As some on this list know, my research group has been working on a joint project with Sony Online Entertainment for the last two years. This collaboration has enabled our team to collect virtual world data on--as far as we know--an unprecedented scale. SOE has let us access the full data logs generated and collected by the world Everquest II.
This is one of those "be careful what you ask for" moments in science. We asked for everything, and many terabytes later, found ourselves hosting and analyzing massive data on supercomputers at NCSA. SOE also let us do a large-scale survey of their player base. Although there have been good surveys of virtual world populations done in the past, this is the first that took place within the game engine and with the help of the developer. As a result, it does not have the self-selection issues that the first such surveys have had, and the response rate was impressive.
This post will share the first of what we expect to be a dozen or more papers on virtual world behaviors. As the first, it's the broadest, but I suspect will be of interest and use to the wider virtual world community. You can find the full text of this first paper here, at the Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, with no access restrictions.
More below the fold . . .
There are several tables and graphs intended to be reference material for the community, and many findings on simple demographics. There were also a few unexpected gems in the data as well. My two favorite oddball highlights were finding that the older players played more than the younger ones, and that the game playing population appears to be more fit than the general US population.
Are these findings representative of all virtual worlds, or all MMOs, or all fantasy titles? I have my own speculations (pretty solid for fantasy diku games), and I welcome yours. Of course, until other developers open their doors in a similar fashion, it'll all remain speculation.
What can you expect from future reports? Our subsequent papers will involve research on gender differences, role players, economic modeling, social networks, group success and failure, raiding, detailed player behavior metrics, trust and community, and many others currently in the hopper. As we develop more and more metrics from the player behavior data, we will be merging these with the psychological, demographic, and attitude data from the survey. In other words, for the first time we will know who they are, what they think, and what they do on a truly systematic level.
The team working on these data hail from 7 different universities in the US and Canada, with four senior researchers and 15 Ph.D. students. The project leads are myself, Noshir Contractor at Northwestern, M. Scott Poole at Illinois, and Jaideep Srivastava at Minnesota (computer science).
Many thanks to Raph Koster for opening the door, and to the entire team at SOE for being engaged and helpful in the process. Immense thanks are also due to the National Science Foundation for sponsoring the work. We hope this project serves as a model for academic/industry collaborations in which we can move from begging for pro bono help to outright consulting-level research and development. By being the first-movers, SOE gets the benefit of a large team of experts on a wide range of social, economic and networking topics.