Growing up as a child I was skinny and gangly and not the most coordinated.  I lived in a small town where everyone knew everyone and went to a small school with children who lived within spitting distance of me.  Part of our classes at school included playing some sort of group games.  Usually two children were picked to stand on opposite sides of the teacher and it became their job to choose the rest of their teams, alternating choices.  Inevitably I was left standing with a small knot of two other children as the dregs of available teammates.  I held my breath while projecting outward indifference, to see my ultimate fate in the school ground pecking order.  It was always a small victory not to be the very last chosen.  I grew to dread the ritual humiliation of this exercise while cultivating an outward mask of unconcern.

At one point in the physical education process we were introduced to gymnastics.  Tumbling, balance beams and parallel bars were hauled into the gymnasium as the latest implements of my humiliation.  But something strange happened.  I was hopeless on anything that required my feet on the ground, but when we were forced to mount those bars, suddenly I could fly.  My skinny body wasn’t frail.  My arms and back were strong from work at home.  Something exciting happened to me the first time I mounted those bars.  For the first time in my life with any physical activity I wasn’t last.  The teacher quickly recognizing my talent had me helping the other children in routines.  No longer the dregs, I was the cream.  It was exciting and exhilarating.

So what does a story about childhood games have to do with virtual ones?

Last night I logged on to take part in a guild raid.  Our guild has been gearing up to do raids on the new content.  In order to get properly geared for the content we’ve been doing some raids that are just for cash and I had thought that last night’s raid was going to be one of those.  Turns out I had some things crossed and I found out it wasn’t.  The raid groups quickly filled up and we moved to the raid point.  Our raid leader sent me an apologetic message asking that I drop out of the raid in favor of another player.

Often grouping and raiding in these games comes down to very particular things.  You need certain classes or equipment or level ranges to make beat the encounter and get the loot.  If you don’t have those things, you can’t ‘win’.  So sometimes people who don’t fit these requirements get left behind.

Our raid leader, who also happens to be our guild leader, tries very hard to include everyone.  She spends hours putting together groups of non optimum characters, helping people level or get gear they need for raiding.  She works hard to be helpful and make everyone feel a part of the ‘team’.  I know her and I know this.  Asking me to step aside was not something she enjoys doing and it was the right decision for the other people in the raid.  But just for a moment I was eight years old again standing with the leftovers on the sidelines.

It made me understand something important.

You see in gaming, I’ve usually been much less like that first part of my childhood athletics and more like the second part.  MMOs have let me soar.  I’ve usually been a part of the fast leveling, best geared crowd and never been replaced on a raid with someone more needed.  Why I’m not in a position now to be top level with good gear is due to my own choices.  I’ve chosen to putter around and not level hard.  I’ve chosen to expend game energy on my leveling project and exploration of the game rather than push my characters to the top.

Last night made me wonder a bit about what happens for all the other people who need levels or have classes that aren’t needed or gear that isn’t the best.  Does the lack of opportunities for them drive them away from the game?  Does the rejection feel personal when it’s only a product of game mechanics?  And how does being trapped in needing to have an optimum raid force make a fair guild leader feel?  What can a guild leader do when she knows the tough choices she makes for the good of the raiding force may drive marginal guild members further away?

I’m always grateful for an opportunity for deeper understanding of these games I love and I was glad last night to gain a valuable insight.  The reasons why people aren’t in peak condition to be raiders is varied.  Increasingly one of the reasons has to do with time available for investment in the game.  Leveling, getting appropriate gear, etc. all take time.  Maybe someday game designers will have a solution to the issue…maybe someday raid leaders won’t have to make the hard choices.  If nothing else, I’m eternally optimistic.

Maybe someday…