METANOMICS: DMITRI WILLIAMS: WHO PLAYS?
OCTOBER 27, 2008
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Good afternoon. This is Rob Bloomfield welcoming you to the
53rd edition of Metanomics. Today we’re joined by Dmitri Williams, one of the rising stars of
academic research on gaming in Virtual Worlds, and, in particular, on who plays games and
how this new technology affects gamers themselves and society at large. Dmitri has already
done so much work that we’ve got a lot to talk about today so I’m going to jump right in.
As always, thanks to our sponsors InterSection Unlimited, Kelly Services, Language Lab,
Learning Tree International and, of course, Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of
Management. I’m hoping that our camera crew at SLCN can get a nice sweep of Sage Hall,
home of Cornell’s Johnson School, because Metanomics producer, Bjorlyn Loon, has made
a few modifications and improvements to our interior.
While we’re looking at that I’d also like to say hello to our viewers at our event partners
Colonia Nova Amphitheater, Meta Partners Conference Area, Rockliffe University and the
Outreach Amphitheater of the New Media Consortium Educational Community Sims,
JenzZa Misfit’s historic Muse Isle and Orange Island.
Today we are using InterSection Unlimited’s ChatBridge system, as we always do, to
transmit local chat to our website and website chat into our event partners. This great
technology brings people in touch across the grid and from the grid to the web. So do speak
up, and let everyone know your thoughts, and, in particular, we’d love to get your questions
for our guest, Dmitri Williams, as we explore his research agenda.
Before we talk with Dmitri about his research on gaming, we’re going to take a look at one of
the newest entries in the gaming market, Spore. Introducing us to Spore is Metanomics
gaming correspondent, Hydra Shaftoe. Hydra, great to have you back on Metanomics.
HYDRA SHAFTOE: Ah, thank you, Beyers.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: So Spore has been one of the most eagerly anticipated gaming
titles, and I know Electronic Arts was hoping that this would be a major hit for them. Before
we get into the details, just a gut reaction: Did you like it?
HYDRA SHAFTOE: Overall, I really like Spore. I would say the main reason I liked it is that
I went into it knowing that it was a software toy, and I didn’t expect anymore out of it than it
was supposed to be.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Okay. Now as I understand it, you start out as a single-celled
organism that evolves, and I think we even have some footage that you took from within the
game, and then you move into establishing tribes, building civilizations, sculpting entire
worlds and ultimately exploring the cosmos. And so I’m wondering, were some of these
gaming experiences more satisfying for you than others?
HYDRA SHAFTOE: Yeah. I’d have to say the tide pool phase, where you’re a single-celled
organism. I really, really enjoyed that. I just wish it was longer. I finished the whole thing in
under 30 minutes. The space phase, of course, is excellent, and I really enjoy flying around
meeting other civilizations and, being the war monger I am, usually destroying them.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Here’s a question that I feel like I’ve gotten different answers from
different people on just how much of a Virtual World Spore really is. You mentioned that you
experienced other civilizations, and those were controlled by other people?
HYDRA SHAFTOE: Well, to a degree. The way this worked, before Spore was launched,
there was the Spore Creature Creator where people remade creatures as part of that
software toy. It uploaded it to a Metaverse known as the SporeVerse, and those creatures
and civilizations were already pre-made and populated the galaxy. Well, the galaxy’s got
several million stars in it so somewhere between 500 and 600,000 people already had built
civilizations to populate it. But, no, you don’t interact directly with other players. But their
civilizations and creatures are definitely in the galaxy, and your actions have an effect on
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Okay. Let’s see. You view this as a game. You enjoyed it
because it’s a game, and actually I was just reading on Terra Nova, the sort of
academic-oriented game blog, Ted Castronova, who’s been on Metanomics before, actually
has a recent post that says, “Scientists say Spore sucks.” Ted is never one to mince words,
and he refers to a science article that says basically there’s not really evolution in this World.
So it sounds like you’re saying you agree with that, but you don’t care; it’s a fun game.
HYDRA SHAFTOE: Yeah, exactly. There’s the big debate that this has sparked off about
intelligent design versus biological evolution. Well, the fact is, this is a game, and, if it was
going strictly on rules of biological evolution, all it would be is a reasonably entertaining
screen saver. I paid my $50, I want to play a game. So I want to pick and choose parts of
creatures. I want to sculpt my creatures to be however I want them to be, and that’s what I
enjoy. So I think picking it apart on those grounds is rather futile because it was never
designed to be that in the first place.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Now I see, in the backchat, Bevan Whitfield, who actually has
done a lot of the shopping for my wardrobe, is asking, well, wondering whether they have
shoes in Spore. Now given the creatures we just saw on the screen, I doubt any of them are
going out shoe shopping. But I am wondering if there is any economy in the game, micro
transactions and the like.
