Nick Yee

Nick Yee is a research scientist at the Palo Alto Research Center. His research interests focus on self-representation and social interaction in virtual environments. Email: nyee@parc.com

Befriending Ogres and Wood-Elves: Relationship Formation and The Social Architecture of Norrath

by Nick Yee

Abstract:

Creating virtual worlds necessitates the articulation of physical and interaction rules that we take for granted in the physical world. Virtual worlds designers have to explicitly state how far voices carry, in what ways two people can help each other, and how many people can be in a group. This paper explores how the social architectures in virtual worlds can lead to behavioral changes at the community level by shaping norms and expectations.

Keywords: Online Games, Social Architectures, Social Interaction, Social Engineering

Introduction

I am currently engaged to a man I met in EQ. It started when my guildmaster asked his troll warrior to join us in a group. We hit it off right away and were friends for about six months when we realized we had much in common. We decided to meet in real life about six months after we met in game. This relationship was different from other relationships I've had in that it was based on similarities in values and ethics as we discussed first online, then by phone, rather than by a physical attraction. Meeting him in an MMORPG environment made it easier to get to know him. [F, 51]

Friendships and romances are fairly common among EverQuest (EQ) players. Survey research indicates that 60 percent of male players and 75 percent of female players consider some of their EQ friendships to be comparable with or better than their real-life friendships (Yee, 2001). Also, 3 percent of male players and 15 percent of female players are in real-life romantic relationships (i.e., dating, engaged to or married to) with someone they first met in Norrath. Moreover, Norrath is not unique in that this high degree of relationship formation occurs across many Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (MMORPGs, Yee, 2006). While the existing literature on computer-mediated communication (CMC) provides some explanations for the prevalence of significant platonic and romantic relationships in online communities, I argue that the social architecture of virtual worlds like Norrath plays an equally important role. After all, the rules of every form of social interaction in Norrath must be defined. More importantly, these rules shape how players can interact with each other, encouraging certain behaviours while making other behaviours difficult to carry out. Understanding the social architectures of these virtual worlds foregrounds the social engineering that is not only possible but which thousands of EQ users (and millions of MMORPG users) around the world are taking part in every day.

CMC Research: Interactions Online

While early laboratory research in Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) suggested that social interactions online were cold and lacked important social cues that fostered trust and interaction (Hiltz, Johnson, & Turoff, 1986; Short, Williams, & Christie, 1976; Sproull & Kiesler, 1986), subsequent field observations showed that strong and even intimate relationships readily formed online (Parks & Floyd, 1995; Rheingold, 1993; Walther, Anderson, & Park, 1994). Walther (1996) has offered an explanatory framework for how CMC may actually enhance relationship formation. First, senders are able to optimize their self-presentation. Second, the receiver forms an impression of the sender by inflating the few pieces of information that the sender has optimized. Third, participants can reallocate cognitive resources typically used to maintain socially acceptable non-verbal gestures in face-to-face interactions and focus on the structure and content of the message itself, which comes across as more personal and articulate. Finally, the idealized impressions and more personal interactions intensify through reciprocity. The cumulative effect is that the interaction becomes more intimate and positive.

Walther’s mechanisms that facilitate hyperpersonal interaction resonate with McKenna and Bargh’s more recent work suggesting four factors that enable positive social interactions online (2000). First, people have greater anonymity. And as studies have shown, anonymity increases self-disclosure to encourage more intimate interactions (Joinson, 2001). Second, the importance of physical appearance is greatly reduced. Third, the Internet transcends the problems of physical space and wide dispersion, allowing individuals with similar interests to interact. And finally, users have greater control over the time and pace of their interactions.

All of the factors suggested by Walther, McKenna and Bargh are present in online games such as EQ. The anonymity and computer-mediated channel seem to increase self-disclosure. About 23 percent of male players and 32 percent of female players have disclosed personal issues or secrets to their online friends which they have never told their real-life friends (Yee, 2006). Many players comment on the increased self-disclosure they perceive in Norrath.

