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Virtual Dictators, Real Exclusion
Inclusion, exclusion and citizenship in clan communities

Ruud Oud

What could possibly be more fun than playing a computer game? Playing a computer game with your friends! This simple attitude can be held responsible for the emergence of computer game (as of now abbreviated to 'games') communities called 'clans'.
What I would like to do in this chapter is to give a brief overview about clans: what are they and what do they do. But more important, I will observe how clans deal with the concept of citizenship; this will undoubtedly pose questions about inclusion and exclusion, which will be the focus of my study. To perform this analysis, I shall look closely to a clan that is focused only on America's Army, and have an interview with one of its leaders.

What are clans?

"Since the beginning of online multiplayer capable games, groups of warriors on the Internet have banded together calling themselves clans. These clans take part in team play on the Internet against other clans. While some view clans as being primarily a Quake [one particular computer game - RO] phenomenon, in truth they are forming for nearly all games which can be played online." (-1)

In the quote above, the word multiplayer is mentioned. This means that multiplayer games are suitable to be played over some form of network, usually the Internet. The development of the commercial Internet made it possible for gamers to play games against other people instead of playing it against the computer itself. This was a huge success, and currently almost every new game supports this multiplayer bliss. Battling against real people transformed playing games from an individual experience into a social experience. As a result of this sudden change gamers did what every human does when encountered with a collective sphere: they began to form groups in which they felt 'save'. And behold, clans were born.
So in short, clans are gatherings of players, sharing their enthusiasm for a game. What's more, the clan only exists because of the game. These groups can consist of merely a handful of people to as much as thousands, all enjoying the game together.

To the novice clans may seem as a small by-product of the huge games business. However, Judith Hertz, a well known game-analyst, has a different opinion:

"It is this web of relationships between players that sustains the videogame industry (...) These group dynamics are best represented by the vast network of self-organised combat clans that vie for dominance on the internet. No game company told players to form clans - they just emerged (...) and have persisted for years." ( Herz, 2002)

According to Herz, the social culture that is displayed in clans cannot be underestimated. Anne-Marie Schleiner, another expert on game culture, extends the value of clans from the virtual to the material world, as she says:

"Multiplayer games can be very social (...) Sometimes the social bonds developed in these clans extend beyond the game into friendship and players offer each other moral support through personal hardship and help each other find jobs" ( Ahuna, 2001)

Some even express their enthusiasm about these game communities by wrapping them into a McLuhanism, as Cindy Ahuna does when she claims that:

"Communities have become an extension, a new medium of human touch" ( Ahuna, 2001)

So although the idea of a clan is indissolubly linked with the computer game itself, it also goes beyond the game and creates a new platform for intense interaction. But how is this being together in a social environment in daily practice experienced by the members of a clan: what do they actually do?
Two activities stand out. One of them is playing the game itself of course. When we take America's Army as an example it comes down to this: a couple of clan members schedule for a certain game at a certain time (in some larger clans members are chosen by clan authorities). The players meet before the game in chatboxes to discuss their tactics. At the specific time, all the players choose the same side so that one side is completely occupied by members of one clan, and the fun can begin. The second activity is conversing about the game and the clan. This is usually done on some sort of online forum; in fact, many clans have incorporated a small forum into their clan homepage, so they can do their business in private, without many onlookers. The area under discussion can range from team tactics to bloating over a recent victory to current affairs in the world, be it the material or the virtual one.

So far we have seen that a clan can be seen as a kind of community, but is it possible that there is a sense of citizenship involved in these game-orientated gatherings? How developed are the rights people have in clans anyway? And can these rights and duties influence the inclusion/exclusion-structure of clans? Before these questions can be asked, let alone answered, it might be useful to make a clear definition of citizenship.

