Collective Individualists, or Individual Collectivists

I usually do not participate in theme weeks, but Stubborn’s recent Individualist vs Collectivist post struck a chord. A discordant one.

But first, as always, we have to define the terms of the debate. Throughout Stubborn’s post, for example, he seems to be using “grouping” as interchangeable with Collectivism. While grouping is certainly something Collectivists do, that is like calling me a Landscape Artist when I mow the lawn. The intention matters.

But rather than get too philosophical about it, I have an easy quiz you can take to determine whether you are a Collectivist, or at least have Collectivist tendencies. Have you ever felt:

  1. Shame, or
  2. Guilt, or
  3. A sense of obligation

…to do or refrain from doing some action in an MMO? If you answered “yes,” congratulations comrade, you are a Collectivist!

I knew the precise moment my WoW days became numbered: six weeks after having killed the Lich King in ICC. There I was, logging on at 9pm sharp, trying to drum up support for yet another ICC run that I did not want participate in, let alone tank and raid lead. So why did I do it? Because I knew that 4-5 of my guild mates wanted to do it, that if I did not personally pull the group together the raid would not form, and that each raid which failed to form would drive said guild mates further and further away (into other guilds, or simply away period). Collectivism is about putting the needs of the Collective ahead of your own. You sacrifice your own enjoyment for the benefit of the whole, because the guild/group/corp/etc is intrinsically linked to your own enjoyment.

Contrast the above with Stubborn’s assertion that Diablo 3 ranks highly on the (arbitrary) Collectivist scale:

D3 gets the most collectivist score because it has no add-ons, heavily emphasizes grouping at harder difficulties, and has individual loot.  I’d give it a 5, but I have hopes for more collectivist MMOs to come around, and besides, it stinks.

Do you care about the other people you group with in Diablo 3 beyond their potential function as loot efficiency creators? Do you feel guilt for leaving such a group, or a sense of obligation to stay, or shame when you “fail” them? Probably not.

But… maybe you do. In which case, this debate becomes even more abstract as we are awkwardly forced into quantifying how much a game may or may not encourage Collectivist tendencies in players. Is the game anti-Collectivist, or are the players simply pro-Individualists (read: rational entertainment consumers)?

Here is how I see it: Collectivism is something you bring into the game from the outside.

A game can force you to group with other people in order to play, but whether you identify with that group is 100% up to you. Everyone readily agrees that WoW’s random LFD groups are five individuals looking for loot, but Trade Chat groups were not the opposite by default. Did I have a higher tolerance for failure back in TBC? Yes… because if I did not carry that terrible player through heroic Shadow Labs, it meant I was playing zero dungeons tonight. Walking that player through detailed text explanations of each boss encounter was necessary like wearing a shield and pressing Consecration was necessary – in both cases I was simply pressing buttons, not connecting to another human being.

Perhaps I should just quote Samus, who needs nominated for Best Metaphor of the Year:

Any social element is IN SPITE OF the design of these games. You are sitting in a room with all the chairs facing the wall, praising the room for the great conversation you still managed to have.

Having said all that, I can still agree with Syl vis-a-vis being glad that MMOs like Guild Wars 2 are moving towards “bonus instead of malus” incentives for grouping. If I wanted to be social (the most important step!), many MMOs would make being social difficult; simple things like penalizing group XP, throwing quest barriers up, and placing people in awkward Mineral Rights scenarios (“You take the Copper node.” “No, you!”). These days, I would also include general looting rights, even in raiding. While loot system is traditionally the backbone of a raiding guild’s identity – Loot Council vs DKP vs Main spec > Off spec rolls, etc – it can also be divisive. I might like playing with Bob, but if he is in a guild with Loot Council… well, we can no longer be friends raid together.

Ironically, in a certain light, relaxing these grouping barriers actually seems to make games more Individualistic. And it does. Everyone says LFD is the most Individualistic, community-destroying feature ever… and then praise GW2’s auto-grouping, auto-scaling, individual looting, no-words-necessary Dynamic Events in the same breath¹. And the multiple guilds thing, which is great, but sort of undermines the whole guild loyalty/identity thing though, right? Maybe, maybe not.

I feel like this is one of those rare situations in which the otherwise terrible relationship cliche of “set the bird free, and if it comes back, it was meant to be” is applicable. After all, even a sociopath can fake relationships long enough to get the loot, so to speak. A Collectivist cares about the Collective, and will return even if they are not penalized for leaving. A closet Individualist on the other hand… well, they need the handcuffs in spite of themselves.

Of course, the thoroughly legitimate fear is that there ain’t that many Collectivists after all. And I am inclined to agree. So it is simply up to you to decide whether or not the chance of fake becoming real via going through the motions is worth all the cognitive dissonance and hand-waving.

I say open up that cage and let’s see what happens.

¹ LFD might be worse for basically never grouping the same people together again, but simply seeing the same few dudes in Events multiple times is not all that more social by itself. It is the difference between paying for gas at the pump and paying the cashier inside.

Posted on August 24, 2012, in Guild Wars 2, Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. While I disagree with your personal stance, I’m excited to see someone tackle the Collectivism/Individualism discussion from a philosophical approach. Great read, as usual.


  2. Azuriel,
    “Collectivism is something you bring into the game from the outside.”
    I actually completely agree with this, and the fact that I usually play games with the same 3 people – my collective – I’m sure heavily influences my opinions on the matter. I just also think that sometimes devs bring collectivism to the game, too, but that it often goes horribly wrong. Using the chairs/room metaphor, it seems to me that the devs put chairs in the room sometimes without regard to direction, while those of us outside realize that many (or all, in some cases) of them are facing the wall.

