Dienstag, 22. Juli 2014

Social Relationships in Massive Multiplayer Online Games

Two studies offer very interesting insights into the social networking behavior of players of fantasy massive multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPG or MMOG). In a longitudinal analysis Shen et al. [1] analyzed the driving factors of social relationships in EverQuest II and Ang et al. [2] had a closer look at the players in a guild in World of Warcraft. At second glance, many results can be generalized to communities of practice.

Massive multiplayer online role playing games 

Within a MMORPG each player creates a character to interact with the fictional world and with other players. The players explore the fantasy world, complete quests, kill monsters and gain treasures as well as experience either as solo-players or in player-created (spontaneous) groups or (stable) guilds. The game also has a 'tradeskill' system that allows players to create items for in-game use.

In the creation of a character, the player may choose the character's race and class. Various classes have specialized abilities that are complementary to the skills of other classes. This is a strong incentive to play in groups when the quest turns out to be very difficult.

MMORPGs enable social interaction with other players through grouping and through the creation of guilds. Like players, guilds can gain experience and levels, partially from players completing special tasks, but primarily from guild-oriented quests and tasks. Higher guild levels give access to special rewards unavailable to players who are not in guilds. [3]

Networking in a MMORPG

As theoretical point of reference, Shen et al. chose Campbell's evolutionary framework [4] which explains change in human social systems in terms of an evolutionary selection process: Against the background of scarce resources, not every (randomly originating) variation (= mutation) could be accommodated by the environment, so that only those variations are selected that fit best. These selections are then preserved (retention), duplicated and diffuse into the social system. An extension of this approach to communication networks is described in Monge et al. [5]. In their framework, nodes represent organizations or populations of organizations in a community, and ties can be considered as mechanisms of resource exchange among these nodes. Following the evolutionary argument, an organizational community is constrained in its capacity to sustain the nodes as well as the ties. Monge et al. label them as:
  • member carrying capacity, which defines the upper limit of nodes the community can support, and
  • relational carrying capacity, which defines the upper limit of ties the community can support. 
Applying this concept, Shen et al. investigate the ties (relationships) between individual gamers (nodes) which differ for instance in age, gender, level etc. In this case the scarce resource is the (limited) capacity to initiate and maintain ties with other players (limited relational carrying capacity). This reflects the concept of Dunbar's number, a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationship with a commonly used value of 150. [6] Thus variation can be considered as the numerous possibilities of tie formation among all the available nodes in  the network, and all possible ties are also selected based on their fitness, which is „the propensity of a relationship to sustain itself".

And this is how a player's network evolves:
  • In the beginning many relationships originate from random chance, but later the networking behavior becomes more selective (identifying compatible players) and the player is also better at maintaining these contacts. Therefore, the size of a player’s social network will shrink as the player advances in the game and gains more experience. 
  • The longer a tie is maintained between two players, the less likely a disruption is. This reflects the fact that organizational structures tend to develop an internal inertia as long as they provide mutual benefits for those involved.
  • Given the built-in advantage for groups with players with complementary skills, one would expect that ties between players with the same skills are more prone to decay than ties between players with complementary skills. However, this hypothesis did not receive empirical support in the study
  • Whether a quest is feasible, depends on the experience (level) of the player. Playing in a group, a clearly less experienced player has not much to contribute to the group’s success. Therefore, when level difference increases, tie decay increases as well. Furthermore, EverQuestII discourages teams of players with a great level difference because the high-level player gets most of the experience points.
  • Players who are members in a guild are much more likely to maintain the ties with other guild members.
Interestingly, being of the same gender or having the same age has no significant influence on tie decay. Being located in the same geographic area (measured by whether two players are from the same state) attenuates tie decay. This, of course, may be due to preexisting familiar or friendship networks. One would also expect that ties among players who spend a lot of time in the game are  less likely to decay because these players are experienced and have routines for engaging in and keeping relationships. But this conclusion was not confirmed.

The guild - a community of practice

Ang et al. [2] analyzed the social roles and interactions of guild members. A content analysis of the messages during a representative period revealed the following seven topic categories:
  • group management: soliciting/responding to invitations, identifying group members, deciding meeting points, (re)structuring the group and leaving the group;
  • task coordination: pointing out targets, coordinating actions, looting, discussing strategies and trading;
  • ask for help: in situations that need immediate solutions such as the solution of quests, equipments, asking for game items and money;
  • give help/answer questions;
  • friendly remarks: apologizing, greeting, laughing, saying thank you, typing smileys for nonverbal communication (waving, making a bow etc.);
  • small talk not directed towards achieving game goal or completing game task (telling jokes, being sensitive to others, being supportive and being encouraging);
  • real life chats: chats that reveal the member's real life identities (real life gender, nationality, etc.) and chats about real life topics such as work/college life.
Using a special algorithm (CONCOR), the guild members were clustered in three blocks. The players were placed in the same block if they had similar ties to other players:

