Five minutes with Nick Yee

Nick Yee is researching the psychology of social interaction in online worlds, and finding some surprising results.

At first sight, multi-player worlds like Second Life and World of Warcraft may seem like relatively crude or whimsical simulations of real-life social situations.

But intriguingly, Yee has discovered that ‘personal space’ and other aspects of non-verbal communication are just as important, and that offline romances can blossom in online game worlds.

While these worlds are becoming the centre of new economies, social groups and leisure activities, Yee hopes to understand how the human mind adapts to communication via virtual reality.

He’s also kindly agreed to talk to Mind Hacks about his work and latest discoveries.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m currently in my dissertation year and working several part-time jobs related to online gaming. Together, these jobs let me explore the virtual worlds / online gaming space through a variety of perspectives and approaches: surveys, experiments, data-mining, and so on. The common theme through these projects has been exploring the intersection of social interaction and virtual worlds.

Why study social interaction in online worlds? Surely they’re just games?

For a variety of reasons. First of all, people can now make a living selling virtual items from these environments, so goals and objects in these worlds have actual real life value. Secondly, many teenagers learn important leadership skills (e.g. leading a group of 50 adults) that they don’t have the opportunity to do in the physical world. And finally, many of the relationships that form in these worlds carry over into the physical world. For example, many players have physically dated someone they first met in an online game.

How do you think these compare to ‘offline’ romances?

Here’s a recent data point from a recent survey that was interesting. Of the online gamers who have physically dated someone who they first met in an MMO (a ‘massively multiplayer online game’ such as World of Warcraft), 60% of them don’t think the relationship would have happened had they first met face to face. Many of them say they wouldn’t have bothered getting to know the other person for superficial reasons (e.g. too young, too funny, not my type).

It was because they got to know each other by working together, learning about each other “inside out”, that allowed these people to have a meaningful relationship that might otherwise not have started. A lot of people think that online relationships are inherently more superficial than ones that begin face to face, but I think in some cases, the opposite is true.

I think the key thing to understand is that MMOs aren’t 3D versions of Match.com. People don’t play an MMO primarily to find a romantic partner, so these relationships are more comparable to an office relationship – a relationship that grows out of repeated interactions with someone in a non-romantic context.

How likely do you think it is that players fall in love with each other as people, rather than just as play-acted characters?

Some might argue that MMOs allow people to idealize themselves and hide their flaws, but the large cosmetic aisles in our supermarkets suggest that this is the norm in the physical world as well. On the other hand, many MMO players note that you learn more from a person by working with them through a crisis over a two-hour period (e.g. dragon slaying) than you would on a movie-date (i.e. in silence).

My dad used to say that he plays golf with his business partners because it lets him see which of them cheat. In other words, games can be character-revealing. In the same way, I think a lot of players feel they get a good sense of someone after watching them react to stress, crises, and other people over a long period of time.

Of course, no one has the data on the survival likelihoods of MMO relationships, but I think understanding the unique constraints and affordances of MMO relationships makes us realize that it’s not simply the case that relationships that start in MMOs are “missing things” when compared with relationships that start face to face. I think it’s a lot more complicated than that.

What psychological aspects of social interaction in online worlds do you expect to remain stable? – considering that as technology advances, the look, feel and ways people interact in these worlds will change.

I think many social norms from physical interactions carry into the virtual world, more so than some might expect. For example, we recently studied interpersonal distance in the online world Second Life (pdf) and found that many of the rules that govern personal space in the physical world can be found in the virtual world even though the physics and mode of movement / navigation are so different (keyboard vs. legs).

Name three under-rated things.

4B lead for mechanical pencils.
10-sided dice.
Basses (as opposed to tenors).

You can read more about Nick’s work, including full-text papers, at his website.

One Comment

  1. Posted November 28, 2008 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    recently that most certainly didn’t exist 5, probably not 1 year ago Рand that was for an “Online community manager.” The role of this person is to do just that, create and manage the businesses online personality;


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