Doing Virtually Nothing
Massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPG) are persistent three-dimensional (3D) worlds in which player controlled avatars go on quests and interact socially with other players’ avatars. At any given moment, thousands of players from around the world are communicating and collaborating with other players from various language groups and cultures in real time. However, “because millions of gamers and online socializers have been participating in these worlds for several years, complex cultures concerning in-world conduct have emerged” (Moore, Ducheneaut, & Nickell, 2007, p. 270). Most MMORPGs use text-based chat for communication with other in-world players and over the years word abbreviations, game specific vocabulary, ‘leets’ (use of numbers and symbols to write words), and emoticons (use of symbols to express emotions) have evolved to facilitate communication on various levels. In-game communication directly affects group collaboration and social interaction. The linguistic challenge that text-based chat presents to the players is overcome with various phenomena. In this research project, Moore et al. (2007) investigated the communication patterns of players and the lack of visual and vocal cues that come into play during normal conversations in the text-based chats. The main questions addressed in this paper are the phenomena of “…(1) the real-time unfolding of turns-at-talk; (2) the observability of embodied activities; and (3) the direction of eye gaze for the purpose of gesturing” (Moore et al., 2007, p. 274).
The authors used the participant observation technique of virtual ethnography that studies people, in this case avatars, in their natural setting. Whereas ethnomethodology studies real people in real settings, virtual ethnology studies avatars and their behavior in virtual settings. The authors immersed themselves in the games in order to avoid disrupting the flow of the games. Participants were not selected. As the authors played the various MMORPG games of Star Wars Galaxies (SWG), World of Warcraft (WoW), EverQuest II (EQ2), EverQuest Online Adventures (EQOA), Second Life (SL), and There (Moore et al., 2007), they video-recorded social interactions and communications as they occurred while participating in the various activities like normal players. The number of participants recorded varied over the number of hours video-taped.
The authors used the methods of ethnomethodology and virtual ethnography to unobtrusively participate in and observe over 200 hours of game play and conversations. Conversation analysis was used to identify and describe the social interaction and conversations in the games. By using these grounded theories, they were able to compare the social interaction and dialogues of MMORPG avatars to real-life dialogues. After collecting and analyzing the transcripts, the authors discussed the findings in a narrative format. They used excerpted examples from the transcripts that illustrated the specific points being discussed.
The authors used the participant observation technique to gather information about the social interaction and non-verbal and verbal cues of other gamers’ avatars. They created their own avatars, and like regular gamers, they made friends, joined social and working groups, and went on quests, etc. Because the authors wanted to observe actual interactions without having their ‘researcher role’ interfere with or affect the outcomes, most of the players were not aware that ‘researchers’ were observing them. Real-life identities were unknown to both the researchers and other players alike due to the adoption of pseudonyms and personae for their avatars. Therefore, there were no questionnaires or interviews in the study. The authors were able to download the text-based chat directly from the game and the video screen-captures (Moore et al., 2007). Field notes of visual actions were noted alongside the appropriate text.
The authors found that computer-mediated communication between avatars interrupts the turns-at-talk features of real conversations. Whereas in real-life conversations have gaps of around 0.1 seconds (Moore et al., 2007) between speakers taking turns, the text-based chat does not allow a conversation to flow naturally and it has gaps that vary from 0.5 to 7.4 seconds (Moore et al., 2007). While one avatar is typing an answer, the other avatar may already be typing another question or making another comment. Due to different rates of typing and the subsequent reading of responses, it is the norm to see conversations with at least two main threads or topics and more being discussed simultaneously. However, players quickly get used to multiple thread conversations as this has been a feature of instant-message chatting in other platforms for over a decade. The authors found that only the virtual world There had close to real-time chat systems with much shorter turn taking. These time gaps in communication affected collaboration in activities like hunting and monster killing.
Moore et al. (2007) also found that the lack of visual cues affected communication because there were no external hints as to what a player was doing when they were looking through inventories, reading books, looking at maps, or chatting with someone else in private chats. The avatars simply stand motionless ‘like zombies’ (Moore et al., 2007, p. 283). Players had to rely on explicit communication from avatars that explained what they were doing and what they were planning to do.
It is true that there are longer time lags between text-based chat compared to real-life dialogue, but the ability to maintain a conversation with multiple threads may speed up the exchange of information. In addition, with the use of abbreviations, ‘leets,’ and game vocabulary, a lot of information can be expressed in a small amount of text. Time lags are just one feature of conversation. Real-life dialogues may actually take longer to exchange the same amount of information due to having to speak in sentences, without abbreviations and symbols, and with whole words. No one talks in text-based symbols and abbreviations, but these actually speed up the rate of information exchange in the shortest manner possible. A study that compares how much information is exchanged between text-based chat versus voice-based chat in player-vs-player (PvP) and clan war activities might be interesting. Perhaps the rate of information exchange compensates for the increase in turn-taking lag time.
For group raids and wars, players are already using Skype and RaidCall to coordinate deadly activities through voice-chat. It would be interesting to compare this voice-based chat to text-based chat activities because the chaos of communicating battle instructions verbally may not be faster than text-based chat.
