8 August, 2006
The ever brilliant Nick Yee recently gave a presentation at PARC in Palo Alto, CA about virtual worlds and various topics related to them. You can see the video of the presentation online, it is worth watching.
There’s a lot of topics in the talk that I think are very important to online games, including the real diversity of players and a good look at what “addiction” to online games really is. Nick did the research, so now I can can do the pontification. :)
One of the first interesting things Nick talks about is that there really is a wide variety of people playing these games. We have moved beyond the stereotype of the teenage or early 20′s pasty white male geek playing these games and it’s really become a more diverse activity. One small surprise for me was his figures for females playing the game. These figures seemed a bit lower than I expected given my experiences and what developers have mentioned previously. One of the interesting things about the guild I belong to in EQ2 is that there is a very high concentration of women in the guild; of course, they are an organized and very disciplined raiding-orientated guild, not some guild that tries to add a bunch of people just to be able to brag about numbers. The rise in use of Ventrilo makes it more obvious that we actually do have a fair number of women gaming.
Nick also mentions that you are unlikely to find such a wide cross-section offline. This has always been true of these games for as long as I have been playing. One of the really neat things about playing text MUD is that I was able to talk to people from around the world. It was cool being able to talk to people from the U.K. and pick up a bit of slang from there. These are people I doubt I would have met except for in the MUD. You also get the effect that people don’t now who you are, so a lot of biases fall by the wayside: there are some very smart and efficient teenagers out there that seem to be much older than they are. One guy I met in Meridian 59 was a teenager when I first started talking to him. Several years later he’s in his early 20′s and we still talk on a semi-regular basis. But, he was always very mature in our conversations and I didn’t judge him based on what his chronological age was as I might have if we met offline.
I found it interesting that 80% of our players play with people they know offline. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising since I fall into that category myself: I started playing WoW and EQ2 because my friends were playing the game. I play and group with them almost exclusively. For me, it was fun in WoW because we all knew each other and could trust each other fairly well; this meant I could use my different forms as a Druid, sometimes healing, sometimes offtanking when needed. In pick-up groups, the trust wasn’t there so I had to pretty much stick to healing, which wasn’t as much fun for me. I imagine that experience is hardly unique. I also wonder if this figure includes people who “met” in other games then came to a new game; they would technically know each other outside the context of the game, but it’s not quite the same as a bunch of college buddies getting together and playing for fun.
There was an important bit to help design in the talk as well. Nick said that players want guidance for the “next step” because this is something missing in offline life. I thought this was interesting, and seems to match my experience. People seem happiest when they have a goal: to get the next level, to visit the next town, to master the next spell. Giving no obvious options (or too many options) can frustrate the player. Again, WoW did this wonderfully where you have a goal from the first time you log onto the game. You have continuous direction through the quest mechanism, but you can deviate a bit if you want. This is one of the things that I think has given the game the relative longevity it has enjoyed.
The talk also touched about a very sensitive topic these days: gold farmers. I thought it was interesting that Americans were quick to make accusations. In the talk, Nick said that someone who responded in French (to avoid dealing with someone) was accused of being a “Chinese gold farmer” and the person was going to report the non-English speaker. I know that Americans are supposed to be uncultured and uninterested in linguistics, but this is a bit too much. Learn some languages! (Sorry, the language geek in me made me type that last sentence.)
One thing I will disagree with Nick on is how deep the parallels between Chinese workers in California and gold farmers really go. Let me be clear, the way Americans treated the Chinese immigrants during the California gold rush and the building of the railroads, and then afterwards, was despicable. Unfortunately, it seems xenophobia is a recurring trait for Americans. Even though we pride ourselves in our diversity, we are still suspicious of people outside our group, and we are sometimes very exclusive in our attitudes. Unfortunately, we see this even today with reports of violence against any people that seem Arabic (even Sikhs!) I think the biases against “Chinese” gold farmers is more a sign of xenophobia and groupthink in general rather than specific hate of Chinese. The Chinese just have the disadvantage of being much more numerous than gold farmers in Mexico or other places, so people have made the assumption that a vast majority of the farmers are Chinese. Of course, I don’t share Nick Yee’s ethnic background, so I have different views of the matter than he does.
Finally, Nick talks about something that gets a lot, perhaps too much, press these days: online addiction. I think Nick has some very smart things to say about this topic, and I hope that more news writers start asking him for information. He points out that addiction is more than just playing these games too often. After all, people watch a lot of TV, but TV news anchors don’t seem to talk much about “TV addiction” these days….
Nick points out that many of the “online addiction” surveys were surveys for other addictions, such as gambling or drugs, with the specific problem replaced. This is dangerous because behavior doesn’t necessarily translate between these different issues. Lying about losing this month’s rent at the horse track is quite different than lying about playing 20 hours this week instead of 30. One directly impacts your life (not paying rent will make you homeless), whereas the other requires a bit more evaluation of the motivation in order to put it in context. Are you simply ashamed of the amount of time you spent? If so, this isn’t really addiction, rather poor time management. Most people have lied about wasting time at one point in their life, this doesn’t necessarily mean you’re addicted to fishing or reading, etc.
At the wonderful Games, Learning, and Society Conference in 2005, some presenters from the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles talked about online game addiction. They said that the real measure of “addiction” is how much the game disrupts your life outside the game. If you still get your work done, pay attention to your family, etc., then playing a lot is not a detriment. On the other hand, if playing even a couple of hours per week is disruptive to your family relationships or some other core of your everyday life, this can be a problem.
In Nick’s presentation, he mentioned a very interesting fact relating to addiction: people who claim to be “addicted” to online games often also have signs of clinical depression. In other words, being online is a way to reach out to others in a comfortable way. So, you can’t just treat the online addiction as a separate problem, you really have to look at the core problems causing this undesired behavior. I think that being online can really help people; as I’ve said before, I learned how to extrovert easier by interacting with people online. And, most people that work through their problems online will often enjoy the time they spent online, even if they have decided to cut back.
In all, a very interesting presentation.