Dawn has ushered in the morning birdsong, but Christine O’Reilly is still sitting cross-legged on her bedroom floor in a pink tank top and boxer briefs, talking to her raiding guild in World of Warcraft (WoW) on her homemade PC. They have just completed the Serpentshrine Cavern and defeated Lady Vashj, and the general consensus in the Vent chat is the raid went very well. But as soon as she logs off, her cell phone rings.

It’s one of the Warlocks, and he wants to know: “Can we talk about what just happened in there?”

These late-night calls have become routine for O’Reilly, a 24-year-old Notre Dame business school graduate with a decade of experience in MMOG communities. After warming up with Ultima Online and Diablo II, O’Reilly became the only female in two hardcore, male-dominated MMOG guilds: Anarchy Online‘s Legion and WoW‘s Exordium, which, at its height, was the fourth-best guild on the Mal’Ganis server. As the only woman in Exordium, O’Reilly says she naturally became the “go-to girl” for disgruntled male players, who are often ridiculed for sharing their feelings with other men. She explains: “If you are emotional or show vulnerability in game, you’ll often be called an ’emo fag’ and told to ‘wipe your pussy’ or something to that effect.” To avoid this hostility, male players unburden their woes on O’Reilly, who functions as the conduit of communication from guild member to guild master.

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Although O’Reilly has resolved common MMOG disputes, such as who should take loot after a kill or who should take the time to help get new members raid-ready, she specializes in the more covert, nebulous work of interpersonal conflict resolution. When one talented Exordium recruit told her the guild’s senior cliques were excluding him from instances, she convinced the guild master to break the cliques apart and encourage the participation of new members. When Exordium’s main tank confessed offline that problems in his personal life were affecting his in-game performance, she discreetly asked the others to be kind to him during raids, to prevent an abrupt log-off in an intense instance.

O’Reilly says this interpersonal mediation is crucial: If someone has a bad experience, “they can burn out, get offended, log off and quit – or even sell their characters.” Since the departure of a keyed, leveled player can be devastating for tightly-knit guild, O’Reilly tries to keep Exordium’s players around by making sure they’re satisfied with their gaming experience. “Everyone has a different motivation for playing. Some want to lead, some need competition, some just want to belong. I believe there’s a way to make everyone happy and have a very successful guild, so I find out what they want and try to fulfill it. I’m essentially the HR department.”

The games-as-business metaphor has become legitimate. Dr. Douglas Thomas, Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Southern California, says virtual worlds presage how we will communicate in our professional and personal futures. And corporations are beginning to note the implications MMOGs have for management: The recent Seriosity and IBM report “Virtual World, Real Leaders: Online games put the future of business leadership on display” suggests that MMOG players can apply the leadership techniques they learn in-game to real-world businesses.

O’Reilly agrees that guilds and offices operate in similar ways. She says WoW guilds, like businesses, have to provide incentives for their team members to stick around, especially once all of the bosses are defeated and players have to wait for Blizzard to release new instances. “Many people don’t just care about winning and loot, and after you’re done winning, what’s left? You need to offer more to keep them around, to keep them happy and moving toward a goal. You have to give them what they want.”

As a woman, O’Reilly has no problem finding out what her fellow guild members want. “Men are emotional around me. Men pursue intimate personal relationships with me, because they’re uncomfortable being intimate with each other.” And if they don’t tell her, she asks. “I’ll get on late at night with someone, after a raid, and ask, ‘Do you want loot? Do you want friendship? How do we keep you? How do I make you happy?’ If a guy asks these questions, it’s kind of awkward. But since I’m a girl, they answer.”

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While O’Reilly considers this intimacy a byproduct of her carefully cultivated friendships, she acknowledges that these men may have something more in mind. “Maybe every single one of these guys is courting me, and they think we’re just talking about our similar interests. But the way I see it is that they’re giving me important information.” Information she shares with Exordium’s guild master – and her real-life lover, Matthew Gihring.

O’Reilly and Gihring became friends in Anarchy Online and started playing WoW in 2005. Although their main characters were in different factions – she was Horde and he was Alliance – O’Reilly created a human Priest to talk to Gihring on the Mal’Ganis server. She modeled her character’s appearance after her own ash brown hair and petite frame, but satirically based her priestess’ interests on the “Angel in the House,” the Victorian ideal of women as selfless caretakers.

