May 20, 2008

Sessions 2 - Relationship between WoW and the Real World

Session 2 focused on the relationships between WoW and the Real World. The session was chaired by Dimitri Williams, and the panelists were:
Timothy Burke
Julian Dibbell
Constance Steinkuehler
Nick Yee

attending session2

1. Are friendships formed within VWs real?
  • Nick: most gamers think so. On the whole though, I think it's more productive to think about how online relationships provide different social spaces than face to face relationships, rather than to compare the two and say that one is more real or better than the other.
  • Constance: it's always interesting to me that I have colleagues who I see less of than gamer friends, yet my gamer friends need to be defended in terms of their "realness". Could be a generational divide -youth and younger adults have relationships that span real/virtual naturally.
  • Tim: One of the basic issues behind a lot of our questions today is the real/virtual divide. Scholars maybe spend too much time worrying about that as a whole.
  • Dmitri: what does "real" mean, then?
  • Constance: by real, most people might mean "consequential."
  • Tim:it maight be easier to walk away from a virtual relationship than a real life relationship.
  • Nick: important to remember that different people want different things and form different kinds of relationships in these worlds
  • Constance: the kids I work with don't really have access to unmoderated, unsupervised play spaces like my own generation had - virtual spaces & social networks create the new playgrounds.

2. Do the values encoded into a space (think GTA or WoW) matter? Is anyone playing WoW going to become environmentally more aware (earthy themes among the Tauren and in quests) or racially insensitive (listening to any troll and having a Jar Jar Binks charicature moment)?

  • Tim: I question the tendency to over-read the meanings of much of the content of WoW and similar spaces - some scholars tend to see far too tight a consequential mapping. Think this most of popular culture. Media effects arguments in any medium are very hard to measure or quantify in a satisfying way.
  • Julian: I think they matter in the same way as with other cultural products: They give consumers clues as to what their culture does and doesn't value and how
  • Nick: there are different levels to value coding. For example, whether it's blatant or something you discover in experimentation and trials (like figuring out that Caesar will always attack you unprovoked in Civ 4).
  • Bill Bainbridge: The concept of values altogether remains controversial in social science. My recent book, Across the Secular Abyss, shows that religious beliefs have few consequences in the real world, especially outside strong group control.
  • Constance: I study games and learning and - yes- I think you learn more from a game than from tv. I think they're special in terms of the systems they allow us to develop embodied empathy for. Argue that most media consumers are far smarter than we give them credit
  • Tim: Stereotypes won't be formed because of WoW by itself. Stereotypes in that sense are massively diffuse, open for constant reuse. They're like little cyphers embedded throughout the whole of culture. It's not that culture doesn't shape consciousness and therefore action in ways that audiences aren't fully in control of, but the loops involved are not simple behavioralist ones.

waiting for session 2

3. What is the potential for doing scientific research in WoW or other virtual worlds, relevant to the real world?

  • Tim: My first angle of approach with virtual worlds is always to treat them as "accidental social simulations". They're richer and more complex than any model in normal social science. But they're simple enough to study in ways the world at large cannot be. Models in social science are predictable. Scholars can make them do what scholars want them to do. Virtual worlds aren't predictable: they have all the organic character of human society. So, yes, they are relevant, with limits.
  • Nick: I'm more interested in applications to virtual worlds rather than generalizations to physical interactions or the physical world. In this space, I'm fascinated by how virtual worlds let us break rules of representation and social interaction.
  • Dmitri: Can research in WoW or other VWs actually improve the human condition *offline*?
  • Constance: It already has. Use games under a "gateway drug" model. so intellectual practices here give entree into intellectual practices elsewhere.
  • Julian: the more interesting research problem is understanding VWs themselves as social spaces.
  • Nick: I think splitting it all up into online vs. offline is strange given that so much of our interactions happen in mediated spaces already.
  • Tim: I think the most interesting way to look at policy formation or action in VWs is to watch what developers do historically.

4. Why would anyone gender swap?

  • Constance: Why WOULDNT someone gender swap?
  • Nick: There's a consistent gender difference in gender swapping. From my survey data, men are 3-5 times more likely to gender-bend than women. So in a game like WoW where this is compounded with a heavy RL gender skew to begin with about 1 out of every 2 female avatars is played by a man, whereas only 1 out of every 100 male avatars is played by a woman. Understanding that gender difference is key.
  • Bill: The concept "gender swap" seems to assume that WoW characters are avatars. For most adult players, they are not. Rather they are often puppets, toys, friends, agents. In chat, people say "my lock, my pally, my shammy, my toon." My!
  • Tim: In a way, I think the most interesting thing about that question is to read the stock responses that appear in player discourse about this. (Some of which we're echoing here).
  • Bill: Ray Kurzweil no more thinks he is a woman, like his avatar Ramona, than kids think they are rotund Italian plumbers like the Mario they play with. Some young males may prefer female characters because no girl is willing to be their friend.
  • Constance: We need to differentiate between gamers' theories of gender swapping and gamers' motivations for it.
  • Audience comment: the male avatars in wow are definitely not based on women's idealized views of men in the same way that the reverse is true.
  • Follow-up: Considering there's supposed to be a lot less women than men in these games, could that be the source of the difference?

5. I've heard that games can be good for learning, but can anyone really learn anything important in WoW? Is there transfer?

