by admin on May 30, 2006 11:53am


‘Alone Together’ and a little economics

Time for some confessions.  I’m fully addicted to World of Warcraft (abbreviate WoW).  There, I said it.  I’ve been a long time gamer, particularly Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs) and Real Time Strategy oriented games (I’ll take you in Starcraft *any* day of the week), but it’s been a while since a game has been able to interject heavily into my life.  And although I balance fairly well with Call of Duty 2 on my Xbox 360, WoW is a great game that has me hooked.

I have a relatively busy life, so video game playing is usually relegated to the wee hours, typically after 11pm (I’ve never been a big sleeper), and I’ve even played at 35,000 feet on a wireless/satellite connection while flying on an SAS flight from Amsterdam to Seattle (yes, it’s that addictive).  To make matters worse (or better?), when I’m not playing I often like to read about video game theory, particularly papers that research the sociological aspects of multiplayer games.  I just finished what I think may be the best paper I’ve read thus far on WoW.

The paper, titled “Alone Together?  Exploring the Social Dynamics of Massively Multiplayer Online Games”, from researchers at Xerox Parc and Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, is a fascinating look at the sociological aspects of WoW, with some particularly insightful analysis into what really makes the game ‘work’ and succeed.  What sold me on this analysis were their research methods: from the launch of WoW (Nov. 2004) the researchers were active WoW gamers and wrote some software extensions to the client side UI to capture interesting game statistics (every 5-15 minutes) while they played.  So this study is based on data obtained from the game itself, versus interviews or surveys.  This is what I call research!  And you can tell just from reading this paper that these guy are real WoW players, not ‘observers’ from the outside.

I won’t recap the entire paper, but I will highlight some of their findings as I think it’s relevant for this forum of discussion on Port 25.  Albeit a highly social virtual environment, the authors find that many of WoW’s players, play alone (thus the quote ‘Alone Together’), and their results discuss a different type of ‘social factor’ existing in WoW.  The importance of an audience, a social presence and a spectacle are the three factors that they find explain the appeal of being ‘alone together’ in multiplayer games like WoW.  In short, the authors tap the issues of what in film theory is often called the voyeur phenomenon – where the audience/viewer enjoys the ability to look inside someone else’s life.  When movies truly succeed at ‘suspending disbelief’ it is often because the filmmaker has succeeded at creating a suspension in the viewers mind, convincing them that they truly are the ‘voyeur’ of the action onscreen.  Of course, what interactive multiplayer gaming adds to this dimension is the ability to be both viewer and subject of voyeurism, which creates the appeal of ‘watching’ and wanting to ‘be’ the level 60 Night Elf rouge displaying their/your prowess in front of others.  Here’s Sam, one of our own OSS lab engineers, showing his stealth-iness by sneaking into Undercity. 

Name: Jbauer
Race: Night Elf
Class: Rogue
Level:  60
Server:  Frostwolf
Guild:  Dark Front

This phenomenon, as the paper identified, perpetuates both game play and game satisfaction (i.e., the ‘alone together’ trend).

So how does this relate to Port 25?  A point raised at the end of the paper is the need for social navigation tools, to better understand certain dynamics in games like WoW (such as guild cohesion or churn rate).  When reading this paper, I couldn’t help but think how this type of research in social dynamics might be applied to software development communities.  Granted, when working on code, there are different dynamics than battling basilisks, but there are many principles and characteristics that are very similar – network-based, remote communication, level based grouping and different dynamics of interaction based on level and participation, satisfaction for continued participation in a group, etc.  I think it would be interesting to look at possible correlations between these two social networks (MMOG’s and software communities) as it’s often at unusual intersects that we find meaningful patterns.  If, nothing else, it will likely result in some useful social navigation and analysis tools.

Lastly, I’ve been doing a bit of flying lately so I’ve catching up on my books to read.  I just finished David Warsh’s “Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations.”  In particular, in the second half of the book, Paul Romer of Stanford provides a very solid look at the economic issues that direct technological growth.  I would recommend reading the section on the costs of ‘idea’ inventions and expected growth and returns.  Many business books I read these days fail to recognize some of the essential economic principles Romer investigates – I hope to blog more on this soon.

-Bill