Mar 02 2009

Studying Virtual Communities

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Comments: 14

It certainly seems as if we are living through a transformational period of time. Computers are changing the way we access information, communicate, work, and play. Perhaps the biggest change is the rise of virtual communities – changing the fundamental milieu of our relationships.

And as much as I feel computers have changed my life, it is nothing compared to the younger generation. I have a vicarious view of how college-age students are reinventing social structures. This goes beyond networking online and endless texting. You now have to learn how to break up on Facebook. You have to worry that your new boyfriend will decide to brag about your exploits in front of the entire online world.

The rapid social changes the internet and digital communication bring likely presents a challenge to social scientists, struggling to keep up. But it also presents the promise of new tools to study social behavior. Now researchers from the University of Minnesota have presented their study of social behavior in the massive multiplayer online (MMPO) community, Everquest 2.

Jaideep Srivastava, Noshir Contractor and Scott Poole looked at 60 terabytes of data covering three years of game time, including 300,000 individual players who logged an average of 26 hours per week (displaying the addictive nature of the game that has earned in the nickname “Evercrack”).

For those who are not familiar with MMPOs, they are game worlds in which players create one or more characters who then adventure, either alone or in teams. Players are connected online to a server with hundreds of thousands of other players, all interacting with each other and the game world in real time. Everquest is a fantasy “swords and sorcery” genre game.

The games have grown so large and complex, the researchers argue, that social dynamics are now at play. And those dynamics can be studied in unbelievable detail because much of it is logged in the game’s servers. This presents an interesting opportunity that could potentially accelerate the rate of such research.

Of course it also present new challenges. Online communities are likely to have interesting differences from real-world communities, and exactly what those differences are will need to be explored in detail. But we should remember that it is still people in those online communities, and those people bring their human nature into the game world with them.  Researchers can now ask – how do people behave in online communities. It remains to be seen, however, what that really tells us about human nature and how it relates to non-virtual communities.

Incidentally, game worlds also have their own economies. There is an in-game economy, where players can obtain raw material, make items, and sell them. The principles of supply and demand are clearly at work. However, this in-game economy exists within an out-of-game real-world economy. Specifically, players can pay real money to buy in-game gold for their characters. This “breaks” the in-game economy to some degree.

This is often referred to as Chinese gold, because Chinese companies have workers play the game to amass as much gold as possible then sell it to Western customers. This causes in-game inflation because players now have more gold with which to by material and items and so are willing to pay a higher price.

I don’t know if any economists have thought to study in-game economies the way these researchers have studied in-game communities, but I think it’s inevitable.  Whether or not it’s a good model, the fact that it takes place in a virtual world makes it accessible to study. It’s looking where the light is good.

There are also virtual worlds like Second Life, which are not games, really, just an online virtual world. With nothing to do it can be boring and pointless, but many people are finding that the virtual world is very useful for some things – like having online virtual meetings, lectures, and gatherings.

We are in the middle of a grand online experiment, as individuals, companies, organizations, and communities explore what works and what does not work online. It’s changing fast. Even as a dedicated technophile I find it hard to keep up, and secretly I’m glad I did not have to go through adolescence living in an online fishbowl.

I’m glad researchers are starting to take a serious look at online communities. Science might give us a bit of a rudder to guide us through the waters ahead.

14 responses so far

14 Responses to “Studying Virtual Communities”

  1. Neil de Cartereton 02 Mar 2009 at 9:12 am

    Economically, the big difference between Second Life and most other MMOs is that Second Life has an official, two-way currency exchange between the in-world (in-game) currency and USD.

    This changes the dynamic of money in SL, because although the values are small (1 USD buys you about 270 in-world “Linden Dollars”), it’s still real money.

    Compare it to the difference between playing poker for matchsticks, and playing poker for small change. When there are real coins on the table, every pays much more attention and takes it seriously enough to be fun.

    Games like Everquest and World of Warcraft, on the other hand, are like playing poker for matchsticks: zero-sum. At the end of the game, you walk away with what you arrived with.

    I’d love to see some academic research into behavioural differences between pure MMO games, and virtual worlds where currency has real-life value.

