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The Guild Counsel: Can guilds save the economy?

Karen Bryan

Wait! Before you hit that comment button about the absurdity of the title above, hear me out! A few weeks ago, I stumbled on a video that touched on this very topic, and I felt it was a perfect discussion point for this column. The video is actually titled How World of Warcraft could save your Business and the Economy, and it's a commentary by John Seely Brown that's part of a series called Big Think.

What Seely Brown argues is that he'd prefer to hire an expert World of Warcraft player over someone who graduated from Harvard with an MBA, and he goes on to explain why businesses can learn from the way top players and guilds function in game. It might sound crazy, but it's worth considering, and in this week's Guild Counsel, we'll look at the topic both from Brown's WoW point of view and from a broader view of MMOs in general.

It's worth noting that in the video, John Seely Brown is talking about player practices and behaviors compared to common business practices. Players in WoW at the highest level of the game (meaning endgame) self-organize into guilds and then break off into smaller groups within the guild to specialize in specific areas (he uses the example of players analyzing effects of a particular potion's healing abilities). He says that guilds deal with thousands of strategic ideas and that they become a knowledge-refining group.

But he adds that guilds are not just self-organizing groups. Guilds essentially form their own constitutions, and the leaders have judicial responsibilities that go along with it. Where he really draws the comparison between businesses and guilds, though, is through dashboards. He argues that in business, there's a top-down approach and that a worker's dashboard (a snapshot assessment) is made by the manager, while in games, the players themselves create their own dashboards. In games, there's no manager assigning measurements; you assign your own measurements and goals when playing. He suggests that corporations should rethink the top-down approach and consider using some of the practices of top guilds in WoW to reshape the "workscape."

The Guild Counsel  Can guilds save the economy
Learning and fun

When John Seely Brown says that he'd hire an expert World of Warcraft player over someone with a Harvard MBA, what I think he's getting at is that a traditional school education isn't keeping up with the ideas and culture of the tech-heavy world in which we live and that the WoW player's in-game "education" has inadvertently given him a leg up in that regard. I've written before that there are a lot of valuable leadership lessons that come from running a guild. The business world has actually taken notice of that already.

But while it's amazing to see how bleeding-edge guilds function and succeed, it doesn't work out for the vast majority of guilds that have been created across the MMO landscape. And usually, when these guilds fail, they fail in spectacular fashion, so I'm not sure the guild model is something that businesses should automatically follow. Allowing highly motivated, highly driven, expert gamers to create their own dashboards works, but it doesn't work so well for the player who isn't an expert and doesn't have a lot of skill. For those players to succeed in the endgame, there really needs to be a top-down, directed approach. I'm always impressed with what top guilds can accomplish, but I think it's even more amazing when average guilds led by great leaders overachieve. It's easy to turn a great player loose and basically get out of her way as she does her thing. It's another thing entirely to see a die-hard non raider suddenly become the hero of an epic guild raid and relish the success. His self-created dashboard would probably fall short of what he could actually accomplish, and in the end, he'd be missing out on something he'd really enjoy too.

Furthermore, there is a bit of a chicken and egg scenario. Do MMOs help teach people to be leaders in real life, or are born leaders natural candidates for the role of guild leader? And if guild leaders are leaders by trade, then isn't it possible that each of them is bringing in his own leadership methods and that MMOs are almost a melting pot of those methods? It's still worth studying, but I think Seely Brown might be giving MMOs a little too much credit.

Get the job done

But in the end, I'm not sure it would be a wise decision to hire a high-end World of Warcraft player (or any expert player in an MMO, for that matter) over someone who has an MBA from Harvard because the player is doing what he wants to do, not what he has to do to bring home a paycheck. He might be the best at his game, but he's really not held accountable for anything he does (or doesn't) do. He can log off and walk away when he's not having fun anymore. The same can't be said about work, and that distinction between work and play is something that can't be overlooked. John Seely Brown used the quote "If I ain't learning, it ain't fun" in the video, but you still need to get the job done.

Ironically, the MMO industry is littered with remains of studios that were fun to work for but still ultimately failed. Expert WoW players and guilds do accomplish some impressive feats in game, but when they get bored, they can walk away. As we all know, you can't walk away from a job when you're bored. Well, you can, but it (and your paycheck) won't be there the next day when you go back.

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.

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