Albion Online (Sandbox Interactive Gmbh, 2016)

Why Gamers Love Guilds

At its best a guild helps members meet their fundamental human needs, like approval, affiliation, and self-determination

I resent the stereotype than gamers are socially inept loners. Couch co-op games enliven friendships as players overcome challenges side by side. LAN parties and MOBAs can combine elements of traditional parties and team sports. Even single player games can foster discussion, appreciation, and interactive spectating (e.g., Let’s Plays…, Twitch Plays…). In addition to all that socializing, one gaming experience has distinctly given me numerous moments of gaming bliss and months of lasting fascination and satisfaction, in the company of others. I’m talking about being part of a guild in a massively multiplayer online game (MMOG).

I’ve played many roles in guilds, including senior officer, head diplomat, and fleet commander. I recently started playing two newer MMOGs after burning out on another. I play such games in order to interact with other people, so joining a guild is one of my early-game goals. In each MMOG, I searched for the kind of guild I prefer, applied to it, and was accepted. This experience has provoked my thinking about what a guild can become. For example, while reading and watching guilds’ recruiting content I’m reminded of my past guild experiences, good and bad.

At its best a guild helps members meet their fundamental human needs. Like many psychologists, I believe that we can better understand specific behaviors by unpacking and illuminating human needs. People who choose to participate in a social “construct” such as a guild are trying to meet distinct needs. Needs are a messy business. While needs can drive behavior, we may not consciously consider our needs when we make choices, or we may not choose the best strategies to meet our needs. For example, I may not carefully consider what I’m looking for in a guild, join an ill fitting or poorly managed guild and feel thwarted in meeting my needs.

By contrast, a guild and its members thrive when the guild leaders understand members’ needs, make it relatively easy to meet them, and communicate this understanding and ease to prospective members. Of course, you don’t have to be a psychologist to effectively lead a guild. Yet developing a deeper understanding of human needs may help guild leaders and other members discuss, plan, and troubleshoot their guilds’ health.

A well managed guild offers at least three core benefits: an intentional community, a deliberate identity, and a unity of purpose. Each of these benefits helps members meet one or more human needs.

Intentional community is the first benefit that a guild can offer. As humans, we have a need for relatedness. We want to feel authentic and experience reciprocal relationships with other people, relationships such as camaraderie, friendships, familial love, and romantic love. We also have a need for approval (or affirmation), and we want to be seen and valued. These needs often overlap. For example, I want to feel a sense of real friendship with my guild mates, and I crave their positive judgment of my in-game performance and contributions to the guild’s goals.

Communities can occur in many contexts for many reasons, by happenstance or intention, as fleeting or long-term constructs. For example, the employees in a business may not choose to work there because of each other, yet they may still form camaraderie and friendships. Normally, the passengers waiting in an airport don’t interact much, yet when a flight delay strands them together for hours they may start talking and connecting.

Guilds are somewhat similar to those examples in that usually individuals first choose to play an MMOG and only then to seek a guild. Yet there are often thousands of players in an MMOG. When a subset of those players join together in a guild, it’s not happenstance. They’re intentionally creating a community. That’s exciting because intentional, long term communities will be more successful at helping members to meet their needs than coincidental or fleeting communities.

Deliberate identity is the second benefit that a guild can offer. As humans, we have a need for affiliation. I want to be part of something bigger than myself, to mingle my individual identity with a shared identity. For example, I’m proud to be affiliated with my university, to refer to the Pacific Northwest as my home (even if I don’t currently live there), and to identify as a bicyclist. Humans go to great lengths to build and represent their affiliations with identity “signifiers” such as a high school letterman’s jacket, a bumper sticker, wearing face paint with my team’s colors while watching a sports game, wearing a religious symbol, or wearing my gang’s colors and flashing gang signs with my hands.

Identity is also a messy business. I have limited or no control over some of the substance of my identity and its signifiers. For example, I make a decent living, but I don’t see myself as wealthy. Both my parents are white, so I am, too. I could try to imitate a different signifier by buying flashy costume jewelry or dying my skin brown. But wearing cubic zirconium won’t make me rich, and I doubt a person of color would say that we now share the same racial identity. If I crave the substance of an identity, the signifiers alone won’t fulfill my need for affiliation.

Happily, in an online game much of my identity is under my control. I often get to choose both the substance and the signifiers, such as my abilities and armor. As I consider how to exercise this control in an MMOG — as I decide who I want to be — a guild can be a rich identity to mingle with mine. Meeting my need for affiliation can be much easier.

Superficially, the deliberate identity of a guild includes its name, heraldry, and livery (e.g., a signature block for forum posts, distinctive in-game cloaks in Albion Online). The shared, intentional identity often goes much deeper. In the typical tumultuous churn of guilds in an MMOG, a specific guild needs to proclaim what makes it unique and appealing. A guild often asserts that adopting its substance and wearing its signifiers will be deeply fulfilling to members. Join us and you can say, “I’m in this guild. I’m with them”.

Unity of purpose is the third benefit that a guild can offer. As humans, we have a need for self-determination. We want to feel substantial control over our lives. I can accept that some elements are beyond my control, such as the race of my parents. But overall, to borrow Volkswagen’s metaphor, on the road of life I want to feel like a driver not a passenger. For example, I don’t need to settle for the signifier of costume jewelry. Rather, I can meet my need for self-determination by first believing that I can substantially change my material lifestyle — with the right attitude, strategies, and effort — and then by following through on that belief. (Notice how self-determination can be entwined with a growth mindset.)