Ang, C. S., & Zaphiris, P. (2010). Social Roles of Players in MMORPG Guilds: A Social Network Analytic Perspective. Information, Communication & Society, 13(4), 592-614.
  • Core members: They are densely inter-connected and moderately connected to other blocks. They are very likely to be players who have been longer in the guild and know each other well. They are actively involved in game chat, group management and give help, but not ask for help. Some core players excell primarily with their knowledge (knowledge players) others in socializing (social players). 
    • Knowledge players, by giving help, are the guild's resource which attracts other players into the guild. 
    • Social players provide a friendly atmosphere and maintain the guild's cohesiveness (= more connections, closer and denser ties).
  • Semi-periphery members: This block consists of loosely interconnected players who try to get involved in the guild community. They seek help and give help, and show active involvement by participating in game chat and group management.
  • Periphery players: These players are disconnected. Their main goal is to get help from the guild but not to get involved in the guild community. They have access to a lot of other players, thus increasing the chance of getting help. There are two types: newbie and freeloaders. 
    • Newbies are new to the game in general (low levels, needing help on basic issues). It seems that the career progression of a newbie first leads to the semi-periphery with a subsequent change of behavior and then to the core group. 
    • Freeloaders (usually higher levels, typically asking quest-related questions) are using the guild only as an instrumental tool for their task interaction. 
Ang, C. S., & Zaphiris, P. (2010). Social Roles of Players in MMORPG Guilds: A Social Network Analytic Perspective. Information, Communication & Society, 13(4), 592-614.

Although the core members interacted with members from all three blocks, they interacted largely within the block. They were particularly strongly connected internally in game chat and group management categories and least internally connected in give help category.

Semi-periphery members interacted both within the block and with core members. They were more strongly connected to core members than to members from the same group. Although in general their interaction was external to the group, they tended to interact with core members the most through ‘ask for help’ and ‘give help’ categories. Their interaction was, however, the least external when it comes to ‘game chat’ activity, implying that their internal interactions revolved mainly around ‘game chat’.

Interestingly, periphery members only interacted with core members.
Ang, C. S., & Zaphiris, P. (2010). Social Roles of Players in MMORPG Guilds: A Social Network Analytic Perspective. Information, Communication & Society, 13(4), 592-614.

What are the major takeaways?

The popular prejudice („Online-relationships are random and short-lived and qualitatively inferior to real-life relationships.“) is wrong. Online too, people want to engage in stable and reliable relationships that match their needs for company, support, information and recreation. But low entry- and exit-costs mainly due to the possibility to remain anonymous make it possible „to try out“ more people than in real life.

Community of practice: Although this may sound somewhat far-fetched, anything that requires special expertise qualifies as a domain for a community of practice. And in fact, running a guild needs a lot of experience. And so I wonder, whether the three groups (core, semi-periphery and periphery) and the interaction pattern, can be generalized to other communities of practice.

Personal bonds among members (virtual or real) are essential for a lively, self-sustained community. And much depends on the members of the core group. Their expertise and their receptiveness for the needs of other members are crucial for the accumulation of social capital.

Gamification/Lurking: There is an ongoing debate whether adding game features (rank lists, badges etc.) as an incentive for lurkers is either beneficial, detrimental (people will expect another reward for their contribution next time) or irrelevant. The example of the guild indicates that some players chose to associate themselves more closely to the community and some players chose to stay in the periphery. In other words, it doesn't seem to be a motivational problem. But qualifiers like ranks or badges can be useful if they convey an information about the "level" of the member like her or his expertise or the number of answered questions.

Socializing newbies: New members face two problems: They must learn the rules of the game (= community) - mostly from observing the behavior of other members - and they must start to build their personal network. I'd bet that the more help they get from other members at this stage the more newbies will go to the semi-periphery. And once again, the burden lies on the members of the core group as the interaction patterns show.

Age, gender, time spent in the community don't influence tie quality. This is (somewhat) obvious for age and gender because normally you don't know whether the other player is a man or a woman and how old she/he is. But the irrelevance of the time spent in the game is counter-intuitive. It seems that much depends on the quality of interaction instead.

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[1] Shen, C., Monge, P., Williams, D. (2014). The evolution of social ties online: A longitudinal study in a massive multiplayer online game. Journal of the association for information science and technology. Published online in Wiley Online Library. DOI: 10.1002/asi.23129

[2] Ang, C. S., & Zaphiris, P. (2010). Social Roles of Players in MMORPG Guilds: A Social Network Analytic Perspective. Information, Communication & Society, 13(4), 592-614. Google Scholar

[3] EverQuest II (n.d.). Retrieved May 30, 2014 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EverQuest_II

[4] Campbell, D. T. (1965). Variation and selective retention in socio-cultural evolution. In H. R. Barringer, G. I. Blanksten & R. W. Mack (Eds.), Social change in developing areas: A reinterpretation of evolutionary theory (pp. 19-48). Cambridge, MA: Schenkman.

[5] Monge, P., Heiss, B. M., & Margolin, D. B. (2008). Communication Network Evolution in Organizational Communities. Communication Theory, 18(4), 449-477. Google Scholar.

[6] Dunbar's number (n.d.). Retrieved May 30, 2014 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar's_number

[7] Frost, J., Vermeulen, I. E., & Beekers, N. (2014). Anonymity Versus Privacy: Selective Information Sharing in Online Cancer Communities. Journal of medical Internet research, 16(5), e126. Google Scholar.

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