    Still, like most things, I think that that collectivism couldn’t persist if the environment was totally hostile towards it. As I said to Samus, it’s the devs who put all those chairs in the room in the first place. If there was only 1 chair in the room, then you surely couldn’t have a collectivist approach within the game. To use another metaphor, you can take flower seeds to Mars, but they won’t grow there. The very fact that collectivism does exist in MMOs proves there’s some built-in support for it.

    Keep in mind the entire debate between Samus and I started because he (or she) thought my scores were too high. That’s just a statistical presentation preference; I addressed that point in my earlier comments there so I won’t clutter up your box here.

    I think, too, that your story about the death or raid leading is very much a story of how collectivism failed in WoW. I gave WoW a 1, remember, because I agree that it’s a horribly individualistic game. I faced the same moments a few times, always stupidly (stubbornly) going back into raiding until I truly finally called it quits. Since then, my collective has been my 3 friends + wife, and that’s worked well. That fits very well with the idea that larger groups are much harder to make collectivist.

    Group identity is a very tricky thing. My wife is a political psychologist (with a statistical background) who studies voting behavior through the lens of developing a political identity. She’s found that identity to the two American parties is heavily dependent on certain factors, some of which are individual, and some of which are built-in. I think it’s likely that group identity in MMOs works in a similar fashion, though I’m no political psychologist. (;

    As for GW2, I’ve largely ignored it in favor of TSW. It’s getting so much good press, though, that I’m being swayed into giving it a try – eventually. Right now the good of the collective is to keep focused on a single game, but who knows what the future holds, right?

    Thanks for participating in this conversation!



    • Upon reflection, while I still believe that a lot of what devs can do to “improve” collectivism is overruled by whatever the players feel like doing, I must concede that we can nevertheless say Game X is more collectivism-friendly than Game Y. All the chairs could be facing one another and the people sitting in them refuse to speak, but I admit that that is better than chairs facing the wall. Provided, of course, that Individualist players are not penalized in the exchange.

      I do still have an issue with WoW getting a 1 on a Collectivist metric, however. While it is unlikely (impossible?) to form lasting bonds with players in LFD groups, for example, the only incentive of a LFD group over a preformed group is automation. If a player decides automation > quality/cohesion/social opportunities, then was that player a potential Collectivist anyway? Similarly, LFD can actually facilitate Collective grouping opportunities if your group is 4 players or less, as it will frictionlessly fill slots with warm bodies that might have otherwise taking a long time to find.

      Addons that put individual performance under the microscope can be used to ensure that a player understands how much they are contributing to group success. A Collectivist does not want to be a burden, after all.

      The penalty for grouping while questing is inexcusably anti-Collectivist, and LFD could benefit tremendously from some form of (positive-only) reputation mechanic… but a 1? That’s a bit too harsh, IMO. :P


  3. I missed that conversation on Stubborn’s blog; that is indeed one great quote by Samus.

    I agree completely that in the end it is up to us players how social we are in games. all the design does is define things like how first contact is engineered, what limitations there are and competitive factors. but as mentioned before you can make friends in a-n-y MMO.

    “….and then praise GW2′s auto-grouping, auto-scaling, individual looting…”

    I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit ever since Kleps brought this argument up, too. I am one of those who never likes LFD in WoW. so, why GW2’s system?
    I DO think there are greater differences and consequences between the two modes than you attribute for in your footnote. the short span and anonymity of LFD is actually quite a huge factor already – for all its impact on things like social control. and where events may not make for lasting contact in GW2, LFD pretty much obliterates that chance entirely. events with a few people in them can work exactly like classic questing, where strangers meet for the first time and then join to do a lot more quests together. that’s where potential bonds ‘may’ be established. then, there’s also to consider that LFD groups in WoW ‘suffer’ from various effects such as loot competition or inflexible setup; these groups can ‘fail’ or become incredibly frustrating just because 1 person (forbid the tank or healer) is an asshat or disconnects or whatever. LFDs are isolated events like that and there’s much pressure and expectation for them to ‘succeed’, the way you’d never have it in GW2’s events (not just because of automation or role flexibility, but also because encounters scale….or should, anyway).

    The longer you think about it, the smaller the similarities between these two grouping modes become. there is that element of anonymity at first for GW2’s events, but that’s about it – and it doesn’t have to end there.


    • We’ll see how the Dynamic Events pan out. I personally doubt they will require much coordination until, perhaps, the endgame Orr area. But if some of the dozens of individuals from the other GW2 post are correct, “failing” an Event might become the norm unless the people doing them are reasonably skilled.

      While you still get rewarded for your time either way, the difference between seeing the giant shark and not seeing it is HUGE. The whole time that sequence was playing out, all I could think about was A) the player getting chased was screwed, and B) there are going to be tens of thousands of players who will never see this even if they level in this area (and eventually, not seeing it will be the norm as the population disperses).


    • Actually, the dynamic events are shorter than LFD and more anonymous (you can get players from any server due to overflow mechanic and finding their names out is more difficult as you get no UI element telling you). Of course, a possible explanation of this point is that the collectivistic elements in LFD which GW2 gets rid of are the cause of friction.


  4. Great post and a refreshing take on the subject.

    Whilst I’ve enjoyed most of the entries in this series, they have tended to take a similar stance of

    1. Collectivism means grouping and guilds

    2. It is good.

    3. WoW/LFD is the problem

    4. GW2 is the answer


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