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Jul 10, 2007



Random comments:

Sun and greenery - There's a reason why the Myst series occurs on tropical islands and not in Siberia in the middle of winter.

WoW savanah onto something - Most MMORPGs are about hunter/gatherer/tibal activity. Shopping malls are about hunting/gathering. Sports are about hunting and tribe. Roman gladiator fights were about hunting and tribe. Just throw in some bred (er.. "/pizza") and the masses will be placated by MMORPGs.


If Nagrand is the Savannah, its still a depressing one as despite its beauty I just got repeatedly gnanked moments ago and decided to pack for GLS instead. Hunters' pets are not prey ;) especially Bity, the bear from Loch Modan...New line for reporters...You can't take the gnank out of man.

And this raises the obvious question: why not place Shattrath in Nagrand? Yet Iron Forge does not seem depressing despite its location in the heart of the Blizzard- and which became much more central than Stormwind (technical reasons at work here, but still remains my favorite). Definetly something to be said about the arctic frontier as appealing...But maybe that is a San Diegan's desire to see something besides year round sunny skies and 70 degree weather...


Great post Dmitri! The experiment that suggests itself is to see if you can treat people who suffer from SAD by having them spend time in brightly, green, lush virtual worlds.


Dmitri>The gist of the study was that our offline rules of social distance extend in online spaces, i.e. avatars stand apart from each other just like people do offline

Of course, people offline don't stand the same distance from one another. Country dwellers stand further apart than town dwellers. If you put a country dweller and a town dweller in a room and they strike up a conversation, what happens is the country dweller edges away from the town dweller, who edges closer, with the net effect that the pair track round the room in circles.

Well, that's what the article I read in about 1975 said...

>Now add the question that will surely drive poor Richard batty: does anyone really role play? The answer, from a very scarce pool of data and studies (e.g. this one)--and a quick look at the percentage of RP servers among MMOs--is that it's a small fraction of people who actually do so.

No, no, that's the wrong kind of role-play. What's important here isn't "hard" role-play, where you take on a role and try to play it as an actor would. Rather, it's "soft" role-play, where your role is defined by being not-you.

For example, the research you cite earlier notes that people treat your character differently depending on its look. This means that unless you really do look like your character, you have to act differently because you're treated differently.

Let's say you play a mage in WoW. People will treat you differently from if you played a warrior. They do this even if they know it's the same person behind the character. You're not role-playing in the sense of trying to act out a personality that isn't your own, but in choosing a role (mage) you're having to adapt your behaviour (thereby gaining insights into your real self that you might not have got otherwise).

>Sure, we could debate that and derail the thread, but let's just run with it as an operating assumption, ok?

So long as it's understood that you mean hard role-playing, rather than soft role-playing, yes, I'm OK with that.



When I used to play EQ I would take the boat out to Erud's Crossing and just wander the island or sit on the beach. Guild members were always making fun of me because other than as a stopping point for one or two quests, and a few scattered mobs, there's simply little or nothing to do there - but it's always sunshiney, it's a beach, palm trees... you get the idea. It just made me happy to be there - especially when guild politics were at their cranky worst.


Aside from the interesting question of why gender and not some other social category like ethnicity, religion, etc. shows up as #2, what I find very interesting is how these questions of indexical relationships between the virtual and actual share striking similarities across cultural domains-from avatars to notions of time and space, for instance. So notions of an ugly billboard ruining one's view in Second Life, for instance, relate to culturally specific actual-world notions of visual clutter just as persons using avatars stand at specific distances from each other. It will be interesting to see how the platform shapes the social form in this regard-in other words, the degree to which these kinds of indexical relationships vary within and between virtual worlds and other online formats.


From our experience, kids prefer to be kids inworld, too. So we created a group of adolescent avatars. People will hop into different avatars in Active Worlds to try them out, and that can result in bursts of role playing. The BorderLink project had some interesting programs, including a performance of student-written Commedia Del Arte play and historic roleplaying of famous historic Latino characters. The roleplaying got the kids to try to think like a dictator or a queen, for example, and argue from their perspectives. That was quite successful.


It's really tempting to derail the thread, since I agree with Richard. However, I'd say roleplaying probably rarely has an effect on people's mood in the sense you're talking about (provided they're speaking, and not their "role").

I can attest to light affecting my mood (at least slightly). Playing a horde character in WoW, I may spend most of my time automatically in Orgrimmar because of its centrality (like Ironforge), but even when it's more convienent for me to be in Undercity, I find myself feeling less cheerful there. It also goes for the horde starting zones in the eastern continent. Imho, the newest Blood Elf starting zones that were added with the expansion are the best starting zones in the game (haven't checked the new Dranei zones though). However, I still like The Barrens better, and the only reason for it that I can come up with is because out of all the horde starting zones, The Barrens is the only one with sun. The first Blood Elf starting zone may be fairly cheerful, but the second is definately sunless.


my ideas about roleplay have been sort of influenced by these experiences:
(1) some training i had for stagefright some years back -- i am a classical musician who does not like performing in public. the people i worked with told me that the way you de-sensitize people to behavior is to have them roleplay it. RP teaches people to accept whatever you RP as "normal", they said.

