Riding the Failure Cascade

Religion / Web/Tech

Slashdot pointed me toward an article about the social life of online gaming guilds. The article analyzes the ways that voluntary associations of gamers (“guilds” or “alliances” that are created with the goal of being successful in their game) begin to fall apart. The author calls the process of this “falling apart” a “failure cascade” because it happens by a cascading series of small desertions by “good” players.

From the article:

“The Psychology of Failure

When you look at groups that hit a failure cascade, you notice patterns. If you were to chart an alliance’s membership over time, once you reach the failure cascade, you’d see a downward-sloping curve with a dispersal of cliffs. These are the two forces at work in that alliance’s failure cascade: the individual and the guild. Individuals leaving the alliance cause the shape of the slope, and the cliffs signify the points at which an entire guild has left an alliance.

This happens because the failure cascade is the inverse of a network effect. Websites like MySpace define their value by the people that use the service just as guilds define their quality by their members. As bad events cause players to leave or become inactive, the quality drop leads others to do the same in a spiral that rarely stabilizes, until no one is left.

To an individual, a failure cascade brings with it a change in that person’s identity. Instead of saying he is a member of an alliance, he shifts his perspective locally, to his guild or himself. These changes can fracture an alliance and set the stage for its member guilds to fight among themselves.

The Mittani explains a typical chain of events on the guild level as: “Those loyal to their individual corporations campaign to have the corporation leave the alliance, blaming players from the other corporations for the failings of the entity as a whole. Finger pointing happens at every level; alliance leaders are lambasted, imagined slights are magnified and oftentimes massive witch-hunting for spies takes place across the whole organization. As those targeted by the witch hunts are almost always innocent, this causes ever more strife as people line up to defend the accused.”

What happens at the terminal stages isn’t pretty. Imagine you decide to sit down and play for an hour. You log in, and a guild member is blaming the leader for letting such a defeat happen last night, screaming at him over TeamSpeak. Fifteen minutes in, a friend you mentored when he first started tells you that he’s leaving to join a rival guild. You’ll still see him around, but it won’t be the same. Thirty minutes in, an associate that started playing when you did says she’s quitting. Forty-five minutes in, you decide to leave your guild. Why stick around a guild where your leader can’t inspire, your friends are becoming enemies and the people you grew up with are leaving to play World of Warcraft?”

What this article is actually pointing to, I think, is a broader sociological phenomenon that is applicable not just to gamers but to any voluntary association of people. As such it should apply to congregations, denominations and Communions too…

See any parallels to your church experience? How about to the present state of the Anglican Communion?

Is there anyway out of the death spiral? None, at least according to the article. Once you reach a given threshold of people leaving, the course the team follows to extinction is inevitable.

Is there any hope then? Well, when faced with a problem without a solution, the best strategy for survival is to change the question…

So what would be different for the Church if we changed the fundamental problem. We can’t change the “voluntary” nature of our association. But we can change the definition of what “success” looks like. We can change from keeping score by comparing budgets and attendance to something like the criteria that Jesus gives to John the Baptist for judging whether or not Jesus is the Messiah:

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

That’s a radically different model of “success”. I wonder what would happen to the Church if we moved from measuring steeples to doing this.

Read the rest of the article about Failure Cascades here.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. Bunker says

    Dean Knisely,
    Changing the question is one option, but there are others, and specifically, in the case of the church, abiding with the one individual (if individual is the proper designation) who matters to the life of the church, Jesus Christ. Can there be a “failure cascade” when that individual has promised to be with us “even to the end of the age”? I prefer the metaphor, not of failure, but of death.
    If the church, in welcoming glbt persons into full fellowship, is indeed being faithful, perhaps even prophetic, then failure is surely the wrong understanding of what is happening. If the church is being faithful, then perhaps we are dying to an outmoded self-understanding. Resurrection only comes from graveyards, so perhaps we need not be worried about success or failure. Perhaps, we should rejoice and be glad when people revile us and persecute us and utter all kinds of evil against us falsely on his account.
    The other model for what’s happening that occurs to me is from the world of nature. It’s an immune response. If the Body of Christ is becoming more healthy in welcoming its glbt members into full fellowship, then the departure of the separatists is a healthy response since they remain attached to the disease.
    I much prefer the model of our current process being a kind of death. It turns our hearts where they belong — not on our own survival, but on God and what God is doing. Constant preoccupation with every move that the separatists are making is an anxious response. It comes from the fear of death. There’s plenty of that on the other side. We ought to just let go, and let God work out what God has in mind. We may not live to see it, but I think we can trust that the one who made the promise will remain faithful.
    Advent blessings,
    Bunker Hill +
    Spearfish, SD

  2. Thanks Bunker – You’re right that the Church, as the body of Christ, can not die. But I was actually thinking more about the Anglican Communion and specifically about the Episcopal Church in my comments.
    Our welcoming of GLBT Christians is offensive to some (which drives them out) and not complete enough for others (which drives them out.) But the consequences that are feared by our actions (or their imperfection) are the death of the denomination – and that charge is made on either side.
    As people begin to depart, my concern is that we are starting ourselves on the path of a failure cascade. And the point of the article seems to be that the end is inevitable once it starts. (The strategies they suggest for its avoidance are not appropriate for us.)

  3. Bunker says

    Dean Knisely,
    I hear your concern, but who are the people beginning to depart? It seems to me that when the uncompromising persons on both sides leave, we’ll have a large remainder who love their church and have a lot vested in it, who are able to tolerate ambiguity and who want to get on with the work of ministry.
    I remain hopeful,

  4. I’m actually very hopeful too Bunker. And I think you’ve got the right idea – if we change our idea of what constitutes “success” away from secular measures to how well we follow Our Lord, I think we’re going to be fine.

  5. From what I’ve heard it isn’t just the uncompromising people who are leaving, although some of them represent the most visible losses.
    Finding ways to do work together is probably the single most important way we can keep the Communion from sliding into a failure cascade, although if we’re not careful the emphasis on social work could leave people outside the church with the impression that we’re like the Lions Club or the Kiwanis with pointless rituals added.

  6. Must admit I did think the failure cascade mirrors what happens in some churches. But like the others above I am hopeful also. After all the gamer model does not have the Holy Spirit going for it. Let’s invoke the Holy Spirit and pray that we will be protected from the failure cascade!
    Peace and Love of the Season to All
    Alice in Phoenix

  7. But this leaves Love out of the picture entirely. People might not love their teams and the games they are playing – but they love their church and their parishes and their fellow parishioners.
    And they love God. Where else would we go, anyway?

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