I started playing MMORPGs when I was 14 years old. There I was, cross-legged on the floor of my friend’s basement in front of an old CRT television, three of us gawking at the strange online world buzzing with people. We were used to AOL chat rooms and the idea of “online friends,” but we had never seen an online game. We had never blasted wyverns with Firaga III. We had never caught crayfish in the Altepa Desert. But we would.
When Final Fantasy XI Online came out, I was in high school: jobless and carefree, and able to spend time in Vana’Diel daily for four solid years. It was during my first week in FFXI, wandering through the vast, rocky expanses of South Gustaberg, when I got knocked out by a large bee. Thankfully, another player was nearby; she cast raise to revive me. She guided me through South Gustaberg, teaching me how to take on the same bees that had taken me out, and then she offered me something called a linkshell.
Linkshells, I learned, are in-game items that act like chat rooms. Players can share them with their friends and then all talk as a group. However, this is only the “casual” use for linkshells. Through them, I would soon leave behind my friends for a more competitive group.
I was 15 when I had my first job interview. The role: black mage in an FFXI linkshell. The linkshell had a website, an active forum, terms and conditions and a robust rewards system. They wouldn’t even consider applicants without significant experience vanquishing monsters with other linkshells. Linkshells are and were the backbone of hardcore in-game teams that work together to tackle quests, notorious monsters and other in-game challenges. They demand (like any other employer) on-the-job experience, adherence to a tight schedule and team spirit.
Square Enix has revisited the MMO space with Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, and, to be sure, linkshell politics haven’t changed much. The game has only just come out, but even prior to launch, linkshell leaders were gathering on forums to plan, recruit and assemble their swashbuckling, magic-laden cohorts.
Of course, all MMOs rely on these social networks. World of Warcraft has guilds, Eve has corporations, Final Fantasy has linkshells. In-game teams are a huge part of endgame culture, full of players whose business is in content mastery. Mastery is not a single-player game, however, since most MMORPGs involve dungeons and monsters that can only be overcome by cohorts. And so, people work in teams.
Endgame linkshells don’t quite fit the tournament mold of e-sports, but they do have their own flavor of professionalism. Linkshells and their cousins in other MMORPGs are less concerned with the e-sports model of individual talent and more concerned with team optimization. E-sports have the athletes, the gifted individuals, and the freelancers. The people that don’t want to be tied down by the corporate world, that live for the trophy rush. MMORPGs have the small businesses, the benefits and the bureaucracy—the players that want to climb the social ladder into the upper echelons where they will get first pick on loot at the end of a dungeon crawl.
Society encourages us to maintain a “work-life” balance, to get off our Blackberries, out of our inboxes and into a hobby. But what does it mean when a hobby becomes a micro-bureaucracy? The line between hobby and profession becomes blurry when online players are taking their second 9-to-5 in an MMO. When you’re tackling a quest with your linkshell, you’re probably not sitting in the same room as the rest of the group, like you would at a typical job. But at this point, 1 in 5 people employed in the world telecommute. Intel, IBM and Fed-Ex have made huge investments in remote workers. How different are on-the-job activities from what we do in an MMO?
Linkshell X requires that potential members be free between the hours of 7:00PM EST and 1:00AM EST for in-game activities. Linkshell Y is only recruiting people who play Paladin or White Mage. Linkshell Z requires a description of your experience playing with other linkshells in previous Square Enix MMORPGs. Provident Bank requires an extensive accounting resume. Linkshell X, Y, Z and Staples all desire applicants able to work a flexible schedule. My resume was average for a 15 year old—I’d done some babysitting, lawn mowing and goblin slaying. But I had a lot of attitude and a lot of free time. I passed that first job interview with flying colors.