(2) the emotional shipwrecks i have seen among people who get involved in RP relationships. there's an emotional cost of entry there that suggests that somewhere inside themselves, people believe in the reality of their relationships. i have seen people grieve RP relationships like real life losses.


Margaret Corbit > From our experience, kids prefer to be kids inworld, too.

Do you have age ranges for this? I thought that UK magazines like 'Just 17' were popular amongst those that are 14'ish.

Is it that in one age range one wants to be that age, a t other there is an optimal (older or younger) that one tends to. Or is this kind of direct representation different from what might be aspirational representation of more passive media?


Way back in 1993 (and continuing on til the present day) Susan Herring did some great work that challenged the idea that online we are bodiless, genderless, etc etc beings. Her work and the work of others has consistently found that we bring our bodies, our gendered expectations, our beliefs about how we should relate, and what we ourselves keep perpetuating, online with us. It was then a real challenge to the "on the internet no one knows you're a dog" discourse, but I thought now it had become a more commonly held view. The idea that we would bring our expectations about social space to virtual space would complement that as well.

Regarding environments, I grew up in the woods and near the ocean, and I keep getting drawn to similar environments online. Go figure!


Mia -- I gravitate to forests and beaches too. Nagrand actually doesn't do much for me. So do we need to get in touch with our inner Savannahs? ;-)


Does anyone really role play? It seems that even on a RP server (silverhand) hardly anybody role plays.

I always prefer lush scenery, going way back to Total Annihilation, I always preferred the green worlds. Same with WoW. For me, a lot of the game is the virtual exploration. In RL I am a keen bushwalker and cross country skier. The biggest buzz of leveling is to be able to explore new territory, the nice territory.


At UT-Austin we used a role play activity in an english class where students were asked to write about a person they admired as a leader. Students, freshman at the time, choose a variety of people from Malcolm X, Mother Teresa, Bill Gates, Oprah, Ellen DeGeneress, and Teddy Roosevelt. In Second Life the students made their avatars look like their role models and were provided with areas to have discussion; an office setting, a rug with pillows, and a campfire. The students then participated in small group discussions while roleplaying through their avatar.

They indicated being highly engaged and having an overall very positive experience. During an interview one student said "The time went by so fast. I remember the entire time I just wanted to add to the discussion. It was really engaging for me. I was so into it. Even when we were done I was still thinking how Malcolm X would have thought".

I think targeted RP can be enhanced by use of virtual worlds. Linking back to Nick's "Proteus Effect", students should have a more genuine experience roleplaying through an avatar vs RL. In Sl students are experiencing reactions from others, not just from people enrolled in the same class playing in the same RP activity. In this experiment some females were RPing as males, and others were representing a different ethnicity than their own.
Some pictures from the study can be seen here


Dimitri: I'm going to be a skeptic here and say that I disagree with two of your basic ideas...or at least, I don't see convincing evidence at all for them. They are the SAD factor and the "our ancestors had it pounded into them on the savannah" business. Of course SAD is a real phenomena in RL, but I'd chalk most people's preference toward sunny, pretty lands up to that association of such places being "happy" places. Our idea of what makes for a beautiful place is partly in our genes, I'd agree. We associate (and our ancestors associated) sunny, pretty places with good times...easy living, leisure, etc. That's true today too, not just "on the savannah." (But my favorite WoW zone is still Dun Moragh...it's lovely and the snow reminds me of good times in snow as a kid, and I suppose I think nostalgically of when my wife and I started characters there together too...)

So I think it makes sense that people would want to hang out (online) in attractive places. It's not too mysterious, I think.


When I started playing EQ2, my first traditional MMO (previous experience was Project Entropia) I selected a ranger as my class. I couldn't have been happier with my selection.

As a ranger, I had the abililty to solo, to move about in stealth mode, and see around corners with my tracking skills. These are all things that my real life personality embraces. I am a careful person, quiet, and tend toward the loner side of the continuum.

My nephew, who plays various games, has never played a tank class. Yet, that is his personality in real life. He is blunt, quick to act, and tends to try and win by brute force. He has never found a game that he is truely happy with.

I think to find happiness with your avatar you must understand what qualities or elements you enjoy in real life and then select a class that posseses those qualities.


@Tripp: I wouldn't disagree. My potshot here is that nature matters, but the nature-nurture debate is pretty well cooked at this stage. Everyone's come around to the understanding that both matter, and if you go for the next step (see E.O. Wilson and others on Co-Evolution), that they interact with one another.

So we get variances in personal distances from nurture (sociocultural changes and differences), and the need to decypher human/gender/compatibility from nature. Others phenomena are going to be mixes of these factors. In my own case of liking sunlight and open greenery, it could be either or both. Others posting about their preferences for seashores or forests or whatever all point to more individual rather than broad claims. Seems reasonable.

