Would we still engage in the activities we loved, even if we had to go it alone? The theoretical of backbone of network analysis suggests that without bonds, we may not even But is it the actual bonds that we desire, or just the comfort that they’re there if we need them?
This is the question that researchers from the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University sought to answer in 2006 using a rather fantastical sample; users of the online multiplayer roleplaying game World of Warcraft. Blizzard Entertainments’ World of Warcraft is a title that has become synonymous with basement dwelling, Dorito dust encrusted shut-ins, and is perhaps the most prominent in a long line of massive multiplayer games that exist at the impasse of extreme isolation and infinite connectedness. MMO’s (massive, multiplayer online games) are often touted as an opportunity for otherwise isolated individuals to foster sociability on a digital plane, although stories of users dying during 19-hour play sessions and built in pizza ordering commands understandably put these claims into question. As the Stanford researchers themselves observe This group of researchers wanted to investigate the social structures that existed on World of Warcraft servers to understand how important the “social factor” of the MMO played into its popularity and proliferation.
Rather than using self-report information like surveys or interviews, Ducheneaut et. al used WoW’s built in console commands to gather information on all players on a given game server in real time. WoW’s “/who” commands presents a list of all online users playing on the same server as the client. Using this method, the researchers were able to create a census of WoW’s player-base in realtime, collecting player information including their class, level, playtime, and guild affiliations every 5 to 15 minutes.
Their findings paint a picture of a player base that was relatively sparse; that is, the total number of connections between users is only a small percentage of the total possible number of connections. Most users are not connected to one another, although that is not uncommon with a network of WoW’s size. The data also demonstrates considerable discrepancies between users’ play styles. The class that users chose to play, for example, had a considerable impact on their group activities in game; users who played the role of the Priest, whose toolkit includes support and healing based skills, spent about 7% more of their play time in groups than classes like Hunters or Warriors, whose offensive skills made playing the game “solo” more of an option. Interestingly, the authors also note that these more “soloable” classes are more popular within the game.
This doesn’t mean that teamwork is completely absent, however. The analysis also found that as players attained higher and higher levels within the game, they began to spend the majority (>50%) of their time playing in groups. This finding is particularly interesting considering players that spent less time in groups attained higher levels faster; that is, people were more likely to group up even if it was counter intuitive to the “goal” of the game. It could be that lower level players or newer players tend to gravitate towards these offensive classes and spend less time in groups, skewing the distribution.
What is particularly telling in this research is the sparsity of relationships within guilds. Guilds are user-run groups within World of Warcraft that typically work within the game towards common goals. Despite the nature and purpose of guilds within the game, it is unlikely that all members of the guild will interact with one another. As guild size grows it becomes less and less likely that two guilds members will be playing WoW together. The researchers observed that within guilds of all sizes, subgroups of players emerged between their most active members. To analyze these subgroups, the researchers performed a k-core composition for each guild.
K-core decomposition is a process of identifying subgroups within networks. Each “core” identifies groups of players that are adjacent to k members within the guild; for example, a 6-core decomposition would encompass all members of the guild that have interacted with at least 6 other guild members. Using this technique, they observed that the size of the most active subgroups of players decreases as guild size increases. A large guild, therefore, may have hundreds of member players, but only a select few would actively be playing with one another often and for prolonged periods of time.