I'm not sure why I am such close friends with my EQ buddies. I do know that my EQ relationships are better than most of my relationships in RL. I think this is because when you are talking with someone on-line it's easier to talk about certain things since you don't have to look at a person face to face. [M, 15]

It is amazing how much complete strangers are willing to reveal about their personal lives. I believe that the anonymity might make them more bold. [M, 28]

Also, players are not bound by their physical age, gender, attractiveness or attire. Unlike the real world where we are judged by physical attributes we have no control over, players in Norrath are able to filter and optimize their self-presentation. While interacting with other players in EQ, the cognitive load that is typically taken up by smiling, nodding, gesturing and maintaining posture in physical interactions is removed. This allows players to focus more on the content of their messages. Also, the impressions that players form of each other are based on optimized self-presentation which encourage positive impressions of other players. Thus, hyperpersonal interactions are likely to occur among players in EQ.

Pre-selected Compatibility and Behavioral Confirmation

In addition to these general mechanisms of CMC, two aspects of the social environment of EQ bear pointing out. First of all, the players of EQ have been pre-selected for compatibility in a way that may not be obvious. After all, MMORPGs are a very specific kind of entertainment. Gamers who enjoy the fast, spontaneous, blood-soaked action of first-person shooters are not likely to enjoy the slow, long-term, bloodless[1], character development in EQ. To put this into perspective, consider the fact that waiting is a large part of gameplay in EQ. Players need to wait for others to join the group, for magic users to recuperate their mana[2], for the boat[3] to arrive and for mobs to spawn[4] among other things. At least 25 percent of gameplay in EQ is spent waiting, a significant contrast with the continuous, fast-paced gameplay of first-person shooter games. In other words, EQ is not a game that everyone will enjoy and people who choose to play EQ are probably more similar in ways than not. Survey data lends support to this claim. Sixty-seven percent of EQ players have had previous experience with table-top role-playing games, and among those who are employed, 37 percent work in the IT industry (Yee, 2001). In fact, MMORPGs attract gamers with different personalities than other video game genres, such as real-time strategy games or first-person shooter games (Oswalt, 2000). EQ thus effectively attracts individuals with similar interests, attitudes and personalities while filtering out people who do not share those interests.

Secondly, the implications of behavioral confirmation are particularly powerful in EQ. The extensive research in behavioral confirmation traces back to studies of the self-fulfilling prophecy (Merton, 1948; Rosenthal & Fode, 1963; Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1966). Behavioral confirmation is a specific process whereby the expectations of a perceiver cause a target to behave in ways that confirm the perceiver’s expectations (Snyder, Tanke, & Berscheid, 1977). In other words, expecting someone to be friendly causes them to become friendly. The phenomenon of behavioral confirmation has been demonstrated with regards to many expectancies and stereotypes, such as attractiveness (Snyder et al., 1977), hostility (Snyder & Swann, 1978), stigma (Vredenburg, 1999), gender stereotypes (Geis, 1993; Towson, Zanna, & MacDonald, 1989) and racial stereotypes (Word, Zanna, & Cooper, 1974). In EQ, avatars typically are young and attractive. Some players thus appear to us literally as knights in shining armour. The behavioral confirmation literature suggests that an avatar that appears charming, friendly and confident is treated in ways that cause the player to become charming, friendly and confident. In the land of Norrath where most avatars are powerful and attractive, behavioral confirmation can have a significant impact on how players behave. As one female player puts it, "the MMORPG relationship is inexplicably more romantic, more epic, more dramatic ... ."

The Social Architecture of Norrath

Any explanation of relationship formation and development in EQ, however, must also take into account the social architecture of Norrath. Lessig’s observations about the power of code in regulating cyberspace resonate with this aspect of virtual worlds like EQ.