My point in posting was to open up a discussion on this evolutionary/sociocultural pattern and see if, as the co-evolutionists think, it's actually both. I tossed in the Nagrand example as a quirky case study rather than as proof of one direction.

I'm still left with Nick's Proteus effect, and thinking that in some ways and interactions it might extend beyond interpersonal cues and into other areas as well--and left wondering the nature-nurture balance. As Richard noted, it's hard to read that first study and not wonder if the effects would be different if done among a population with smaller interpersonal distances--clearly a nurture effect.

I wonder if anyone has other examples that blur these lines, or are clear cases of nature since the nurture stuff seems more obvious.


Im intrigued by the statement that not many "role play", because Im not entirely sure what that means.

The team I play in, is by all accounts not a role player team as per Eve's definition. We tend not to take CCP's narrative of 4 'races' and the empire struggle particularly seriously. There are some corps that do (Such as the excellently acted war between the Minmitar freedom fighters Ushra'Khan and its Ammarian slave trader oppressors, or the philosophically quirky Anarchists of Jericho Fraction) , but in general in the hustle and bustle of Deep 0.0, traditional role playing doesnt really happen a whole lot.

But heres where its interesting. CCP in EVE, I'd argue has little control over the narrative in the game anyway. CCP's narratives tend to resolve around NPC group x being at war with NPC group y. It doesnt affect anything afaik, and it just sort of seems a hum in the background of the game.

Meanwhilst the epic struggles of the player corps lights the galaxy afire.

The thing to understand is, those 0.0 groups ARE roleplaying, but oft they are roleplaying themselves as spacepilots. Its not a full break from subjectivity , but more a partial immersion.

The give away can be seen most strongly on the various forums. Generally if Im adressing another player, I'll call them by the handle of choice. In real life I might be bill, but in game I'm xSPACEAVENGER9x or something (Thats not my handle btw). And in the conversations, I dont talk about "My ingame spaceship needs some ingame fuel for the next team match", but I'll instead talk about "I need some strontium as we are about to hit another siege cycle and we need more DPS on the towers".

Now, go say that mouthfull to some guy on the street.

The key is, its a performance, we are on some level acting out a roles, roles that just happen to look alot like us. Us with space helmets.

Now eve's a funny one. Theres no ingame avatars other than the spacecraft, and the wierd little portrait it generates for you. Personally I dont really identify with the portrait, and the spaceship changes depending on my mood. But I do identify on some level with my handle, as I know someone addressing it, is addressing ME.

So its theatre and its role play, but its not total.

If that makes any sense.


The New Scientist article on Nowak’s research is pretty annoying. It doesn’t quote a single number to indicate how strong the effect is. Too often I go to the original paper and find the effect is merely “statistically significant”, which isn’t a strong predictor of human behavior. And certainly doesn’t justify the absolute “humans do x” interpretation that often arrives in the popular press.

So has anybody seen the actual research? If I design my avatars as non gender specific, what portion of my players will find them untrustworthy? Perhaps there are benefits to non gender specific avatars that in some worlds would offset this disadvantage. A lot depends on the scale of the effect, and how significant it is to your world design.

One thing that did get pounded into us on the savannah is the habit of using small statistical differences to make absolute judgements. If there is a sixty percent probability the shadows over there are a predator, run away. In the long run, it’s a good survival strategy in a world of short term results. In our modern world, with few instant threats, but many long term effects, its not so good. I wish there was some simple convention by now requiring some estimate of certainty in reporting such research.


Role-playing is a continuum, not a binary. Richard is right about the soft vs. hard versions, but I see it as a smooth curve rather than a hard/soft/none. Which would be a trinary, I guess...

In pen-and-paper land, we had a variety of types of RPers. Some guys were stat freaks and developed characters based on what would give them the best combat rolls. But they also, typically, would then roleplay those aspects that were most important to a combat-specific character. Other folks deeply RPd even minor attributes and quirks. But, arguably, these were characters whose value (to the player and the party) were more about subtle, social stuff than being a tank or a flamethrower.

Which brings me to this observation: shallow characters don't need anywhere near as much RPing, and players who run combat-tuned characters don't need/want to RP as heavily. So... when a player isn't putting much RP into a character whose value is mainly push-pull/click-clock... heavy RP would actually be inappropriate.

What bugs me is that there are very few places (in a gamey world) where doing real RP provides any systematic benefits. Yes, it's more fun for those of us that dig it. But there's no way that my being "better at being my character" gives me any kind of play advantage over a total "ParisHilton22 Elf." In live RPGs, I would definitely give more shrift to players who RPd those parts of their characters that were important to the play. If you're supposed to be highly excitable... don't be hanging back in combat, and feel free to verbally abuse the tavern keeper.

