Tribes in a Virtual World

Tribes

My tribe came from struggling labor/ Depression South Eastern Illinois/Just before the southern hills start/To roll toward the coal country

— Ed Dorn

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“Wind Riders: Endless Sky” by Javiera Pradenas Meneses is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

In 2018, after finishing my graduate degree a year before, I found myself with needing more than my job to occupy my time. And like I had many years before, found myself drawn back into playing World of Warcraft (WOW). In the time since I’d left the game in 2011, a lot had changed. While still at the level I was when I left, they’d added three expansions, and were working on releasing another one that was released six months later. While my wife’s attitude toward my sitting and playing a video game as opposed to doing something creative was still there, I jumped back in and moved through the expansions to get to where the heart of the gameplay really was: the highest levels. Some of my feelings about the actual gameplay were basically the same: drawn from the gambling industry, WOW has incentives for people to log in regularly and wile away hours in their virtual world. In WOW, players band together with others to solve the more complex problems, and a solo player can spend days exploring this very detailed virtual world that draws heavily on the fantasy, horror, speculative, and science fiction, and as you play you are rewarded to make your gameplay a bit easier on subsequent plays. Through regular gameplay, you’d see the formation of loose communities that, at times, lead to real world friendship. Yet, now, we had the addition of services like Twitch and Discord that created a whole layer of additional communities that may not actually be in the game world at all but can watch someone else play it (Twitch) or talk to someone while they play it (Discord)[1]. In addition, YouTube has jumped in by creating yet another outlet where people can go to learn, discuss, watch, etc. about what is happening in the game world.

We now had a much expanded simulacra of a world that only exists virtually, and people are free to comment, suggest on its creation in real time. And they do. Blizzard is bombarded on their own forums with “suggestions” on ways they can improve, critiques on the direction the game is going, and the toxicity of social media is spreading into various pockets, where game developers are bombarded outside of their role while at work. People seem to be acting out their own tribal impulses in a virtual world and the shared interest in that world isn’t enough to keep the larger tribal instincts from infecting this world too.

Now it’s important to note that I am parsing and defining tribe and community as words that are similar but have specific differences. According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, “Tribe… [is] a notional form of human social organization based on a set of smaller groups (known as bands), having temporary or permanent political integration, and defined by traditions of common descent, language, culture, and ideology.” Whereas, Community is similar but adds the wrinkle of being “quasi-voluntary” because the members often share the same geography or interests (but not always). So, while I think WOW had many elements you find in a community in 2011, I now think that that community has fractured into tribes. There are specific tribes that seem to be erupting in this virtual space, and this fracturing is being exacerbated by YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites that seem to be sorting us and leading to conflict, really toxic conflict.

For example, “Austin” is a popular streamer (someone who streams their gameplay on Twitch), who sometimes uploads content to YouTube as well.

London is a popular YouTube personality, who streams on Twitch as well.

I think it’s fair to say that Austin has a larger following on Twitch while London has a larger following on YouTube.

So basically we’re dealing with different platforms but both personalities are playing WOW, and creating content around WOW.

Someone was watching London on Twitch and edited a section of the stream out and sent it to Austin.

Austin, whose content on YouTube is quite often just edited versions of what he does on Twitch, watched this edited version of London’s stream while he was streaming on Twitch.[2]

In the edited video, London accused Austin of “punching down” when he critiqued Lore (WOW’s Community Manager) and sent toxic trolls to fill up Lore’s personal social media.

From there things just seemed to go off the rails: Austin’s fans started hitting up London’s social media presence.

As could be predicted, there were some trolls who took the opportunity to threaten London, his wife, etc.

Other YouTube personalities weighed in on the controversy via Twitter.

In fact one person suggested that London was faking people threatening him to increase his viewership, which, in turn, meant making more money.

It boiled over for a couple of days and then, at least, three different YouTube personalities took up the controversy.

Many of them took issue with London’s insistence that as content creators they are also responsible for the behavior of their fans.

Austin, and a fair number of YouTube personalities, dispute that and think they are ultimately not responsible for the behavior of their fans.

Interesting. But the root of the conflict sort of ballooned, in my opinion, because it is all happening in a virtual space, and in that space the conflict pushed people into tribes. In a Tribe, one can’t tolerate any criticism of the leader and the positions that the leader takes. It’s about loyalty to the leader and destruction of other tribes. Now Tribe Austin wants nothing more than to kill London’s stream and lurks on his Twitch channel hoping he’ll violate the terms of service and get demonetized as a result (a gamer’s version of “cancel culture”), let alone the stress of having people threatening you online. The new conflict that seems to be brewing is to what degree are content creators responsible for the actions (virtual actions) of their fans?

Of course, these tactics are nothing new. In fact, the NYTimes has a series out now on the 5 year anniversary of “Gamergate.” And while they recognize that it “…emerged during the internet’s shift from a largely anonymous or pseudonymous culture to one centered around personality-driven influencers” and acknowledge that a whole new vocabulary was created: Trolls, SJWs, Cancel Culture, PC Master Race, Doxxing, Tweetstorm, etc. as a result. The tactics that only existed in dark corners of the internet have now become standard operating procedure. Having any sort of discussion with people on the internet runs the risk of becoming just a bunch of ad hominem attacks or refutations of historical definitions to fit a tribal narrative. For example, when I pointed out in comments to an online article that historically fascism has been identified as “right wing” I ended up getting a long response about how it really is “left wing” because the Nazi party demanded fealty from German businesses. Never mind that my contention really was that fascist is “right wing” because it argues for a “return” to “Traditional”’ society (which doesn’t include the other-namely Jews) while “left wing” isn’t about a “return” to Tradition but actually argues that Tradition (namely religion) is detrimental to human well-being. Instead, he cherry picked my definition and tried to redefine the terms because he didn’t like his “tribe” being aligned with fascists.

As we spend more time in virtual spaces, arguments over individuality, personal responsibility, and the power of discourse continue to shape perceptions and we find ourselves responding to what is happening virtually and seeing it in the evening news, linked and discussed on Facebook, Twitter, and splashed across the last vestiges of print journalism. In 2015, I wrote a paper for graduate school that examined how virtual communities functioned (or didn’t) as communities. I concluded that “…despite the work of some science fiction authors to convince us otherwise, we still live with people who may not think like we do. We have to get along.” Yet, since then we’ve watched these sort of monolithic communities (people who play videogames) fracture around personality, discard the things that brought them together in favor of supporting their chosen leader or spokesman. And when nuance is injected it seems to matter little as people sort of further entrench themselves in their beliefs because they’ve become skeptical of everything. It all means we aren’t getting along any better than before and it seems to be getting worse.

[1] Yes, the more advanced players were capable of communicating in game in 2011, and Blizzard has added a lot of that functionality into the game since; it wasn’t nearly as sophisticated then as it is now.

[2] Yes, it was a YouTube video of a guy streaming his gameplay at the same time as he watched someone else’s gameplay, another version of Baudrillard’s “Simulacra.”

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