Category Archives: Sociology

Are Virtual Worlds Over?

Are Virtual Worlds Over?

@RaphKoster blog post is very very worth a read. Not going to clip from it, cause no clip could summarize. I remember thinking some of these thoughts back in EQ1 days, but the social aspects of it, the real world connection in it, are much clearer now in the post-facebook world.

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Stop harassment in games!

RT @Rachel_C_Li: Stop the Lord of the Flies behavior in games (lady/gay/racist hate crap): http://penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/harassment

“This week, we tackle the rampant bullying, misogyny and hate speech that occurs within the gaming community.
Ask Microsoft Support for the tools we need to stop harassment here!
Come discuss this topic in the forums!”

Do video games kill?

The features article “do video games kill?” is by Karen Sternheimer, and in winter 2007 issue of Contexts, the magazine of the American Sociological Association. Here’s a link to a PDF of the article – kudos to them for publishing it online this way! Not everyone is so free with their content.

Subtitle: When white, middle-class teens kill, the media and politicians are quick to blame video games. Are they right?

It’s a very interesting sociological analysis, and it’s encouraging that she pretty thoroughly debunks the idea that video games cause this violence. And this is actual research, by a PhD sociologist at USC, based on analysis of newspaper coverage, as well as on FBI statistics on youth crime. It’s compelling – and it raises a very very important question: if we wrongly focus on a false cause of violence and teen deaths, what real causes are we failing to address because of that? Causes she identifies such as poverty, instability, family violence, unemployment and mental illness?

This is an important article about the way our society works, the way politicians work, and the way media news coverage works – in this case, all with video games as their target, as a “contemporary folk devil.”

Here’s the most basic argument she makes against demonizing games, and it’s based just on numbers. Kind of tough to argue with numbers:

The game industry is now a $10 billion industry annually. Tens of millions of kids play video games every week. Yet in the 10 years since Doom’s release – which Orrin Hatch held up before congress as an example of how video games teach kids to kill – juvenile homicide rates have fallen 77 percent.

Any such event is horrible, a nightmare – but at the moment students have less than a 7 in 10,000,000 chance of being killed at school. That is 7 in 10,000,000 too many, absolutely – but

1) The data just doesn’t suggest that video games actually cause those 7

2) At 7 in 10,000,000, there are clearly many many more common problems which are deadly to kids – and which we’re not addressing when we’re stuck on video games

I googled teen driving death rates to prove the point. For males aged 16 to 19, the motor vehicle death rate is 23 per 100,000. That is, according to my calculator, 338 times more likely than being killed at school. Teen suicide – something we very carefully don’t talk about or address as a society – is the third leading cause of teen deaths at 7.3 per 100,000 – 100 times more likely than being killed at school. All of those statistics are based on government data – I’m not making it up.

So: maybe we ought to react out of fear less, use our brains more, and actually address most important issues first? Note that I’m not even pointing much of a finger at political and media manipulation around the issues – but Karen does that in her article.

I realized this was heavy stuff when I got to this point in the blog entry. But what am I supposed to do? NOT blog about it because it’s heavy stuff? :-/

I also realize someone could blame driving deaths and suicides on video games, too.  And I think that’d be just as wrong of a focus to address those problems.

Modeling Opinion Flow in Humans

This is another cool, indepth article published on Gamasutra. Skip Cole wrote this one, with the full title of Modeling Opinion Flow in Humans Using Boids Algorithm & Social Network Analysis.

Do you like the idea that you, me, our friends and our communities can all be reduced to a numerical estimation of our opinions, and our likely behavior based on them? 😀 Yes, I am again getting at the point that games and simulations are not just games and simulations – that they can be useful tools for studying, analyzing and predicting the “real” world. Indeed, that I think we will hone and polish them into the best of all possible tools for doing those things.