“I made her skills tailoring, cooking and skinning animals, to imply that she could take care of the men’s kill for the day. I joked that she was a housewife – a priestly, motherly type. I never thought she’d end up as my main, until I realized how good Matt’s guild was and thought it would be fun to join.” Soon after she joined Exordium, Gihring began divulging his leadership problems to her. Their bond strengthened, and they began dating.

While O’Reilly notes that her constant access to Gihring helped her mediate guild conflicts, she says it also discouraged some male members from talking to her – or respecting her. “You always have this bias; ‘Oh, she’s just the GM’s girlfriend.’ So I prefer people not to know. And sometimes if there’s a conflict that Matt has to resolve, and it’s my word against another member’s, especially if it’s someone Matt knows in real life, they’ll say, ‘Why do you listen to some girl you met online, and not me?’ Even if something is true, if [it] comes out of a girl’s mouth, it can be interpreted as drama.”

The presumption that girl gamers instigate drama is widespread in MMOG communities. Consider, for example, the infamous March 2007 WoW Insider post about top Euro guild Nihilum’s no-girls recruiting policy. The application, reposted by blogger Amber Night, insists that “if you do not have a penis, you must not continue this application” and asks whether or not “you suffer from any of the following: desire to cause drama, inability to take abuse, monthly vaginal bleeding.”

O’Reilly understands where they’re coming from. She’s witnessed female gamers balk at raunchy male teamspeak and thinks many women have unrealistic behavioral expectations in a game dominated by men. “People say things like ‘don’t be a pussy’ and women will say, ‘I’m a woman, you can’t say that,’ and get furious and log off. But that’s just how 40 men act when they’re in a room together. It doesn’t have anything to do with her. It’s like, what do you expect? It’s like walking into a strip club and asking the women to put their clothes back on.”

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On the other hand, she’s noticed that some male players seem to think anything a woman says or does is dramatic. “Girls in games constantly have to be on guard to not look like they’re causing drama – as their very presence sometimes creates it. It’s like throwing meat to the lions, so to speak. If lions were competitive, hormone-enraged 20-something guys.” She says the volatile atmosphere encourages silence from women. “Most of the women hide. They don’t want the attention.”

It can be difficult, though, for a female gamer to keep her mouth shut if a male player goes over the line. Recently, the leader of a top Mal’Ganis guild tried to recruit O’Reilly by casually mentioning, “Our best healer is a girl, how lame is that?”

“I said, ‘Oh, my name’s Christine, nice to meet you.’ He acted like that wasn’t what he meant to say. He even showed me the heal meters for the fights to prove that she wasn’t very good.”

And during a recent tryout for another top Mal’Ganis guild, a male player repeatedly asked her if she was “in the mood” or “a screamer” and would make repeated references to touching her “bottom.” But she kept quiet. “I try to handle the guys on my own. I never complain about the sexually abusive comments to other people because I don’t want to be perceived as causing drama.”

O’Reilly thinks the fear of “causing drama” may prevent women from pursuing leadership roles in MMOGs. Although this has not been proven, a recent Daedalus Project survey conducted by Stanford doctoral student Nick Yee does suggest that male players enjoy leadership roles more than female players.

In the end, however, O’Reilly believes female mediators are more powerful than male leaders because they can do crucial HR work men can’t. “Matt can’t get the information I can get. He’s said it himself – the biggest problems don’t reach him because players are too intimidated to talk to him, or not friendly enough with him. But I can get that information. And I can fix those problems before they get taken out in-game and sabotage our progress.”

Though it may be coincidental, Exordium’s recent fate suggests the importance of O’Reilly’s role – the guild broke up while she took a long hiatus from WoW to teach English in Japan. When she returned to the U.S., she tried out for another top American guild, but withdrew her application because she didn’t agree with their leadership style. “They wouldn’t communicate, they wouldn’t tell us if a raid was starting late and they even got mad when we referred to each other on a first-name basis. They sucked all the fun out of the game.”

And to O’Reilly, fun is the most important component of the MMOG experience. “”If I’m going to spend six hours a day, five to seven days a week playing this game, I want to have fun. I want to know the people I’m playing with, and I want to trust them. And at this point, WoW is no longer fun for me.” She’s already moving on to her next big projects: a homemade soap business and Warhammer Online. “Matt and I are already building our website. We want to be the best guild in America.”

Melody Lutz is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Her blog can be found at gobedelighted.blogspot.com.

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