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15 Minutes of Fame: Joi Ito on player relationships and connecting

From Hollywood celebrities to the guy next door, millions of people have made World of Warcraft a part of their lives. How do you play WoW? We're giving each approach its own 15 Minutes of Fame.

Last week, we set the stage with internet superman Joichi Ito in a conversation that meandered through the old days of gaming, from getting his feet wet in MUDs to why he misses 40-man raiding in WoW. This week, we're back to discuss why some people with MBAs make crappy raid leaders, how WoW builds stronger bonds between people who work together, and his plans to bring WoW along for the ride at the MIT Media Lab.

Catch up on last week's part 1 of our interview with Joi first.

15 Minutes of Fame: So what's your own guild focused on now?

Joi Ito: The Horde side had kind of wound down a little bit. It still exists, but it's mostly the Alliance side now. When we were both going strong, it was really fun because we did a lot of joint stuff. [laughs] What we would do is do sort of sister guild PVP -- but it would always get messy because you'd find people from other guilds noticing and then jumping in. Right now, we're definitely not first in the realm, but we just hit level 25. I'm pretty delinquent; I need to level myself up, so as not to embarrass everyone too badly. [laughs]

Every expansion, we go through several iterations of discussing the governance and stuff like that, and a lot of the old-time guild leadership aren't active. I got grandfathered in because it's hard not to have someone in the background, I guess, being the custodian of things to do when no one else can decide.

There was a really interesting paper written by Dmitri Williams, who's an academic, and they did a study on the relationship between guild rules and stability of the guild. It said that in guilds that called themselves "casual" but didn't have any rules, the players tended to have more anxiety than those guilds where there were rules, and that "casual" didn't mean no rules, that rules help people feel comfortable.

Our guild rules are pretty anal, a pretty extensive set of rules, and there's a lot of participation by the guild members in working on these rules. I don't know how formal rules are in other guilds -- I haven't been in too many other guilds -- but discussing the rules and the governance of the guild seems to be a thing that a lot of our guild likes to spend time on. That's primarily where my focus is these days, making sure that the leadership and the guild rules aren't too out of sync with what's going on in the game.

I'm curious if you see that same sort of trend happening in multinational work and open source projects.

Absolutely. It turns out, the Media Lab is kind of similar. You have a bunch of people who are enjoying themselves, who are there because they want to be there. In the case of WoW, they're paying to be there. Students, in many cases, are paying to be there. Open source projects, arguably, they're contributing -- and at the end of the day, and the dynamics of how you have governance, how you encourage people to collaborate, how you deal with problems, I think there are a lot of similarities.

We have a reverend in our guild, and he says that it's actually similar in a congregation as well, where you kind of have a shared activity and you have a bunch of people who are there. You're trying to build trust, and you're trying to make it fun, and you're trying to encourage people to do things.

But all of these different communities have their own equivalents of grinding as well, right? And so what you need to do is you need to be able to motivate people enough so that they'll go through the grinding stuff to participate at that "ball" or the raid. And the thing is, people do it for different reasons, so you also need to be able to motivate different types of personalities. You want the diversity, because the diversity is what gives you the strength. And obviously in WoW, there's class diversity but more importantly is the personality diversity.

I've found that -- not across the board, but generally speaking -- people who have MBAs make really crappy raid leaders or guild leaders, because I think that when you learn how to manage people in big companies, you have lots of carrots and sticks. And especially in companies and organizations like investment banks or consulting firms, there's just this competitive struggle to climb this ladder.

So you've got all these tools, whereas in an open source project or a lab at a university, you've got some sticks and some carrots, but not a whole lot.

One of my favorite sort of mentors, John Seely Brown, he's written a lot about WoW and about learning, and he describes the difference between simulations and metaphors. If you're in a simulator, you're learning through things being very equivalent to what's happening. When you're reading a case study in business school, you're sort of going through a simulation of doing a thing -- but you're not really learning to be a CEO, reading a case study about a CEO, and if you were put in that situation, you probably wouldn't do the right thing because you'd be ... scared [laughs] ... Or like reading books about skiing versus actually skiing.

I think what's really interesting is when you play WoW, even though you're doing something completely different, metaphorically, there are so many similarities to what you do in WoW and what you would do as director of the Media Lab or running an open source project where you're trying to be agile, you're trying to motivate people in the right way. You're trying to create again what John Seely Brown calls an ensemble thing. Somehow, everything comes together and it just works.

When you've been working on a boss, and suddenly it just works -- then after that, it seems easy, right? There's this moment when it all sort of comes together. It's a very tacit knowledge kind of thing; it's like people start to figure it out. It is. Obviously, some people, you can't see everything and somebody realizes, "Oh, this rotation is going to give me 50% more DPS" or whatever.

But there's a bunch of different things that happen ... that require a certain kind of group cohesion that is very similar to what a music ensemble would be like. It has things like timing and tone of voice over Vent and things like that. And those sorts of things, and the value of that, I think, metaphorically applies to so many situations.

