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“Alone together” in MMOGs September 10, 2007

Posted by jeremyliew in game mechanics, gaming, social media, social networks, virtual worlds.

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.


1. bjorn - September 10, 2007

the link to the paper in the first para is dead. can you relink? thanks.

2. jeremyliew - September 10, 2007

Sorry Bjorn – should work now

3. Daniel Markham - September 10, 2007

This is really meaty stuff — much more useful than the usual stuff you get on startup sites. I strongly believe there are some underlying principles here that is being developed. A discipline of social online engineering (perhaps there’s a better name)

Not sure if this is the appropriate forum or not, but I’d be interested in pursuing these ideas in a startup format if anybody’s interested. Specifically, using the psychological drivers here in combination with some of the better new product development material (“Selling Blue Elephants” comes to mind)

Anybody who is interested can write me at DanielBMarkham@Hotmail.com

4. Creating Users « Pete’s View - September 12, 2007

[…]  Jeremy Liew in writing about Nick Yee’s study lists 3 factors that motivate both contributors and users:-          providing mechanisms to recognize achievement […]

5. Azam Khan - September 18, 2007

This definitely is true for a lot of things in life. It’s kind of like someone who lifts weight at a gym may be deemed a narcissist but in actuality its less subtle. Well maybe that idea is a little different than the one being talked about here. People definitely like the idea of being around others and being in similar situations as others as to not feel left out. I’ve felt this when I was going to a trip in 8th grade and my ticket situation turned out to be faulty. If i was the only one suffering then i felt really horrible, but if it was multiple people I’d feel a lot better about it. While playing MMORPGs in the past, although I played a little, I felt good to see others doing what I was doing. This applies to studying also. Whereas some people would be studying in a closed cubicle in the library, I’d be studying in an open area with chatting going on. It’s based on different peoples mindsets for sure. Some are totally self-sustaining and happy with say 1player console gaming whereas others would rather have an “avenue” open that reminds them they are not alone.

As virtualization of our environment increases, we will see a need to stand out or simply perform in front of others. This could occur through the appearances (of say our character/avatar), with certain color baldrics representing a certain level or achievement of status. Infact i’ve seen this happen many times where people will just stand around and socialize and not really play the game, all the while letting people know what they are able to do.

An interesting thought i’m having while writing this comment is that say take a person like Gandhi. If you saw Gandhi at a random village in India you wouldn’t know anything about him except that he’s maybe poor, uneducated, malnourished and unfortunate. However seeing him make a speech does something totally different. Many times certain qualities may create a buzz that spreads virally such as the Prophet Mohammad, Jesus and Moses..where people focus on their innate content/abilities/character and not on the marketing as advertising but word of mouth instead. If there are systems or communities in which people who would never be noticed are given an avenue of being noticed, then I think interesting things could emerge from that.

What would be even bigger is to have communities/groups in which each individual is a die hard part of the community but has ways of showing her significance.

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