HYDRA SHAFTOE: Yes, there is. The currency changes forms as you move through the
game. When you’re in the cell phase and the creature phase, your currency is DNA points.
You earn those by killing other creatures, making friends with other creatures or just going
around doing tasks in the World, and you use those DNA points to add parts to your
creature and make it more advanced. When you get to the civilization phases, your currency
can either be food, when you’re a tribe, or a planetary civilization, you get what’s call Spore
bucks. Well, the Spore bucks remain until you get to the space phase, at which point it sort
of takes a nod from Frank Herbert, and you start trading spice with other civilizations, and
that’s how you earn your money there.
So there is a limiting economy to this, but it’s not really so much about the economy, it’s
what you’re actually doing with it. Because you’re usually just buying tools to increase your
ability to sculpt planets or generate life.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: And not really interacting directly with other players when you’re
engaged in this trade.
HYDRA SHAFTOE: Not economically, no.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Yeah, not economically. We have a couple other clips that you
shot, and one of them it’s really an entertaining one that deals with sexual reproduction in
Spore. While SLCN pops this on for us, I’d like to read this paragraph, a description from
Science Magazine, where they are criticizing Spore for not being sufficiently scientific. And
so here’s the paragraph. They say, “All species reproduce sexually in Spore. That must
have posed quite a challenge for the development team’s kiddie policy. I can’t fault them on
this count because the compromise solution made me laugh out loud. Once you return to
the next and hit the “call mate” button, another of your species approaches with a flurry of
valentine hearts. What follows is a soft porn vision of how cartoon characters come to be.
Easy listening lounge music pipes in as the pair coo and gyrate in slow circles, never
touching before one of them suddenly squats on the nest and, from no apparent orifice,
pops out an egg.” I guess that’s right. I’m probably not going to use this to teach eighth
If we turn to the civilization part, looking at the video you sent along, it didn’t seem that your
game had a tremendously happy ending. You blew up an entire World.
HYDRA SHAFTOE: Oh, yeah. Actually I looked at an old issue of National Geographic with
a map of the galaxy. I went to the place in the galaxy where earth was supposed to be, and,
yeah, I found earth, and, well, I just decided to do the universe a favor. I blew it up.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: What’s next, I guess, for you with Spore? Does this game have
lasting power? I know people who play World of Warcraft right there, there are members
and there are subscribers to that for years. So what do you see as your own future in
HYDRA SHAFTOE: Well, at the moment, I’ve actually finished Spore. The ultimate quest of
the game is to get to the center of the galaxy, and, after several very hard days of fighting, I
actually managed to do that. So now Spore is on the shelf, and I’m just going to wait for the
expansion pack. And I really hope that there will be one because I thoroughly enjoyed the
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Great. Well, thank you so much, Hydra Shaftoe, for sharing your
thoughts with us about Electronic Arts’ Spore, and I look forward to seeing you back on here
when we have our next blockbuster game come out.
HYDRA SHAFTOE: The Sims 3. Thank you, Beyers.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: See you then. Okay. Thanks to Hydra Shaftoe. And now let’s
move on to our main event. Dmitri Williams is an assistant professor at the USC Annenberg
School of Communication, where he’s part of the Annenberg Program Online Communities,
APOC. Dmitri, like me, received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. Go Blue! I hope
there are no Ohio State fans out there in the audience. We don’t have to reach everyone.
Dmitri’s research focuses on the social and economic impact of new media, and, of course,
our interest here on Metanomics is his focus on online games. So first of all, Dmitri,
welcome to Metanomics.
DMITRI WILLIAMS: Thanks for having me.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: I have to say, I love your feet. Those are really good. I’m sure
we’ll get a chance to look at those today.
DMITRI WILLIAMS: All the cool kids are going to be wearing these.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Yeah, that’s right. You’ll be a trendsetter. I’d like to start out by
asking you a bit about your testimony to the Senate. This was in 2006. The hearing was:
What’s in a Game, regulation of violent video games in the First Amendment, a hearing
before the Subcommittee on the Constitution, civil rights and property rights. So they were
interested in the topic that legislators have often been interested in, in the U.S., which is
violence in video games and their effects on people. And, of course, I’m glad to see they are
relying on scientific research before they make decisions. You had three suggestions for
them: support studies through the National Science Foundation, include social context about
the use of this media and emphasize long-term studies. I’m wondering if you could talk
about each of those. Where else would we be supporting scientific research other than the
DMITRI WILLIAMS: Most of the propositions were to have research on games go through
the National Institute of Health or National Institute of Mental Health. To me, that seemed
liked a problem that media were being treated as if they were some kind of substance in the
same model as we might think about regulation for tobacco or cigarettes or the food supply.
