Contributed by Clement Chau
IntroductionVirtually simulated 3D spaces online, such as those offered by MMORPGs (Massively multiplayer online role-playing games), can provide a platform for examining a variety of human interactions and behaviors (Bainbridge, 2007). Simulated 3D spaces have technological and social features such as anonymity, synchronicity, spatiality, and transformability (Ondrejka, 2008) that are absent in other forms of online communities and communication, and are normally difficult to control and study in other types of social settings. These characteristics of simulated 3D spaces have offered members of these virtual worlds a space for experimenting and engaging in a activities that might be more difficult to initiate in offline worlds.
User experience in MMORPGs range from text chatting, questing or completing game tasks, buying and selling game items, and forming player groups such as guilds and linkshells. However, MMORPG players do not limit their activities in virtual game worlds to game-only tasks. Unlike traditional video games where the games dictate all in-game behaviors, MMORPGs provide a fairly flexible technical framework that directs gamers to in-game tasks as well as interpersonal and social activities. Furthermore, MMORPGs is rest upon a strong, transmedia gamer community, whereby gamers form affinity groups within games that are supported by other web-based or offline practices (e.g., guild websites, gatherings). As such, MMORPGs serves as a potential platform for a variety of civic and community behaviors, including community activities centered on in-world experiences as well as civic activities that reflect players' ideology and beliefs.
Some groups might be formed in order to excel at certain game-based tasks; others might be more social in nature for members to feel connected with other players. Some groups have long, indefinite duration while others are formed for a specific purpose and are then disbanded after the purpose has been fulfilled. In order to understand these virtual games as a social space, it is important to examine the dynamics across players, groups, and between the player and the game. A number of researchers have looked at the social and interpersonal dynamics within game as well as between players and the game world (represented by the game engine, game narrative, as well as game designers). An example of a study on players <-> game world dynamic is the “Tax Revolt in Americana” case in the 2003 Second Life virtual world, in which players organized as avatars and piled virtual tea crates around a Washington monument mock up within the Second Life universe as a protest against increased game fees and convinced Linden Lab, the game creator, to reconsider their tax and economic policies (Au, 2003; Shirkey, 2003).
The Ron Paul Revolution WoW Guild
Guilds are groups of players within the World of Warcraft game universe. Players band together for a variety of reasons such as to complete game tasks that require group efforts (for example, dungeon quests), to socialize and meet others, and to support and mentor new players. One such group is the RP Revolution -Ron Paul Revolution guild that was created to promote Ron Paul's presidential candidacy during the 2008 presidential election.
The RP Revolution Guild Logo
The RP Revolution guild began as a single player's initiative toward the end of 2007. Grassroot initiatives were the hallmark of Ron Paul's campaign and there were numerous resources and support for supporters to take action from the ground up. The RonPaulForum.com website served as one centralized portal for supports to share tips and ideas for these initiatives. On 12/26/2007, a WoW player posted a suggestion on the forum to propose a virtual march in the WoW universe as a way to raise awareness about Ron Paul's candidacy as well as a gathering activity to see how many WoW player support Ron Paul. Between the original post date and New Year's day, when the march was scheduled to take place, the message board thread got over 10,000 views (and over 31,000 views as of today) and over 200 reply posts. The original poster created a WoW guild with the name RPRevolution and invited all participants to join this guild.
An accompanying website was created to help promote the event, and the news media quickly caught attention -- Gamespy.com, the OCRegister, CrunchGear.com, Wired.com, and RawStory.com were just a few examples of news site and media outlets that not only discussed the event but in doing so helped attract people to the guild and to the march. By New Years day, over 300 people participated in the march. Many of these marchers were regular WoW players who were also Ron Paul supporters, while some others who were unfamiliar with WoW learned of the event and wanted to participate so downloaded and registered for a game account.
Although most news media and online messages celebrated the creativity and the effort that the organizers put into this event and the guild, not all media attention were positive. Because of the massive and sudden influx of players, marchers overloaded the WoW server during the march and many regular players who were not part of the march got upset and complained to Blizzard (the company that created WoW) about the event. Some have even managed to post angry messages on the website and on the message board thread.
Even internally within the grassroot community on the RonPaulForums.org website, some of Ron Paul's supporters questioned the impact that such an event could have on Ron Paul's candidacy. For example, one member wrote,
Although there were some dissent, the RP Revolution guild and the march was a success in that it raised awareness of Ron Paul's presidential candidacy, got media attention, and created a community of WoW players who were also RP supporters. The RP Revolution guild is an example of players bringing their political ideologies and beliefs into the game-world. This type of behaviors is not unique to the RP Revolution guild -- there are over 170 game characters with a name, BarackObama or a similar variant. But this guild is unique in that it is a grassroot organization, started by a player who just happened to be interested in supporting Ron Paul's candidacy, and utilized the features of the WoW game world to raise awareness. This was an example of participatory democracy that leveraged players' shared content in order to create an affinity group. Most importantly, however, it gave some players are sense of community based on their shared support for Ron Paul.
Is this civic engagement?
Some of the comments made as critiques of the event raised an interesting question as to where these types of game-world events place in the spectrum of civic engagement. There is a definite "physical" difference between avatars running across the WoW universe versus members marching on the street. The online world made it possible to organize a march and a rally within 4 days' time, something that "real life" rally would not be able to manage. Furthermore, this event attracted a different population of supports to engage in civic activities when they might not participate in a typical "real life" march. Furthermore, the novelty of this event attracted much media attention; and thus the impact of this event carried beyond players' participation.
Although the guild continues to exist, but membership has dwindled to about 10 members as of March 2010. A number of mirror guilds have since been created across the various WoW servers but none have remain active. So this one time event was definitely unsustainable. Then, the question would be how do one-time events such as this march (and the affiliated guild) serve as a catalyst for march participants and standby watchers.
For this particular case, the event served as a catalyst for creating a sense of a community of RP supporters within the WoW universe. Because WoW players relate to other players based on a shared content world and shared interests, this event helped solidified a sense of relatedness among WoW player who were RP supporters. More research is needed to understand to what extent " a sense of community" facilitates and promote civic identity and civic engagement.