  2. medmonkeyon 02 Mar 2009 at 12:11 pm

    Virtual communities have SUCH potential to provide insight into social interaction!

    A bug in World of Warcraft allowed an “infectious disease” to spread into the cities, and provided interesting information on outbreak dynamics.

    I disagree that EQ and WOW are like playing poker for matchsticks. I would argue that their economic relationship to real-world money is even more realistic than SL, because the exchange ratio is dependent on in-game worth. Inflation is driven by how much currency is available for accumulation, which is controlled by the respective game’s administrators (similar to a government printing its own money). When you decide to quit the game, characters are often sold on ebay for real money (technically the time spent on developing the character is sold). Also in-game currency and items can be sold on ebay for real-world money when a person decides to “retire” from the game. While this is not strictly legal, it is a common practice and is therefore available for study.

  3. HHCon 02 Mar 2009 at 12:16 pm

    The big truth taught in my statistics classes for social scientists is that the gambling house will always win. I wonder whether this is true with virtual worlds.

  4. tmac57on 02 Mar 2009 at 12:24 pm

    It could be argued that some of the ‘woo’ internet sites could be viewed as MMPO fantasy games. 911 “truthers” for example have created their own elaborate make believe world in which new players come online and get drawn into their social ‘game’.
    Studying those virtual communities might also provide valuable insights to human behavior .

  5. HHCon 02 Mar 2009 at 12:26 pm

    medmonkey, I just read the BBC article. I would think that those infected players who are driven to infect others could be defined as the “misery loves company” group.

  6. Mozglubovon 02 Mar 2009 at 12:38 pm

    If you are interested in games with complex economies, you should read about Eve Online. I haven’t actually played it myself, but one of my friends plays it. He has told me it is one of the most advanced virtual economies out there and has actually been studied by some economists. Of course, that could just be him bragging about his game… but it might be worth checking out.

  7. medmonkeyon 02 Mar 2009 at 12:42 pm

    Ha, for sure. They are, of course, only a subset of the population. The dynamics were further affected because the “disease” was for meant for higher level characters, so low level characters were killed almost instantly, while the highest level characters (with more hit points or health) could eventually outlive the course of the disease (it was self-limiting).

    However, people who got infected and were grouped for instances (in-game trials that require multiple players) were probably more likely to be cured by another member of the group with that skill set … in-group altruism vs. out-group altruism anyone?

  8. sjames1958on 02 Mar 2009 at 1:31 pm

    One significant difference, at least in WoW, compared to real economies is the supply of materials for generating income is basically infinite over time. If I mine for gold in WoW, soon after that the mine will return and can be re-mined.

  9. BrendanMainon 02 Mar 2009 at 2:26 pm

    A few things to keep in mind when analyzing games like World of Warcraft in terms of economics:

    Wheras a environment like Second Life is designed around the continuous circulation of Lindenbucks, other MMOs operate under a “dealer” principle, which controls how money flows from, and back to the game. Consider the act of “grinding”, where monsters are killed repeatedly. Upon their bodies, gold or valuables are found.

    This is pure van Helmont stuff happening here: The valuables didn’t ‘come’ from anywhere, so much as sprung into existence from the aether. This can approximate a rough time-to-money system well enough, but things get squirrely when trade between players in introduced.

    Look at the difference: A player pays another player hundreds of gold for a valuable or rare item, and that money stays in circulation, and can be further invested. But if a player purchases an item from a non-player character vendor, that money vanishes – sometimes to the tune of thousands of gold for the most expensive articles.

    Enter the goldsink: the various sites introduced to any functional MMO operating in this system, in which hundreds of thousands of virtual moolah vanish every day. In this way can the value of in-game currency be controlled, even manipulated towards inflation and deflation. People’s purses a little too light, and you can introduce new questlines that provide players with faster ways to accrue goodies than ever before. If there’s too much money clogging down the system, the introduction of a few new vanity items can suck all that excess wealth out of the system in a matter of weeks.

