Ask Dr Mark

Ask Dr Mark
Testy Group Dynamics in Online Play

Mark J. Kline | 20 Jun 2012 21:00
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Dear Dr. Mark

I graduated from college about a year ago and have since used online games to stay connected with some of my best friends. However, I have come to a revelation about some of these people. While I use online games as a fun social venue, others in the group are WAY WAY more serious about the actual gaming than me. While I can respect this level of dedication, I DO have an issue with the way these folks tend to act when we play. They become harsh and passive aggressive towards less serious players who sometimes cause the group to fail (you could say they are sore losers who need to point the finger of blame) and this has caused some in the group to stop playing and lose touch with the rest of us. This kind of behavior just irritates me so I end up avoiding those who do it when online, which defeats the whole purpose of playing to stay in touch. When I try to address this issue, the people in question get defensive and deny that it's a problem.

I want to keep my circle of friends together and I am eager for any advice with conflict resolution for my online gaming team.

The social dynamics of online gaming communities can be truly fascinating. Your group gathers to play a game. For some, the fun comes from the "play the game" part, and for others the point is the "together" part. While these two objectives don't necessarily have to conflict, it is easy to see how they could. Many of today's online games are incredibly complex and require significant commitment and teamwork if you want to be really good. All of this is second nature to some of us, whereas for others, extra effort is required (I certainly put myself in this second category--calcifying joints, slow reflexes and lack of game intuition can be real handicaps!). Some of your friends may simply be naturals, others may be willing to work hard at it, and the rest may be average on a good night. Or perhaps they have developed other priorities in the year since college.

In this situation, those who value gaming success seem willing to toss the less competent gamers under the bus because they are slowing down the ride, which is causing the group to fracture. As I see it, you have two choices:

Acknowledge this group has become bifurcated and cast your lot with the faction where you fit best, accepting that peoples' needs change over time and you may have simply grown apart from some of your college friends. This might leave you with a smaller crew of less intense players who achieve only marginal progress, but you would avoid having recreational time become unpleasant, so it could be worth it. You're asking about conflict resolution advice, so my guess is you are not ready to give up. What can you do to improve the atmosphere and inclusivity of this diverse group of players?

Facilitate some kind of process to deal with it. You note that you have tried to address the issue, but I'm going to assume that you did it on your own and perhaps in a moment of frustration, which proved ineffective. To try again, start by identifying some key group members with the mental flexibility to see both sides of the problem and have a little focus group to talk about how things are going. This discussion might look at what team members are getting out of playing and what is missing, as well as challenges and goals they see for the team. Try to build consensus for a set of priorities within this sub-group, who could then work together to bring others along.

If you can achieve this first step, it will mean a lot--you'll know you aren't alone in your frustration and you may get some help. Try to identify someone in this sub-group with leadership skills who can step up with a firm and clear response when disrespectful behavior occurs. Taking advantage of a harsh moment to set the perpetrator straight can be very impactful. It could lead to conflict and argument, but it might also shift the burden of discomfort enough for the serious gamers to consider working on the problem.

If you get this far, the challenge becomes creativity. Can some of the serious players find satisfaction in mentoring some of the laggers, which might improve progress? Can they see that support and encouragement when things go bad creates a better atmosphere? Would they be more patient with lesser players if they showed more effort and commitment to improve? Do they care enough about the group to moderate their personal agendas for the sake of it? Or is there a place for group members who simply want to show up, watch the game, and chat? Every team can use a few good cheerleaders.

Once you have come together in an acknowledgment of the problem, there are many creative ways to deal with it--Escapist readers may be able to contribute some other good ideas. The trick is to incubate and build a consensus and potentially use a crisis moment in the course of play to create an opportunity.

While this group dynamic may be difficult to resolve in a virtual community, I don't think it's impossible, and it's well worth a try. You may ultimately have to accept that some team members don't care to change or aren't able to do so. Even if you fail, and your team splits apart, you will have learned something valuable about working in groups that will come in handy in many RL situations.

Dr. Mark Kline hopes to convert the crisis of sending his children to summer camp into the opportunity for a vacation. Have a question for Dr. Mark? Send it to askdrmark@escapistmag.com. Your identity will remain confidential.

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