Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Master Clan

Originally Appears in Issue 11

The world of online gaming is fast becoming one of the largest entertainment movements of the modern age and there are communities taking full advantage. Colm Gorey delves into the world of online battle clans.

Illustration by Louise Butler Sherlock.

The realms of the Internet are often assumed to house a number of sinister groups who either intend on hacking world governments or socially inept psychopaths looking for their next thrill. In reality, online gaming is in the midst of one of the biggest booms in entertainment, culturally and financially, and is fast out-growing the traditional money-spinners of cinema and music. Millions of people across the world are online at any given time playing each other on a variety of different games from the Hollywood-esque shoot em’ ups like Call of Duty to the far removed world of resource gathering and friendliness found in Minecraft.

Despite playing with millions of people, online gaming can be a relatively lonely existence. You drift from one game to the next playing with people who are, in most cases, unidentifiable except for their chosen character name. Games like Battlefield 3 often require teamwork to succeed and the actions of your online teammates can be the difference in whether you win or not. That is why gaming clans developed across the globe for gamers who may be new to a title but want to experience it with a group of similar minded people. Through online forums and getting to talk to people online, clans turn virtual strangers into friendsh through gaming. One gamer I spoke to, Seán Callaghan, is one of 23 full members of one of the largest battle clans in the UK and Ireland: Dogs of War.

Dogs of War
“I got into it about eight years ago,” says Seán, “I had just gotten one of the biggest games at the time, Medal of Honor, and decided to join a server called ‘Newcomers Only’ since I was jumping into the game having never played online before. After a while we got to know each other better after talking and decided that we should join a league for a bit of competitve fun. Sadly, this fell apart after a while and another clan I joined just got too involved in the competitive side of things which is how I ended up at Dogs of War and I’ve been with them for seven years now.”

So what makes a clan identifiable? Similar to a soccer team wearing a particular pattern of colours, a clan will have their own tag. Whether you are playing on an Xbox 360, Playstation 3 or PC, an identifiable tag before a person’s name identifies them as a clan member; in Seán’s case ‘DoW UK’. The average clan has around 20 members who, in most cases, have gotten to know each other personally over a number of years. DoW have regular voice-chats through Ventrilo, a chat application that the members pay for so that they can communicate on a regular basis from all across Europe including the UK, Ireland, The Netherlands and Slovenia. This raises an interesting question: is it possible to form a close relationship with someone in a clan if you very rarely, if at all, meet? Seán explains: “The friendship between everyone in the clan is akin to talking to a friend that has moved to another country yet you talk to them everyday on Skype. When I’m not playing games I’ll go on to Ventrilo and find the rest of the clan doing a range of things whether one person is gaming, I’m browsing the web and another is watching TV. For me, it’s always been about making it a shared experience.”

The make up of a gaming clan member is far removed from the cringeworthy stereotypes of spotty teenagers taking out their social frustrations on virtual characters. For PC gamers in particular, the average age is about 35 but can range from people in their mid-twenties to late fifties. In comparison to the relatively inexpensive costs of the leading consoles, a PC gamer has to put a significant amount of money into a PC set-up. Graphics cards, sound systems and plasma screens are just some of the expenses needed to make a dedicated gaming set up which will likely set a person back a couple of thousand euros.

Can’t Teach an Old Dog
DoW are one of many clans that live and breath first person shooters. Call of Duty, Battlefield and Counter Strike are their bread and butter when it comes to gaming. Whether you’re running around Rambo-style blasting away your friends on a clan server, or teaming up to take on another clan, these games are the grand daddies of the gaming scene, raking in millions of dollars in game sales, merchandise and expansion packs each year. And yet, as each new installment in the franchise comes out, the older stalwarts of the DoW clan are resistant to change. As one of the younger members of the group, Seán has found that the older members are prone to sticking to what they know by playing the older games like Call of Duty 4 and Counter Strike, while younger players, including Seán, have expanded into playing newer games like Battlefield 3.

