Cultural Patterns in Gaming Guilds

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kei kreutler

"Role playing computer games went online in the 1990s, this meant large numbers of players could share in one game world: an environment with a diverse array of objectives, activities, and subplots. Early integral examples of MMOs include The Realm Online, Ultima Online, and EverQuest, which lead to more classics like World of Warcraft and EVE Online. In many of these examples, players are mostly free to set their own goals loosely guided by the open game world narrative, affordances, and risks (18), and because of this narrative freedom, players form groups to accomplish common goals out of the reach of single players. Referred to broadly as guilds, clans, or alliances, these groups can range from 40 to 1000 participants, and their goals could include defeating difficult enemies or constructing useful tools.

To accomplish these goals, cultural patterns emerge in guilds, and there can sometimes be a mismatch between the tools game world developers release for guilds and their actual needs. In an example from EVE Online, the game world developers created an interface for players to create corporations that allowed players to distribute shares. In practice, this feature to distribute shares was rarely used because it did not enhance existing cultural patterns. Instead, using EVE Online’s in-game browser and data API, many guilds developed their own tools needed to accomplish goals (19). A parallel between gaming guilds and DAOs could be drawn here, as the current wave of DAOs tend to use a combination of composable tools, such as bridging the Snapshot voting platform to a Gnosis Safe multi-signature account, rather than platforms which overly anticipate use cases for participants.

Though the specific feature to distribute corporate shares may not have taken off in EVE Online, gaming guilds frequently embrace economic practices of redistribution. The vast importance of MMO marketplaces, from Varrock to gold farming, for decentralized finance will be the subject of a later essay, but one economic practice may be keenly relevant for DAOs: Dragon-Kill Points (DKP). Taking their name historically from when dragons were the most frequently encountered enemies in MMOs, DKP emerged as an allocation system within and sometimes across guilds.

Complex, sustained missions undertaken by guilds, such as killing a dragon, are usually referred to as raids, and can range in length from several hours to several days. At the end of a raid, the slain enemy drops in-game items called loot, and guilds must decide how to distribute it. Because guilds require diverse and complementary player skill sets over extended time periods, “It matters that the same people work together again” (20) and the perceived fairness of often-scarce loot distribution is critical for this. As guilds grow in maturity, they often evolve different systems of loot distribution, for example beginning with random distribution, moving toward random distribution weighted by participation, and commonly arriving at distribution through an informal scoring system such as DKP. DKP act as a private money system, separate from any existing currency in a game world, and guild members earn them based on their participation in raids (21). Guild members can then choose to spend these points in exchange for loot after a raid.

Initially designed by a guild in 1999 for the EverQuest MMO, the practice of DKP has been embraced by many guilds across many game worlds, albeit with slight adjustments. Ed Castranova and Joshua Fairfield detailed one example in Dragon Kill Points: A Summary Whitepaper: the Leftovers DKP system, which maximizes the number of participants by not being tied to one specific guild. As Castranova and Fairfield write, “Indeed, this organization is effectively the highest allocative body in the population. If there is an emergent government on [the World of Warcraft server] Silver Hand, it is The Leftovers.” The Leftovers DKP system arises from a few limitations: loot can only be picked up at the aftermath of battle and, in World of Warcraft, cannot be transferred between players. The Leftovers DKP system has a small group of informally appointed governors: players who laboriously, through public dialogue, set and maintain a database of loot item prices in DKP. When loot drops, players with DKP can choose to spend them for a specific item, with all bids and transactions public. Being zero sum, the Leftovers DKP system then equally distributes spent DKP points to all other guild members that participated in the raid.

As Castranova and Fairfield note, DKP supplements the existing currencies of a game world, as much for efficient allocation as for social cohesion, “making possible the exchange of time (spent on those raids in which an individual is not compensated) for goods (obtained on those raids in which an individual wins loot)” (22). Especially in the case of World of Warcraft, because loot cannot be transferred between players, having loot itself also serves a strong signalling function, showing a player has meaningfully participated in raids over time. This DKP system precedes the mechanics of DAO platforms in development today, such as Aragon, Colony, and DAOstack, which all offer mechanisms to distribute reputational tokens based on the participation of members, rewarded for successful proposals, bounties, or campaigns: what might be called raids in other game worlds. These reputational tokens complement other economic systems enabled by DAO platforms, such as DAO-specific tokens or other assets in their multi-signature account treasuries. Often used as an alternative model to the plutocratic one token, one vote model, reputational tokens, earned through participation rather than purchasing power, provide greater voting power in DAOs that amasses over time. DAOs can learn from DKP, which in contrast, acts as a private money system based on participation that can be spent on other digital assets, instead of only amassing over time.

In addition to efficient allocation, contextual reputation, and signalling functions, the DKP system holds another significance for DAOs: generally all guilds resolve disputes independently from traditional court systems, despite these disputes involving expensive stakes. This becomes highly relevant for DAO tooling like Aragon’s digital jurisdictions or Kleros’s decentralized arbitration service that aim to provide internet native dispute resolution tools. In fact, DAO tooling often tries to technically solve problems that gaming guilds have already culturally refined for several decades, and it may be time for DAOs and gaming guilds to merge their practical knowledge more closely.

Another subtle cultural pattern of gaming guilds relates to their articulated economic structure. As researcher Joshua Citarella points out, many DKP systems resemble a form of market socialism, in which goods are publicly owned but allocated by markets (23). Citarella also goes on to note that despite the resemblance of DKP systems to market socialism, and the general happiness of players who participate in them, many of those players would decidedly not politically embrace the label market socialism. Shadow economics may be an apt term for when a group operates through an economic form it would not label itself as: DAOs as cooperative protocols and gaming guilds as market socialism. This tendency leaves interesting political territory like gaming guilds underexplored, because gaming guilds do not often need to wear their own flags. In one light, this could be more of a feature than a bug, as the invention of new terms like DAO, rather than reliance on canon, in part fuels their enthusiastic embrace."