  • Constance: Yes people learn. I've focused mostly on informal science, computational literacy, digital & traditional literacies - there are some compelling findings: on analysis, 86% of forum chatter = social knowledge construction, only 8% was idle chatter. Social knowledge construction is problem solving, puzzling through systems (often by hypothesizing models), etc.
  • Dmitri: Any limitations or affordances different than classrooms?
  • Constance: folks here are focused on a motherload of intellectual work, that when compared to K-12 standards looks OFF THEW HOOK. NOT ALL people gaming do it, and NOT ALL games elicit it (though most do), but you can say same of classrooms and textbooks, so that shouldn't worry us. Games are deeply life enhancing in the Dewey sense for the majority of those who play, including & especially intellectually.
  • Tim: So: want to learn calculus, World of Warcraft not a good idea. Want to learn how to get results in a small group? Fantastic. Want to learn in general how to act to improve results? Also fantastic. Is that a good breakdown?
  • Audience comment: Actually, the calculations some players do to figure out stats are stunning.

waiting for session 2 again

6. Can an MMO really help make someone a leader?

  • Nick: Much of leadership and management are about dealing with people-resolving conflicts, setting expectations, giving constructive feedback. Even if it's all online, they're still real people.
  • Dmitri: I've seen a lot of opinion about this, but no solid research showing it. Falls under the "want to believe" category, no?
  • Tim: A sort of sideways approach to this, though. I actually think playing Dungeons and Dragons was a good way to develop my pedagogical skills. But online VWs "cap" or constrain how much players control the world and the social environment. What kind of leadership matters.
  • Constance: there's a doctoral student (Moses Wolfenstein) here doing work on leadership in wow from a leadership training perspective - he has data based on longitudinal, and both observational and interview/measure. As a guild leader for many years, I can tell you that not all wow leadership skills transfer well.

7. To what extent do people act as themselves or not when going into VWs and why?


8. Are people more or less prone to deception and lying in virtual worlds than they are in the real world? What makes someone trustworthy in WoW, and does that track against trust in real-world relationships?

  • Tim: This came up at a workshop I was at recently, and I was a bit surprised at how people thought that deception was rare in real life. We all perform roles, faces, postures. But I do think there are some really interesting heuristics that inform trust in an environment like WoW. Nick's done good work on that.
  • Julian: Also I think it's key to factor in whether you're talking about interactions between guildmates or not, "in WoW" is a pretty variegated field, in terms of social connections.
  • Nick: Jeff Hancock, from Cornell, did a really interesting study of deception in online dating ads. They had age, height, and weight of the real people and the corresponding ads they had put up online. They found that almost everyone lied, but that the lie was on average fairly small. But the opposite is also true, people are more willing to share secrets online because of the lack of social consequences. So about 35% of 3200 respondents said they had shared a secret with an online friend that they had never told anyone in the real world.
  • Tim: Here too different virtual worlds create different kinds of consciousness or practices. Many players would trust people in WoW based on thin information, but not in EVE.
  • Julian: what's key in Tim's point is that VWs are different from online generally - they play with fiction/nonfiction in often assertive ways
  • Nick: There was an interesting study recently that people were more likely to lie when using an avatar that was very different from them

9. Blame Mr. Bungle for all of this, but: Are there good real-world models or practices for governance, management and social organization that aren't present in World of Warcraft, but that developers and players would benefit from if they were imported into the gameworld? Are there other virtual worlds that approach governance and social organization in a fundamentally different but useful way?

  • Julian: It's hard to say. there have been so few other models of governance. LambdaMOO was this brief athenian moment, but all the others have been these sort of corporate autocracies. even SL.
  • Tim: This is where I get into my obsession with sovereignty. It would be an advance if developers simply recognized that they *do* govern.
  • Audience comment: We have to remember the nature of "games" vs "worlds," in games we are supposed to follow set rules.
  • Tim: Part of the question would be in game-type VWs, are there "playful" social forms or structures that no one has implemented or allowed?
  • Bill: One of the great potentials of virtual worlds is to host utopian experiments, so it would be wonderful to see many of them incorporating ideas not from standard real-world institutions, but from utopian sources.

10. True or False: Julian Dibbell is an atrocious ninja looter.

  • True!
There were several audience questions and discussion around creating "swift trust" in game, where Nick said that it's more like strangers in a war trench ... it's the sudden crises that spark a lot of relationships, but that was more prevalent in older games where the death penalty was higher than in WoW. Another question was Why aren't VWs used more for research? Is there a stigma preventing it or something else? And how many people's spouses currently think you are not "working" right now? Tim said that he thought one issue is that the most interesting VWs are hard to work with because they're major commercial products, and Nick agreed thatt game companies are hard to work with on research.
Dmitri said "there is a large project researching EQ2 data I and others (Nick among them) are working on. We have all of the system data, plus survey work. First paper on it was just accepted and we'll post it to the wiki."

After the session, we adjourned to the Royal Quarter in the Undercity to listen to the "Lament of the Highbourne" quest end (though I have screwed up my audio settings enough that I couldn't hear the song):

lament of the highborne
Due to real life commitments, I wasn't able to go on the second or third expeditions. :-(

A recap of Session 3 will come soon - however, I actually didn't "attend" and just recorded the chat log, so I'll need to review it. This session took discussion from all participants.

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