My Brooklyn neighborhood has grown a bit hipsterish lately, with a proliferation of coffee shops, juice bars, high-toned restaurants and suspiciously Manhattan-like clothing boutiques, all patronized by the bright young things moving in, crowding the sidewalk where we who’ve lived here for a few years have gotten used to walking unobstructed. It’s still a mix of old and new, though, with people like me caught in the middle. Here and there you can still find long-time residents, aging Italians mostly, whose families have been around these streets for generations.
It’s often on the sidewalks that you spot them, standing around chomping unlit cigars or sitting on folding chairs in front of open doorways. A quick glance inside as you pass reveals some cracked linoleum and maybe a dusty portrait of Garibaldi hanging on a dingy wall. The image that comes to mind, of course, is of Marlon Brando in The Godfather. Somewhere back there, you want to believe, lurks the Don, muttering cryptic platitudes about family and respect – or if not the Don, then at least some local boss, complaining about the yuppies and groping for a bottle of Tums.
My neighborhood in the MMOG Eve Online has a similar feel to it. You can’t smoke cigars in your capsule, of course, but other than that, they’re much the same. It has to do with how we got there, who showed us the ropes.
At one time, of course, the Italians were the arrivistes. The Italians, the Irish, the Jews – all the waves of immigrants to the United States in the nineteenth century – didn’t just appear on these shores with Amex Blue in hand, dial up Craigslist and land a job at a publishing house. They got their start in America the same way I got my start in Eve.
After a couple of months of wandering around Eve‘s 5,000-plus star systems, I’ve been making my main base in Piekura, a slightly down-at-the-heels system next door to a sketchier neighborhood (just as the back window of the apartment I’ve lived in for the last six years looks out over some projects a block or two away, which I make sure not to walk through after nightfall).
Piekura isn’t that far from Todaki, where I was first put in my pod, and where new graduates of the School of Applied Knowledge (SAK) show up every day. You know the type: They still like to buy their own missiles instead of manufacturing them, and think mining in high-security space is the most thrilling way to make some fast InterStellar Kredits (ISK). Just like the people who’ve been moving into my Brooklyn neighborhood: They still travel to work in Manhattan, of all places, and it’s their $800 strollers that are clogging the jump gates – I mean, sidewalks. As far as I’m concerned, the Lonetrek region of Eve and the Carroll Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn might as well be one and the same.
So where are the aging Italians in Eve? Where is the Don? Where’s the dusty social club in which the heads of the families gather after church on Sundays?
They’re in the corp chat channel, of course.
When you first become a capsuleer in Eve (i.e., when you enter the game), you’re assigned to a corporation. At first, you’re in one of the newbie corps like SAK. Most of the people on your channel are wondering why their autopilot is telling them they can’t get there from here (the autopilot defaults to sissy mode, avoiding the more dangerous systems), or what the best way to make money is (whichever way you most enjoy). It’s a far more focused channel than general newbie help, but it still devolves pretty often into discussions of real-world politics, nVidia versus ATI or how Eve compares to Freelancer or Earth & Beyond.
But ask a question in SAK chat and you usually get an answer. In fact, you usually get three or four answers, and though one or two of them may be different, they’ll all be technically correct (most of the time). Ask about mining and you’re likely to end up in a mining op somewhere, digging veldspar into jet cans with your buddies without having to worry about ore thieves coming along while you go get your hauler out of the station. Unless you’re actively begging for money, people will often donate ISK to your account when you aren’t looking. Lament the loss of your kestrel to the former secret agent you were supposed to “pwn” and it’s not unlikely that a more experienced player will offer to come to your assistance (if you’re not too many jumps away). I once sought help on a mission and then promptly lost my cruiser soon after we warped into deadspace. The guy I was flying with made me a present of a new one, with a better setup than the one I’d had before.
What do the pod pilots of Eve have to do with the Italians and Jews who came to America in the nineteenth century? With the Liberians and Ukrainians and Chinese who came in the twentieth? With whoever else may care to show up in the twenty-first?
Many of us got our space legs in Eve the same way those transplants to the United States got their foothold in America: with the help of an organization. An organization that serves the same purpose as the immigrants’ associations, ethnic societies and even mafia families that still help those who are fresh off the boat survive their first weeks, months and years in America today.
Those immigrants’ associations served – and continue to serve – an important function, one that’s more than the social havens as we usually think of them. They’re not just places to hang out and swap stories about the old country, places where you don’t have to be bothered with trying to make your newbie English understood. Rather they’re a kind of economic catalyst, places where a bunch of people who wouldn’t have the clout to make it on their own can pool their resources, knowledge and efforts and survive together, teaching each other, protecting each other and contributing to the good of the group by making sure each individual is getting by.
Just like SAK.
In fact, whether it’s a corp, a guild, a clan or whatever they call it in your favorite MMOG, player organizations that are broader than a quest group or an Eve gang serve the same economic function, leveraging the financial clout that accrues to a group but can’t be harnessed by an individual just starting out in a coldly capitalist world.
I’m not just talking about the fact that even your uber-tanking level 60 World of Warcraft warrior would find it impossible to kill Onyxia without a lot of help. I’m talking about economic productivity here, and the fact that no matter what your level, most people can increase their earning power by working with others.
