Researchers ranging from psychologists to epidemiologists have wondered for some time whether online, multiplayer games might provide some ways to test concepts that are otherwise difficult to track in the real world. A Saturday morning session at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science described what might be the most likely way of finding out. With the cooperation of Sony, a collaborative group of academic researchers at a number of institutions have obtained the complete server logs from the company's Everquest 2 MMORPG.
As the researchers who are dealing with this new resource describe it, it's one of those "be careful what you wish for" situations—with nearly 60TB of data, the standard procedures for tackling social data sets just aren't up to the job.
Dmitri Williams introduced the project and described how researchers have been approaching various game developers over the years. He paraphrased the conversation with Sony as:
"What do you collect?"
"Well, everything—what do you want?"
"Can we have it all?"
The end result is a log that includes four years of data for over 400,000 players that took part in the game, which was followed up with demographic surveys of the users. All told, it makes for a massive data set with distinct challenges but plenty of opportunities.
In addition to introducing the EQ2 logs as a resource, Dmitri Williams described some of the efforts involved in exploring how much of the real world spilled over into the virtual.
The average age of players turned out to be 31. "These aren't just pasty white teenage boys in a basement—to be sure, they're there, but they're not typical," he said. The older players tended to play more than the kids and, although the total hours played seem large, he said that the time mostly displaced either TV watching or movie going. And the surveys showed that those who viewed TV news in the first place continued to do so, suggesting that gamers really slotted EQ2 into their entertainment time.
Mostly, the gamers seemed healthy; their body mass index was better than the US average and, although they were slightly more depressed than average, they were also less anxious.
Buried among those happy, average players was a small subset of the population—about five percent—who used the game for serious role playing and, according to Williams, "They are psychologically much worse off than the regular players." They belong to marginalized groups, like ethnic and religious minorities and non-heterosexuals, and tended to use the game as a coping mechanism.