Earlier this year I conducted a small exploratory study of self-rated transformational leadership behavior in Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs or MMOs for short). Transformational leadership is visionary, persuasive, empowering leadership focusing on shared goals of benefit to followers. Conventional wisdom states that transformational leadership does not exist (or is very rare) in online settings because it often involves deep interpersonal connection that electronic media is thought to inhibit. Research is slowly but surely correcting and qualifying this notion – you can in fact connect with others online.
I placed recruitment posts in game forums and linked to my online survey. Participants rated both their work/school leadership behavior and their MMO leadership behavior on the Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire. The vast majority of the responses came from people who played EVE Online, Guild Wars (GW), or World of Warcraft (WoW). A short paper discussing some of the results has been accepted as a poster presentation at the 2009 SIOP conference, but I wanted to share some findings with the community. For the sake of simplicity, when I use the term “guild” I am referring to guilds, clans, corporations, or whatever other name you and your organized groups of players like to use.
Results & Discussion
First off, who participated? The study was limited to participants over the age of 18. The average age was 28, well within the reported age range of previous studies. Gender, however, was a little more interesting.
As you can see, 12.2% of WoW players were women as were 13.8% of GW players. This is a little lower than we normally see reported in studies of gamers, but not out of the ballpark. Now take a look at EVE, where a mere 1.7% of respondents were women. Lesson of the day: remember fellas, despite their avatar’s appearance, your wingman most likely is in fact a man! Also notice the vast majority of respondents played EVE Online. This has to do with a sampling issue we’ll examine later.
Moving on to some fascinating trends, we take a look at transformational leadership in terms of MMOs and work/school. Keep in mind that these scores range from 0 (transformational leadership behavior is used “not at all”) to 4 (behavior shows up “frequently, if not always”). click graphs to enlarge
When we look at participants who are in a guild, there isn’t much difference between having one guild leader, a group of guild leaders, or no guild leader (in other words, everyone is a leader through consensus or majority rule). But check out the scores for people who were not members of a guild. They tend to report less transformational leadership behavior in both settings, MMO and work, but the WoW players who were not in a guild were completely opposite. The trends are the same for both MMO and workplace leadership. Transformational leadership declines in GW as we move from members of guilds with one leader to members of guilds with no leader. EVE and WoW are almost mirror opposites – the EVE line has a bit of a bell curve to it while the WoW curve is inverted.
Perhaps this has to do with the nature of the game. I’ve spent far less time playing WoW than EVE, but I know far fewer WoW players who go solo than I know EVE players who go solo. Perhaps the people who play WoW without a guild are already high on transformational leadership and find it easier to recruit people to spur-of-the-moment raiding parties. They may not need the built-in supply of buddies guilds offer, so they see no reason to join one. In EVE, you don’t really need to be a great leader to survive on your own. With a halfway decent rig, you can even run multiple accounts at once. Keep in mind this is one interpretation – I would love to hear your thoughts.
For our last graphs, let’s examine what happens to MMO and work leadership ratings as they relate to an individual’s own role within their guild (this only applies to respondents who said they were in a guild). click graphs to enlarge
Although there are some hiccups, the overall trend on the MMO side is downward. As we move down the hierarchy from the guild leader to the players on the bottom who turn down (or are not offered) leadership roles, transformational leadership decreases. But when we look at workplace leadership, EVE players flatten out – their workplace transformational has very little to do with their guild leadership position. Scores for top guild leaders fall across all three MMOs when we look at workplace leadership and there is no clear trend across the MMOs. If nothing else we can state that there is no clear relationship between self-ratings of work/school transformational leadership behavior and guild leadership role.
If you take nothing else away from this, realize that as guild leaders, you need to consider the fit between new members and your guild, even in regards to the way your guild is structured. If you come across a truly inspirational leader in WoW, they are slightly more likely to be guildless. They may quite possibly be happy that way if they already have access to people to help them through tough raids, so you will need something other than “we can help you level” to lure them into the fold.
As guild members, keep in mind that leadership can come from all quarters. Just because you are in a guild with a single leader or a small group of leaders does not mean you cannot step up to the plate and lead your guild mates to victory. Nobody rated themselves as exhibiting zero transformational leadership behavior – each of us has at least a little bit inside. If you would like to practice, there are few places better than a MMO, but realize your path will be more difficult in a guild with a single leader than in a guild that makes decisions based on majority rule.
Stepping cautiously out on to a shaky limb, we might look at transformational leadership as it relates to guild structure and consider workplace and MMO leadership to be fairly consistent trait-like qualities that follow the person from one situation to the next. In this case, individuals may be slightly more likely to gravitate towards guild structures that better fit their personal style. But when we look at an individual’s personal role in their guild, the differences we see between workplace and MMO leadership may be more state-like. The context may not matter so much when it comes to how others lead you, but it does matter when it comes to how you lead others.
CORRELATION DOES NOT EQUAL CAUSATION. There, we’ve gotten that out of the way! If you are not familiar with the phrase, it simply means that one variable did not necessarily cause the other, or vice versa… indeed, there may be multiple variables I did not examine in this study that are the true culprits! For example, people who rate themselves highly in transformational leadership behaviors may become guild leaders because they are better leaders. OR people who become guild leaders find themselves in a prime position to learn effective leadership behavior in a (relatively) risk-free environment. OR something else is going on!
To really start to dig deeper, researchers need to look at this data over time (longitudinally), taking pre and posttest measures of leadership behavior, and they need to include follower ratings of the leader. This study did neither. It would also be helpful to examine other leadership styles and theories (e.g., transactional, charismatic, authentic, leader-member exchanges, and so on).
Finally, it is important to note that the sample here was a little funky. Of all the game forums where the recruitment message was posted, only in the EVE Online forums was the message given “sticky” status. Sticky status means a representative of CCP (the developer of EVE Online) elevated the post so that it remained on the top of the first page in the forum for the duration of the study. The posts in the Guild Wars and WoW forums quickly disappeared from the front page of their respective forums due to regular forum traffic. As a result, the vast majority of responses came from EVE Online players, even though the total population of WoW players is far greater. I suspect that some people responding from the EVE forums actually played WoW more frequently (and filled out the questionnaire with WoW in mind), potentially skewing the WoW responses. This assumes that WoW players who are also active enough in EVE Online to check the forums differ from WoW players who do NOT play EVE Online, which is not an outlandish assumption. Since the EVE players were almost all male, if some of them answered with WoW in mind we might expect to see a lower-than-expected percentage of female respondents in the WoW sample, which we did. “So what?” you ask. If the WoW sample is not representative of the greater WoW population, the comparisons between WoW, EVE Online, and Guild Wars are useless. It doesn’t mean we throw out everything above, but we need to treat the comparisons with caution.
So please keep these limitations in mind when you tell your friends about the results! Feel free to discuss the additional strengths and limitations of this study in the comments section! I hope you found a useful tidbit in these results and I thank you for your interest and your time if you were one of the participants.