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15 Minutes of Fame: Researcher Nick Yee digs into the numbers, people behind WoW

From Hollywood celebrities to the guy next door, millions of people have made World of Warcraft a part of their lives. How do you play WoW? We're giving each approach its own 15 Minutes of Fame.

If you're into research about the World of Warcraft and the world of MMORPGs, the name Nick Yee will be instantly recognizable. A research scientist at the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), Yee is well known in WoW circles for his work on The Daedalus Project, an online survey of MMORPG players that's yielded profiles of gamers and the gaming life that are ripe for the picking.

Despite a powerhouse academic background, Yee's no ivory tower recluse. He's an active WoW player who relishes the happy intersection of game time as background for work time. And while his Daedalus Project has been "in hibernation" for some time now, Yee's been working on a new study for PARC. We'll chat with Yee about his work after the break -- plus test your knowledge of your fellow WoW players in a special quiz he's prepared especially for WoW Insider readers spotlighting findings from his new MMORPG research.

15 Minutes of Fame: First things first -- who's your main?

Nick Yee: I jump around on characters a lot, especially with the recent Cata changes, to try things out. Before the big patch, I was doing some casual LK raiding with a NE disc priest and BGing with a human prot warrior. After the Cata patch, I leveled a worgen hunter briefly to level 15 and then switched my time to leveling my level 80 shadow/disc priest to try out the new high-level content, and I'm currently healing a lot in 5-mans. I've only played on normal PvE servers.

With research so inextricably tied to gaming, which came first for you: gaming research, or World of Warcraft?

It was actually EverQuest that started it, but I've always been a gamer growing up (loved the Civ / Master of Orion type of games).

In my junior year in college (back in 1999), I was the lab techie for the psych department and was working closely with a faculty member on an independent project. Two seniors who shared the same faculty member as their thesis adviser were exploring the personality differences among gamers of FPS/RTS/MMO games. This was to counter the assumption that there was such a thing as a monolithic "gamer" group. At that point, EQ had just been out for a year, and none of us had played the game, so the psych department got them a copy so they knew what it was all about. As the lab techie, I installed the game for them, and then we all tried it out, but I was the only one who liked the game.

After playing the game for a semester and seeing interesting intersections with psychology, I proposed the initial online survey study to the faculty member who would later become my thesis adviser. At that point in time, the web-based survey method itself was also novel on its own. And that's how this line of research started.

Can you explain to readers in basic terms what PlayOn 1.0 and now PlayOn 2.0 are all about?

PlayOn 1.0 was PARC's initial effort to experiment with logging data from WoW using a LUA-based addon. While we collected and analyzed a lot of interesting data at the character and guild level, we weren't able to connect in-game behaviors with real-world demographics/personality variables because we didn't know anything about the players behind the characters.

PlayOn 2.0 fills that gap by pairing the in-game data collection with a web-based survey, so we have the demographic/personality variables of players alongside their gameplay metrics (gathered both in game and via the armory). So now we can directly address questions related to whether different people play the game differently.

And how does The Daedalus Project fit in?

The Daedalus Project predates PlayOn, actually. Even when I conducted online surveys of gamers in college, I was very interested in sharing results back with the community. Initially, these took the form of self-contained static web pages on my website (for example, the initial Norrathian Scrolls report on the EQ surveys).

But after a few of these sites, it became clear that managing the disparate pages was becoming unwieldy, and I also wanted a comment channel. So in 2003, I switched to a blog system that allowed indexing, cross-referencing, and commenting. That was how the Daedalus Project started.

We've interviewed all sorts of virtual world researchers who've become involved in the game to various degrees. How has your own experience playing WoW influenced your research?

Online gaming communities are subcultures with their own norms and slang. It's really difficult to ask the right questions without understanding the culture. But by being part of a community, it becomes far easier to spot interesting questions by observing hot button issues in the game or on community forums (such as gender-bending or Chinese gold farmers). This in turns helps me generate interesting questions to explore in my next surveys.

The same is true by reading the commentary on the Daedalus Project or the PlayOn blog. While traditional psychology favors what I call "hit and run" research, I've learned that doing research that engages and presents results back to a community over time is an incredibly rewarding experience.

How have you perceived the general media's use of your research in its coverage of gaming? Do you believe any of your findings have influenced media or public perceptions to a significant degree?

Between 1999-2003, when initial media interest in MMOs was growing, I became very disheartened by the constant and singular focus on the addiction issue. It was the only thing reporters wanted to talk about, and even if we talked about other issues on the phone, they would tend to only print the things I said about addiction. I hated that I had findings on all these other interesting issues, but the few findings I had on usage were being used to drive this agenda. Once I understood this, I often stopped responding to reporters who mentioned addiction in their emails.

While I think the collective TerraNova hivemind helped to defuse this agenda by bringing up issues related to economics, law, sociology, and psychology, the most significant turning point in terms of media coverage occurred with the Second Life media blitz. SL was important for two reasons. It wasn't a game, and people could make money from it. This turned the traditional stereotype of virtual worlds on its head -- that virtual worlds were just games and a waste of time. The SL media cycle made it far easier for researchers to talk about virtual worlds beyond the narrow addiction framing.

You've been watching game and gamer demographics since before World of Warcraft appeared on the scene. WoW has a reputation (how well-deserved, we don't know) for getting female and nontraditional gamers involved. Have you seen this impact other MMORPGs? If it has, do you attribute it to WoW's influence on the market, or do you think something else is going on? Or was the trend was present before WoW showed up?