I'd love to see a game where choices in weapons, armor, items, answers to NPC questions, time spent crafting, etc. had "character" choices on folks that then carried over into game values.

For example, let's say you only carry weapons that can be reasonably concealed on your person; that have some kind of "not scary" value. You might get a higher roll on merchant deals and be less likely to be attacked by the police, but more likely to be hit on by brigands.


Dmitri, it's not WoW that depresses you, it's where you spend your time in-game. I agree, Shattrath is pretty depressing, while Nagrand is like a vacation spot. If you spent all your time in Shadowmoon Valley, you'd be manic-depressive after a week.

Now as for RP... I've always wondered whether people create their avatars as an expression of themselves, or adjust their in-game behavior to the avatar they inhabit. Whether, for example, someone would act differently if they were playing a Dwarf priest vs. a Night Elf hunter. My anecdotal evidence is so far inconclusive.


Recently my game therapy has been playing LOTRO (since SL is business these days, but still some engaging fun). Sometimes you just have to go kill something to keep your sanity.

But I'm in a medium RP guild that doesn't just game, we organize storytelling and music events several times a week.

LOTRO doesn't have RP servers, officially. And my experience is that RP servers don't *work* for a couple reasons:

(a) RPers need protection from all the folks who'll come in with names like IFragFags and start griefing anyone they see RPing.

(b) RPers are whiney gits who'll complain about each other as much as they complain about griefers

I actually suggested to Turbine that they create a RPing enforced LOTRO server and charge 3x the fee per month, to justify both the lower population that would be attracted to RP immersion and to justify the higher GMing cost of dealing with griefers (not too many that would pay the extra money, is my bet...:) and RP politics.

Finally, on the space issue -- they're old and creaky, but look up the work of Edward T. Hall on proxemics.


hmmm.... actually that web site might be a good resource in general...



I'm not at all clear where the evolution bit comes in. With the exception of SAD, I'm not sure that any of the stuff you're discussing isn't cultural. As other's have wrote distances we stand apart from people is cultural. But so too are notions of gender.

It is interesting, however, that spending time in certain areas can change mood. Of course I would imagine that when they were creating the game they said, "this place should be gloomy and dark." Of course that too seems to be a cultural thing to me as well. Theoretically in a Tolkienesque game the orks or whatever would have a different definition "gloomy" or "homey."


I'm 99% sure that game designers are already exploiting these issues of space and sunlight. Consider a game like Half-Life 2 or Gears of War, where after a prolonged period in a dark, cramped sewer environment the player emerges into sunlight and wide open spaces. Of course, it's at precisely that moment that the game cues in the soundtrack...


Excellent post, Dmitri. Nice sound bite too.

I think of evolutionary theory as a unifying approach to behavioral science. The mechanisms that constructed our bodies are constructing our culture. Just at a much more rapid pace.


@jc, I'm a wannabe ev psych person and my guesses here are just that. Here are two more:

The size differential in a fight. I played a gnome for a year and it took me a while to get past a fear of Taurens that had no justification in the game code. They'd come up and just seem so *big* and I'd want to run away before realizing that I should pwn them with my better gear and level.

Another still is my desire (ranging from downright need to know to more niggling curiosity) to know if the thing I am interacting with is a) human and b) male or female. It seems right from Reeves and Nass' work, which seems evolutionary-based to me.

I agree with the many posts here that many in-game influences come from culture, but I don't think they all do, and I see room for many instances of both culture and evolution being at work together.

I'm getting the ideas from E.O. Wilson and just thinking through their application in virtual spaces:

For the curious:


@Dmitri. Awesome post. So much so I couldn't help ruminate from a while ago. To pun Elrond, perhaps, “the time of the avatars should be over.”

Dmx brings up an interesting topic here - are avatars that are more abstract from the *human* experience, e.g. spaceships in Eve-Online better play-toys of the imagination?


While both Castronova and Williams have made some great points in this thread, I think there's a real need in the literature on virtual worlds to have a more robust critique of sociobiology/evolutionary psychology, which I for one see as deeply flawed attempts to understand culture.

In their most reductive forms (not the more sophisticated frameworks Castronova and Williams are using, of course!), these approaches naturalize dominant forms of inequality - for instance, gender inequality. There's a big literature out there on "naturalizing power" with regard to sociobiology and evolutionary psychology that's rarely cited in these circles. The desire to know if someone is male or female, for instance, is not a priori - it is not the same in all cultures, nor is gender or sexuality always constructed in the same way.

Evolutionary theory is not convincing as a unifying approach to behavioral science (and it's interesting when in these discussions we switch from "social science" to "behavioral science") because not all variation is adaptive or genetic. There is undoubtedly a biological (and thus genetically inherited) capability for language. But no one speaks "Language," we speak English or German or Japanese, and we will never find a gene for "English" or "German," because what has evolved is an underdetermined capacity for language--and for culture more broadly--which is instantiated only in historically specific contexts.