We will see that cyberspace does not guarantee its own freedom but instead carries an extraordinary potential for control … Architecture is a kind of law: it determines what people can and cannot do. (Lessig, 1999, pg. 58-59)

In the same way that code is law in cyberspace, the rules of social interaction in EQ - its social architecture - define the ways in which players can communicate and interact with each other. And these rules can be designed to shape social interactions and encourage cooperation, altruism or distrust. For example, consider the spatial coverage of different chat channels and their possible permutations. Players have access to several chat channels in EQ. There are 1) private channels that allow communication with another player anywhere in Norrath, 2) local channels that allow communication within a small radius of the character, 3) public channels that allow communication within the zone[5] that the character is currently in and 4) guild channels that allow communication with other members of the same guild. Contrast this with the game Dark Age of Camelot (DAoC) where there is no zone-wide chat outside of the main cities. In other words, EQ players are able to easily communicate with a large number of players in a way that DAoC players cannot. Zone-wide chat allows EQ players to quickly spread news of an event and allows rapid mobilization if needed. DAoC players, on the other hand, have to rely on slower and less public channels, such as guild chat or private tells, to achieve the same goals. Zone-wide chat allowed EQ players to create an open market in East Commons to facilitate their trading needs, an option not open to DAoC players outside of the main cities. In the following section, I will describe more complex social architectures embedded in Norrath and how they might shape social interactions among EQ players. Player narratives, drawn from online surveys of EQ players[6], will be used to illustrate the connections between game mechanics and social interactions.

The Necessity of Grouping

As players advance in level, it becomes harder and harder to defeat mobs alone. For most characters to make meaningful progress, they must group with other players. Character classes in EQ were largely designed to be complementary and synergistic. Every class typically has a weakness that another class can resolve. For example, warriors can deal and bear damage in close-range but have no ability to heal their own wounds. Warriors in EQ must sit and wait for several minutes to recover their health after each fight. Clerics, on the other hand, have healing spells but are vulnerable to melee damage. Their spells are also not optimized for damage. By coordinating character classes in a group, players can take on more difficult or larger groups of mobs.

The necessity of grouping, however, is entirely a function of game design. For example, if warriors were provided ways to efficiently recover health, then this would decrease the need for them to group with a character who has healing abilities. Or if clerics were provided with sufficient means to deal damage, then they wouldn’t need to rely on damage-dealing classes. This indeed has been the trend of MMORPGs in recent years. A high degree of character independence is most clearly seen in World of Warcraft (WoW). All character classes in WoW are able to make decent progress on their own - something usually referred to as soloability. Bandaging in WoW is a cheap and efficient way for warriors to recover their health and priests have access to efficient damage spells. While it is true that every class utilizes very different strategies for dealing with mobs, the important point is that they are all able to do it without collaborating with another player.

Solo-ability is directly related to the necessity of grouping which in turn regulates how often players interact with each other. And while players do not inevitably make friends with everyone they group with, they clearly cannot make friends with players they never meet. Decreasing solo-ability increases the likelihood that players interact and form relationships with each other. Thus in EQ, the warriors’ inability to recover their own health has a significant impact on how often they interact with other players and more importantly, how often they make a new friend.

Engineering Altruism

There is a related notion of character dependence. In EQ, many crucial or useful abilities are limited to one or two character classes. Binding is one of these abilities. When a character dies in Norrath, they are teleported back to a predetermined bind spot. Their corpse, along with all of the character’s possessions, are left behind at the location where the character died. Given the size of Norrath, corpse retrieval can be daunting if the character was not bound close by. Only magic users (e.g., clerics and enchanters) are able to bind a character to a new location. Thus, non-magic users frequently need to ask others to bind them to a new location. The same is true of other spells that dramatically decrease the travelling time and mana recovery time - Spirit of Wolf and Clarity respectively. Because the major mode of travel in Norrath is walking, Spirit of Wolf is a greatly sought-after travelling aid. In other words, asking other players for help was the only way to get many things done in a timely manner in Norrath. Compare this with DAoC where characters are able to bind themselves automatically and where horse routes quickly transport characters across the world. The only way that characters in Norrath can travel quickly is via powerful high-level spells that only a few characters have access to, whereas in DAoC rapid transport is cheap and readily available.

Dependence on other players encourages relationship formation in two ways. In a simplistic way, it increases the number of possible interactions that can occur among players. But more importantly, it increases the number of ways that players can help and offer assistance to each other. Some may argue that economic transactions - selling player-crafted equipment to another player - are also social interactions, but altruistic interactions are different from economic transactions in terms of their emotional salience. Very few players reference an economic transaction as a memorable event, but many players when asked to describe their most memorable experience in Norrath will recount specific acts of altruism.

