Social dynamics in MMOGs

It’s a common belief that Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs) are more interesting than their single-player counterparts because of the ability to socialize in the game. A paper presented at this year’s ACM Computer Human Interaction conference, “Alone Together?” Exploring the Social Dynamics of Massively Multiplayer Online Games, offers a different spin on that. After installing /who-bots on several World of Warcraft servers and watching people’s play habits, researchers from PARC and Stanford University concluded:

“Our observations show that, while MMOGs are clearly social environments, the extent and nature of the players’ social activities differ significantly from previous accounts. In particular, joint activities are not very prevalent, especially in the early stages of the game. WoW’s subscribers, instead of playing with other people, rely on them as an audience for their in-game performances, as an entertaining spectacle, and as a diffuse and easily accessible source of information and chitchat. For most, playing the game is therefore like being “alone together”— surrounded by others, but not necessarily actively interacting with them.”

Some other interesting tidbits from the paper:

  • Players who never grouped tended to level up about twice as fast as those players who grouped more than 1% of the time. (The paper doesn’t mention this possibility, but this makes me wonder whether these anti-social players are actually farmers working in a virtual sweatshop.)

  • Median guild size was only 9 (6 if you include “one-person guilds”), and the 90th percentile of the distribution is only 35 active members.

  • Guilds tend to be sparsely-knit social networks, with a guild member tending to ever see only one in four other guild members and only playing in the same zone as one in ten. (Again the paper doesn’t say, but I imagine this statistic is influenced by people playing multiple characters in the same guild, which already forces some exclusion since people can’t play more than one character at a time.)

  • Guilds tend to have one or two groups of tight-knit “core” players who play together regularly and are all of roughly the same level. This is probably a result of the level treadmill and the fact that people of radically different levels can’t really adventure together — which means people who get out of synch with other guildmates can’t adventure with their friends anymore and are more likely to quit the game or find a different guild.

(Thanks to Amy Bruckman for the pointer!)