    This needn’t be done to simply manage the economy – it can also be done to maintain a play environment. As a case in point, consider Blizzard’s management of World of Warcraft in the months preceding their second expansion. Knowing that players of their game would have to be given new ways to occupy themselves in the doldrums between their first expansion and the next, a new location was introduced: One that contained, in addition to a new 5-player dungeon “instance” and a new 25-player “raid” dungeon, a plethora of daily quests that provided gobs of easy cash to players – far easier, in fact, than previous environments had allowed.

    In addition to these additions, if players spent enough time grinding “reputation” with a factions associated with these new quests, they could invest their hard-earned virtual cash on.. a title. For one thousand gold, a player can be “NAME of the Shattered Sun.”

    To be fair, that is pretty impressive-sounding. I wouldn’t even know how to begin to go about shattering suns.

    So: To keep real customers from spending their real time elsewhere and thus stop forking over real money, Blizzard introduced a new virtual place where they could spend their virtual time, amassing virtual wealth to currying virtual favour with some virtual people, to the point that one is given the elite privilege of spending all that virtual money on something that has purely aesthetic value to impress other (real) folks in a virtual space.

    Compare that to a virtual mount, which at least helps you cover virtual terrain, or virtual gear, which has direct applicability in interfacing with a virtual environment (read here: pwning). One thousand gold gets you a bunch of virtual letters, stapled to your virtual face, approximating Ozymandias-level posturing. “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

    This may be the central difference between economies like those found in traditional MMOs and virtual trade experiments like Second Life. In the case of the former, at the end of the day, any changes applied to the system in place are may not be to facilitate commerce, but to keep people playing.

  10. Huxleyon 02 Mar 2009 at 3:44 pm

    As mentioned above, the economics of EVE Online are actually being studied. Dr. Eyjolfur Gudmundsson was hired way back in 2007 to act as a sort of the Greenspan of EVE, by the developer CCP. His dev blog is a good place to start:

  11. Celestialon 02 Mar 2009 at 9:06 pm

    I feel like I have to interject into this discussion, as a rabid Eve Online fan who enjoys the economic aspect of the game immensely. As far as virtual worlds, virtual communities and virtual economies go, I think Eve Online is unique in being an experiment in unrestricted capitalism.

    Brendan brought up very articulately that MMOs such as World of Warcraft have a control economy: source and sink are provided by the company and tweaked based on the monetary needs of the populace.

    Eve has an economy that is, by contrast, entirely player-run. Purchase and sale of goods occurs entirely between players. To purchase a starship, for example, one would look up the regional market, which will list all players who are selling that starship, the price they set for their product, and the number they have for sale, as well as where in the galaxy they are selling the same. Likewise for outfittings for your ship, ammunition, and essentially every good in the game.

    Raw material is injected into the world by the developers in the form of harvestable asteroids. Harvested ore is then refined into minerals, which are the raw material that is required for production of all goods. The secondary market for minerals feeds the producers who manufacture goods, and the fluctuations of mineral prices give as much grief to player manufacturers as the price of oil does to developed nations.

    Money is injected into players’ pockets through two means: one, NPC characters will give ‘quests’ of sorts to players with monetary rewards, and two, there exists a continual spawning of AI starships which provide the hunter with money when killed.

    The sink of the economy is where the fun of the game happens. There’s a saying in Eve Online that goes, “Eve is all about consensual PvP (player versus player). You consent to it when you pay your subscription fee”. Instead of creating artificial money sinks such as Blizzard’s title-purchasing scheme in order to combat inflation due to sinks, Eve is set up so that getting killed means the actual physical destruction of whatever ship you were in at the time, along with a good portion of the fittings equipped. Space is then set up so that player conflict is inevitable, and the problem neatly takes care of itself.

    Let me explain the last part, about the inevitability of conflict. Eve, the galaxy, is roughly disk-shaped. Near the center are the four non-player-controlled empires, where player population tends to be higher, and hostile action against another player swiftly brings computer-controlled police onto the aggressor. In new player areas this response is instantaneous, though through much of the area, like real police, the AI response is timed to provide consequences, not protection. Though the game is set up so that aggressive action in protected space *will* result in your ship being destroyed, in most areas of space the response is slow enough that an unprepared target will be dead before police arrive on scene. The aggressor (or his friends) can then return to the scene and collect what remains of the target ship and cargo. Many a new player have been welcomed to Eve combat carrying their entire virtual life savings in their ship, cruising along, when they are set upon by pirates who decide the return from the cargo they’re carrying is worth more than the cost of losing the attack ship to police.