My primary character is a Cleric, so on one occasion my guild was on a raid in a dungeon area and I came across one players corpse. This was unusual because of where we were and how deep we were in the dungeon. I sent this person a "tell" to see if she needed a res[7]. She replied and was very excited that I was there to res her. After she gathered her equipment she tried to give me some Platinum pieces, which I refused since I didn’t go out of my way to help her ... I was just there. A month later, my guild was performing another raid and we were wiped out by some unexpected baddies .. The person I ressed happened to be in a group near the beginning of the dungeon where we were wiped out, and before I knew it, most of her guild was there to help clear the dungeon and get our corpses back. I mean about 30 other players went out of their way to come and help my friends out just because I helped one of their friends a month before. I don’t know many people who would do that in real life … All I can say is ... Thank you Ostara. [M, 32]

The degree of character dependence inherent in a game influences the player culture that forms. High levels of character dependence foster a cultural acceptance of seeking and providing assistance. And the more ways in which the social architecture provides ways to help other players, the more likely altruism will occur.

One of my fondest memories of the game was having my first buff cast upon me by a level 19 Shaman. I didn’t realize this could be done and it was at this point that the level of player interaction became apparent. A random act of kindness that one rarely sees in real life these days that has encouraged hours/days of play since. [M, 25]

Those random acts of kindness really make online games a pleasure to play in. Whether someone has tossed me a heal, SOW or other useful spell for no reason, or given me a nice item without asking. I've tried my best to return these acts to others whenever possible. [M, 28]

Thus, the social architecture of Norrath shapes the community both by increasing social interaction among players and in ways that are emotionally salient.

In fact, Norrath empowers players to become altruistic in a way that may not be obvious. It is not simply that EQ provides players with tools with which to offer assistance, but these tools are readily available at a low cost to the provider. Moreover, a five second spell at minimal cost to the provider can save another player an hour of painful and dangerous corpse retrieval. The following player articulates the fundamentally different nature of altruism in worlds like Norrath and at the same time puts a spin on a well-worn rhetoric about video games.

I find people's altruism extraordinary. In RL, much altruism is met with suspicion... 'if you're trying to help me, you must want something'. Or it's dangerous to be altruistic, like picking up hitchhikers, or intervening if there is a crime in progress. But in virtual worlds, I find an outlet. I get a lot of satisfaction from performing random acts of altruism. And I'm always touched when people do the same with me. I think it taps into people's need to be needed. But I also just like making people happy... so a lot of it is about an outlet for generosity ... [F, 35]

In other words, Norrath removes much of the ambiguity and danger of altruism in real life. At the same time, the social architecture provides players with powerful ways of helping each other.

A Dangerous World: Crises, Trust, and Honour

Altruism plays a particularly important role in Norrath because of the frequency of emergencies and crises. But the constant danger embedded in EQ serves another function. Norrath is surprisingly good at exposing individuals and groups to sudden crises. Consider a fairly common scenario that most players in Norrath have experienced in one form or another. A party of five players are deep in the depths of Black Burrow - a cavernous gnoll lair. It took them an hour to form the group and slowly make their to the Green Room where valuable items drop from the Elite Gnoll Guards. Six gnoll guards spawn[8] on a set interval after being slain and so far the group has been able to defeat several sets of respawns. While the group has worked out a strategy, more health and mana is being expended during each set than is being recovered during the rest period. One player articulates the problem but the leader assures them that they will become more efficient over time. In the midst of the next set of spawns, the cleric accidentally draws the aggro[9] of two gnolls. In an attempt to distance himself from the gnolls, the cleric moves towards the entrance of the Green Room and draws the aggro of three gnolls patrolling outside.

Over the course of the next 30 seconds, the individual and collective actions of these five players will determine their survival. A lot can happen in those 30 seconds. A rational risk analysis seldom occurs if only because there is no time for a discussion, let alone a discussion over typed chat. Some players have teleport abilities and can escape and leave their team-mates behind, but they are all too aware that doing so has severe consequences for their social reputation. The leader may try to mobilize the group to fight or flee together, but earlier unease with the leadership might cause dissent and fragmentation during this crisis. Each of these five players has a different loyalty to the leader and to the group. Each of them has their own threshold for risk aversion, a different reason for why they’re in the group, and a different likelihood of survival at this point in the crisis. What we do know is that all of them are emotionally invested in their characters and will take the outcome very seriously (Yee, 2006). Let me give you one example of how this story might end.