My first survey of EQ players showed 16% female players in 2000. In my 2005 survey of WoW players, I also found 16%. In the back end, between 2005-2009, I had noticed that the female ratio was creeping up to the mid-20s. In more recent data sets, one 2009 study found 19% female players in EQ2. And in our own PlayOn data, we found 32% female ratio in the United States and 21% in Hong Kong and Taiwan. So I think there has been a general trend in MMOs where the female ratio has been rising. It seems to have risen more quickly among WoW players, but it's hard to be conclusive with these few data points, especially as to what the cause was.

What was the biggest surprise you've made in all your gaming research?

The biggest surprise was the willingness and openness of participants in their responses to open-ended questions. Whether it was about romantic relationships formed in online games or experiences with being a guild leader, many participants spent a lot of time providing rich and insightful descriptions of their experiences. This in turn helped me to produce more interesting reports and led me to explore new ideas that were brought up.

The most provocative finding has been the gradual blurring between work and play in MMOs. I've noted this in some Daedalus Project posts (here and here) and academic articles. And you really see this with the Cata patch in WoW. The whole game has become a very streamlined personal task management system. All your tasks are automatically tracked, tagged on your map, their current progress indicated. You are now seamlessly directed and swiftly guided (via quest-provided mounts) from one quest hub to the next. You no longer need to figure out grinding spots to fill the XP bar. When you take a step back, it really puts any commercial project management system to shame. If only Outlook could track and manage your tasks like WoW, right? And isn't that a provocative and scary thought?

What study/project/paper have you done that you believe has the most potential application to sociological/social issues in real life?

I think it's the Proteus Effect line of studies showing that the avatars we inhabit come to change our behaviors and attitudes in virtual worlds, because those studies show that virtual worlds and avatars can be vectors for change. So there are now studies trying to explore how that mechanism might be used to augment health games, for example.

Have you considered that the rules enforced by virtual worlds could be seen akin to government? Do you think political science and economics students might benefit from studying games like Second Life, EverQuest, and WoW to see how game designers incentivize desirable behavior?

Absolutely. From a psychology perspective, I've referred to these rules as "social architectures." We tend to think of traits like altruism or gregariousness as individual traits, but it's clear when looking at MMO evolution that game mechanisms like death penalties (e.g., corpse runs in EQ) and class dependence (e.g., having to ask others to bind you in EQ) encouraged (or some may say forced) players to ask each other for help. In the original EQ, it used to be commonplace to stop someone on the road and ask them for help. With the far more casual and streamlined gameplay in WoW, asking for help will typically get you shouted out for being a noob. I think the impact of these social architectures on social norms and interactions is fascinating and indeed worthy of attention. Instead of the "government" metaphor, I've tended to see it more as a provocative kind of "digital social engineering."

Many of your papers were co-written with colleagues from foreign universities. Have they noticed a significant difference between the behavior and class/race choices of, say, European players versus their Asian counterparts versus American players, and so on and so forth?

It's actually been quite difficult to run cross-cultural studies. It's only recently with something like the PlayOn 2.0 data set where we explicitly recruited both Asian and U.S. players that we've been able to make those direct comparisons. Some of the more interesting findings:
  • The male bias for gender-bending appears in both cultures. In both cultures, it was also older men who tended to gender-bend more.
  • Men and women are equally likely to play healers in the United States, but women are twice as likely to play healers in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

While these appear to be cultural differences, they could also very well be idiosyncratic emergent behaviors as well. Or for some reason, MMOs may be attracting different subgroups due to local norms. So I'd caution against interpreting these differences simply as "cultural" differences.

How do you see your field, and the study of virtual worlds more broadly, developing in academia?

As both a techie and an academic, I've always been fascinated with new research methods. And this has been a persistent part of my work, whether it was with being able to collect 4,000 online survey responses over a weekend, coding immersive virtual environment experiments to test psychological theories, logging behavioral data in virtual worlds, or figuring out how to process and analyze large multivariate data sets.

Certainly, we'll see more general theoretical interest in virtual worlds from different disciplines, but I think the most interesting advances will come from researchers who figure out how to leverage virtual worlds as novel research platforms -- in what ways do virtual worlds allow us to do science that we couldn't have before?

What did you think about the Corrupted Blood incident? Do you think an MMORPG might be a good way for medical organizations to model behavior in the event of an epidemic or disaster, or do you think there are too many restrictions on virtual worlds to get accurate results?

I think the Corrupted Blood incident was valuable, but not because it had any direct scientific value. It was important because it was a good, concrete, explainable example to help non-gamers understand some of the potentials of virtual worlds even though not all the pieces were there (e.g., what does death really mean in a world where everyone is immortal?). It provided a beacon that encouraged more scientists to think about how they might build towards that goal or what this new approach might mean for their own research questions.
And what about readers who'd like to get involved at the next opportunity? Are you currently seeking more study participants?

We are in the analytic part of the first phase of the study. In the next phase, we plan to collect data from mainland China and the EU, so while we are not seeking participants right now, there will be another phase to the study. And we'll be sure to let you all know when that happens!

Try your hand at our exclusive quiz from Nick Yee, The WoW Factor, and test your own knowledge of the MMORPG world!

"I never thought of playing WoW like that!" -- and neither did we, until we talked with these players, from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's Aron "Nog" Eisenberg to an Olympic medalist and a quadriplegic raider. Know someone else we should feature? Email lisa@wow.com.

Filed under: Interviews, 15 Minutes of Fame

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