So to claim that the mechanisms that constructed our bodies are constructing any culture, at any pace, is of course true on one level, but on another the claim engages in a category mistake, confusing the biological capacity for culture with specific cultures that arise in specific contexts of history and power. And it is precisely in such contexts that cultures are emerging in virtual worlds.


Interesting topic, and I don't think there's many people who'd disagree that cultural and biological evolution interact.

Still, with all due respect to Dimitri, it comes off to this ape as virtual just-so story.


Though this isn't my thing, I've got chime in to say that based on my limited exposure, I'm also pretty skeptical of the way evo-psych is being deployed generally (not in this post, but in the media). There's a tendency among evo-psych enthusiasts to explain and "justify" a lot of culturally contingent phenomenon (e.g. gender roles) with claims about hard-wired human nature. Curiously, I think it shares the same philosophical problems (a faith in mechanistic determinism) that creates credibility problems with the strong AI crowd. But anyway, here's a thread on the "dangers of evo-psych" topic that I suppose we don't need to recreate here.

But what I think a lot of people are responding to positively here is that SAD applies to virtual environments and gnomes feel afraid of Taurens. I think this is great stuff, because it shows how embodiment and the cognitive attribution of embodiment to others plays out in a very real way in virtual spaces. That's fascinating to me -- I had some thoughts about it before here. I think some of this can be explained by the fact that the mind takes cognitive shortcuts, though. It taxes our cognitive power too much in virtual spaces to remind ourselves that we're viewing images of a place where we are not truly present. So we think as though the virtual is half-real and we are half-real within it and operate within the same cognitive frameworks we would employ offline. It's just too difficult to do anything else.


Tom said "not all variation is adaptive or genetic." He also said "In their most reductive forms (not the more sophisticated frameworks Castronova and Williams are using, of course!), these approaches naturalize dominant forms of inequality."

I agree with both of these points. I don't agree that these are effective criticisms of evolutionary psych. As for the first: The evolutionary mechanic allows for mutations and spandrels (things that happen indirectly as a result of some adaptive process). Evolutionary theory does not assert that all things we see are adaptive. That some variation is not adaptive is not an effective critique.

The second: The fact that some people misuse a theory has nothing to do with whether the theory is a good way to approach a question.

We had this debate before. Because some people misuse evol psych, it was said, we should not use it. To use EP, it was said, would be to support various heinous ideologies. But it seemed to me then, and still does, that not to use it on those grounds is just as ideological.

From the thread Greg links:

"This whole “debate” frustrates the hell out me. Purveyors of untestable just-so stories on one side, people who make demonstrably stupid statements about there being “no such thing as human nature” on the other, and in the middle- science, having the life squeezed out of it. Ugh."


Ted, agreed.

To paraphrase that quote:

1. When certain evo psych enthusiasts make claims with no evidence to support them or refuse to consider the role of culture and ideology in explaining human behavior, they're being obscurantists. (Deliberating refusing to explore certain ideas because of their ideological commitments.)

2. When certain anti-EP enthusiasts rule out EP claim and data simply because of the consequences they might have or because they do not wish to consider biological and evolutionary causation of human nature, they're also obscurantists. (Deliberating refusing to explore certain ideas because of their ideological commitments.)

I think the debate we had before about this (post-Ludium I) was about the merits of a particular research proposal.

I guess the point I wanted to make (perhaps I've made it) is that the intriguing aspects of the phenomena that Dmitri is noting don't have much, as far as I can tell, to do with evo-psych as an explanatory theory. I think you can gather lots of interesting data (and apparently many people are doing and have done this) w/r/t virtual embodiment, perception, and socialization without needing to have evo-psych play much of a part in a working hypothesis.


I should add that, that said, if Dmitri is interested in thinking about the evo-psych aspects of all this stuff and drawing the Savannah connections to happiness in Nagrand, that's great and more power to him. :-)

And also, I want to flag that I have no expertise in this area. I'm operating on intuitions.


Thoreau said: "As a ranger, I had the abililty to solo, to move about in stealth mode, and see around corners with my tracking skills. These are all things that my real life personality embraces. I am a careful person, quiet, and tend toward the loner side of the continuum.

My nephew, who plays various games, has never played a tank class. Yet, that is his personality in real life. He is blunt, quick to act, and tends to try and win by brute force. He has never found a game that he is truely happy with.

I think to find happiness with your avatar you must understand what qualities or elements you enjoy in real life and then select a class that posseses those qualities."

That would explain why I loved my first character in WoW, a mage. For an idea of why, in soccer I tend to shy away from direct physical confrontations with other players, which is what the mage class is built around.

However, at the same time, I also enjoy playing a tank class. Perhaps its more just a symptom of a multi-faceted personality, though. I dislike close encounters, but I like being at the front of a group fighting and leading. Heh, as a mage, I'm one of those mages that likes to pull the mobs, and tends to talk a bit much.