While playing my enchanter in EQ, during a deep dungeon crawl, things went horribly wrong. Far too many monsters came to us then we could handle. Everyone hit the panic button and tried to flee. Rather then join them as I normally would to avoid the horrible and dreaded corpse run, I chose to sacrifice myself to allow the others to escape. Amazingly, I was able to mezz[10] and hold the dozen or so adds with some luck and careful management, breaking down the massive situation into small parts quickly and without thought. I had no idea what I was doing or how I did it, fully expecting to be killed. The group returned and we actually finished the encounter, traveled far into the dungeon and had a very rewarding experience. I made many good in game friends that afternoon, and look back on that adventure as one of the greatest of mine. [M, 27]

Crisis scenarios, in various guises and degrees of complexity, occur with great frequency in Norrath. They force players to depend on each other, to trust each other and to work together as a team. If anything, Norrath is a sustained exercise in team-building and trust with strangers and friends.

To succeed in EQ you need to form relationships with people you can trust. The game does a wonderful job of forcing people in this situation. RL rarely offers this opportunity as technological advances mean we have little reliance on others and individuals are rarely thrown into life-or-death situations. [M, 29]

The degree of emotional investment that players have with their characters heightens the intensity of these crises. More importantly, the actions that other players take are often perceived to shed light on their RL character. Many EQ players can recall a time when another player displayed a remarkable degree of honour, self-sacrifice or cowardice.

In EQ, we engage in difficult, sometimes dangerous and often life-threatening struggles. Even though it isn't RL - you learn a lot about the character of the person playing the game. Some are selfish and greedy in EQ and you figure they are similar in RL - others are eager to help and think of others over themselves - and I have found them to be the same in RL. The difference between these friendships and RL is the ability to watch someone in action before allowing them into your life. Also, the fact that we are all unable to see our real faces prior to becoming friends - we can't prejudge someone on the basis of their looks. [F, 45]

They are able to prove themselves as trustworthy, or intelligent in the game environment … which I find to be just as taxing and valid as RL at times. [M, 26]

In real life, we can seldom gauge the loyalty of our friends until a time of need. The reverse is more true of relationships in Norrath. Because of the frEQuent occurrence of crises, EQ players are able to befriend those who have demonstrated their courage, honour, and loyalty.

The point is that Norrath is not dangerous for no reason. It is only in a dangerous world where players need to work together and trust each other to guarantee their own survival. In worlds where it is always possible to run away and escape from danger, there is less incentive to rely and depend on other people. For example, while mobs will chase players until they leave a zone in Norrath, mobs in WoW will only chase players for about 100 yards. The formation of trust is very much a function of the social architecture of a world. By encouraging players to rely on other players, strong foundations for relationships are formed.

The Mechanics of Death

One central mechanism that regulates the danger of a world is death. The mechanisms of death are worth considering because in all the major MMORPG worlds, including Norrath, players are essentially immortal[11]. But even among immortals, death plays a surprising important role. In Norrath, death is "expensive." When a character dies in EQ, several things happen. First, they lose a percentage of their experience. In other words, some of their past time and effort is erased. Because the death penalty is a somewhat fixed percentage, low level players may lose 10 minutes while high level players may lose several hours of their past efforts. Second, the player is teleported back to their bind spot (discussed earlier) without any of their equipment or gold. All the player’s possessions are at the location of death on the player’s corpse. The player must travel to the location of death to retrieve his or her possessions. Because death is more frequent in more difficult and dangerous locations, corpses are usually difficult to retrieve without getting killed again. This is particularly because these players do not have any armour or weapons with which to defend themselves. And finally, corpses have a decay timer. Once a certain amount of time elapses, a player’s corpse disappears along with all the equipment and gold that the player spent 22 hours a week acquiring (Yee, 2006). Thus, death means an instantaneous loss of past effort and a potential loss of everything the player has acquired. Given how emotionally invested players are, it is not hard to imagine how traumatic deaths can be in Norrath.