Here’s his introduction, which lays out what he’s talking about. The other 7 and a half pages actually detail it and explain it. If you’re interested in algorithms, games or simply how society works, you’ll be interested in all of this.

Given the opinions and desires of a non-player character (actors), it is possible to devise a cost-benefit calculation to decide what they are likely to do. This is a common problem in Game AI and much good work has already been done on this. But this supposes a fixed set of opinions (beliefs) in the actors. We would like to allow the actors to evolve and change their opinions over time, just as real people do. We also want to replicate the fact that while the opinions people hold are often understandable, they are not always rational. In this paper we introduce a methodology to do just this.

Modeling opinion flow is a big topic. People’s opinions are understandably multi-faceted and complex. Here we are saying dash to this complexity and reducing the decisions on one particular issue (the topic at hand) to one simple number. At the end of the day in our game universe, one supports King John, supports King Richard, or doesn’t particularly support anyone. If the bulk of the population supports King John, then his troops will receive more resources – and that is an effect that can be felt by King Richard1.

To perform our calculation, we are borrowing concepts from the Boids algorithm and from Social Network Analysis. This technique makes possible new types of conflict, such as a Public Relations battle, and can make concrete the ‘battle for hearts and minds.’

People’s opinions are influenced by events, but also by what they perceive to be the opinions of the people around them — people tend to believe what the people around them believe. The central analogy of this paper is that just as birds, fish, and other animals move their bodies in groups, humans move their opinions in groups2. Animals flock with their bodies. People flock in their opinions.

This technique can be applied to large populations or small populations. A large population example could be an entire population of a country and their support of a particular armed militia group. (If the player can reduce public support for the militia, its resources will decrease.) A small population example could be the actors around a key decision maker. (If the player can locate and change the opinions of the people around the decision maker, it will be possible to influence the decision maker.) Both examples will be explored here.

From a sidebar, here’s the bird example of Boid’s algorithm as it relates to the real world:


A bird that strays from the flock
will change its course to move
back toward the flock, even as the
flock may begin to veer toward it.
Most people feel uncomfortable if
their thinking is too far unaligned
from that of the group, and will try
(either by trying to change the
group or their own thinking) to
minimize that distance.

Using Games to Tap Collective Intelligence

When I found this post I also found an interesting blog to add to my blogroll. From David’s intro:

Nowadays, everyone is talking about the broad potential applications of video games. Combating obesity. Managing chronic disease. General education. Employee training. Military preparedness and recruiting. The list seems endless. But one unique and important aspect of games has yet to be tapped: I believe they can effectively aggregate individual players’ actions into a form of collective intelligence.

Yep, worth a read and some thinking.  I particularly like his suggestion of incorporating real-world data into a game’s feedback mechanism.

Big picture thought: imagine running a large-scale simulation of the world – our real world, the whole thing – with as much economic and social and cultural realism as possible. Imagine running that on parallel servers that speed into the future at faster than real time, with real people from around the world participating, and representing their actual selves, locations, countries, cultures, professions.

Some interesting and useful predictive and experimental and entertainment applications of that, eh? This is one of those ideas so clearly useful and valuable that it will inevitably happen.  So who’s going to do it first? A game company, to make gigabucks on it? (EA that was Maxis? Second Life? Sony, with assets from movies to music to games?) A services company with great global assets and infrastructure? (Google? Microsoft?) A government agency? (Military and/or intelligence would find this more than valuable)

Would economic, social or cultural trends manifest first in the simulation, and thus inform us about what’s coming?  I have no doubt there would be some of that. The really interesting questions are, how much of that would there be?, and how could we design and run the simulation in order to maximize its predictive accuracy?

Would such a simulation have entertainment value, and thus make gigabucks? Of that I have no doubt at all – though the same questions apply: how much, and how to maximize?

Friday food for thought.

Study says: There are SIX different types of gamers

Gamasutra today posted this interview with Yuanzhe Cai, director of broadband and gaming at Parks Associates, the researchers who put together this study and its results.

