Thursday, October 10, 2013

The social side of online gaming

Massively-multiplayer online role playing games, or MMORPGs, are popular time sinks involving very
The popular image of a gamer
long sessions in front of a computer. Popular stereotypes of gamers involve socially awkward, indoor-dwelling males subsisting on junk food and Mountain Dew.  But these stereotypes do an injustice to a huge and diverse community.  For example, World of Warcraft has 8 million subscribers including lots of folks who wouldn't fit that stereotype.
However, a lot of the scientific literature on MMORPGs examines addiction issues. Studies of huge numbers of the huge numbers of leisure players have been largely left to the marketers.
I think there's a scientific opportunity being missed here. Just as biological extracts of willow bark led to the isolation of aspirin, the strong pull and elaborate societies created online within MMORPGs are telling us something about what attracts and holds people's-- all people's-- attention. This is both a sociological phenomenon and a psychological one. The human species is tremendously, even uniquely social, and from infancy on the human brain responds preferentially to socially meaningful cues. MMORPGs are so successful because they tap into the human affinity for belonging, interaction, cooperation-- and tribalism. These games in themselves are of course creations of humans,  and their attractiveness comes in part from their large numbers of users, which makes them difficult subjects for study. The social science of online gaming will have to devise more reproducible instances which are still interesting enough to trigger the social immersion of the commercial games.

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