The Declines of Empires.

The Declines of Empires. May 21, 2015

Abandoned things fascinate me: theme parks, factories, malls, churches, houses, restaurants, islands, castles, cities, civilizations.

An ancient brothel, fallen into ruins. I'm sure the owners blamed the wide availability of internet porn for the eventual failure of their business. (Credit: Dennis Jarvis, Flickr, CC-NoDerivs license.)
An ancient brothel, fallen into ruins. I’m sure the owners blamed the wide availability of internet porn for the eventual failure of their business. (Credit: Dennis Jarvis, Flickr, CC-NoDerivs license.)

People once spent money and time and effort to build and maintain these things–and some of them are very big indeed–and spent sometimes many years inhabiting and visiting them. And then, for whatever reason, everyone walked away from these edifices and left them behind. Maybe someone even loved being there once, but even that love couldn’t keep things going. Sometimes desperate efforts break out to save that place–I read once of a fine antebellum mansion whose current owners couldn’t even afford to live in it proper, so they resided in the basement and left the floors above barely functional for sightseeing tours–and the idea of plucky kids putting on a show to save their beloved hangout is a trope by now.

Anything that takes effort to build and create can fall apart if it doesn’t get the resources it needs. Online spaces, too, can die; so can religions. As anybody who’s watched many episodes of Kitchen Nightmares could attest, once a death spiral begins, it can be very difficult indeed to regain what was lost.

The reason it’s so hard to recover from fading glory is because at that point, two things are working against the place, game, or group in question:

1. Interpersonal dynamics are overwhelming its initial strengths.

Sometimes there was no way that a group or place could succeed even if the people administering it weren’t total power-mad whackjobs. Maybe there’s just no demand for whatever it is, or it’s in a terrible location. In terms of MUDs (those are like text-only MMOs, usually free to play and staffed solely by volunteers), I’ve seen some amazing ideas come and go–medieval high-fantasy versions of Wales, a modern-day mall pet shop, a post-apocalyptic Cthulhu-themed nightmare city, a desert world where hobbits are cannibals, a game based tightly on the real history of Ancient Mesopotamia, you name it–but the simple truth is that if there’s just no demand for the game, it might attract a very small core of devoted followers but won’t become a blockbuster must-play. A restaurant could be the best Thai place in the universe, but if it’s located in BFE, Texas, chances are it’s going to fail no matter how well it’s administered or how good the food is.

Sometimes, conversely, a group or place succeeds at first despite horribly bad management because it’s just such a perfect product, or it’s happening at just the right time or place. Its sheer newness might be enough to carry it through some very successful first months or years.

But in that short list of blockbuster must-play MUDs (by MUDders‘ standards; non-MUDders’ mileage may vary), even a huge game with a fantastic theme and foolproof codebase can fail if it’s staffed by overdramatic, histrionic people who have no idea how to administer games or work together in volunteer groups. Even worse, bad habits get entrenched. Dysfunctional people, if allowed to behave in dysfunctional ways, get embedded in their behaviors and become downright explosive if changes are requested or demanded. And the folks in the in-group who aren’t driven off by these changes in dynamic start thinking they’re normal–or even celebrating the dysfunction. They may think and act like this is the way it’s always been–and see those suggesting changes as the enemy. Their way of doing things starts getting seen as “conventional wisdom”–as the best ways possible to do anything. And you’d be surprised (or maybe not!) at how many people these games attract who have serious trouble with the idea of change, so even if someone suggested doing something differently, a stable of extremely suspicious, recalcitrant admins must be brought around to the idea with great delicacy and care. A diplomatic summit between China and Japan is less fraught with potential drama and misunderstandings than the average staff meeting at one of these sorts of MUDs.

What’s really tragic about those MUDs that fail, though, is the never-ending exodus of disgruntled gamers who leave declining games convinced that they’ll start their own game and do sooooooo much better–but who have no idea what went wrong on the previous game, much less any idea of what needs to happen on the new one. An optimistic young man in such a situation once told me exactly that: “We’ll do everything right! We’ll be so much better!” When I asked what had actually gone wrong, though, he got mad at me and could only stammer, “Um, everything!” And he had no actual clue how he was going to make anything better. The game he was designing was, like the games all the other expatriates had designed, built on the management model of the previous game. It would feature many of the departed administrators of the previous game. It would even have the same design philosophies. Not a single one of these admins seemed cognizant of their own shortcomings with regard to the game, much less how the previous models and management strategies had failed (pro-tip: you can’t really run a volunteer online game on the same rules as a brick-and-mortar Fortune 500 company and expect everything to be great). So they were busy setting up committees and sub-committees and voting systems and tiers of building permissions, and the same stupid, petty dramas were breaking out even before their games reached alpha.

