Addiction and the Structural Characteristics of MMOs

Addiction and the Structural Characteristics of Massively Multiplayer Online Gamesis a long feature article by Neils L. Clark, published on GAMASUTRA:

This article is actually excerpted from his Doctoral Thesis, which is also available in full as a PDF:

From the introduction:

The study, which examined in-game behaviors on a number of levels, found that playing with real life friends, side activities like exploration or taking pictures, and membership to social guilds may be related to less harmful play. On the other hand, stealing from or otherwise manipulating players, along with membership to more goal-oriented “hardcore” raid guilds may be related to addiction. Player versus player activity was related to both less damaging and addictive behaviors on different levels of data analysis. While these relationships are present, it is not known whether games are actually the cause of this behavior, or if these are simply behaviors that already addicted players seek out.

“Moderation in all things” comes to mind, the words carved in the stone arch over the entrance to the Oracle at Delphi over 3000 years ago. The point that they carved that reminder to themselves in stone demonstrates that the we’ve been fighting the human tendency to obsession and addiction for as long as we’ve been human. No, for longer than that. Ask some bonobo. 😀

Think about obsession as a survival or evolutionary or competitive characteristic for a moment. It’s not likely we’ll get away from the tendency, and it probably wouldn’t be a good idea if we could. But clearly we can go too far, and addiction by definition is going to far. The problem predates MMOs, but clearly MMOs could be useful for studying it. And on that broader point, here’s an interesting one from Clark which makes a lot of sense to me, given the controlled and the implicitly trackable/loggable nature of MMO usage:

“Understanding this process not only holds the potential for helping the people with real gaming problems. Research within prototypical game worlds may have real implications for helping people with other kinds of non-game addictions.”

Some important MMO demographic data, which he quotes from Nick Yee’s survey of 30,000 MMO players:

In terms of employment, 50.0% of respondents were shown to work full time, 22.2% were full-time students, and 13% of female players referred to themselves as “homemaker.” Additionally, the number of female MMO players seems to increase with age, surpassing the number of males in the 23-28 age range, and in each subsequent age range (Yee, 2006). Yee argues that this data dispels the notion that all gamer players are unemployed, male, and young; rather games have a universal appeal.

Other findings from Yee are that 60.9% of respondents had played for at least 10 contiguous hours, this effect being roughly equivalent along age groups. 15.8% of men and 59.8% of women play MMOs with a romantic partner, while 25.5% of men and 39.5% of women play with a family member, suggesting that women are primarily being introduced to MMO games by a spouse or family member. Most importantly, Yee points out, “…the data demonstrate that MMORPGs appeal to a very wide demographic and that this appeal is strong and elicits high time investment from users.” (Yee, 2006).

Yee’s home page is at Check out this recent news headline from that page:

2006.08.01 – A study we did in the online virtual world Second Life just got accepted. We looked at how interactional norms (e.g., gaze aversion, interpersonal distance) persist in virtual environments. (PDF)

Gaze aversion and interpersonal distance transfer to virtual reality, eh? Tell me that’s not interesting! The Daedalus Project page collects his research on MMOs:

Clark also quotes from the research of Jakobsson & Taylor:

“…the mafia initially grew out of an ancient honor system where elders were entrusted to negotiate in conflicts and pass judgments that the others were obliged to adhere to. The fact that Sicily historically has been targeted by outside interests such as the Spanish and fascists has also contributed to a need for organized resistance against outside oppression. The transition into a criminal organization came later, possibly more or less because the mafia realized that they could use their powerful organization to achieve fortune for themselves. This pattern is repeated in EQ [EverQuest]. The strong emphasis on reputation in the creation of social networks grows out of a need from the players to self-govern their gaming environment in order to secure a positive experience in the presence of potential disturbances and a simultaneous absence of an effective and reliable governing system. But ultimately these networks are also used to take shortcuts through, or trick, the formal rules of the system.” (Jakobsson & Taylor, 2003)

OK, Clark and I are sensationalizing, quoting only that piece from the paper, but they are, too, for titling it “The Sopranos Meets Everquest”. 😀 Click here to download the paper as a PDF. Joking aside, the abstract should prove it’s interesting:

This article explores the ways social interaction plays an integral role in the game EverQuest. Through our research we argue that social networks form a powerful component of the gameplay and the gaming experience, one that must be seriously considered to understand the nature of massively multiplayer online games. We discuss the discrepancy between how the game is portrayed and how it is actually played. By examining the role of social networks and interactions we seek to explore how the friendships between the players could be considered the ultimate exploit of the game.

I certainly think “the role of social networks and interactions” is a feature of MMOs worth much study and consideration. Perhaps by calling it an “ultimate exploit” they mean that this is the most effective way to play the games well – that is certainly true in all MMOs that I’ve experienced. But these seem much broader and more important topics than success playing a game.

Here are CiteSeer links to more of Jakobsson & Taylor’s publications. There are increasing numbers of researchers working on MMOs and other aspects of gaming, and surfing citations is a great way to find more of them.


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