    It is no small coincidence that the higher the level of protection, the less valuable the minerals in the asteroids, the sparser the asteroids, and the less rewarding the missions. Away from the core empire areas of the galaxy, a space which spans 90% of the total game world, there is zero police protection at all, and the only defense against people who want to take what you have is your guns, shields, armor and friends. Additionally, rare mineable moons, which are the sole source of the raw material required to manufacture premium “Tech II” goods are found only in lawless space.

    Which brings me to the community aspect of Eve.

    Like the guild in World of Warcraft, Corporations in Eve Online bring players together under a common mission. One can find manufacturing corporations littered throughout the game world, manufacturing goods, waging price wars and sometimes real wars against each other while competing for minerals off the mineral market (My first experience with combat was with a manufacturing corporation, destroying the mining ships and combat ships of a rival corporation manufacturing the same type of starship and undercutting us). There are mining corporations, mercenary corporations, pirate corporations, military corporations, etc, who engage in economic or physical warfare.

  12. Celestialon 02 Mar 2009 at 9:06 pm

    Lawless space is held by a number of alliances: groups of corporations who band together to harvest, police and occupy regions of space, and it is these alliances who are the prime movers and shakers of the player experience. Constituting up to three thousand players each, the large alliances are the economic and military titans of the game, able to pool mining and resource-gathering efforts to build and launch the largest classes of ships in the game, with manufacturing and wealth enough to be economies of their own. Alliances are generally run with an alliance CEO, generally the CEO of the main corporation of the alliance, who manages alliance policy, diplomatic standings, land-leasing rights to smaller non-alliance corporations, and general concordance between corps. Alliance CEOs are aided by a board of directors, consisting usually of the CEOs of each member corporation, and high-ranking players in the leadership of corporations, though the balance of power between CEOs and the board differ from alliance to alliance.

    Alliances constitute an exchange between its leaders and its members. Players who join an alliance (by joining an affiliated corp) gain access to the richest AI-controlled floating money pots and the rarest and most expensive minerals in the game (tithing a small portion of their gains to the alliance coffer). In addition, players gain a sense of community and identity, and the prestige of whichever alliance they become a member of. In exchange, they are expected to contribute their ships and time to territorial defense, aggressive war, and occasional “mine for the alliance day”s. Participation in such is a factor entirely dependent on morale, community and identity. Participation being the most important factor in the size and power of the attack and defense force that an alliance can bring to bear, morale, community and identity-management, and how the leadership manages it, makes alliances powerful or causes them to fall apart.

    Alliance to alliance warfare is the largest sink of goods in Eve Online. Warfare is waged over the rare moons which produce raw materials for tech II manufacture, as control of those moons is the most important source of income for an alliance. Warfare between alliances happen on an epic scale, often becoming extended sieges with two or three hundred players participating on each side, with the intent of exhausting the other’s stock of ships, and reserves of morale. Warfare is further waged through propaganda wars on message boards, with rumors, battle reports, chest-beating and posturing by the leaders in order to create public perceptions favorable to the morale of ones’ own members and detrimental to that of the opposition. I spent a good number of years of my college existence as a fleet commander, organizing the firepower and movement of between a few dozen to a few hundred alliance mates in various skirmishes and sieges. Imagine playing chess, except with a few hundred instead of sixteen pieces, with each of your pieces having a mind of its own, moods, emotions, a limited supply of patience, distractibility, morale, and the ability to talk just as loudly as you can through the single voice channel you have at your disposal to organize people, and the enemy commander is working with the same. It’s no wonder that the soldier mentality, the ability to shut up, do as you’re told and follow orders without question is actively cultivated within alliances. And when wars start (or start to distantly loom), one can directly see the quick plummet and subsequent price inflation of minerals in the safe space near the border zone, and the scurry of manufacturers and traders bringing their goods there for marked-up resale.