So what is citizenship? In his book 'Citizenship and Social Class' T. H. Marshall defines citizenship as

"a status bestowed on those who are full members of a community. All who possess the status are equal with respect to the rights and duties with which the status is endowed" ( Marshall, 1950)

They key concept in Marshall's idea of citizenship is that of 'equality'. This implies two things: first, that the quality of the given rights and duties improve. Second, that the quantity of people upon who the rights and duties are bestowed grows. Marshall divides citizenship into three kinds of rights. First civil rights: rights that protect the individual. Next are political rights. These rights ensure the individual to be included in political empowerment. Thirdly Marshall mentions social rights, a variety of liberties and privileges that support proper participation in society for the individual.
Beside citizenship, which advocates equality, Marshall also mentions social class. Social class, according to Marshall, is a 'system of inequality', and consequently the opposite of citizenship. It will be interesting to see which of these models have influenced clan communities the most. Or perhaps it is even necessary to ask ourselves if clans can be held capable of making such a division. Herz thinks clans are sophisticated enough to do so:

"[Clans] have developed their own politics, hierarchies and systems of government. They are essentially tribal - each has a name (...) its own history, monikers, signs of identification" ( Herz, 2002)

In recent history, the concept of citizenship has been interwoven with the concept of nation states; inclusion and exclusion of citizenship have been linked to nationality. In the virtual world where clans reside nationality is no longer an issue. Or is it? In the next section, I will observe citizenship in clan communities that are dedicate to America's Army. Of course it is not likely that each and every clan has an elaborated, well-documented record of their constitutional rights and duties. Therefore I will focus on one particular example of the exercise of rights, namely that of inclusion and exclusion. Especially in games as America's Army, where you play together with a team, it is important to have a strict admission policy; a bad player will damage the image of the clan, and, also important, he/she does not only endanger his/her own life, but also those of the team mates. But as the organization is not being hampered by any existing laws, an overview of the amount of effort that clans put into recruiting can be quite revealing. I will perform this overview by examining a specific Dutch America's Army clan called -UBF-. I've had an interview with one of the founders of the clan, mister David B. Nieborg, and I will use his answers to comment on clan culture as a whole and inclusion and exclusion in particular.

The interview with D.B. Nieborg
RO: Mister Nieborg, what was the reason to initiate a clan for the America's Army game?
DBN: Well, primarily just for fun. We just thought that being together in a clan would be entertaining. But it also was a challenge for us; we wanted to see if we could pull it off.

RO: About the name of the clan, what does it stand for?
DBN: The '-' at the beginning and end are convention: they show that we are a computer game clan. UBF is an abbreviation. Initially it stood for the location of my co-founders and me: we lived in the same building, in Units B & F. Of course when others began joining the clan, the original abbreviation could no longer hold. So we changed it into United Beer Friends, which is very appropriate, haha.

The original meaning of UBF shows that the founders felt connected in some way by their shared location, and they used this as a clear sign to distinguish themselves from others: after playername, clanname is the main identification key in online games and discussions. It is interesting that, when other people wanted to join, the founders decided not to stick by their original name, and by changing it they valued the inclusion of other players above the shared experience they had before.

RO: What is in your opinion the main function of the clan?
DBN: To make childish jokes, haha! But seriously, to play America's Army in a team. It definitely beats playing the game by yourself, it's much more fun.

In this statement, Nieborg acknowledges the importance of playing America's Army in a team, and therefore justifies the act mentioned above: rules and regulations are fine, but if they hinder the social structure of the clan, they can be adjusted.

RO: Do you think that the clan also has some purpose besides America's Army?
DBN: Yes I do. Some of the clan members are friends of mine in real life, so the clan functions as a communication device between them and me. We are also planning for a Clan LAN party, but that is closely connected with the game. A Clan paintball session is also in preparation.

RO: Could you describe some of the activities players in the clan community exercise, both related as unrelated to America's Army?
DBN: Within America's Army, we practice every Monday night. And of course we play together online, although that is on an irregular basis.
Outside the game, well we must live up to our image, so we drink a lot of beer together!

Nieborg shows here that the social impact of the clan is not to be underestimated. The simple fact is that the virtual clan cannot be seen apart from the material world. -UBF- originated because of the relationship between the founders in real life, the connections that tie the clan to the material world are indeed very real.

RO: How many people are there in your clan?
DBN: So far 12, but I expect two more to join at short notice.

