Gangs: Reality and Fantasy, Part I

   The basic human genetic program goes something like this: hit adolescence, rebel against and leave parents family, find own family, produce offspring, focus on surviving and raising offspring to repeat cycle. Given a short life expectancy, the need to spread out so as not to over-exploit any given habitat, and the relative helplessness of orphaned human children, if it was anything too different we wouldn’t be here.

   Adolescents want another family, want independence, want respect in their own right (since without respect – at least in a tribal setting – your chances of offspring are dim), and want to bond with a new group and find a purpose in supporting it. Those are the drives that have kept the species going.

   Civilization demands delay: “until adolescence” is not enough time to spend learning the skills that are now needed. For a time, apprenticeships and fostering sufficed, but – as ever more complex and specialized skills were demanded, apprenticeships became both less productive for the master and less useful to the apprentice. Spare time decreased. Formal schools became necessary. Boarding schools were a partial solution, but were impractical as a general one as it became necessary for virtually everyone to have advanced skills; sending all the kids to boarding schools was simply too expensive. So now adolescent youngsters are forced into dependence by their lack of skills, and are expected to stay with their birth families, remain in school, refrain from sexual activity, get little respect, and accept it all in hopes of future rewards.

   The shortsighted, the strongly-driven, and those for whom those hopes of future rewards look dim, look for alternatives. The more adrift they feel – from a dysfunctional family, from a lack of successful elders to emulate, from a belief that their greater society does not care about them – the stronger the attraction of those alternatives becomes in comparison.

   The basic gang is simply a tribe. It offers a support structure, a new “family”, respect, acceptance and approval of sexual activity, emotional support, and independence as long as it’s members are loyal and supportive, obey it’s customs, and display it’s recognition signs. Like any other tribe, gangs view their own customs and rules as being of far greater importance than those of an other group – including society at large. Like any tribe, new members undergo an initiation – effectively an “adulthood ritual”.

   What differentiates what most people think of as a “gang” from a “fraternity”, “club”, or similar social group is very simple: a true – or “tribal” – gang is the primary focus of it’s members lives and activities, and thus sees itself as their primary loyalty. Like any other tribal or national group, tribal gangs recognize that their ongoing survival may occasionally call for organized violence; after all, an attempt to suppress the gang or its customs, or to infringe on the territory where it supports itself, is a direct threat to it’s continued existence – an attack. Society disapproves? So what? The rules and survival of their tribe take priority over the rules of any other tribe.

   Lacking an external threat, a tribal gang may persist for lengthy periods – or even quietly disband – without ever being recognized as a “gang” at all.

   While the basic attractions of a tribal gang are similar for either sex, most (but by no means all) gangers are male. Why? Because males are more likely to leave their original families and attempt to rise to prominence; for them, the gamble offers much better odds. A successful young male may father a great many children. A prominent female will have about the same number of offspring as a less-prominent one; while those children’s individual odds of survival and success may be somewhat greater (often partially offset by also being bigger targets), that isn’t a payoff on the same level as the one awaiting a prominent male.

   Going with this definition, it’s apparent that there are a lot of “gangs” (as in “groups of three or more who hang around together”) which fall outside the parameters for “tribal gangs”. Tagger gangs, schoolyard gangs, mall “gangs”, “goths”, skateboard gangs, bands of friends who engage in petty thievery, and similar groups may be annoying, and may even engage in a wide variety of minor criminal acts – but they aren’t generally tribal organizations, and don’t demand that a members primary loyalty be to the group.

   Similarly, while organizations such as the Hitler Youth, or Mao’s Red Guard show quite a lot of gang characteristics, and are sometimes considered gangs, their orientation towards a single external leader, rather than the gang itself, take them out of our category.

   Even tribal gangs which do demand such loyalty are widely variegated. While current statistical research results vary wildly thanks to differences in methodology, definitions, reporting incentives and disincentives, and the inherent difficulties in measuring an uncooperative target group, the results do tend to indicate that most tribal gangs are predominantly social, rather than criminal, groups, that most (70%+) are not involved in the drug traffic, that male gangers considerably outnumber female gangers, and that the average age is relatively low, with a very high percentage (relative to the population at large) being underage, uneducated, impoverished, and having been victims of violence themselves.

   Tribal gangs rarely change all that much; they are as reluctant to change their traditions and identities as any other tribal group. Tribal gangs do, however, make an impression on neighborhoods entirely out of proportion to their actual size.

   Typical gang recognition signs include specific accessories in particular color combinations, graffiti, tattoos, nicknames, hand signs, initiations, lopsided styles, jewelry, scars, and weird haristyles.

   Typical initiatory rituals are designed – consciously or not – to demonstrate that the prospective recruits primary loyalty is to the tribal gang, that he or she is determined, capable, and courageous enough to be an asset to the gang, and that his or her desire to join the gang is sincere. Secondarily, they work to create bonds between the members who have all “been through it too” and – sometimes – to give the gang an additional hold over the new initiate, often by requiring the performance of a notable criminal act to join. They often result in various minor injuries, but rarely in anything worse: gangs need members.