I’m not sparing myself from that same scrutiny. I fell into the same mental habits that I’m describing here. When I quit the last game I worked on, I spent a good couple of years thinking about what had happened, questioning the “conventional wisdom,” and developing new ways of administering games. I also had to seriously consider whether I’d ever work with or for–or play on–a game that was poorly managed. In the end I had to decide that no, I wasn’t. No matter how cool the theme or how intriguing the codebase, I just can’t do it. All I get is inevitable drama when I try. Eventually, it starts mattering if the group’s administration philosophy is dysfunctional.

If the old way of doing things was so great, then a previously-thriving game wouldn’t be in decline. Seems pretty simple to me that something’s gone hideously wrong somewhere. But the administrators of a game in decline will blame every single thing in sight besides their own potential role in that decline: the players leaving, the proliferation of graphical MMOs, the different kinds of computers on college campuses nowadays, the fall from popularity of their theme, you name it.

2. People don’t tend to re-try places where they’ve suffered a bad experience.

It used to simply astonish me to see how much poor treatment die-hard MUD players would tolerate from bad games. Some of the horror stories I heard just floored me. What’s really astonishing was that I didn’t notice that I was tolerating quite a bit from my own game. I stayed on the last one I helped out with probably two years past the time I should have told them saiyonara, assholes. A lot of folks get extremely attached to a particular game or place and maybe don’t even see its shortcomings. Indeed, I was only barely cognizant of how that game had, at some point, begun to actively alienate new players and infuriate seasoned, experienced roleplayers who could tell that plots weren’t well-designed and that admins had no idea how to subtly herd players in the right directions. But while the die-hard folks would stay through almost anything thrown at them, most folks would get a taste of that environment and leave without a glance backward. Those remaining would console themselves by saying they had encountered other folks having a bad day, or weren’t really well-suited to the game, or weren’t good enough to fit in with us. When a newbie left, it was sad for me as an admin but not something I lost a lot of sleep over. When a lot of experienced gamers left, that was when I began to ask questions about what had happened.

Part of my own inability to see what was happening had to do with how insular my experience with that game was. It wasn’t until a few of the disgruntled departing players began making a lot of noise about some of the seriously transgressive developments in the game’s environment and the seriously megalomaniacal nature and incompetence of some of the staffers that I began to notice that this game was nowhere near what it’d been years ago. Whatever their tenure had been, once players left they did not return–and they spread bad press about our game to the folks they encountered on other games.

If you’ve ever had a truly terrible meal at a restaurant, chances are you didn’t go back unless it was somewhere you really liked. Maybe you’d chalk it up to a one-off mistake–maybe a new chef was on duty, or–as I got told by a waitress during one such bad experience at a highly-rated place I’d once loved–all the regular kitchen staff were in an all-day staff meeting that day. Maybe you’d go back once, like I did, but you’d be on the lookout for negative stuff. And if you saw it, like I did my second trip back, you’d probably never darken that place’s doorstep again. You’d find somewhere else to spend your valuable free time and disposable income.

The pool of customers for any given place is limited. It’s a zero-sum game. When cell phones first got popular like 10-15 years ago, the market was wide open. Millions of people needed a cell phone because they’d never had one before. Telecom companies didn’t seem to care who they pissed off with poor customer service or technical issues–and why should they have cared? There were many more lining up behind those angry departing customers to take their place! MUDs were the same way back in the late 1980s and early 1990s; the list of open games was in the many thousands–anybody with a college ID seemed able to open one easily using prefabricated codebases and just a little customization. The market got just as saturated just as quickly.

Fast forward ten years, and suddenly it matters quite a lot whether someone stays or leaves. The conventional wisdom (which might not be true) is that it’s cheaper to retain a client/customer/gamer than to acquire a brand-new one. Speaking as someone who worked in customer loyalty for a while, I don’t know if that wisdom is true, but I can say that when a group or company or service is in decline, therefore attracting fewer and fewer new people to its ranks and fighting for ever-shrinking pieces of an ever-shrinking total pie of potential new people, retention becomes very important. When someone has a bad experience and leaves a group that is already in decline, that ought to seriously concern and worry the group’s leaders.

What Reverses a Decline?