RO: Do you know all the members personally?
DBN: Well, that depends on your definition of 'personally'. I know four of them by face, the rest of them only by playing America's Army and chatting.

The difference between the beginning of the clan, which was extremely localised, and the dislocated state the clan is in recently, is striking. This development can be regarded as a positive one, because, following Marshall, the inequality of localisation has been overcome.

RO: What are the requirements for someone to be accepted into the clan? Does someone have to be an America's Army expert?
DBN: If we know the player in person there are no requirements. If we don't, the player must have some skill in playing the game. We don't have any firm rules about this, but an honor of 20 or higher is necessary. ['Honor' is the equivalent of 'points' in America's Army. If you play well, kill many opponents and make few mistakes, your honor will rise. It can be seen as a reflection of your skill in the game - RO]

Of course, while certain inequalities can be discarded, others can come up just as easy. Once more is shown that the ties between virtual and material world are not easily broken. A relationship with one of the clan members can automatically result in inclusion, while strangers will have to prove themselves. The custom way to prove yourself is to show that you possess the right skills. This usually comes down to playing a few matches against resident clan members, who can judge whether you will make it or not.

RO: Are there any requirements that are not specifically linked to America's Army? Take for instance nationality or gender?
DBN: Yes, this is a Dutch clan and we intend to keep it Dutch. So no foreigners. Women are certainly allowed to be a member of -UBF-.

It seems that the delocalisation I mentioned earlier is not definite, but has merely expanded. However, I'd like to point out that it would not be sufficient for most people to be in a clan where the only connection to other clan members is America's Army itself. The localisation at micro-stage has been removed, which means that clan members don't necessarily have to know each other in the material world. But as a result, clan members will search for new ways in which they can relate to each other. One well-known example is the gamegrrrlz, a clan that consists entirely of females. Besides gender, localization will also be used to identify oneself to another. Therefore, the broader localization that -UBF- displays can be understood in terms of identification.

RO: Who judges candidate-members? Function or status within the clan is sufficient.
DBN: All the members do. However, the three originators of -UBF- have the final verdict.

RO: So do you think that there is a certain hierarchy within the clan or are all the members equal?
DBN: Oh we have definitely a dictatorial regime: the power lies with the Three Founding Fathers, as we like to call ourselves.

To speak in terms of Marshall, the social system of -UBF- is a mixture between citizenship and social class. On the clanforum, various topics concerning the clan are posted, and clan members can give their opinion about them. For instance, of late there has been a discussion concerning the size of the clan; should the clan grow or remain the same size. Although the executive power will remain in the hands of a few, 'ordinary' members can voice their opinion. An outstanding example of this interplay occurred recently, when the Three Founding Fathers have announced the new clan BasicRules. After the announcement, a topic on the forum was opened where clan members could give their opinion about the new rules. The posts showed that there was quite some resentment against the 'you shall not swear'-rule, which resulted in one of the founders explaining the rule. Eventually the rule was slightly adjusted. Although clan -UBF- is a bit of an extreme example, other clans show a tight hierarchy too. The clan 'Rogers Ranger' for example, has a supposedly small group of people who run the clan and have a significant amount of power. On their website () for instance, the following can be read:

"Rogers Rangers will tonight take on PoT on Pipeline, this is the starting line-up: =RR=Pyrial69, =RR=Winters, =RR=Maddhatter3 and =RR=Silencer.

Report in 15 min. before the game on IRC."

This shows a clear chain of command, in which players are chosen by the leaders, and are told when to meet. If one does not do what is ordered, he or she will undoubtedly face certain consequences (although it seems unlikely to me that they will be severely punished or even excluded).

Besides this hierarchy, which deals with the clan structure, there is another highly visible hierarchy in clan -UBF-, namely that of America's Army itself. The clan website shows an overview of the clan members, including their rank in the game. This rank shows how well the clan members perform in America's Army. The relation between this rank and the clan hierarchy is unclear: a high 'gamerank' does not necessarily indicate a high position in the clan hierarchy. However, I can imagine that outstanding players will eventually increase their power in clan hierarchy as well, because other players will see them as an authority.

RO: What are the rights clan members have?
DBN: Well, apart from those presented on our clan website the clan members don't really have rights.

