example, if you “create” a sword that you or another avatar can use in combat), you rise in skill level. After crafting skill level 75 you can no longer skill up unless you become a Journeyman. The process continues until you give up or until you become a Grand Master, a rank which was added with the most recent expansion. However, it is important to note that you can have these skill ranks in WoW without actually belonging to any guild.

In online gaming, guilds are not organized to maintain secrecy and standards. They are more like sports franchises and exist to help their own members and to compete against other guilds for prestige. Belonging to a guild is more than us-versus-them, however. When you are in a guild you have a ready-made pool of guildies to help you to finish quests, to assist you in obtaining armor and weapons and crafting items (also called gear) and to chat with when you are bored or lonely. I have heard the Internet criticized as being a wasteland of loneliness. Someone said “it brings you closer to people you are far from…and takes you farther away from people you are close to” or something like that. (And I know what that person meant; I have already lost a girlfriend because I was into gaming and she was not. We drifted apart, and she is gone.) But what I have seen is the same phenomenon we saw in the early chat rooms and BBS groups — that people who otherwise might never have met find that they have things in common and things to talk about.

It is clear we are seeing previous human institutions incarnating on the Web. I already mentioned online churches in a previous post. We also have online universities, clubs, sales organizations, fan groups, and who knows what. I know I am being Mr. MOTO (Master Of The Obvious) when I say anything we already know how to do —  that can be done on the Internet — is being done or will be done. In myriad ways.

How are these virtual organizations affecting us?

1. Raising expectations of convenience. For one thing, they are easier to interact with. You don’t have to drive to your local Masonic Temple or Guildhall to meet your fellow members. You drive your browser to a website, or log into an online world or game and you are in contact with others who are online at the time. There was a time, a little over a century ago, when the only meetings that could happen were face-to-face. Telephones changed that. If you work in the vast wasteland of cubicle-land, as I have, you see that every cubicle has a phone. Meetings are often, if not usually, teleconferences instead of sitting around a table. Then videoconferencing made it possible for one table of people in Detroit to interface visually with another table of executives in Paris or Tokyo. The question used to be “is he or she at their telephone?” but now it is “are they online?”

2. Erasing prejudice boundaries. When I type to my guild mates. I often have no idea how old they are, what “race” they are or their gender. Many men create female avatars because, let’s face it, we usually prefer looking at women. And many women create male avatars because they want to avoid being hit on by horny guys like me. So unless they tell you (and even then, because, believe it or not, some people lie, duh), you have no clew as to details that are probably irrelevant to the topic of conversation. What counts is what you know and what you say, not how much you weigh or your sexual preference. Virtual worlds can be worlds of new ideas, not worlds of thoughtless discrimination.

3. Encouraging the flow of information and ideas. This follows from 1 and 2 above. If it is easier to get in touch with people, and if what they look like, what kind of chromosomes they have, or who or what they worship does not get in the way, you end up talking more and concealing less. Not surprisingly, studies have found that people tell things to complete strangers that they wouldn’t dream of mentioning to their spouses or neighbors. The anonymity of the mask of the avatar, the untraceability of the chat handle, makes ordinarily reticent people open up and discuss their dreams, their gripes, and their fantasies to an extent that no one ever dreamed of before the online world was born. Am I the only one who thinks this is probably a positive thing?

Okay, I confess I like to dream of Utopia instead of Dystopia. I could be completely wrong. Maybe this is all a dream a-borning that will die in the glowing ashes of an eventual nuclear war or a festering bioweapon plague. That could still happen. Maybe, as some fear, computers will suck the humanity out of us, turning us all into regimented drones that will serve a useful purpose until artificial intelligence takes over and pushes us aside to grumble with the ghosts of dinosaur and dodo. That might happen, as well. But I cannot make myself believe it. I see people reaching out the electric handshake to strangers. I see minds freed of the tyranny of traditions, forging new alliances and empathies in brave new worlds of endless extendability, of transfinite possibilities.  The currency of the future is data, and its ones and zeroes of on-and-off microscopic transistors are a metaphor of our choice as a species: will we come together to form a synergistic union of wholeness, or let it all die away to the emptiness of nothing? I know which I’d prefer. –MRK

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56 Responses to “The Guilden Age”

  1. Thanks for reading! — MRK

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