Saturday, April 21, 2007

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

I got to talking with a kid in the local hobbies and games store the other weekend, and -- seeing as it was pretty convenient to talk shop in the middle of the place -- our discussion inevitably turned to games and other such leisurely activities. He told me that he was currently involved with Pokémon and Magic: the Gathering; I told him that my playing days were more or less behind me now, although I did still play the odd game of Magic every now and then.

"Really?" he asked. "What color are you?"

I raised an eyebrow. This was a question that I hadn't heard before.

For the uninitiated, Magic: the Gathering is a game that involves cards that each belong to one of five different classifications, otherwise known as colors: White, Blue, Black, Red, and Green. Each color has its own characteristics, which are reflected in that color's respective cards. This, in turn, requires players to adjust their playing style in order to master the game.

Back when I was still playing Magic, I distinctly remember that a huge part of knowing the game involved gaining exposure to all of the five colors. You could bring your own playing style to the table, fair enough, but you had to adapt it in order to win anything. You got used to all five colors or you didn't play at all. There was nothing like this "what color are you" question floating around, back when I was still shuffling the cards.

I decided to humor the kid, nevertheless. "Uhh... I'm blue, I think. And maybe a bit of green... I've liked the green lately."

He gave me a wide grin in response. "I'm black," he said, and images of Michael Jackson suddenly came to mind.

And now I'm here in the middle of an Internet café, among the hordes of people playing the Warcraft: Defense of the Ancients mod, wondering when all of us suddenly got so darned familial.

Familiality (or "clannishness", if you think that the word doesn't exist) seems to be running rampant in the annals of youth nowadays. Skim the discussion forums of any budding MMORPG and you'll notice that the players have gathered themselves into self-made "clans". Pass by any of the local gaming tournaments and you'll see that the crowd tends to congregate into "leagues". Hang around a bunch of writers or artists or photographers and you'll realize soon enough that they split into distinct "groups", or "clubs", or "dens", or "societies". Familiality is everywhere.

I've even heard an amateur sociologist try to explain the phenomenon, mind you... albeit over a couple of drinks. He told me that it was related to a psychological "family" aspect -- that each and every one of us looks for a group of people to which we belong, if only because our subconscious selves cannot seem to find the same degree of acceptance within our "nominal" families.

I told him that his amateur analysis was full of holes. People don't just drift into groups outside the family, I said. It was like saying that anybody who joins an extra-curricular organization doesn't have a healthy enough family life to overcome those urges. Besides, despite the attraction of mutual interest, the presence of such "clans" doesn't automatically supersede the presence of one's family: You can play around with your mates all day, but you'll still all go home at night, if you get what I mean.

He wasn't referring to the "nuclear" family, he said. He was referring to the "nominal" family -- the people who go around wearing signs that say they're your parents, brothers, sisters, fourth cousins, stuff like that. Despite the presence of such designators, he claimed, each one of us is bound to have a "favorite" relative: Maybe you're closer to your youngest brother than anyone else in your family. Maybe you'll tell only your dad about that cute guy you have a crush on. Or maybe your grandmother just liked you best, for some reason.

And I suppose that he had a point there. Any massive number of people will still split up and congregate into smaller groups, despite the presence of any degree of mutual attraction. That's why we have writers' groups and artists' gatherings and photography clubs and political parties and all that. Moreover, that's also probably why Magic players seem to have color designations now -- there's a lot more of them flopping cards today than when I was joining tournaments.

But darn it, that still doesn't answer the question as to why we have such familial tendencies in the first place. And I refuse to entertain the notion that our memberships in any number of organizations are supposed to give us any sense of "family" whatsoever, no matter how artificial it may be.

Let's take the practice of hazing, for example. There are a number of organizations out there that promote certain dubious activities in order to "welcome" new members: College fraternities do it, military divisions do it, even school clubs do it. The more extreme hazing practices involve outright violent, disgusting or immoral acts -- to the point that some unlucky initiates actually die in the course of their "welcoming rites". Needless to say, these activities do not strike me as resembling anything remotely related to proper family affairs (unless your Tuesday evenings usually involve beating your sister's head in with a baseball bat).

I would therefore assume that, after having suffered such atrocities merely to get into the aforementioned organization, these initiates wouldn't see it as giving any familial companionship whatsoever. Any person who forces you to perform degrading acts in the name of membership shouldn't be seen as a "brother", much less a normal human being.

But what I do notice is a sometimes-unconscious act of "banding together" in the face of intimidation. Lump a bunch of people in the same group under a single name, and they won't necessarily get along with each other. Place some random individuals under similar degrees of pressure, however, and they'll start finding some mutual solutions. This is why any group of freshmen that undergoes initiation rites will find better solace among themselves than with their more senior "buddies".

I strongly suspect that this applies to MMORPGs and other games as well. We don't congregate into "clans" because we like the familial arrangement; We do that because it just happens to be us against the rest of the world in those situations. We get together with a bunch of other people because it just happens to be in our best interests to learn and survive.

Look where you will, and you'll find this logic in action. The school nerds do it. The new corporate hires do it. The contestants on Survivor do it. We get together in order to survive.

A blue Magic player isn't necessarily a blue Magic player because he just happens to like the color. A blue Magic player is a blue Magic player because that may just be the best way he can learn how to play his little portion of the game.

If only all togetherness were so instinctive. Everybody doing their own thing, after all, usually produces a lot of poor things.


Clair Ching said...

Hmm, I don't really play such games but I think that you do have a point. I can see it more in company settings. I ought to know because I've been a new hiree time and again.

However, I'd also like to point out that the familial arrangement becomes a preferrence later on because of other emotional benefits aside from the chances of survival. But that's my take on it.:)

Sean said...

Clair: I just don't know; I find true "familial" arrangements much rarer than "survival" arrangements... and yet I constantly hear far more harping about familial comparisons than anything else. People do say that no man is an island, but they also come up short when it comes to wondering just what state we do live in.

kat said...

Hmm, I remember I choose to be blue because I like blue, and red because I like fire. Hehehe.

I noticed that even in those said groups, there's even smaller groupings. Like you said, even if your family's close, for sure you'll still have someone that's more dear to you than anyone else.

Sean said...

Kat: For me, it's a question of blue's careful approach, combined with green's tendency to just play huge creatures and smash face. :)