Massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) are, by their very nature, social games. Players join guilds, team up to raid others, and participate in a virtual economy that has real-life value. But the social networks forged in online gameworlds may not be as connected as their real world counterparts, according to research presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston earlier this month.
Scientists at the University of Minnesota performed an analysis of data from servers for Everquest II and Eve Online that demonstrates that the networks of social links formed by the players through virtual teamwork, trading, and mentoring don’t become as tightly woven as normal social networks such as Facebook or in real life. In fact, instead of becoming more connected as the network grows, players tend, on average, to grow more distant from one another. While networks in the real world shrink, tying people closer to one another as its population expands, an MMO pulls them apart, its population full of players with few or no social ties to other players.
To conduct their analysis, the researchers broke down the vast web of networks on game servers into their individual cliques. As is typical in social networks, a strong core of connected players tends to form, and most people are linked to it through at least one tie to another player. This main core is referred to as the Largest Connected Component (LCC). But some people belong to smaller splinter groups that remain outside and unconnected to the LCC.
One metric for measuring the connectedness of a social network is to consider the maximum number of links it takes to get from one person to another in the LCC—the common notion of “degrees of separation”. The maximum distance across the LCC of a social network is known as the network’s “diameter”. In a typical social network, said Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad, lead author on the study, the network diameter starts out large—meaning that the early adopters aren’t really very well connected—and then consistently decreases over time, becoming more linked. Thus, somewhat counterintuitively, even as the overall population of the network increases, the interaction of members tends to shrink the diameter and the members of the network become socially closer to one another.
But what surprised the researchers was that in an MMO, the network diameter doesn’t shrink. For instance, when one Everquest server was first initialized, the researchers found that in its early stages of growth, the diameter was 17 degrees of separation. The researchers’ baseline model simulating standard behavior showed that the server’s diameter ought to quickly shrink until it reached six degrees of separation, a typical real-world value. But instead, what their data showed was that the diameter oscillated around 17 degrees of separation and then grew, indicating that, on average, a given person would need to make more connections to find someone else.
Another way of measuring the amount of interaction is to measure the total population of the LCC over time. As most social networks grow more interconnected, there usually comes a point
where the two largest components merge, causing a spike in the size of the new, combined LCC. This is what Ahmad calls the “gelling point,” after which, the behavior of the network changes and the LCC quickly amasses the vast majority of people and continues to grow. The second- and third-largest components tend to stay at about the same size, acting only as temporary cliques—people begin by joining a fringe group, but then move on to the main social club. But the social gelling point of MMO networks tends to be strangely mild. Ahmad and his colleagues found that even eight months after the gelling point on a typical Everquest II server, a full 41% of the gameworld’s players were still moving in outsider social circles, not connected to the LCC.
Ahmad gives a number of possible reasons for why MMOs, despite the mechanics of teamwork
built into the games, seem to create more social distance between players. Some may be joining a guild and then not spending anytime interacting outside of their small component. Some may be dropouts who become inactive and do not play the game again. Others might be true solo players who eschew the social mechanics of the online world and try to complete the games’ tasks by themselves. Either way, he cautions against applying currently accepted social network models to MMOs. The behavior is fundamentally different than in the real world—possibly, he acknowledges, due to the goal-oriented nature of a gameworld.