I just thought it’s, generally speaking, kind of wrongheaded to think about media as a
substance that you ingest. It’s not how humans work.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: I believe your testimony was, “Games are not a controlled
DMITRI WILLIAMS: Yeah. I stand by that, and, if you could have been there, there was
some other national emergency or something going on that day so the hearing got almost
no play. But inside that room, it was basically me and a lot of people who hated video
games, more or less. And, even though I consider myself something of a moderate on this
issue, I believe there are some harmful effects of games. I don’t think that they are
inherently particularly good or bad. And so, as a moderate, I was sort of off to one side on
this, and everybody’s like, “Who’s going to be angriest, and who’s going to be most
outraged about these damn things?” I was trying to play the voice of reason and talk about
the scientific research. I thought the starting point is, they aren’t drugs.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Mm-hmm. How about that you were saying they need to be
considering social context in how games in Virtual Worlds are being used?
DMITRI WILLIAMS: Well, this flows right out of it. I mean if we think about the effects of
media, and most media research--and this is--my research background is about what do
media do to you. If you sit there in a room and you consume this media, what will happen to
you? Will you become taller or fatter or shorter or angrier or wiser or what? One of the
things that that research tended to leave out until it got more sophisticated later on was the
fact that all these things took place in some kind of social context, that you didn’t just come
to the couch, with no pre-existing opinions, and who you were in your social context actually
Also, the people you consume the media with might matter a whole lot. For a child who
potentially could have some kind of negative impact from watching television or playing
Grand Theft Auto or anything, the circumstances change greatly when they’re playing with a
friend or with a parent or by themselves. And these are moderating influences that
complicate the question and make them a whole more difficult than just what X causes,
what Y--that’s not how people work.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Emphasizing long-term studies, what was your concern there?
DMITRI WILLIAMS: Right. Well, everybody’s heard newspaper reporting about the impacts
of games, and you probably have gotten a sense that they’re probably bad for you, but just
isn’t entirely sure. When I first starting doing research on this, it was probably eight, nine
years ago, I was shocked to find that the longest piece of impact or the longest study that
had gone on was when people were brought into a lab, and they played a game for 45
minutes. The typical piece of video game research brings someone in to a lab are usually
undergrad or sophomores into a lab for somewhere between ten and 30 minutes so that the
average is probably around 20. I found this one study that was 45 minutes, and I thought,
“Wow! All these conclusions are being based on someone coming in and playing for 45
minutes, and they’re talking about lifelong impacts.
I had been taught in my research classes that, if you want to talk about impacts over time,
then you need to measure something over time. So this seems to be kind of a no-brainer,
but it’s actually a fairly heretical statement in the research community because the research
on television is so well accepted by most media researchers that the assumption’s always
been, “Well, we don’t have to test games for ten years because we’ve tested TV for ten
years. So we test games for 15 minutes. That’s good enough.” I always thought, number
one, if you bring people into a lab, that’s not what life is like in their living room. You’re not
getting natural settings. And, number two, if you want to know what’s going to happen with
somebody a month or a year or ten years down the road, you should test that long. As
painful as it may be, that’s what a rigorous research calls for.
So I did my dissertation research--this is going back a ways now--where I had people play a
game for one month, which is still not very long, but obviously was longer than the best of
the time of 45 minutes. So I felt like I could make stronger conclusions based on my one
little test, but even I’m constrained to say, “Hey, I can only talk about what happens for a
month, and I can also talk about what happens for this one game.” So it’s just more like let’s
be a little more conservative with the conclusions and the long-term claims that people have
on these things. It doesn’t mean you won’t find bad effects; it just means that you’ve got to
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: I love getting people to talk about the dissertation that consumed
years of their lives and say, “Okay, can you give us the 30-second version?” I’m not going to
quite do that to you, but let’s build up to it. Well, this is post-dissertation, but you wrote an
article in Games and Culture called “Why Game Studies Now? Gamers Don’t Bowl Alone.”
And so I know that this formed some of the background for how you motivate actually doing
your research at a traditional institution on a very untraditional topic. I guess, first of all, your
reference to gamers no bowling alone is to the book by Putnam. I’m wondering if you can
just talk a little bit about what bowling alone means to you and why that’s something that
people who study gaming should care about.
DMITRI WILLIAMS: Sure. Well, there are lots of uses and effects possible from games,
some good, some bad. Some people are interested in aggression. Some people are
interested in cultivation. I know we’ll talk about in a little while some people are interested in
economics. We could talk about that. My main interest is in community and in sociability. I
was very curious whether or not people, when they played games, were having social
experiences or if they were conforming to stereotype and they were young teenage boys,
playing in basements by themselves, with really pallid skin.
So to couch that in some theoretical language, we always have to refer to some theory. We
can’t just go in and say we want to study it because it’s fun and it’s in the newspapers.