On the other hand, it is precisely this potential trauma that encourages players to trust each other and work together in groups. It is precisely this trauma that makes interactions with other players so memorable and salient. Perhaps Adam Guettal puts it best in his musical, The Light in the Piazza.

Risk is everything
Without risk there is no drama
Without drama there is no "aiutami"[12] Without asking for help
No love! No love!

Stories that revolve around death, trust and altruism are in fact very common when EQ player are asked to describe their most memorable experience in Norrath.

One day I was traveling in EQ and entered Runnyeye and heard a message over the zone that somebody had lost their corpse. Being high level for the zone, I was able to locate their corpse and drag it up toward the zone line where it was safer. This rEQuired trust on their part since at the time I could loot all of their belongings, but I was honest. She and I parted ways without incident, but months later we met again by chance on different characters and became friends with one another. She once mentioned when we were passing near Runnyeye how she almost lost her corpse there once, and she told me the story when I pressed for it. By complete chance, we had found each other again on different characters and got along well. I just thought it was nice how a good deed came back to be fortunate for me. We're still friends today even though we both have since quit EQ. [M, 22]

I once lost my corpse in very difficult circumstances. Basically it was impossible for me to recover it without skills which I did not possess. This would have lost me quite a few months of developing my character. I told a 'friend' who I have never met but only spoken to in-game and she not only dropped what she was doing and came to help but also got her son-in-law to log in and come help as well. Between them they got my corpse. What got me was these people only know me through a game, will never meet me but were more than willing to help at some cost to themselves, even if only of time. [M, 53]

I had been exploring Nagafen's Lair with my level 50 monk when I managed to get into the King's Room, but died shortly thereafter. This scared me, as I was not sure if I would be able to retrieve my body since it was so deep in a difficult zone and I did not have the gear that had helped me get in there. I asked the guild I was a part of to help me with the corpse. I expected maybe someone had a necromancer to summon the corpse or something, but all of a sudden, the guild leader and several other members all showed up and we began tearing our way through the zone. We successfully retrieved my corpse, and had a fun time killing giants and other monsters. The guild I was a part of at the time was very enjoyable. Aside from that experience, I also witnessed the wedding (in-game) between my guild leader and her spouse, and had some fun raiding experience with them. I will always remember the Legion of Tactics. [M, 18]

On the other hand, players from WoW seldom have similar stories to tell about death. This is because death is far more forgiving in WoW. When a character dies in WoW, they do not lose any experience. They are teleported back to their bind spot, but bind spots are much more abundant in WoW so travel time is typically minimized. Players have the option of either retrieving their corpse or resurrecting at the bind spot with a ten minute "resurrection sickness" penalty[13]. Also, because resurrection abilities are accessible to several character classes at low levels, many players in a group do not need to return to their bind spot to begin with. Death in WoW is incredibly forgiving when compared with death in EQ; however, the ease of death is the same ease with which players can make contact but never truly interact in meaningful ways. Without risk, there is less need to rely on and trust another person and social interactions become less salient, less memorable.

The Social Engineering of Norrath

Nothing is intrinsic or immutable in worlds like Norrath, not even death. Death among immortals can be defined and coded in many ways. Once defined however, the mechanics of death, like any other social architecture, incessantly shape the social fabric of the community - the amount of social contact, the necessity of collaborating with others, the formation of trust, and the potential for altruism. EQ provides us with one example of death, but it is by no means the only way death can be defined. The social architectures of virtual worlds like Norrath are pervasive in ways that may not always be apparent to their inhabitants, yet they tacitly shape how players interact with each other and the relationships that form between them. Foregrounding the social architecture of Norrath highlights the amount of social engineering that is not only possible but which thousands of EQ players take part in on a daily basis.

