Discipline & Pwnage

[Note: This post originally appeared on Terra Nova.]

Feb 1, 2007

Dp2_1So I’ve been having my usual beginning-of-the-semester chats with my graduate students about their projects and progress. I enjoy these, and I think they do to (they almost never complain about the thumbscrews, or — more of a shock — having to read Habermas). One of them, Krista-Lee Malone, is a master’s student and long-time gamer who is completing an excellent thesis about hardcore raiding guilds. During our chat she said something about how these raiding guilds went about preparing her to participate in their activities, and it prompted me to follow up on some ideas from here. It’s about Foucault, bodies, institutions, and whether the relationship between developers and guilds is changing in important ways.

Krista-Lee plays a priest (one with more purples than I’ll ever see for my druid, I’m sure), and what she said was (paraphrasing), “I can healbot Molten Core in my sleep, but if I’m thrown into a new situation, I can’t heal at all.” While that’s probably an overstatement, it suggests something about the nature of raiding guild discipline — at least, pre-TBC. It turns out, and this is not unusual, that the guild power-leveled her toon and then taught her to follow a very specific and detailed script for the instances they were running, starting with UBRS and then through Naxx.

Michel Foucault famously argued that the power of modern institutions is driven, at root, by the ability to discipline people, or, more directly, to discipline their bodies — to mold those bodies and order their actions in ways that allow groups to achieve institutional objectives effectively. To do this, they draw on practical techniques developed first in places like early Christian monasteries and the Roman legions. Bodies are organized, regimented, taught to sit, to stand, to kneel, to match their singular shapes to the demands of regularity — no pinky out of place, the leg held just so. The effect of this “bio-power”, as he most convincingly shows in Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, is not only effective institutional control over otherwise unruly subjects, but in fact a re-shaping of their selves. They come to see this discipline as consitutive of who they are, as shaping their very desires. The classic (and idealized — practice is messier) example is the panopticon, where prisoners are architecturally situated in view of an invisible and authoritative observer. The guard watches from in a darkened room while they are laid out in a brightly-lit Cartesian grid. It comes to matter little if the guard is there at all, as the prisoners internalize the surveillance.

I’m not saying that Krista-Lee was a prisoner of her guild. Um, exactly. Foucault argues (in later works) that this disciplining of bodies is something taking place all around us, particularly as we learn to act within highly-regulated contexts, like schools, the military, hospitals, and airports. And, like the prisoners, he asserts that we come to accept and even celebrate the kind of self the institutions have made of us.

All of this is to get us thinking about to what extent hardcore raiding guilds should be seen in a similar light. The essence of disciplined bodies is that they are malleable; they can be shaped to perform in lock-step (literally) under a command hierarchy. The tension, of course, is that this strategic control always involves a tradeoff with the tactical, the ability of a group to respond on the fly, to emergent situations. For Krista-Lee, this effect was directly discernible — while she enjoys soloing and quest-grouping, she felt lost in new instances, when there wasn’t an explicit script to follow.

As I’ve pointed out, for WoW, this had — before the expansion — created a mutually constructive relationship between the 5(10)-person instancing and the large-scale raiding. While small-scale grouping not only allows for, it depends upon, tactical rethinking on the fly, large-scale groups narrow and leverage the set of available class skills (maybe hunters begin to leave pets behind, druids get pushed into healing, only one hemo rogue is called for) into more strictly-defined roles. The small-scale was, perhaps like boot camp in the military, an intense and necessary part of enculcating a set of competencies (what is a pull, sheeping, aggro), but one that ultimately is left behind, smaller in comparison to the institutional ambitions which these competent bodies now serve to realize. Rationalized systems of resource distribution, like DKP, along with political structures and communications tools, play a role as well for these institutions, harnessing individual desire into organizational discipline, to get the 40 people needed together all at one time, ready to down Onyxia, or tackle a world boss.

The reason I think this is particularly interesting for us to think about now are the cases of both WoW and Second Life and some of the recent changes these VWs have undergone. The downsizing of endgame instances in WoW, the availability of soloable loot roughly on a par with Tier 1+ in Outland, and (to my unsystematic eye) the prevalence of small group quests there with excellent rewards, all suggest that Blizzard’s moving away from supporting the emerging institutions (guilds) of its creation, ones which had dominated server culture for pretty much the whole game. This is an interesting contrast with past TN conversations, like the one here.

By contrast, the revamped estate tools in SL (which I’m sure many folks out there know more intimately than I), increase the amount of governance by island owners not only over a piece of property, but also over a group of people, and in fact these tools have thereby become deeply intertwined. To my eye, this enables the generation of institutional players on the SL landscape that LL has never had to deal with before. I’m not thinking first of the existing external institutions with a “presence” in SL, but rather of those entities that until recently we could somewhat reliably continue to think of as individuals, but which are now better understood as institutions. While the relationship of LL to some of its major content creators has been undoubtedly cozy, one can’t help but wonder how long that will last — institutions are competitive. The interesting thing about Second Life is the extent to which Linden Lab has had a “free-ride” for a long time, effectively being the only large institutional player in the arena. Social convention was emergent from the users, and was (is) something with which to contend — a lot of time at Linden is devoted to this “community management”. But architecture, the market, and “law” (others modes of governance, as I see it) were all firmly in Linden’s hands. That’s changing now, and the question is whether Second Life will fly apart at the seams once these other institutionalized interests find their footing.

All this is really just to wonder whether we’re entering an era where the relationships between virtual world makers and the people involved them are changing. It is probably wise for us to get in the habit of thinking just as readily about developer/(in-world)institution relationships as we do about developer/individual player relationships. I actually think this will be a hard habit to break — the idea of the game maker/game player relationship as primarily institution-to-individual is just one instance of the engrained tendency for those in industrialized societies to think about social institutions primarily as they relate to individuals.

WoW and SL both demonstrate, at a very broad level, different solutions to the emergence of institutions within their creations, an emergence that was, I believe, inevitable once resources began accumulating within these persistent and contingent domains. Foucault, like Weber, thought that people banding together to accomplish something was fine, but was wary of what happens next. Once any nascent institution begins looking for something else to accomplish, its primary raison d’etre has already changed. At that point, it’s more interested in its own reproduction than in its original aims or purview. Once that happens, look out.

[Addendum: Ever-alert Julian Dibbell points to ShaunConnery’s Rapwing Lair. Surely the script in Krista-Lee’s guild never sounded so good.]

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