Threats to validity or undocumented bias on the part of the researcher(s)
The authors list six games that were played “…sometimes for as much as 12 hours per week” (Moore et al., 2007, p. 268). However, that is an average of 2 hours per week per game. Over 200 hours of gameplay were recorded, so that is an average of 34 hours of in-game playing per game (Moore et al., 2007, p. 269). Although this would allow the authors to record quite a bit of interaction among players, this would still place the authors at the ‘noob’ (rank beginner) level of the game. MMORPG games generally ‘open up’ or become more involved as the player pursues activities, completes quests, and becomes more skilled. Players typically play on average 22.72 hours per week in their MMORPG game (Yee, 2006). Other studies have similar statistics. Although the authors were measuring time lags in talking, they also focused on perceived problems with communication pertaining to lack of visual cues. While these observations may be valid for a ‘noob,’ there is the distinct possibility that if they were participating with high-level players then good netiquette would come into play. For instance, it is good and expected netiquette to advise other players that one is ‘afk’ for a sec (away from keyboard for a second), ‘brb’ (be right back), or ‘pm’ing’ (private messaging which cannot be seen in public). Experienced and/or high level players that are collaborating on a group activity usually warn their team about real-life interference that might affect the outcome. About the only times a high level/experienced player doesn’t explain his inattention to a group is when his/her computer disconnects unexpectedly (which is explained with ‘dc’ when the player manages to log back into the game), or when a real-life emergency interferes with the gameplay (such as one’s mother, significant other, or child cutting off the power). More experienced players and users of text-based chat also have a wide range of learned ‘leets’ and emoticons for quickly expressing emotions and expressions that would simulate visual cues to a great extent. ‘Noobs’ would not be aware of this because it is a part of the socialization and takes time. In addition, because of their low skill levels, most ‘noobs’ do not ‘hang out’ with high-level players and vice-versa.
The authors state that “[i]n general, entirely private player activities should be avoided. Players can better coordinate their actions when they can see what the other is doing” (Moore et al., 2007, p. 298). Although Moore et al. (2007) believe that social interactions and coordination would be enhanced, it would actually destroy the ability of players to surprise the enemy on the battlefield. Most MMORPGs include combat as a main feature of the game. While it is true that players have had to learn to communicate explicitly through the text-based chat system in order to effectively tell the other players what they are doing, broadcasting to the general public your combat preparations and plans would seriously affect the strategies in the game. In PvP and group wars, living and dying depend on the ability to keep one’s war preparations secret until the enemy is dead. To expose one’s private arrangements of armor and spells to the public view of everyone would render combat impossible. This, in itself, demonstrates a rather inexperienced understanding of the many layers of social interaction in MMORPGs on the part of the authors.
Another problem is that the combat oriented MMORPGs are being evaluated along with Second Life and There. Second Life and There are based on entirely different concepts of social interaction. Although they are also multi-user, they tend to be more social or educational than combat and fantasy oriented and players do not level up skills.
Another suggestion by the authors that clearly illustrates their observer status is that they assume players want their avatars to become fully functional vehicles of expression in real-time.
“Perhaps the most promising current approach is that of real-time motion capture in which a camera and other sensors are used to track a players body motions in real time and transfer them to their avatar. Players could then use their own bodies and faces as joysticks in puppeteering their avatars” (Moore et al., 2007, p. 301).
As observers, they may not totally be able to relate to long-term gamers. Real players come from a wide range of demographics and they multi-task. Yees research revealed that out of approximately 30,000 unique users that the median age of players was 25 with a range from 11 to 68. Contrary to popular belief, only 25% were found to be teenagers, while 50% worked full-time, 36% were married, and 22% had children. The MMORPG gamers consisted of teenagers, college students, early adult professionals, middle-aged homemakers, and retirees (2006, p. 193). The authors are assuming that players sit at the console and have the luxury of focusing only on the game. In reality, there is a high percentage of gamers that multi-task while playing. Some play more than one MMORPG at a time, while others watch TV, DVDs, listen to music, do homework, housework, or answer emails. I personally, have not met one player that did not admit to doing something concurrently while playing MMORPGs. Given that Yee’s (2006) demographics describe a wide range of people with real-life responsibilities, it would be not be unusual to find that they also demonstrate the same behavior patterns and multi-task while playing MMORPGs. Few players would have the time to hook themselves up to wires and cameras that would restrict them to one task at a time game or real-life activity at a time.
Moore, R. J., Ducheneaut, N., & Nickell, E. (2007). Doing virtually nothing: Awareness and accountability in massively multiplayer online worlds. Computer Supported Cooperative Work, 16, 265-305. doi: 10.1007/s10606-006-9021-4
Yee, N. (2006). The psychology of massively multi-user online role-playing games: Motivations, emotional investment, relationships and problematic usage. R. Schroeder & A. S. Axelsson (Eds.).Avatars at work and play: Collaboration and interaction in shared virtual environments (Computer supported cooperative work) (pp. 187-207). Netherlands: Springer.