Let’s look at it in terms of leveling for the moment. Nick Yee and the crew at the Palo Alto Research Center’s PlayOn site have been collecting some great data in this and related areas lately. What they’ve found (not so surprisingly) is that guilded players ding faster. The difference isn’t insignificant, either. A guilded player in World of Warcraft, on average, takes five fewer hours to reach level 20, six fewer hours to go from 20 to 40 and 24 fewer hours to go from 40 to 60, for a total savings of almost 36 hours of playtime in getting to uber. That’s 36 more hours to stand around in Ironforge complaining about how hard it is to get a raid group together these days. If only there were a cigar vendor wandering around the Great Forge (who needs pie?), the picture would be complete.
Note that there’s a Don lurking in the back room of SAK’s Todaki headquarters. A guy named Vuotikiura Ohko is supposedly our CEO, but I’ve never met him and I don’t expect I will, but only because SAK, as a newbie corp, is run by NPCs (non-player characters).
It’s a nice move on the part of CCP, the Icelandic company behind Eve, to stick new players in an NPC corp straight from the jump. As multiplayer as places like Eve and World of Warcraft are, they can still be confusing experiences for the solo newbie. And it’s not just because you’re still trying to figure out how to feed your pet. It’s also due to all these strangers who are suddenly inviting you to join their guild.
As is alluded to in Ms. Genender’s article in this issue, you’ll want to be careful here. Some guilds are a better match than others, obviously. In Eve, new corp members are often required to spend hours mining ore for the greater good before they gain full membership and can go off and “get podded” at will.
That doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve joined a crap corp, though. Like immigrants’ associations, new entrants to the system are often asked to contribute to the organization’s accounts before they can start reaping the benefits. That’s because the benefits – to both the guildie and the guild – can be great. Free ships, free money, free loot: We mostly think of these things as guild perks that make our characters stronger, but in fact they boost the standings of everyone in the guild. The faster newbies level or the better able they are to complete missions (Eve, thankfully, doesn’t have a level grind), the faster they’re able to help with high-level quests or goals and start giving their own extra loot back to the people who follow. In a good guild, the rising tide lifts all the boats, just as it does in immigrants’ associations.
Even in an NPC corp, this is true. SAK isn’t just for newbs; we have our elder statesmen (and women) as well. Most of what I know about mission-running, standings, research and just plain old space sense I learned from a formidable capsuleer named Princess Buttercup. I always listen when she speaks. Ankanos, a gritty bounty hunter and ship manufacturer, has had much to teach me about outfitting ships and hunting down my foes.
There are other wise men and women as well. These are people who’ve been in SAK, a “newbie” corp, for up to two years. They command respect (just like the Don), and as far as I’ve been able to determine, they ask nothing in return. I pay them back by passing on their good advice to the people who’ve come along after me.
Newb corps account for only a small minority of MMOG guilds, of course. While more than 60 percent of World of Warcraft characters above level 1 are guilded, according to PlayOn’s data, something like 90 percent above level 43 are in a guild. In Eve you’re always in one corp or another, though there’s no data on what proportion of players are in one of the NPC corps versus a player corp. (Nick, get on this!) There are raiding guilds, mining corps, guilds with just a few high-level friends, corps building outposts in the most dangerous regions of low-security space, explorers’ guilds, pirates’ guilds, you name it.
Another economic benefit of guilds and corps is that they allow access to parts of the game you just can’t get near as a newb, parts that are usually the most profitable. The loot drops in Auberdine, Goldshire and other newb areas of World of Warcraft don’t often make it to the auction house. And try getting your newb corp to run a year-long infiltration operation like the one that Guiding Hand Social Club recently pulled off in Eve (a coup that netted them $16,500 worth of another corp’s goods). It just ain’t gonna happen.
With a little imagination, of course, newbie corps can get up to more trouble than one expects. One SAK member is currently recruiting SAKies to take over a low-sec system, something that only player corps normally do in Eve. Real-world immigrants’ associations undergo similar transformations. The Ukrainian Club in Philadelphia, for instance, formerly a watering hole and civic hall for Ukrainian immigrants to the City of Brotherly Love, now finds greater profit in renting the place out to hipsters who need a place to throw a party or put on a show.
Whether it’s getting you on your feet, giving you a stable social set or building an empire, all guilds and corps have one thing in common: They help ease the transition into various stages of MMOG life, just as immigrants’ associations do for new Americans.
At this point in America’s history, such associations still play an important economic role, though it’s one that’s becoming less central now that places like China and India are starting to boom. It’s worth remembering that there are the equivalents of immigrants’ associations that serve Americans in those countries, and it’s a good bet they’re growing these days. In a sense, America is no longer the land of opportunity; now we’re the land of outsourcing. Greater potential is seen on the sub-continent and in the Far East.
But if you ask me, there’s greater potential still in a place called the metaverse. Whether it’s taking over a low-sec system in Eve, raiding a high-level instance in World of Warcraft or making some serious real-world money in Second Life‘s virtual real-estate market, the groups, guilds and corps that players form in these worlds have an important impact on the kinds of experiences, whether for pleasure or profit, that we get out of these worlds.
Surviving a virtual world can be a tricky business, and profiting from it can be trickier still. But it can be easier with help. So in more or less the words of Michael Corleone: Reader, you are my brother and I love you. But don’t ever take sides against the corp again.
Mark Wallace is a journalist and editor residing in Brooklyn, New York, and at Walkering.com. He has written on gaming and other subjects for The New York Times, The New Yorker, Details and many other publications.