    Resources and economics are not the only things that can start wars. With the amount of chest-thumping, reputation-building and public image construction alliance leaders must maintain, conflict is as likely to occur over bruised egos as over the desire for more territory (even more so, in fact). One incident in particular leaps to mind, an event that happened about a year ago in the alliance I was so prominently a commander in.

    A member of the alliance board, CEO of our upper-echelon military corporation, proposed an attack on the moon of a neighboring alliance with whom relations were tense but not hostile. This was resisted by another member, CEO of the biggest industrial corporation, who owned two moons in our territory, who insisted that it was unwise to start a war. The first director pointed out that the second’s corp owned two moons to the first’s zero, and claimed selfish ulterior motive to the rejection. The second pointed out the military capability of the target in question. The first pointed to participation rates in defense operations and skirmishing operations, noting that the first’s corp provided the bulk of the members and the second’s corp provided very few or none. The alliance CEO refused to get involved. The second attacked the heterosexuality of the first, and the first in reply questioned the chasteness of the second’s mother. More disparaging comments and retorts were made, and near-simultaneously, the first’s members began to destroy a capital ship of the second’s corp, and the second began to indiscrimiately attack members of the first’s. Both claimed the other shot first, and in the public debacle that followed, the morale-storm and the wave of self-fulfilling public belief that we were falling apart said neighbor, noticing our distraction, decided to invade to claim our moons for themselves.

    After that, I left the game, and embarked on a new economic route. With some friends, we set up our own out-of-game server, and found a Flash-based Texas Hold’em poker client. After dealing with some administrative details, we set up the Eve Online Hold’Em corporation, and offered a way for players to play poker with each other using game-money, taking a healthy 5% cut off each deposit and withdrawal. Out of game, we set up an account system for players to play at our site with, and an admin system for crediting players with chips in their poker accounts as they transferred money to us and we in turn transferred the money to a central holding bank, which we paid players out of when they wanted to make withdrawals from their account. We quickly took the Eve world by storm, cycling through an alliance worth of money every day, and only grew since then, employing trusted bankers to handle isk-to-chip and chip-to-isk transactions, handling PR and advertisement, handling PR when bankers inevitably went bad and stole money, and handling the copycat sites which quickly came up, as well as organizing and hosting promotions and large tournaments, organized through Eve’s player message board system.

    I’ve stopped playing the game for a while, with graduation and graduate school looming around the corner, but my years in the game were some great memories, and I hope you can appreciate the depth of the experience of the world of Eve.

    (disclaimer: my experience in Eve came as a result of fortuitous circumstance, massive time investment, creativity, initiative, in-game networking, and effort. Your circumstances may vary, and may involve drifting through a hideously complex user interface of a hideously complex game attempting to make a living while getting molested by every shadowy player in a corner as player-driven forces beyond your comprehension shake the world in ways similarly incomprehensible.)

  13. Celestialon 02 Mar 2009 at 9:09 pm

    To answer the original question of economists studying virtual worlds, Eve Online has its own Dr. Eyjólfur Guðmundsson, who publishes a quarterly economic report on the state of the market in Eve Online.
    This is the first of such reports, which tracks player demographics, consumer prices indices, and secondary market price indicies within the game over time.

  14. talenramelon 02 Mar 2009 at 9:41 pm

    To further focus on the economics in MMO’s thing, the company behind EVE Online, CCP, hired an economist back in 2007:

    Originally, CCP wanted to make the game be a closed system, where all resources were always accounted for, whether that be in a mode needing to be gathered, raw materials, or built items to be used by players. However, this was found to require an unreasonable amount of bookkeeping, so the idea was abandoned.

    Another bit that I read long ago concerning online economies:

    Online game economies are hard: A faucet->drain economy is one where you spawn new stuff, let it pool in the “sink” that is the game, and then have a concomitant drain. Players will hate having this drain, but if you do not enforce ongoing expenditures, you will have Monty Haul syndrome, infinite accumulation of wealth, overall rise in the “standard of living” and capabilities of the average player, and thus unbalance in the game design and poor game longevity.


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