It’s nice timing after my post yesterday, which ended this way:

Another broad point that all this makes me think about: There’s room for lots of different kinds of games, and lots of different kinds of gamers.

Summary results of the study were posted yesterday as Gamasutra, and since I know you’re dying to hear them, here’s the bit about the types of gamers:

“Power gamers” represent 11 percent of the gamer market but account for 30 cents of every dollar spent on retail and online games.

“Social gamers,” 13 percent of the market, enjoy gaming as a way to interact with friends.

“Leisure gamers,” 14 percent of the market, spend 58 hours per month playing games but mainly on casual titles. Nevertheless they prefer challenging titles and show high interest in new gaming services.

“Dormant gamers,” 26 percent of the market, love gaming but spend little time because of family, work, or school. They like to play with friends and family and prefer complex and challenging games.

“Incidental gamers,” 12 percent of the market, lack motivation and play games mainly out of boredom. However, they spend more than 20 hours a month playing online games.

“Occasional gamers,” 24 percent of the market, play puzzle, word, and board games almost exclusively.

I’d highly recommend reading both stories in detail. But as usual, I’ll quote some highlights:

“If game companies insist on chasing the mythical hardcore and casual gamer segments, they will miss out on more than half of the market,” said Cai. “The market is not black and white anymore, and game marketers need to understand these finer nuances.”

A good followup to that:

How can publishers take advantage of this “middle ground”?

First, they must understand the demographics of middle market gamers, their gaming behaviors, and their interest. Second, they should design games, services, and business models specifically for the middle market gamers instead of treating them as an afterthought or wishfully thinking that games designed for power gamers will magically appeal to everybody.

Third, publishers should recognize that middle-market gamers are less likely than power gamers to talk about games all the time, and therefore it’s vital to know where they acquire information about new games and services. Fourth, they can leverage game advertising to monetize the middle market gamers. If the leisure gamers spend so much time (58 hours per month) playing games but not a lot of money, then generating ads revenue from their eyeball hours makes sense.

Here’s a bold one.  I’m not convinced people are so clearly limited to just one type:

Is there overlap between the groups – for example, wouldn’t many power gamers also be social gamers?

No. These are exclusive gamer groups. The names of the gamer groups are based on their most differentiating attributes.

And a great ending/challenge, on social interaction and gaming:

Why did the importance of social interaction to all these groups come as a surprise?

Right now MMOGs and online FPS games seem to be all the rage. MMOGs are essentially a big chat room, right? The result that middle market gamers also value socialization does not surprise us per se, but it is surprising in the sense that the industry has not paid enough attention to this obvious fact.

Many gaming services targeting non-core/power gamers tend to focus on content access and single-player games rather than community building and multiplayer gameplay. Club Pogo was successful partly because of its focus on community features.

It’s actually interesting when you think about this: MySpace now has more than 100 million registered users and even WOW, the most popular MMOG, pales in comparison [editor: 6.6 million].

video games in 2006 = rock music in 1967

Chuck Klosterman wrote this feature in the July issue of Esquire: The Lester Bangs of Video Games. His subtitle is his point, actually: “Sorry, that was misleading. There is no Lester Bangs of video games. Why?” It’s pretty deep thought about games – something we don’t have enough of.

I’m just going to assume that you believe video games in 2006 are the culture equivalent of rock music in 1967, because that’s (more or less) reality.

The question his article asks is, in brief: why are there no video game critics, given that video games are such an economic and cultural force? His own clarification:

I realize that many people write video-game reviews and that there are entire magazines and myriad Web sites devoted to this subject. But what these people are writing is not really criticism. Almost without exception, it’s consumer advice; it tells you what old game a new game resembles, and what the playing experience entails, and whether the game will be commercially successful. It’s expository information. As far as I can tell, there is no major critic who specializes in explaining what playing a given game feels like, nor is anyone analyzing what specific games mean in any context outside the game itself.

