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Kool-Aid or Hemlock

One of the easiest things to do in an online community is to fall prey to the idea that your group is always right. The trap of blind-following is common and obvious, yet at some point, we all slap blinders on our selves and assume that there is but one true way.

Hive-Mind, group-think, whatever you want to call it, it boils down to a very simple ‘us versus them’ mentality. And every time you find yourself falling into that thought process, you make one of the biggest mistakes of your life. By subjecting yourself to a group mentality, you become a mob, lacking in individuality and personality.

According to a sociology text book, groupthink is defined as a thought process by group members which is intended to minimize conflicts and maximize consensus without the need for critical analysis of the ideas involved. In short, groupthink leads to ‘yes men’, where people stumble their way to an idea that sounds about right, with no one really offering their personal opinions, becuase they’re afraid to rock the boat.

Now if you work in any sort of corporate world, this sounds really common. One person presents an idea, and everyone sort of nods their head, agreeing and never venturing to step further into the world past what they were given. In many cases, this is okay, if you have a strong, adventuresome leader, who actually has good ideas. The downside to this is that if no one comes around and says ‘You know, that’s a great start. Did you think about this?’, your ideas fester. Nothing new ever comes of these groups, and the world stagnates.

Ideally, a group discussion should start with someone saying ‘I have this idea!’ and the people who join in should share that idea, but expound on it. While there will be some small measure of herd mentality, if you get the right mix of like-minded people who all think similarly but differently, then you get a group of people who will, eventually, steer themselves towards growth.

On any MUSH, this kind of mentality is easy to spot. Someone wants to make a MUSH about CSI. They come up with the basic idea that a game where people play crime solvers is fun. They go to someone they know who likes the show and asks for help, advice, etc. Between the idea-makers, they come up with a general set of guidelines. Ignoring the code side of the equation (and never forget that for a MUSH, code is very important), the game is conceptualized, typed up, documented, and generally the ground rules are laid out. Then these people go and get more people to help them run it. Someone to run the plots (i.e. the crimes), someone to manage new users.

You actually want these people to share your basic ideals when you start out with a MUSH. You want to present a united front to the players, to ensure they feel like this is a stable place. You want open communications with your fellow staffers, and you don’t want to fight for every new thing (do you include the new mass spec stats or the older ones? What about a plot where a CSI is kidnapped and buried under the ground? Should his teammates work that case or do you get another set of people?). Policy grows organically in these games, and that’s okay. The staff work together, and while there may be some bickering behind the scenes, they try to find common ground within their differences. They examine the situations carefully and come to a decision that has been thought out.

In addition to a severe lack of creativity, a game suffering from staff groupthink also starts to blindly reject any idea that is not their own, or doesn’t fit into their pre-defined world. This is a huge problem when a player comes up and says ‘You know, I noticed a lot of people complaining about foo. You could probably do bar instead, and people would be happier.’ In a severe groupthink situation, the staff will vilify the player, going so far as to possibly kicking them off the game, or demanding they never speak up again.

That puts the player in the position of having two options. First, they can drink the kool-aid, join the cult, and agree that everything the staffers do is the right choice. The other option is to drink the hemlock, and like Socrates, stand by the Sophist values that asking questions of the world is a good thing. In both cases, the player is forced to sacrifice something of themselves in order to continue enjoying the game, or to retain their personal integrity.

The ‘us vs them’ mentality is an obvious off-shoot of groupthink, in that if people don’t think the same as you, obviously they’re against you. The real problem here is that this thought process is, nearly always, entirely incorrect. A position that is not ‘with’ the group does not mean that the person is against you as a whole, but against one specific idea or aspect of a group. By allowing the well-expressed dissenting opinion, you gain the ability to make the whole stronger. You begin to look at alternatives and options that you never thought of before, and growth happens.

All systems need growth to survive, but fear of change and the unknown causes us to cling to one viewpoint and never adapt. Eventually, those who can see the change as a potentially good thing will leave the game and never return, because they will feel as if their opinions don’t matter. Once that happens, the game has very few options. If it’s gotten so bad that new blood can’t be admitted into the group without the person being of the like-minded sort already, then change is nigh impossible. But change you must, or you will lose more players.

There is no group that is right all the time. Sometimes change is the wrong answer. By ignoring the possibility for change, even if it comes from someone you have, you restrict your own ability to grow. The more staff, and players, fall prey to groupthink, the greater the damage when the number of dissenters grow. At some point, critical mass will be reached, and the game will collapse, not out of any hatred or direct desire to see things ruined, but because the groupthinkers have rendered themselves unable to cope.

In the end, it’s the groupthink mentality itself that engenders the disharmony that eventually causes a great division between gamers, or gamers and staff, and results in people quitting games in a huff and getting banned for it. One of the much abused tenets of wikipedia is, simply, to assume good faith. People are not out there to make a place worse, but to improve it based on their opinions. Once bad faith is earned, by someone’s direct actions, then it is safe to assume the person has no desire to provide change for the betterment of the group. A group needs to listen to make good choices, and explain the choices in a way that those involved feel that they were heard and acknowledged.

While not every change should be enacted, telling the suggester ‘You know, that’s an interesting idea. We’re not going to do it at this time becuase we don’t think it’s a good idea for the game, but thank you for suggesting it’ goes a long way to helping people feel included, while not subjecting them to groupthink dynamics. If you can tell them why an idea is rejected (too much code work, contradicts another decision, etc) then do so. If you can’t, it’s okay to tell them that if feels squidgy to you. Gut feelings and intuition are valid reasons to disagree with a change, but you should be upfront in that it is a feeling leading a decision rather than critical analysis.

To a degree, there must be common ground for all group members. It may be as simple as ‘we all love Gil Grissom.’ But to assume that those who do not love Grissom obviously hates him is a gross misjudgment. Remove your blinders and learn to accept that one can appreciate Grissom with love, that you’re not always right, and listen to those with different views. You’ll broaden your mind and make more friends, and happier players, that way.