On a much lighter note, here's video made by an advertising agency, DRAFTFCB,to showcase how we would behave in real life if we exhibited the same behaviors as our avatars. Had to post this piece, I couldn't help myself!


Great to see Mia reference some of the early work done by people like Susan Herring on the these issues (Lori Kendall is fav of mine on the relation between online/offline). Biocca (mentioned in the post) and others in the older net/VR community also have an interesting set of research on the subject that goes back to the 1990s. (For a qual approach on what I think of as the embodiment issue there is also some of my older fieldwork on WorldsAway. There are some cites to Biocca and others in that piece that may be of interest.)


I'm much more on the nurture side of things than the nature side but I'm certainly willing to see that the truth is somewhere in between.

I'm also much more of a FPS player and research FPS players so I've not much experience in MMOs which may skew my experiences.

A lot of this is stuff that we're not going to be able to answer one way or another (I've never been so identified with a game character or avatar that I've felt too small or afraid of big monsters. But I'm also a tall person so does that play a role?) but clearly it is a subject we need to think and talk about.

To perhaps trot out another dead horse, that of emotions in games, I think that perhaps this is a place where a game can create emotions that aren't directly related to the story or empathy with the characters. Do we need to pay more attention to the mise en scène of games or play spaces? I think the answer is yes.


I agree with Greg, monkeysan, and many others. What you say is correct, Ted, but that doesn't change the fact that a just-so story (a "plausible story," as Gould put it) shouldn't be given scientific credence simply because it's possible (or, certainly, intuitively attractive or satisfying). In the absence of better (more) data, such a move should be resisted, because it doesn't generate a falsifiable claim.


I know nothing about EvPsych except that it can be derived from the flavor of evolution that I do believe has the prospect of unifying behavioral science:

Evolutionary Game Theory.

Its relevant that the author just linked has been a pariah in economics for his entire career. His sin? He's a marxist. As his career developed, however, he became persuaded that the best quantitative theory for understanding human social behavior involved selection dynamics and formal, mathematical game theory.

Its funny that when I was within traditional economics, I hated the math and thought much of it obscured understanding. Moreover, by forcing departments and tenure committees to screen people based on math skills, math creates a nasty social dynamic where brainiacs advance rapidly but the broad minded but math-dumb (*cough*yourstruly*cough*) fail out. People countered that with all of its faults, math forces you to be explicit in what you're saying, to put all of your assumptions down on paper. It allows readers to judge for themselves exactly what your point is. Its weird that I am on their side for once.

In Gintis' book, he takes a student through game theory and through evolutionary theory, expressed in the hyper-reduced terms of mathematics. If you approach the subject that way, its not possible to create just-so stories. Rather, you're forced to make specific logical claims, which almost always will have major points of falsifiability. But similarly, if you approach the subject abstractly and precisely, you cannot possibly make the mistakes about the method that often get made by critics. For example, critics who says that evolutionary models relegate women to making sandwiches or whatever. Um, no...not in any model I have seen.

Its unfortunate that the work Dmitri is citing gets overshadowed by the mad claims of people who are apparently bad scientists and bad thinkers. For the record: bad science and bad thinking are bad. OK, let's stop debating that one. Specifically, @Thomas: a merely plausible story is not something I would give scientific credence to. Evar.

Still, I would assert that evolutionary game theory is very much ftw. That I, a social conservative, and Gintis, the sans-culotte, both agree on a method of doing economics, should be striking. It hasn't been accepted by the mainstream, but the mainstream of economics long ago stopped paying attention to anything but itself; who knows what they are up to now. I'm willing to guess there's not going to be uptake within the core of the discipline primarily because the normative implications of evolution are far more complex than the [free market equilibrium = nirvana] implications of standard neoclassical economics.

In closing: for anyone getting heated up about this, go do the math. It's mostly algebra, with a bit of calc. If you do the math, at the very least, you're being specific about claims. And if everyone is specific about claims, these global just-so stories and the vehement rejection of them, along with ideological concerns, are just hot air and can be avoided.


Ted, whether a claim "almost always will have major points of falsifiability" has nothing to do with the theory by itself. It is the construction of questions informed by a theory *relative to an empirical context* (such as one that happened hundreds of thousands of years ago), that will or will not provide an opportunity to generate empirical support for the claim (whether through experiment or exploratory work).

So let me be very clear (since the several times this has come up on TN may not have been enough to do so): I have no problems in principle with evolutionary game theory (or even evolutionary psychology). It's the kind of thing that should be pursued, and could, like any other interesting approach, generate worthwhile inquiries. The problem is in the temptation to which evpsych (and sociobiology) are particularly prone ; that is, to elide the enormous difficulties in verifying these claims through experiment or exploration in favor of celebrating an account because it rings true in our modern-day ears. Nothing about these fields grants them a free pass on the empirical element -- perhaps if they seem marginalized it is because it is in this area that they have for the most part failed to rise to the challenge.


