Community, interaction, and culture in virtual worlds

From the folks at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center

The PlayOn project at PARC is an investigation into the social dimensions of massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) and virtual worlds – extensive, persistent 3D environments that are populated by thousands of players at any given moment. We have explored several virtual worlds including Star Wars Galaxies, EverQuest Online Adventures, Second Life, World of Warcraft, and EverQuest II. These and others represent the most successful virtual worlds to date and are laying the foundations for future environments which may be used for more than entertainment and sociability. In our studies, we are generally concerned with three basic issues: community, interaction, and culture.

How can we encourage and sustain vibrant communities of players? We study game worlds as virtual societies, with a particular focus on sociability. What differentiates MMOGs from other computer games is their social nature. The quality of the relationships and interactions between players is therefore central to their success. Based on critical examinations of social interactions in MMOGs we offer guidelines for the “social architecture” of multiplayer games.

How can the experience of simulated face-to-face interaction in virtual worlds be made more fluid or “natural”? Players control the bodies, or “avatars,” of their characters which inhabit rich 3D environments. But despite the impressive visual realism of avatars, interaction is often awkward and surprisingly unnatural. Based on fine-grained analyses of the mechanics of virtual and real-life face-to-face, we propose guidelines for improving social interaction in simulated realities.

How do player practices emerge and become shared across gaming communities, and how do they affect game design? Virtual worlds have a rich culture, dating back at least to pencil-and-paper role-playing games and the early Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs). Our ethnographic observations allow us to approach computer gaming as a culture and to formulate recommendations for supporting cultural practices and socialization.



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