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Why People Seek Communities

Oct 1

Written by:
10/1/2012 8:24 PM  RssIcon


Ever stopped to wonder why some people seek out guilds and others completely ignore them? People have been asking this question about communities in general for decades and there’s been lots of research and theories to try to answer it.

Understanding the reasons why people seek out each other helps community leaders understand the expectations someone has when they are looking for a new community, in turn allowing community managers (and marketers) to maximise the effectiveness of their efforts. Given the usual limitations of guild leaders (either with budget or time), this is exactly what we want to achieve.

Buckle up, this is going to be a psychology and sociology heavy affair...

A few theories

Studying communities as a whole is hard to do and sociologists still don’t have a full handle on what makes them tick. We can get some clues from looking at psychological research done on individuals and a good place to start is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. In his 1943 paper "A Theory of Human Motivation" Maslow outlined basic human requirements that are seen as the motivation behind everything we do. While it’s often portrayed as pyramid with the most fundamental levels of need (physiological) at the bottom and the need for self-actualisation at the top, Maslow himself never used a pyramid to describe these levels. In his theory, online communities start to show in the second (safety) and third level (loving and belonging) and are well established in the fourth level (esteem).

While Maslow’s theories have come under criticism, there are a lot of parallels in Manfred A. Max-Neef’s 1991 work "Human Scale Development", which proposed a series of equally important fundamental human needs. They are subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creation, identity and freedom. A lot of these human needs can only be manifested by interactions with others and so have a relationship with communities.

The important thing to take away from both these theories is that interaction with other people is a fundamental part of being human and comes from the desire to fulfil personal needs.

Motivation

From a survival standpoint, communities don’t always make much sense – time that could be devoted to hunting or survival has to be spent on social interaction – but the benefits of security and stability often outweigh these drawbacks. In a group context, people frequently make use of their individual strengths to benefit the group. So someone who happened to be really good at fighting would be charged with defending the group while others saw to their other basic requirements such as shelter and food. This kind of interaction has continued to this day, although less in a basic survival context and more in a business context.

This kind of exchange between individuals in a group is encapsulated in a theory called Social Capital. It is the formal name for the expectation that if you do something for someone, they’ll do something for you back; you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours. Of course, this only works if you're dealing with people you've built up capital with, which in turn leads to the idea of a permanent group. Again, we encounter this frequently in our day to day lives in “mates rates” and “favours”.

With the idea of a permanent group come extra needs which Max-Nee and Maslow outlined, such as affection, belonging, understanding and identity. These needs are additional motivators in social settings – it isn’t enough to just have a group that will help you survive. In order to be happy and thrive, you’ll try to seek one that accepts you and you identify with.

When it comes to online gaming, there are usually areas of MMOs where the game content is designed for or easier to overcome in groups. Pick up groups (PUGs) are an option, but they generally have a low certainty of success and the amount you identify and share affection with any group of random people is going to be low. In broad terms, they generally aren't a great fit with the motivational factors that Max-Nee and Maslow outlined - I'm sure you probably have some horror stories about PUGs to support that.

The better solution is to form a more permanent group with people you like and who accept you and build up social capital through interactions to help you reach your goals.

Belonging

The motivation to belong and be understood is powerful, after motivation is probably the main factor when it comes to choosing an online community to actively be part of. This manifests itself in the priority of finding a community that is well aligned to actual or desired identity. As an example, a person may identify themselves as enjoying PvP and seek a community that is focussed around PvP, or wanting to seek others who want to gain a certain achievement.

The priority of the requirements will change from person to person and for me this is where the beauty of guilds is. There is no one way of doing things because everyone has different priorities to each other. Few guilds are in direct competition with anyone else because they each are trying to achieve things in different manners and that means their target audiences are likely to be different (though there may be some overlaps).

It’s important to note that determining this sense of belonging is commonly done without any direct interaction with the guild itself. Unless a guild really goes out of its way to have a recruiting policy of only accepting people found in pick up groups, it is far more likely that someone’s first encounter with your guild will be through in game recruitment messages or reading literature such as recruitment messages and posts, and looking at guild websites. For potential members this is a quick and good (but superficial) filtering mechanism with the limitation of relying that the guild accurately describing themselves. In addition, there’s only so much time a potential member can dedicate to the task of finding a new guild: eventually they will have to stop searching and work out what the best of the bunch is.

Once you belong to a group, there's usually some kind of symbology involved in distinguishing members from non members. This is usually done in game with the guild name, banner, cape, symbol or similar. Acceptance or rejection of the symbology between members can also be a determining factor when it comes to judging if a community is suitable.

Esteem

After finding a place to belong, Maslow points to esteem as being the next need to satisfy. This is important to communities as people interacting in this phase are actively contributing new ideas, expressing opinions and will reveal more of themselves than those in the belonging stage. The feedback from this is the real hook into a community, as it leads to being recognised, earning respect of community peers and doing things that provide a sense of contribution and accomplishment. This is the stage that turns a guild from a collection of loosely associated people into a tighter group of friends.

Building esteem requires direct interaction between members of the guild but this doesn't need to be realtime. Your guild's website or forum can be a great place to interact with others and make a real mark on the guild. This is especially true if the member's time is limited.

What this means for your guild

As a guild leader, you need to provide people with a sense of belonging and the opportunity to feed their esteem. How you do this is dependent on your game and the interests of the guild in question. Often you'll find that people stumble upon things that work on either of these needs without being conscious of them. For example, some guilds run contests to determine the guild's symbol with submissions from the community (belonging from the acceptance of the community symbol, esteem from contributing a design and winning the contest).

Esteem may be fulfilled by group events that give people opportunities to interact and make shared memories (in and out of game), providing people with privileges over others, contests and (a personal favourite) guild newsletters that highlight the accomplishments of members within a time period. You should mark the anniversary of the guild every year (this will help people feel like they belong) and you may also like to consider marking birthdays.

These are just a few ideas to get you started. Not all of them will be relevant to every guild and there are many more I haven’t thought of – try things out, get feedback and refine the process!

So why do some ignore guilds entirely?

For the thousands of players in guilds there are a lot who never join a guild. Given the social benefits of joining a guild it can be hard to understand why some people never do but it can be for a number of reasons. Frequently people who aren't in a guild state that they've had a large number of negative experiences with communities to not feel like they’re worth it. Others may not have the time to devote to building social ties that are required to get a sense of belonging in a guild. Alternatively they may not see the benefit or can’t find a guild they think they’ll be happy in.

You’ve taken a lot of words to say what I already knew...

As we participate in communities throughout life we gain an understanding of how they work, so good for you and well done on being observant. Rest easy in the knowledge that research backs you up and you’re on the right path! Still, it’s useful to carefully examine things we think we already know to get another perspective and make sure we’re not making incorrect assumptions.

What you can do

Think about how the theories provided by Maslow and Max-Nee and of Social Capital and how they apply to your guild. What could you do to provide people with a sense of belonging and provide opportunities for them to raise their esteem?  Drop them in the comments below and help each other out!

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2 comment(s) so far...


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Re: Why People Seek Communities

Sam you did it again! An excellent read, especially for my area of expertise!

I was thinking actually of writing something about this specific subject, when poof! Refreshed DragonSeason and your article popped up. :D

By Tilion on   10/2/2012 5:01 PM
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Re: Why People Seek Communities

I hadn't have the pleasure of reading such a study on human social behavior since I was doing my MSc in the UK!
Incredible effort and a very interesting read Sam! Thank you!!

By thevalliant on   10/11/2012 6:06 AM

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