Tell me that’s not an interesting point? Two immediate thoughts come to mind for me, from my own experience of gaming:

1) Most games are way too shallow for that kind of analysis and criticism

2) User-created content is hot and getting hotter – and maybe games are the most ephemeral kind of user-created content

I’m not going to defend the first point. If you disagree, go read Heart of Darkness, or go play your game. It’s your life. :p

On the second point, think about a single-player game. Every time a player plays one, he or she is telling a kind of a story, creating as well as having a unique experience – but only for themselves. And when it’s over, it’s gone.

At the other end of gaming, think about an MMO. World of Warcraft has (literally) millions of players playing at varying times on (literally) hundreds of different servers, each of which is its own self-contained “copy” of the game and its world. “Rules” of the server vary based on the style of gameplay a server is set up for. “Characters” cannot move from server to server, and thus the players playing those characters also do not (usually) move from server to server. Those characters are created, and grow, and change, and die, hour by hour, 24 hours a day, for years on end. Even within a single server, different players tend to play at different times during their day.

All of that adds up to an incredibly variable and dynamic experience of the game. No, MMOs aren’t as rich or complex or as large as the real world, and the clock does tick faster there. But there are hundreds of those worlds running alongside this real world right this minute. And they are rich and complex and large enough that, as in the real world, no moment of experience in one of those worlds will ever be exactly the same as another moment – especially when you’re playing with other people. And when a moment is gone, the only place you’ll ever return to it is in your memory.

(I know, you can make pictures and movies of game experiences, just like in real life, but no, pictures and movies still aren’t the same, and anyway, while machinima puts a very interesting spin on gaming and storytelling, it still doesn’t change the essential point that he is making and that I’m agreeing with.)

So an MMO’s story never stops, is vast in scope, and is being told interactively by the actions and the words of a shifting population of thousands. Old media assumptions about storytelling, old media assumptions about analysis and criticism – they just can’t apply.

Maybe an MMO is a bit like group improv, but it never stops, and even in smaller virtual worlds, it happens at a scale unlike any other improv. Unless maybe you want to look at this real life as improv? Maybe that’s a tangent I shouldn’t have added – it’s my thought, not Chuck’s. Actually, I can’t take credit either. 😀

What if this scene played out differently for every person who watched Gone with the Wind? What if Rhett occasionally changed his mind, walked back into the house, and said, “Just kidding, baby”? What if Scarlett suddenly murdered Rhett for acting too cavalier? What if the conversation were sometimes interrupted by a bear attack? And what if all these alternative realities were dictated by the audience itself? If Gone with the Wind ended differently every time it was experienced, it would change the way critics viewed its message. The question would not be “What does this mean?” The question would be “What could this mean?”

His challenge:

If nobody ever thinks about these games in a manner that’s human and metaphorical and contextual… this generation’s single most meaningful artistic idiom will be — ultimately — meaningless.

Yeah, worth thinking about. And worth clicking to read him, not just me.

Escapist Magazine: new issue on “Edu-Gaming”

Escapist Magazine is one of my few email subscriptions – it’s a high-production-values, thought-provoking online magazine focused on games and gamers. Check it out at http://www.escapistmagazine.com/. The latest issue, #59, is focused on Edu-Gaming. Here’s the editor’s introduction, from Julianne Greer:

Even before I started kindergarten, I attended a Montessori school. For those unfamiliar, a Montessori school will not seem much like a school in the traditional sense. A visitor to a Montessori establishment would find children of many different ages all piled together in the same room. The children would be observed and helped by the teachers present, but really you’d be correct if you noted the children were directing their own time. In fact, it may look like the children are playing – drawing, playing games – settled into small groups about the room, or perhaps working alone.

The thing is, they are playing. The theory of Montessori is to look at the world as a child does; teach the child, do not correct the child; allow her to explore her surroundings, but aid learning by providing toys with a goal.

