Mar 02 2009

Studying Virtual Communities

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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.

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