Norrath, and virtual worlds in general, provide a platform for another kind of social restructuring. Since every player perceives his or her own version of the world independent from other players, it is possible to tailor and customize his or her perception of the world and of each other in powerful ways. Moreover, the system can automate social cues and gestures for the user. For example, when a user in There.com chats near the vicinity of another user, the system arranges the users in a "chat circle," making sure they face each other. As more users join them, the system adds them to the chat circle such that all the users can maintain eye contact. Star Wars Galaxies (SWG) provides another example. A player’s avatar automatically maintains eye contact with the character or object has targeted. Thus, when a player in SWG trades or chats with another character, they always maintain eye contact with them. Also, the SWG system parses a player’s chat messages for keywords. If you type "no" or "don’t" in your message in a local channel, your character automatically shakes their head. If you type "lol," your character laughs.

This notion of restructuring social interactions in virtual worlds has been articulated and elaborated on by social psychologists who study collaborative virtual environments. They refer to the paradigm as Transformed Social Interactions (TSI, see Bailenson, Beall, Loomis, Blascovich, & Turk, 2004). One powerful transformation is referred to as Non-Zero-Sum Gaze (NZSG). In the real world, we are only able to maintain eye contact with one person at a time. In virtual environments on the other hand, a presenter’s avatar can maintain eye contact with every audience member at the same time because every audience member perceives the world from their individual systems. Eye gaze is an interesting manipulation because it enhances learning, persuasion, and rapport among other things. In an experimental study where a presenter utilized NZSG with two participants while presenting a persuasive passage (i.e., the presenter maintained eye contact with both participants during the entire time), participants were more likely to agree with the presenter than in a control condition and the eye gaze manipulation was not detected (Bailenson, Beall, Blascovich, Loomis, & Turk, 2004). Studies within the TSI paradigm demonstrate the potential of virtual environments in powerfully shaping social interactions at a community level.

It is important to foreground the social architectures of virtual worlds because of their potential for social engineering. There is nothing foreordained or essential about death in virtual worlds the way death is a certainty in real life; however, the invariance and permanence of most physical rules of social interaction in the real world distract us from the malleability of their virtual counterparts. The social architectures of Norrath, Camelot, Azeroth and Paragon City invisibly shape the ways in which players meet, trust, relate and help each other. To understand any social system in these virtual environments, we must reveal their social architectures. These rules of "play" are anything but neutral arbiters. They encourage certain behaviours and cultural norms at the expense of other possible outcomes. As more and more of us play in these virtual worlds, it is crucial that we remain aware of how worlds like Norrath play with our social interactions and relationships.

Notes:

[1] Combat in EQ, especially when compared with mainstream first-person shooters, is surprisingly non-violent. There is no blood in EQ. When creatures die, they simply whimper and collapse.

[2] Mana is the unit of magical energy in EQ. When magic users cast spells, it consumes mana. Mana regenerates slowly over time.

[3] In EQ, boats ferry players between the continents. These boats run on 10-20 minute schedules.

[4] Mobs in EQ "reappear" after a set interval following their death. This is known as spawning. Because of this set spawning behavior, players linger at specific areas waiting for mobs to respawn so they can be killed again. This activity is known as camping.

[5] Zones are distinct geographical areas that the world of Norrath is split up into.

[6] These surveys were part of the Norrathian Scrolls (Yee, 2001) and conducted between 1999 and 2001.

[7] Res or Rez is short for resurrection, the ability to teleport a player to their corpse so that they do not need to travel and locate their body. In EQ, only Clerics and Paladins (at high levels) have access to this ability.

[8] Spawning is the term used to refer to the reappearance of a mob.

[9] Aggro is short for aggression " a game mechanic that allows individual mobs to decide which player poses the highest threat. Aggro management typically refers to the ability of warriors to keep mobs off of healers and casters.

[10] Mez or Mes is short for mesmerize, a spell that makes a mob unable to move or attack for a short period of time.

[11] In the most popular MMORPGs, nothing can ever permanently kill a player’s character. A well-known exception occurs in Star Wars Galaxies where the rare Jedi character can be killed permanently.

[12] Aiutami means "Help me" in Italian.

[13] The resurrection sickeness penalty temporarily decreases a player’s combat ability, effectively barring the player from entering combat for 10 minutes.

References:

Bailenson, J., Beall, A., Loomis, J., Blascovich, J., & Turk, M. (2004). Transformed Social Interaction: Decoupling Representation from Behavior and Form in Collaborative Virtual Environments. PRESENCE: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments.

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