What is important to know is that membership is not exclusive. If you were looking to join a clan, one of Ireland’s most popular forums,, has a subsection dedicated to a whole variety of games. Similar to Seán starting out with Medal of Honor, a new player to a game can visit one of these subsections and join a number of servers that can cater to their playing style or limitations. One example you can find on is a Battlefield 3 community known as Craggy Island (no prizes on where the inspiration for this name came from). An online community made up of hundreds of members, Craggy Island is a go-to source for all Irish Battlefield 3 PC players whether they want to find clans to enjoy a more competitive side of gaming, or share YouTube videos of their thoughts and ideas on the game, or recorded clips ranging from bloopers to strategy guides and weapon loadouts. Much in the same way that Seán moved towards clans through a Medal of Honor server, I decided to jump right in and try my hand at putting on my warpaint and joining one.

Diving In
I must admit, I am what many would call a ‘casual gamer’ in that I play maybe three times in a week for an hour or two despite the fact I do follow the current gaming news. I own an Xbox 360 and only usually buy a handful of games in a year that I sometimes play online with a friend; possibly the least fearsome duo the internet has ever seen. As a regular member of a particular UK soccer forum that caters to people from all walks of life, I began posting on a thread for a dedicated Xbox Battlefield 3 clan ‘Awooga 365’, which consists of people from both the UK and Ireland. Much like being the only stranger at a party, a shyness came over me as I introduced myself. What struck me first, and what Seán had spoken to me about earlier, the friendliness of total strangers takes you aback. After a bit of back and forth chat, the first game was arranged and I jumped in to their rented server.

In the first few matches I sheepishly tried to talk to my new teammates through my microphone but gradually I found myself laughing and making fun of virtual strangers, for want of a better word. As a teamwork-orientated game, having a larger group of people to play with was a far more enjoyable experience but also as a place to mess around with the almost never-ending possibilities that can be found when playing such a vast game like Battlefield 3. Once we finish up, it’s back to the forum where we laugh or moan about the battle.

Looking at the other end of the scale, there are hundreds of clans who take gaming that bit more seriously and wage war virtually for a lot of money. When I spoke with Seán, he explained to me a world that is simply beyond my comprehension. Throughout the United States and South Korea (and, to a lesser extent, Europe) clans come to events to compete for prizes that can range from a few hundred dollars to hundreds of thousands. Started in 2002, E-sports website Major League Gaming (MLG) is to gaming what the Premier League is to soccer. Clans of any skill can go onto the MLG website and challenge one another to a battle in a variety of games including Call of Duty and FIFA.

In Game Battles, prestige and boasting rights are the prizes on offer as hundreds of matches are scheduled between teams of all sizes on a daily basis. “It’s great entertainment to watch,” says Seán. “I pay $20 a month and with that I can watch all of the matches on MLG in live high-definition.” This watching of clans and computer games in general has started, what might be considered by some, to be a strange experience. With increasing regularity, bars like Captain America’s are taking part in a new scene called Barcraft. In a similar way to soccer fans coming to bars to watch soccer, gaming enthusiasts can come to the bar and watch some of their favourite players and teams compete in one of the biggest and most lucrative games in terms of cash prizes, called Starcraft 2. A real-time strategy game based in a far-future conflict between different races, alien and human, players try to out-skill their opponents by building a better army using a variety of tactics. Similar, in almost every way to watching a popular sport, people in their hundreds turn up to Barcraft events, cheer on their players and teams while eating and drinking to their hearts content.

Understandably, many people unfamiliar with the game can be taken aback by the sights of a large group of people cheering and shouting at a computer game. Indeed, people like Seán do not see a day when Ireland or the rest of Europe will reach the mainstream heights experienced by the professional players in South Korea or North America: “In the past, there were attempts to create an E-sports community here in Ireland but it just hasn’t reached the same levels as in other countries. This is mostly down to a number of reasons including broadband infrastructure which is weaker compared to other countries.”

The Future
So what does the future hold for clan gaming? DoW has continued in the same manner for a number of years now and it would appear any major changes to what games are being played will be unlikely. The Irish scene has much further room to expand, but ideas like Barcraft are pushing the boundaries of how being a gamer is perceived in popular culture. No longer are games played solely by spotty teenagers, but people of all ages, men and women, who see the fun Internet gaming can provide given the increasing power and speed of modern broadband.

As we spend more and more of our time logged on to the Internet, the huge growth of social communities and groups online are inevitable or already with us. Through gaming, people like Seán found a way of making new friends across a number of countries with like-minded people without having to leave his computer at home. And yet, this summer DoW will be putting down their mouse and keyboard and raising a drink during their annual meet-up in the UK and continue where they left off, except this time in person.