Obviously, if the management in question can perceive their shortcomings, that’s a major factor in recovery. I’ve seen a roleplaying game do that. The game had hit a low of perhaps 5 players on at peak from its pre-decline average of 30-40 people (which, for an intensive roleplaying MUD, is pretty damn good). At first they blamed all the usual suspects, but then they hunkered down. Admins were identified by the game’s owner as problem children and allowed to either clean up their act or find somewhere else to run their petty fiefdoms, which left two admins who were worth keeping. At a peak of 5, two admins was all that was really needed at first anyway–a game that literally has more staff than it has players at peak is a game worth being careful of.

The problem-children admins had made a lot of self-serving changes to the game that let them cheat and harass other players (like creating one-way exits to other characters’ homes, or setting super-low hit points on formerly very tough NPCs so they could be easily killed for their loot); these changes were reversed and/or fixed as they were discovered. Players who’d stuck with the game were rewarded for their patience and devotion with small but perceptible perks.

The game owner began advertising and keeping a sort of blog on the game’s online forum of the changes being made, which gave new and old players alike a chance to see that the game was committed to improvement. People began filtering back, and new folks were alerted to the game’s quality by some of those returning players. I was one of those new folks. I ended up playing there about five years. The game’s peak began hitting 40 toward the end of that time, but at that point its admins collectively forgot those lessons, signed on some incompetent staffers, and letting those staffers run roughshod over the playerbase–which began leaving again. By the time I left (again, a year too late–it was a persistent character flaw of mine), they were back to a peak of five with damn near 20 staffers all glorying in their own little petty fiefdoms like they were living in the basements of their own faded mansions. It was painful to see.

Are you seeing some parallels with religion here?

For a while, religion was the only game in town for people to explain the big questions and give shape to philosophical leanings. But it’s not anymore. Now its management–and administrative philosophies–have come into serious question. It’s unlikely that they’re going to attract a lot of non-believers nowadays–just like most gamers are going to pick graphical MMOs over MUDs–so it’s a way better strategy for religious leaders to concentrate on retention of the people they still have. That retention is going to depend on their leaders figuring out where their flaws are and devising strategies that actually fit reality.

The solution is not going to look like business as usual for them. Their previous strategies were gaslighting and relabeling words to better preserve their privilege, like telling people that controlling others is “loving,” or blaming those who leave as “just wanting to sin.” They seem at this point to be positively incapable of even identifying where they’re going wrong–most of the hardline churches blame liberalism still for their declines, which IMO completely misses the point–much less how to correct the course. Internal improvement at this point seems all but impossible. Indeed, I’ve heard a great many of these leaders say they’re relying on outside help, namely the strong-arming of their god to magically make non-believers suddenly not care about objective reality or credible support for religious claims. If that actually happened in great numbers, it’d likely be the very first verified miracle this religion’s ever had. Since their god seems curiously insouciant about his children being slaughtered by wars, natural disasters, and plagues, I don’t think he’s going to care overmuch for magically convincing first-world Nones to believe in him. Nor do I think that this god is going to magically convince those harmed by religion to suddenly not care about putting themselves back into harm’s way.

One day all our fine monuments will be repurposed into some cat's favorite sunning-spot, like this ruined bit of Ephesus has been. (Credit: size4riggerboots, CC license.)
One day all our fine monuments will be repurposed into some cat’s favorite sunning-spot, like this ruined bit of Ephesus has been. (Credit: size4riggerboots, CC license.)

At this point, though, the guiding philosophy is that yes, people are leaving and not liking what they’re doing, so they should just keep doing what they were doing, but harder and more of it. That doesn’t work in games; it doesn’t work in kisses; it doesn’t work in stand-up comedy; it doesn’t work in group dynamics; it won’t work in religion.

As Daniel Dennett has written, at this point it seems like only a real global catastrophe could do much to bring membership up again. And that is scarily plausible to me. When people get desperate, a great many of them start buying into religious claims and conforming to religious leaders’ demands. It’s the most shameless sort of opportunism and self-interest, but one can hardly blame them for trying absolutely anything–especially if they live in a culture that doesn’t exactly make the learning of critical thinking skills a priority. The idea that there is a supernatural world that can influence our own if just the right things are done or said or thought is an idea that is all but taken for granted in most cultures.

Tragically, it really does seem like many Christian leaders–especially fundagelicals, who have been hard-stung by their religion’s fading power and influence–actually really want to see exactly that: a global catastrophe that would make people turn, in utter desperation, to their god for help.

Or rather, to their religion, which claims to speak for that god since he is mysteriously coy to the point of not existing at all.

Or rather still, to their religion’s leaders, since they claim to speak for that religion and its god.

Funny how that works.

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