Outside Looking In
You might assume that as the resident MMO gamer (read: WoW addict) and one of the founding overlords of GWJ, I maintain some position of authority in the grand scheme of our World of Warcraft guild, and you would be entirely, epically, galactically wrong.
I am a happy participant in the usually comfortable family of the guild, but my capacity for tackling the challenges of guild leadership are as woefully underdeveloped as my ability to write lyrical poetry in Yiddish or juggle puppies. I have always relied on people far more willing to invest considerable effort into the logistics and politics of such endeavors, and asked only that the basic philosophies of the site be applied and that I not be subject to removal for inappropriate assault with purple prose.
So, when the guild this week torn asunder by a deep and long simmering schism, you might also assume that I was directly involved and active in the drama that ended in the loss of a dozen or more people including long standing officers from the group. Again, you would be wrong. I was a passive observer, as distressed by the partings of ways as anyone else, a passenger as so many guild members were on an out of control train doomed to derail.
This article is not about that guild drama. It is about the grandness of the personal fallout I witnessed in people who I had never really realized placed such identity and stake into this online platform. It is about the reality that I am only just beginning to comprehend — that relationships of a purely online nature are now as complex, sophisticated and potentially devastating when they fall apart as any in meat space.
It is also about being an outsider.
I have been a part of many gaming groups, and have always operated from the assumption that they were transitory and ultimately unsustainable. As a result I approached them casually, perhaps even flippantly, because when they inevitably fell apart I didn’t want to lose time moving on to whatever the next thing was for me.
I am one of those people who has never really understood the concept of building online relationships in games. Yes, at this point it would be appropriate to point out that it is at least odd for me to suggest that I’m no good at developing these kinds of connections online, but that’s not quite what I'm trying to say. What I am saying, admitting in a way, is not that I don’t know how to do it. It’s that I haven’t known how to take it seriously.
It is only through years of working, and in many cases making face to face connections, that I’ve built what I feel like are lasting and permanent connections with some of the people I have worked with almost every day for seven years.
But, watching the events unfold over the past few days has been less like spying on the meaningless end of some known but disposable group quantity, and more like an uncontested divorce on the grounds of irreconcilable differences. It is an exploration of people in genuine emotional distress over relationships founded entirely in the service of a game, something we may be taking for granted with our post-millennial sensibilities, but that has qualities that may be unique across the whole of human history.
When I think constructively about this, it is a staggering thing to me the capacity of human beings to evolve communities and relationships. As I look in from the outside on people whose only connection has ever been an exchange of data on the tender fibers of an international electronic network, and realize the emotional attachments that have still managed to be created in that medium I am genuinely staggered, and left feeling a little bit like I have missed out. Yes, there is heartache — true, genuine sadness — now, but that is only possible because of the deep roots that people allowed to take hold, often with nothing but a voice and an avatar to operate from.
I begin to realize that I have been incredibly cynical about online relationships, even as I was encouraging the platforms on which they could flourish. Perhaps because I love no topic more than that of myself, or perhaps because my capacity for selfishness is a great and wide ocean brimming ever over, my take away from what others might casually dismiss as just guild drama is a deeper respect for people who are willing to put themselves for better or worse into a group like this.
This has never been my strength. I am the son of a salesman, and I know the art of making nice with people. I know how to make acquaintances. But the number of people outside my family who I trust on an emotionally resonant level where they could actually do me harm? Maybe four. Maybe.
So, I watch from the outside looking in not because the group has left me out, but because I’ve never really been willing to come all the way inside. I walk away from the ordeal with maybe a slightly better understanding of the people I share online spaces with, but, oddly, less of an understanding about how I fit into those groups. Or even of myself.
That's not a discouraging thing though. In fact, it might actually be quite hopeful if looked at from the right perspective.