Mia>Susan Herring did some great work that challenged the idea that online we are bodiless, genderless, etc etc beings.

I haven't read any of her recent work, but I did follow the debate when gender studies theorists first descended on virtual worlds in the mid-1990s. There seemed to be two points of view, as I recall:

1) The virtual frees the mind from the body, therefore in time the more time we spend virtual then the greater the chance we'll be able to leave outdated notions such as gender behind us.

2) The mind and the body are too integrated to be separated in such a simplistic fashion, and people will always take into a virtual world aspects of their being that are informed by their body.

As far as I could tell, the gender theorists decided on 2) and then went away.

The thing is, these academics may have been "gender theorists", but the arguments as they were put seemed to be entirely from a "gender=female" point of view. Maybe I looked in the wrong places, but I didn't see a great deal of discussion arguing about whether male players were as tied to their bodies as female players (and, indeed, some suggestion that they weren't). This wasn't followed up anywhere, that I encountered, though.

>Her work and the work of others has consistently found that we bring our bodies, our gendered expectations, our beliefs about how we should relate, and what we ourselves keep perpetuating, online with us.

I'm with this for the "gendered expectations" part onwards, but I didn't see anything about how men regard their bodies in the literature when I looked at this. I know I didn't, because I was specifically looking for it: it's well known empirically that male players are far more likely to play female characters than female players are likely to play male characters, so perhaps one explanation of this could be that men aren't as attached to their bodies as women? The articles I read didn't seem to care about this; they only considered in depth how women's minds were tied to their bodies.

OK, so I haven't read anything on this subject for 5 years, so clearly need to revisit it. Can you point me at any articles that give an overview of accepted theory as it stands in this regard?



To quote Ted "For the record: bad science and bad thinking are bad." Too true. I don't think anyone is skipping merrily down the path of eugenics. Now let's keep the baby while we shun the bathwater.

I think these issues are testable and falsifiable, although I admit to being not up to snuff on the base theory. But I'd think that the nature/nurture aspects of the test could be sussed out through random assignment to condition, i.e. if you get enough people in each cell, all of the nurture stuff will be evenly distributed and cancel out. So, e.g. put x people from all over the world in the role of the gnome and x in the role of the Tauren and see if there are fight/flight reaction differences. If so, it must be nature.

And, FWIW, my impression on gender studies matches Richard's, i.e. that it's mostly informed by feminist and queer theory, although I'd love to hear of work that does this stuff for men. Like the above, it's all falsifiable and testable turf. Perhaps someone who reads the journal Sex Roles can fill in the blanks here.


put x people from all over the world in the role of the gnome and x in the role of the Tauren and see if there are fight/flight reaction differences. If so, it must be nature.

Actually, that's not strictly true. There is nothing to keep all human societies from sharing certain features of nurturing practice. Universality does not lead inevitably to a conclusion that something is "nature".

There is a bigger problem here, however. Nature and nurture certainly shape us, but when you think about it it doesn't even make a whole lot of sense to treat nature/nurture as an either/or proposition. Many human adaptation researchers I know (those are the biological anthropologists down the hall) consider the most interesting and forward-thinking work to be that which looks to understand the processes by which mutation, practice, and circumstances together form and re-form certain biological and cultural realities.


There is nothing to keep all human societies from sharing certain features of nurturing practice.

Not to mention the fact that software is endowed with certain cultural assumptions... Proficiency with computers doesn't come for free.


Good points both.

But if the process is back-and-forth between culture and biology over time, wouldn't a universally shared nurturing processing have become nature at some point? Or could we say that if it's universal then the distinction between the two has become irrelevant for practical purposes?

Ola, yes, the digital divide and cultural differences are separate from biology. But if you randomly assigned enough people to the two conditions, all differences become equated, leaving only the experimental difference as a causal agent to test. In practice, that'd be unrealistic, but I believe the method makes sense in principle.


While most of the stuff on gender does come from women's studies and queer theory that doesn't automatically throw it out for men. While the details may be specific to women I haven't read much that in general can't be applied to men.

Regardless there is a growing body of work on men and masculinity and more and more Women's Studies departments are becoming Gender Studies.

The same applies to race. There isn't nearly as much about whiteness but a lot of it does talk about race in relationship to whiteness because in the West white people have historically been dominant just as men have been.


@Dmitri: There's no reason to expect that these possible universal cultural practices -- which we're imagining would become established through a commonality of practical conditions -- would then "become nature" over time, because there is no *necessary* mechanism to do so. That is, even though culture and biology do influence each other, there is no set path (toward incorporation in the genome, say) that follows from that. In fact, it's possible to argue that the advent of culture and free will stop certain possible paths of selection in their tracks.

While I don't think his primary aim -- arguing for the application of the metaphor of evolution for describing cultural change -- is very successful, William Durham's book Coevolution covers a number of illuminating examples of how culture and biology interact in an iterative process, including sickle-cell anemia, lactose absorption, and several others.


