The Guild Counsel: Are guild leaders a health hazard?

Earlier this week, Massively reported on a poll conducted by Bigpoint concerning gamer stereotypes. The good news is that the results of the voluntary survey showed that gamers are not overweight shut-ins who live in their grandmother's basements. The bad news is that there's some skepticism on the validity of the results, since the poll was a voluntary survey and there's no way to prove that the participants were telling the truth.

However, there have been a number of in-depth studies over the years that have shown some surprising trends in who exactly plays MMOs and more importantly what their behavior is like in game. For this week's Guild Counsel, we're going to take a closer look at MMO players and touch on the role that guild leaders might play in steering player behavior in-game.

Whether you question its validity or not, the Bigpoint survey does have some interesting results. It's refreshing to see that the majority of gamers have more real-life friendships than in-game friendships, and it's also nice to see that gamers consider themselves to be well-rounded. But at the same time, 89 percent of the participants were male, and of those, almost half came from Turkey. That's a nice snapshot of the typical Turkish male gamer, but I'm not quite sure you can generalize much beyond that.

Luckily, we're seeing a lot more research into player demographics and player behavior, and one of the most in-depth was the recent study that used about 60TB of server logs from EverQuest II. They were scrubbed of private identifiable information, but the data yielded some surprising information about the behavior and makeup of the 400,000-player in-game community.

Some of the findings were surprising, like the fact that older players spent more time in-game than younger ones. The average player age was 31, and in general, the respondents were more healthy than the general population, based on body-mass index. Also, only about five percent of the population was made up of heavy gamers who used MMOs as a coping mechanism for psychological problems. That's actually a lower number than the 10 percent cited in the Bigpoint survey. But as proof that voluntary surveys aren't always accurate, the data also showed that both men and women under-reported their actual time in game.

Out of the basement, into the fire

As MMOs continue to grow in popularity and become a more accepted part of our culture, guild leaders will need to step back and take a close look at where they fit into the picture. We often look at guild management issues like recruiting and DKP, but rarely do we look at the impact a guild leader has on the members. We do need to look at the question of how far guild leaders can push members, at the balance between motivating the guild toward a common goal and pushing people to sacrifice their offline life for their in-game life. Yes, ultimately, everyone who plays a game is responsible for his own decisions, and it's not a guild leader's fault if someone on the roster is neglecting his real life. But at the same time, I think it's worth asking whether guild leaders run the risk of being enablers because of the demands and expectations put on guild members. Is it OK for a guild leader to set a minimum for raid attendance? What about asking people to stay up later than usual for "one more pull?" Is it fair to boot a member because he didn't have the time to farm for required consumables or level up fast enough? These are very difficult questions, and attempting to answer them can be uncomfortable.

On the other hand, when I look at the data regarding player behavior and the social ties that result, I'd wager that guild leaders have a lot of influence over that. There are a lot of positives that come from being in a guild, and one of them is the bond that develops among members. Guild leaders create the atmosphere and a culture that can foster long-term friendships, some of which are stronger than real-life relationships. Guildmates celebrate together when a member has a birthday, finishes school, gets married, or has a child. They share good news and vent to each other when they've had a bad day. Guild friendships, and online relationships in general, can be as strong and as valid as offline ones, even though they're still not generally accepted as being equal.

The 7-11 gamer

If anything, the one conclusion you can make from any MMO-player study is that there is no easy way to describe the typical gamer, nor is it easy to evaluate the balance between our in-game lives and our offline lives. But the growth of the gamer population, and the MMO culture in general, also brings up a player-type that Erik Bethke refers to as the 7-11 gamer (/hattip to Michael Zenke). MMOs have created virtual worlds that provide such things as robust economies, competition, and outlets for intellectual creativity. Imagine a man who, by day, gets up, goes to work behind a counter at a 7-11, and is basically just a face in the crowd who takes change from customers. But at night when he goes home, he's a raid leader, a highly respected community member, or a successful entrepreneur. The question is, what is the true expression of his humanity -- the worker, or the gamer? Which offers a more fulfilling experience? We're just at the tip of understanding where MMO communities, and guilds in particular, fit into the bigger picture.

Hopefully, as we continue to see polls and studies of MMO communities, we'll also start to see an attempt at answering some of the tougher questions that touch on the positives and negatives of online social ties. For guild leaders, it's far easier to focus on the day-to-day tasks of guild management, but it's important to begin to look at these areas more closely, particularly because guild leaders have a lot of power to steer player behavior -- for better or worse.

Do you have a guild problem that you just can't seem to resolve? Have a guild issue that you'd like to discuss? Every week, Karen Bryan takes on reader questions about guild management right here in The Guild Counsel column. She'll offer advice, give practical tips, and even provide a shoulder to lean on for those who are taking up the challenging task of running a guild.