Again, I'm sure 80-90% of the people who play WoW don't learn that much. [laughs] I don't think you can generalize it. But I think if you're in certain situations in the game, there's a tremendous amount of metaphorical learning that you can get.

In contrast to the way you conduct so much business online and long distance, you've also remarked upon the personal importance you place on face-to-face interaction.

Yep. The reason that I go around the world twice a month [laughs] is because I find the face-to-face stuff is great. I love it. It's really important. But a lot of the people, if not all the people, I meet when I'm traveling around are people I have encountered online or are now coordinating mostly online.

The online stuff is such an important element of the face-to-face meetings because you exchange stuff before. You might be talking a lot on Skype before, and the face-to-face meeting just becomes -- you don't spend the whole meeting catching up.

I saw a statistic that some huge percentage of people who play WoW play WoW in the proximity of another WoW player. Even though people think of WoW as a kind of online, solo thing, it's extremely social, and I think a lot of people do it face-to-face. And when you visit people, it's such a great context in which to have a conversation. Even if you don't know the person that well, I find that if you've played WoW together -- or maybe you haven't even played together, but just talking about WoW -- it's like having come from the same hometown as somebody. It definitely augments.

The fact that I have friends in 80 countries is because of the online stuff. [excited] And the thing about WoW and other video games is that it's a very different kind of bond than you get in a chat room or something like that, where you don't really have a strong commitment to each other. The fact that you do stay up all night and you've got work the next day, or you've babysitted somebody's kids in WoW -- there's all these activities that you do in online games, which from an emotional and time perspective creates a much stronger bond than just chatting. That also makes the importance and the value of meeting up face-to-face so much better.

On the other hand, you commented recently on your blog that you think it's important for people to keep their casual gaming and their social networks separate from their professional networks. Aren't you a proponent of moving skills polished by gaming activities into the business and professional sectors?

The part that I'm aware of more than anything else is, I think it's okay to play with your professional friends. But business networking is slightly different from social networking. There can be overlap. I guess the example is, when you're on Facebook and the teacher's students suddenly see the teacher's Burning Man photos or moms are reading their children's Facebook things and the kids can't say what they think ...

There's definitely a context collapse that happens on Facebook. If you go in aware of it and keep it separated, it's okay. If it's peer to peer, it's not so bad. But when you have a work-related power relationship, it gets kind of tricky online. If you've got a really good relationship with your boss, it's fine. But when it's awkward or weird and then you mix in all the social stuff, it can be kind of tricky.

And I think it depends on the person. So for me, my work is a lot like my play. For me, it's not so bad, but I know a lot of people who keep their private life and their business life separate. I think that there is a little bit of pressure when you join things like Facebook to mix those two. So I think it's less about me and more about the feedback I get from people that I know when I pull them into things like Facebook and other places. I personally tend to lean toward mixing them.

Facebook recently started taking off in Japan. I was watching a lot of my business friends being somewhat confused about who they should be friending and what kind of stuff they should be posting.

And yet there are still so many WoW Insider readers out there who are struggling with situations as basic as keeping their gaming habits from being known at work, at keeping it hidden.

Hopefully, the game stigma part will change pretty soon. I do know a lot of companies where people game together. And there are a few companies where the boss games with the staff or families where the dad games with the kids. Sometimes, that's a very good, healing thing, especially if the boss isn't the strongest. [laughs] It suits certain personalities and not others; it's not generalizable, but sometimes, it's a good thing.

Well, with millions of players out there, it's bound to become more mainstream. Everybody at least knows someone who plays World of Warcraft.

What I do a lot in Silicon Valley and other places at a dinner table, I always start out -- I guess now because now all of my interviews and recent articles mention that I play WoW, it always comes up in conversation -- and I find in a lot of conversations, a lot of tables, half the people play! And once you kind of make it okay to talk about it, everyone gets really excited because it turns out that they don't feel okay to talk about it usually and there's a lot of pent-up WoW stuff.

Sometimes in companies, I'll talk about it and it turns out a whole bunch of people in the company play, and they didn't know. And then what you'll find is the other people who don't play are suddenly saying, "Can you let me play?" [laughs] I don't know if "coming out of the closet" is the right message, but it's like, "Oh, you do it, too?"

Well this is definitely what people dig on – finding out that even people like Joi Ito play WoW ... [laughs]

Yeah, and I think that once I get settled at the Media Lab, I'm gonna start playing again. There are a bunch of players at the media lab, but a bunch of people emailed me that they want to start playing now. And we've got some really big screens and lots of internet access at the Media Lab, so definitely gonna be doing some WoW parties soon.[laughs] 3-D goggles and all kinds of stuff ... [more laughter]

Follow Joi Ito on his personal blog, and keep an eye on upcoming developments at the MIT Media Lab as Ito takes the helm there this fall.

"I never thought of playing WoW like that!" -- and neither did we, until we talked with these players, from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's Aron "Nog" Eisenberg to an Olympic medalist and a quadriplegic raider. Know someone else we should feature? Email lisa@wowinsider.com.

Filed under: Interviews, 15 Minutes of Fame

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