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A commenter on my post about virtual worlds eliciting real emotions pointed me to another great paper on which Nick Yee was a co-author, “Alone Together?” Exploring the Social Dynamics of Massively Multiplayer Online Games.

Nick and the other authors conducted a study on World of Warcraft (WoW), collecting longitudinal data directly from the game to test the often heard claim that the “social factor” is key to MMOG’s success – that “it’s the people that are addictive, not the game”. Much of the discussion about the success of MMOGs, and WoW in particular, has focused on the importance of guilds and of players playing together to achieve a common goal.

The authors found that this is only partly true. The study showed that higher level characters tend to play together more often, as do players in guilds. But even the highest level characters were only observed in groups about half the time, and lower level characters much less frequently. And with many more lower level characters than top level characters, the behavior is predominantly solo play.

Players play surrounded by others instead of playing with them

This finding is broadly consistent with Robert Putnam’s findings in his book Bowling Alone, although they apply to the real world.

The authors go on to say:

Indeed, the other players have important roles beyond providing direct support and camaraderie in the context of quest groups: they also provide an audience, a sense of social presence, and a spectacle.

The article goes on to explain each of these three factor in turn.

In providing an audience that recognizes achievement, MMORPGs and social media sites show similar user behavior. The authors believe that game designers can take advantage of this by creating more ways for players to perform “in front of” others.

The social presence factor directly parallels the phenomena of people bringing their laptops to work in a crowded cafe, rather than working at home. WoW’s “general” chat channels in each zone, and guild chat, provide an ambient background chatter that gives a strong impression of playing in a world inhabited by other people at all times, even if these people are not immediately visible. Luis Von Ahn has commented in a similar manner about his ESP game that I blogged about before:

The ESP game gives its players a weird and beautiful sense of anonymous intimacy. On the one hand you have no idea who your partner is. On the other hand, the two of you are bringing your minds together in a way that lovers would envy.

The third factor that others contribute to a player’s enjoyment is as a source of entertainment; providing something to laugh at and with. The authors point out examples of maximizing opportunities for humor in game design in WoW such as the “/silly” command or the ability to use a 20lb catfish as a weapon.

As I’ve said before, game dynamics apply equally well to social media sites as they do to MMOGs. This paper is another “must read” for entrepreneurs in either category.