Massively multiplayer games can be a global melting pot. Hop into “World of Warcraft” or “Guild Wars” and your North American warrior can rub shoulders with an Australian healer.
But more often than not, online gamers are more apt to hang out with people in their neighborhoods than people on the next continent, says a new study. The analysis, which tracked the playing habits of 7,000 people in Sony Online’s “EveryQuest II,” says gamers game with people they know: friends, friends of friends and family.
That’s not to say that people don’t meet new folks playing “EverQuest II,” says Dmitri Williams, one of the study’s investigators. But the research shows that the Internet — and online games — are used mostly as a way to stay in touch with friends and family.
“These aren’t necessarily the new weirdos, these are the weirdos that you already knew,” says Williams, who is an assistant professor of communications at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School.
It is true that online-game players tend to connect to nearby servers, which results in faster gameplay. But unlike “World of Warcraft,” which has tons of servers to accommodate its 11.5 million monthly subscribers, Sony Online has a couple dozen English-speaking servers and five foreign-language servers for “EQII.” So it’s less likely that players would find themselves randomly playing someone down the street, just because of server distribution. These players, says Williams, are taking their offline relationships online.
To administer the study Williams and three other investigators studied server logs from the game, which were provided by Sony Online.
The logs were divided into three categories: action (what players did and made), interaction (who players interacted with) and transaction (what they bought and sold). The team could tell who was going on quests with whom, who players grouped with, who was fighting what monster.
The National Science Foundation and the Army Research Institute funded the study, but Sony Online gave the research team access to the logs because it was interested in the study’s findings as a way to better understand their players, says company spokesperson Courtney Simmons.
But Simmons stresses that Sony Online didn’t want to know too much — or let the researchers get too personal. The team didn’t have access to players’ names or any personal information, says Noshir Contractor, another one of the study’s investigators and a social sciences professor at Northwestern University. All the data was made anonymous.
Sony gave the research team the ability to link a survey in the game and an optional battery of questions that asked players how much they played, who they played with, levels of depression and even sexual preferences.
Again, the responses were anonymous, but the team was able to map the 7,000 survey respondents with their actual activity within the game without knowing who the people were.
Players underestimate play time
One finding that isn’t terribly shocking: Players tended to underestimate how much they play. But women significantly lowballed their guesses: Women self-reported, on average, 26 hours of weekly play and their actual average play time was 29 hours. Men, by contrast, were off by only an hour.
Williams says that while there are more men playing than women, women are the hardcore players. “That, to me, was a definite myth buster,” he says. “And then the other weird finding, that the players were healthy.”
Online gamers are ... fitter than average?
Huh? Yep, you read that right. According to the data, “EverQuest II” players are fitter than the average American. There goes that obese, sedentary gamer stereotype.
The survey in the game asked players to report their height and weight, and from that, the research team calculated their body mass indexes. On average, “EverQuest II” players had a body mass index of 25.19 compared with the 28 BMI of the average American.
Of course, people who answered the survey in “EverQuest II” could have lied about their height and weight. But the Centers for Disease Control asks the question in the same way, says Williams. ”If they’re wrong, we’re wrong, and there’s no reason to think we’re any more or less wrong than they are. “
Replacing TV with gaming
He has a theory about why gamers surveyed are fitter than the average plump American, though: Gamers are watching less television, and as a result, are being exposed to fewer commercials. The typical American, he points out, takes in between 20 and 25 hours of TV a week, and gamers are replacing that with gaming.
“What they’ve removed is all the commercial influences, which, at their most basic and clear level, say to consume. They say, ‘buy this, eat this, do this,’” says Williams. “It’s not that the games are particularly healthy, it’s the lack of the unhealthy thing that people get from regular consumer culture.”
Disproportionately high depression
Another finding: Players who reported being depressed was disproportionately high in “EverQuest II.” But there’s a second sentence to that bullet point: Depression was particularly pronounced among those who played on role-playing servers.
For the uninitiated, role-playing servers in games like “EverQuest” are safe harbors for game purists. On these servers, you never break character. If you’re playing as an elf, you use elven language, a la “Lord of the Rings.” You won’t hear players talking about current events or pop culture on role-playing servers — you’re more likely to hear people talking like they’re at a Renaissance Faire. These are not the overwhelming majority of online gamers, by any means.
Contractor, ever the scientist, says there are two explanations for depressed people playing the role-playing servers on “EverQuest.” One is that role-playing games make people depressed. But he thinks the more plausible answer is that these role-playing sanctuaries are an outlet for people with depression, a way to escape into a completely different character.
If these games can provide tools for people who have depression, or are feeling isolated in real life, it’s an opportunity for release, he says. “These are promising avenues for helping sections of society that may feel disenfranchised in the offline world.”
But on a less ambitious level, the study should be reassuring for anyone who fears that online gaming is something exotic or vastly different than real life. Online games, Contractor says, are really proving to be an extension of our offline lives, not a replacement for them. And people prefer, in both places, to hang out with people they know.
“Just because you can connect with anyone, anywhere, that doesn’t mean that you do connect with anyone, anywhere,” he says.
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