Yeah, that's actually where I got this line of thinking--specifically from the West Africa yams/mosquito example he has.


Great thread. Certainly the first iteration of a new "paradigm" is the most transpositional, meaning the operational landscape of our arboreal analog past is the surface we place on the newly created environment until we can derive a more organic, internal method of operation.

But why chairs? Why does any SL abode have chairs? This is wayfinding in a social context, not an operational one. We need to sit when we hold long conversations among friends. It's more about conducting community than being tired. We imprint this onto the environment until something more organic comes along.

Given the digital constraints, an avatar is never a whole person but is instead a narrow or highly prioritized subset of the real person's needs. The avatar fulfills a role for a slice of a person.

In a community context this role-avatar interfaces with avatars possessing complimentary needs, each fulfilling the other. Delivering on the community expectation by an avatar (often established by the avatar themselves) becomes the cost of inclusion in the community (that he/she may have helped create.) Stop or radically shift fulfilling your role in your community and it will evaporate with shocking speed.

Game oriented role playing adds a fictitious objective along with a rule set and behavioral restrictions designed to help the group achieve it. Endless discussion of rules is often the by-product and probably the reason most people don't extend role playing to this level. Objective achievement alone is overshadowed by the attainment of sustained community. Playing a role in virtual community is the emerging, organic operating system that moves us onto the virtual savannah.


Have you looked at games that actually have seasons? Animal Crossing & Animal Crossing Wild World is one that changes throughout the year. Try canvassing some players to see if they are happier when it is Summer, Winter, Spring. Also, there are day/night cycles and the weather changes. Further to this in AC:WW on the DS the top screen is entirely taken up with the sky.

If any of what you say is true then it could result in super depressed players if Nintendo manage to get games to have in game weather depending on the real weather in your area, the NiGHTs sequel allegedly includes this feature

Raining and gloomy inside and out?


Dmitri: And, FWIW, my impression on gender studies matches Richard's, i.e. that it's mostly informed by feminist and queer theory, although I'd love to hear of work that does this stuff for men.

Unfortunately women also do this for men... Which leads to strange insights. I overheard a short interview with Torill Mortensen on the radio today where she put forth that men play female characters because they enjoy controlling (dominating) a woman.

Uhm, no, they play female characters for various reasons. One is that men actually enjoy viewing the female body in motion, it's appreciation, not domination. Another is that they get to explore their feminine side which society suppresses. Yet another one is that men tend to also be capable of enjoying erotic fantasies where only women are involved. My interviews and observations does at least point in that direction. I am starting to doubt that women will ever truly understand men... They feel that men are trying to dominate them (which is true, but we want to impress real women, not plastic dolls) and interpret the world in light of this.

Btw, she also pointed to how female players of Counter Strike are harrassed by male players, who get upset when they are nuked by a woman, and that these attitudes should be changed. Forget it, Torill! These men compete in order to impress women, by instinct, even if they don't think so. If the subject you try to impress push you into the ground. Gee, what happens? Annoyance. That makes men with high self-esteem laugh, and those with low self-esteem angry. It does irk them though, even if they try to deny it. (Assuming the players are young men and young women.)

So well, yes, even speculative assumptions about evolution and instinct can be helpful and make theorists avoid some pitfalls. There. Got that off my chest. Have a nice day!


Gnome vs Tauren, eh?

So for each participant, you would maybe want to know:

their personal opinion on whether size matters

to what extent the depiction of characters on the screen registers with them at all

how they might personally feel about being a small, evil thing, versus a big ugly animalistic one

that might be because they're small or large in real life, and they are happy to identify with, or rebel against that self image in the virtual

do you change the gender of the combatant avatars? female gnome vs male tauren? vice-versa? again with a selection of participants across genders, with various issues of self identity, gender politics...

Tauren don't have much in the way of human features versus the "small human-like" faces of gnomes- does that make a difference?

how many more permutations of nature/nurture could influence how each participant feels about being the gnome or the tauren in a confrontation? You can hope for some bump in the numbers to suggest that people feel stronger in the bigger avatar, but what if that's due to a combination of the other factors? Are statistics going to smooth it out enough for a sound-bite?

It seems a lot more complex than a hunch that "people will feel stronger and more confident to battle as the tauren"

That said, I do think that the proteus effect is very much alive and well in Second Life. Yes, people love to have a house with a roof, and walls and doors and curtains, filled with familiar decorations and comfortable looking seating. This is why thousands upon thousands of comfortable, non-challenging home buildings and the furnishings to go with them are sold every month in world. Here's a thought- Bad Weather is Other People.

Avatars do love to sit, too. Something friends will often do, is sit on something together, close to each other. Unfortunately, that expression of friendship and intimacy invariably leaves their avatars facing away from each other at a shared horizon, but well, that was a different study, so never mind. ;)


I grew up suburbia. Lots of houses. I find myself gravitating towards Ultima Online. Who knew?

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