   The typical membership is usually roughly 10% “hardcore” (leaders, organizers, and experienced fighters – the equivalent of tribal chieftains, authority figures, and senior warriors. They’ve often been in and out of jail, gotten into serious trouble, or been badly wounded without it undermining their loyalty to the gang), roughly 40% initiated members, and about 50% hangers-on – associates who would like to be members of the gang, or are close friends with members, but who have not yet proven themselves to the gang. Many of them will do virtually anything to be accepted. Finally, of course, there are people who hang about with gang members, or associate with them on the periphery of the gang. There are usually several times as many of these as there are actual members.

   Leaving a tribal gang is actually relatively easy in most cases: few gangs attempt to compete with the lure of an individual home, family, and conventional job – if only because that may mean gaining another generation of recruits later on. Simply leaving the area will often suffice. “Finding God” usually works as well. As long as the ex-member does not become a threat to the tribal gang – perhaps by having too extensive a knowledge of criminal activities, but more often by betraying their interests – there usually isn’t much of a problem.

   There are plenty of tribal gangs out there which are accepted, supportive, parts of their communities – aiding the neighbors in suppressing excessive criminal activities. After all, they live in the neighborhood too, and such things are a threat to them as well. Members of such gangs often see the lifestyle as simply another career, and fit into society well in most other ways.

   Many other tribal gangs are simply defensive social clubs and substitute families (and are most attractive to those without acceptable families), whose major activities revolve around the defense of their territory. While they may engage in chaotic delinquent behavior and rely on a disorganized selection of minor crimes for cash, they’re usually stable enough, have elaborate initiation rituals and membership signs, and – as long as times are good enough for them to support themselves readily – are relatively inconspicuous. Gangs like this may continue for generations in roughly the same fashion. Some sell drugs, many do not.

   “Scavenger Gangs” tend to be made up of people who can’t function in a larger social context, whether due to mental inability, excessive violent or erratic tendencies, or similar problems. They tend to band together fairly tightly, and cherish their own eccentric traditions and habits, simply because they have very little else in their lives to provide stability. Their “leadership” (such as it is) may change erratically, and without reason. They often commit low-level crimes, but – thanks to their lack of planning skills – only on an opportunistic basis. For them, simply managing to hang together is success.

   Drug Gangs may be Tribal Gangs, but – at least as commonly – are simply criminal conspiracies intended to make money. They’re organized, often uninterested in symbols and physical territory (control of business and sales territory is quite another matter), and tend to maintain strict codes, strict secrecy, and severe discipline. They’re usually led by successful career criminals who are capable of self-discipline, both long-term and tactical planning, and managing money.

   Now that we’ve covered some of the characteristics, behavior, and organization of real gangs, it’s time to translate things over to gangs in games – in particular, in Shadowrun.


3 Responses

  1. Ahem… you’ve exactly reversed its and it’s again.

  2. More importantly, I’ve located an excellent description of what gangs are, how they are organized, and how they operate. It’s located in the book Freakonomics, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. The book contains a chapter describing how criminal gangs operate, as well as the good, the bad, and the ugly about them.

  3. Ah yes, you can find data that didn’t make it into the book over here – – although chapter three of Freakonomics extends the discussion in other ways.

    A couple of things become apparent fairly quickly when you read that chapter and the original paper though:

    (1) The writer ignores 80% of his study subjects – the “Rank and File” who pay dues rather than being paid, and who are only peripherally involved in the drug trade at most. A discussion of why they feel it is worthwhile to pay to belong to the gang would be revealing, since it strongly indicates that non-monetary benefits outweigh the monetary ones, at least for peripheral members.

    (2) The study in question is based on an atypical situation: a “gang” run by a business major, during a period of major expansion in an economic sector (crack sales) which is limited to gangs. The uniqueness of the situation is clearly established by the simple fact that the record-keeping on which the chapter is based is pretty much unprecedented.

    (3) The average ages noted in the original material are also revealing: this is primarily an adult business operation – a criminal syndicate – not a tribal gang. The size of the overall organization – more than 25,000 estimated members – tens to support this as well: estimates from law enforcement sources of gang size tends to indicate 8-80 members as typical, and further notes that territorially-separated gangs in a city which share the same name – such as the “Crips” and “Bloods” – are often hostile to each other.

    (4) The amount of skimming, side work, other unconventional income streams, and – especially – non-monetary benefits is not really considered. From (1) such benefits are evidently important.

    (5) From the chapter itself, we have “Before crack, it was just about impossible to earn a living in a street gang”. The more extended article, in fact, notes that the territory the group in questions took over when they expended was run by a gang that had not adapted the corporate model – and thus was even less profitable.

    (6) The fact that gangers “often” approached the original investigator seeking his aid in obtaining a “good job” as a university janitor would seem to indicate that almost any steady job was seen as preferable.

    Chapter three in Freakonomics is a fairly good syndicate-description – after all, it describes a major organization with some twenty-five thousand members – but it really doesn’t work for the 80% or so of gangs that are not involved in the drug trade, for smaller street gangs, for Victorian-era pickpocket gangs, for factory gangs, for survival gangs, or for primitive gangs. In fact, it doesn’t even work for the gang-across-the-road from the original study, which wasn’t organized the same way, and apparently wasn’t primarily oriented towards making money – which may be why it was vulnerable to a takeover.

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