Many people are skeptical of this methodology, but it’s gaining ground. And I have nothing but good things to say about it, and thanks for my parents for sending me. By the time I went to first grade, I knew world geography, I knew multiplication tables through 5’s and I understood the relationship of 10 to 100 to 1000. Not bad for age six.

As a result, the idea of learning through games and toys is not only natural to me, I see it as a necessary part of education. The ancient Chinese proverb, most often attributed to Confucius, “I hear, I forget; I see, I remember; I do, I understand” is never more demonstrable than in educational play. Children are more likely to respond to a lesson taught through fun than through lecture, it is their nature.

And so, now that education is moving onto computers, I delight in the notion of games with a goal. Not only are we teaching the children the basics of education in a way they can understand and enjoy, but we are familiarizing them with technology. The way our world is moving toward a networked economy and community, this familiarity with technology is vital to their success, as it will be of even more import in their lives than our own. Why not give them a head start on that while teaching them the three R’s?

Makes a lot of sense to me – but then, that’s why I’ve been fanatically working on Kid’s Programming Language and Phrogram for well over a year now. There are two articles on the Edu-Gaming topic. First is Learning the Gaming Way, by Shawn Williams.

“When I first heard of Dr. Kawashima’s Brain Age, I wrote it off as a clever marketing ploy. I mean, come on – a videogame that helps your brain do anything other than plot violent rampages in schools? Ridiculous. We all know that videogames were created to subvert children.” Shawn Williams describes how he and his wife learned to live with her multiple sclerosis, helped, in large part, by a video game in “Learning The Gaming Way.”

The second is Playing to the Test, by Chris Dahlen:

“Gamers feel the most sense of accomplishment when they’re always facing just enough of a challenge – as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of ‘flow.’ You can credit World of Warcraft’s addictiveness to how well it paces those challenges – and plenty of smart educational technologists beat and tinker with assessment algorithms, trying to accomplish the same thing. So, what if a game like World of Warcraft could be built around educational content – say, instead of killing murlocs, you’re solving math problems?”

In “Playing to the Test,” Chris Dahlen explores the nature of educational games, and how they may be just what the educational system needs.

This is an excellent article, with lots of great observations and comments. Here’s a good one:

“The gamer generation learns differently than from lecture. They are not passive learners.”

As I said at the start, I recommend signing up for the magazine as well as checking out this particular issue. They’re all worth a read!

EA: The Industry is ‘Failing Women’

Umm. Duh?

Sorry, couldn’t help it. It’s great EA is raising the issue. Here’s a link to the article at GameDaily.

Video games for the longest time have been dominated by men. The industry’s workforce is largely comprised of young white males, and the people who play video games are usually male as well. While certain games have successfully attracted both genders (e.g. The Sims), there’s no denying that it’s still an industry run by men that caters its products to men. It’s evident in the marketing, and it’s certainly evident in the games themselves where it seems that every other character is a scantily clad female with unnatural proportions.

And

As reported by the BBC News, EA’s own research found that 40 percent of teenage girls played video games compared to 90 percent of teenage boys; furthermore, most girls seem to lose interest in games within a year. According to Gardner, this is something that has concerned EA “for a long, long time.”

“We are only reaching a small proportion – not only geographically but also genetically,” he said, adding that if EA could solve the problem it “could add a billion dollars to its sales.”

Hey, if they do the right thing for the sake of making a billion dollars, that’s just a checkmark for Adam Smith’s faith in free market capitalism, right? 😀

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:

http://gamasutra.com/features/20060822/clark_01.shtml

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

http://gamasutra.com/features/20060822/vgsca_gama.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 http://www.nickyee.com/ 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: http://www.nickyee.com/index-daedalus.html

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.

http://citeseer.ist.psu.edu/cis?q=Mikael+Jakobsson

http://citeseer.ist.psu.edu/cis?q=T.+L.+Taylor