For many goals, I may be more successful if I collaborate with others. If a team is united and effective, it will ultimately help me meet my goals more efficiently than going it alone. So, paradoxically, I can better meet my need for self-determination by trading some autonomy to be part of something greater. In considering such a trade, I should try to affiliate myself with people who share my goals and commitment. As the meme says, “It’s hard to soar like an eagle when you’re surrounded by turkeys”.

Here’s where a guild can shine. Like many social constructs, a guild can offer the force multiplier of collective action. In most contemporary MMOGs, it’s possible to adventure alone. Yet when even a few players join forces, they can become significantly more effective than the sum of their solo abilities. As a guild member, I will ultimately feel more control over my (virtual) life because we’re achieving victories and my character is advancing.

Therefore, joining a guild can be a lateral move for fulfilling self-determination. Instead of only grappling with and grinding the game’s challenges solo, I can take social risks and invest energy to be an active member in a guild. Then I don’t need to skill up in a particular boss-killing spell because my guild-mate already has it, or I don’t need to grind gold to replace the equipment that I lost in a player-vs-player battle because my guild subsidizes PVP gear.

In summary, those are some of the ways that a guild helps members meet their needs for relatedness, approval, affiliation, and self-determination through intentional community, deliberate identity, and unity of purpose.

Notice the centrality of intentionality. A guild is at its best when it knows what it wants to be and clearly communicates this intention to current and prospective members. That’s a nontrivial challenge. Among the complications is this: social constructs are rarely static. As the leaders and other members of a guild change, as veterans burn out and new players join, as the mechanics and broader culture of the MMOG shift, a guild may need to keep reinventing itself to stay relevant and appealing.

Keeping members happy and active also requires continuously tuning the balance of a guild’s needs with the members’ needs. Regarding my need for affiliation, I want to be part of a team, but I don’t want to be just another cog in a machine. Regarding my need for self-determination, I want a guild to help me advance, but I don’t want my play time to just be guild dictated activities. You could say that I want all of the joys of a virtual career with few of the hassles of a real job.

As leaders reinvent and tune their guilds, they may find inspiration in Richard Bartle’s brilliant, seminal article “Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDs.” While players have the same fundamental human needs, they choose very different games and in-game activities to meet their needs: socializing with others (hearts), PVP combat (clubs), seeking loot and treasure (diamonds), or exploring the world (spades).

Bartle advises how to design a game to appeal to a variety of players, and his advice also applies to guilds. Unless a guild is exclusively focused on one activity (e.g., PVP combat), its leaders should consider whether the guild is supporting sufficiently varied activities for its varied members.

Leaders should also consider the limitations of their particular MMOG. Different games offer different levels of support for guilds, from the bare minimum of a guild channel and a shared “bank” (item storage) to guild controlled territory and nuanced roles for officers (e.g., recruiting, finances, declaring war). Some games are rightfully famous for richly supporting guilds. For example, EVE Online allows a guild (or “corporation”) to flag other guilds as allies, neutrals, or hostiles. This game mechanic supports delightfully sophisticated human interaction, including treaties and double-crosses. Those interactions, in turn, help players to meet their needs.

In general, any game mechanic that rewards players for temporarily teaming up tends to also nurture guilds as long term constructs. For example, many MMOGs reward groups that include the “holy trinity” of combat roles: tank, damage, and healing. Some offer experience bonuses when grouped. Some give a damage bonus when stacking one character’s special ability on top of another character’s special ability. And so on. Each of these mechanics tangentially rewards guilds for communicating and planning (e.g., ensuring an adequate bench of healers).

Alas, there’s a disheartening trend for guild-centric players like me. MMOG design seems to be trending away from requiring or even rewarding interdependence. For example, Guild Wars 2 famously eliminated the need for a healer or the need to intentionally form a team for a boss fight. Evidently, there are sufficient players who prefer to go it alone that guilds have become a sideshow in many MMOGs. The brutal business realities of MMOGs deprioritize developing features that only a minority of players want.

Happily, where MMOGs fall short, third parties have stepped up. Paid solutions such as Enjin supply some of the bureaucratic infrastructure and social media that a particular game may lack. On the one hand, a third-party solution will never be as organic or as powerful as in-game features. On the other hand, these solutions permit a guild to keep a healthy distance from a particular MMOG. Most MMOGs eventually wither or die. If a guild’s community and identity are somewhat distinct from an MMOG, then it can persist beyond that one game or even any game.

Such multi-game guilds seem to be the logical evolution of this particular social construct. Of the two guilds I recently joined, one is multi-game. I’m excited to be building friendships that may last far beyond any one game’s golden age, and I’ll be relieved if I don’t have to apply to a new guild — again — in the next game I choose. Instead, in a year or two, I may choose a new MMOG based on my guild, rather than the reverse.

So perhaps we’re in a new era of symbiosis between MMOGs and guilds. A particular MMOG is no longer the only environment where a guild can exist, but rather one in which a guild may invest its resources (including players and their real money) in exchange for a virtual quality of life, individually and collectively. An MMOG that wants to attract players by the guild and not just one by one should consider appropriately appealing design elements and game mechanics. But it’s now an open landscape: a particular MMOG will still be where a multi-game guild finds some of its purpose and members, but not all.

I find the signs of this new era heartening. After all, at its best, a guild transcends any specific game in meeting fundamental human needs: relatedness, approval, affiliation, and self-determination. It’s the guild — not the game — that delivers on these needs. For that reason, we should celebrate guilds, lead them well, and continue exploring what we can do with them, together.