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.