Upon viewing the website, I was surprised to find only a page with rules and duties instead of rights. In fact, the only right I could find was that clan members were allowed to play under the 'tag' -UBF-. But when looking closer, it appeared to me that the first rule of -UBF- could also be seen as a right: 'Playing America's Army is about having fun, so make sure that your play will not irritate others. Everything goes as long as it's funny.' This duty can be paraphrased as: 'Everybody has the right to have fun'.

RO: And what about duties?
DBN: Clan members are forbidden to 'votekick' each other off; they have to play America's Army at least once in a while; and they must joke around. [To 'votekick' somebody means that you initiate a vote to kick somebody out of the game. It depends on other players in the game whether that person is kicked out. The votekick rule is designed to protect the game from players who deliberately annoy others - RO]

So these duties are intended to ensure 'the right to have fun'. Especially the 'votekick' is an interesting subject, as it is a kind of mini-exclusion. The rules state that 'Loyalty to your team-mates and the clan is the most important thing there is, so to votekick a fellow clan member is forbidden, whatever the reason may be'. The image of the clan is of great importance, and to have a votekick between fellow clan members is seen as a great humiliation. This exemplifies the severity of punishment through exclusion.
Finally, the interplay between rights and duties is a remarkable one: both opposites are blended together. By failing to fulfill ones duties, one automatically violates the rights of somebody else.

RO: In the history of -UFB-, have there been any members who have left the clan, either out of their free will or by coercion?
DBN: No, not yet.

RO: Is it possible for a member to be involved in another clan at the same time?
DBN: Absolutely not.

RO: What are the consequences?
DBN: If we find out about it we will immediately kick him or her out of the clan. We will do this by removing the player's name from the clan website.

Nieborg's fierce reaction illustrates the common thought in the clan community that a player can be affiliated with only a single clan. To violate this statute will result in immediate and definitive exclusion, which is an unusually strict rule for the virtual communities. This attitude can also be found in the real world in relation to nation states: people are expected to be a citizen of one country. Although double nationalities are possible, it is regular to have only one. In this case, the absence of nationality in cyberspace has an unexpected effect: the clans themselves are becoming the states, the groups that people search for by nature.

RO: Thank you for this interview.
DBN: You're welcome.

It was my intention to give a brief overview of the implementation of both rights and duties as inclusion and exclusion in clan communities. Although more extensive research has to be done before conclusive results can be made, a couple of outcomes are remarkable.
First of all, almost every clan has some form of hierarchy. Although most are not dictatorial, even the Three Founding Fathers of -UBF- are concerned with the well being of their clan members, some form of inequality exists throughout clan communities. When it comes to inclusion and exclusion, the power lies with the powerful. With rights and duties, the same story can be told.

My view on this development is that this form of inequality is not in contrast with the demands of the clan members. Although they do not share the power of the few clan leaders, 'ordinary' clan members are not displeased because what they get in return is valued more by them: freedom. Most 'simple' clan members are involved with just the two activities I mentioned earlier: playing the game and talking about the game. Of course having power in a clan has numerous advantages. But as is well known all over the world in all kinds of communities: with great power comes great responsibility. This power and responsibility are more often than not time-consuming and boring. And above all, I believe that a surprisingly large amount of clan members, and even people in general, value freedom of responsibility above power.


  1. 'Female gamers and clans', visited March 29th, 2003, http://www.gamegirlz.com,
  2. Herz, J.C., Gaming the System: Multi-player Worlds Online in: Game On (London: Laurence King Publishing LTD, 2002)
  3. Ahuna, C, 'Online Game communities are social in nature', visited March 29th, 2003, http://switch.sjsu.edu,
  4. Marshall, T.H., 'Citizenship and Social Class' in: T.H. Marshall & Tom Bottomore, Citizenship and Social Class (London: Pluto Press, 1992, originally published 1950)

Other sources

  • The official homepage of clan -UBF-,
  • The official homepage of clan Rogers Rangers,
© 2003
Sean Storey, Justin Beck, Ruud Oud, Jeroen Steeman
Utrecht University