There is this very popular book by Robert Putnam called Bowling Alone, and I’ll summarize
the book. It’s 400 pages, and if you can imagine a graph in your head where the X axis is
time and the Y axis is things that we like, things that are good. And what the book shows is,
graph after graph after graph of the line going from top left down to bottom right, which is to
say things used to be really good, and now they suck. And the things that were really good
were all things associated with community and sociability. Things like attending club
meetings or having your friends over or--
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Dining with family.
DMITRI WILLIAMS: Right. All these different things. And there are just dozens and dozens
and dozens of graphs. Whether or not you read the newspaper. Whether or not you leave
your house. Whether nor not you talk to your spouse. Things that we pretty universally value
as good for community and for relationships. These things have all been on a steady
decline. And Putnam’s argument was that there are lots of moving pieces to this, but we
think it’s the influence of television. It’s keeping us away from each other and lowering the
quality of our relationships. So the central hypothesis of the book is that electronic media
might, in fact, be bad.
And so I thought, well, that’s interesting. Is that also true when people go online? Is it also
true when people play video games? Because it’s pretty clear to me, from having
researched the medium and read a lot of history and done some research on it, that people,
in fact, weren’t playing alone all the time. There are some people who play alone, but a lot of
people are playing in groups, and sometimes they’re doing it face to face. And more and
more they’re doing it by remote. And so I wanted to know what the impacts of that would be,
for better and for worse. Are there good community impacts? Are there good relationship
impacts? Are there bad ones that happen as we sort of, as a society, move from being
cheek by jowl in cities, to being atomized in [sunbursts?-AUDIO GLITCH], to now
reconnecting in this new funky way, through the internet. So that’s the overarching angle I’m
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: And, to follow up on that, one of the things that you suggest is
that Virtual Worlds or online spaces can actually meet the definition of what are called third
places, which I guess was defined by Oldenburg. Can you walk us through what a third
place is, and how Virtual Worlds can be them?
DMITRI WILLIAMS: Sure. This is a paper I co-wrote with Constance Steinkuehler from the
University of Wisconsin at Madison. We went through sort of the list of criteria for what
makes a third place and then tried to see do those things apply to MMO space. Or we could
say maybe do they apply to Second Life space. And Oldenburg has this list which says, “Do
these things fulfill the function of a third place? First place is home. The second place is
work.” And so we spend a lot of time in each of those two.
But the thing is, if we spend all our time at those two place, we actually have pretty lame
social lives because, even though we find mates that work and have friends at work, it’s not
really enough to make us well-rounded human beings. So what everybody really wants is
that idyllic space where you go and you have these people who are a little bit of an outlet to
the rest of the world. A classic case of this for Americans is pretty well embodied by the
sitcom Cheers. Right? You walk in. Everybody knows who you are. Everybody knows your
name. And you have this mixing experience.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: My god! It sounds like you’re about to break into the theme song.
DMITRI WILLIAMS: I know. I’m ready. But I mean who doesn’t aspire to that. The show
was on for over ten years. It’s no accident that it appealed to something in the American
psyche. In a country where we’re more and more splintered and more and more atomized in
the suburbs where we don’t actually run into each other, we need these third places so that
we can interact with people that we don’t see all the time, and more important, that we can
interest with people who aren’t necessarily like us. Where we can go and relax and have a
little bit of fun, where nobody’s in charge, where it’s all about a regular group of people, and
there’s no sense of hierarchy or as much status.
If you’re playing darts in a bar, it doesn’t matter if you’re the CEO of a company or you’re a
drunk or a burnout, what matters is can you talk a good game and can you hit the damn
bull’s eye. And that’s just one of the nice things about third-place functionality. And it’s just
this important outlet for really expanding your social network. Ask people who don’t look just
like you, and therefore, don’t just think like you, which is one of the problems we have with
some social networking. And we found that MMOs fulfill most of these criteria so it doesn’t
mean that, if you go into Lineage or World of Warcraft or Second Life, suddenly you’re going
to have this amazing social life. There are a lot of good and bad, but we were saying, “Okay,
it fulfills the necessary conditions that at least could be an outlet for those people who think
that nothing good could ever come of going online.”
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Now I’m hoping we’ve sort of set up your dissertation, and so we
can cut a few years out of our discussion of what you did because, as you mentioned, you
had people play a game for a month, and you looked at issues like relations with community
and loneliness and so on. Can you just walk us through the quick version of that study.
DMITRI WILLIAMS: Well, I think there’s actually a pretty consistent trend of findings, not
just from my dissertation work, but from things I’ve done since and from things other people
have done. I think the overall takeaway point is that there are social networks and
connections to be found online, especially within video games we’re talking about here.
They have mixed outcomes. They’re never going to be perfect substitutes for face-to-face
time. So if anyone wants to make it an all-or-nothing proposition, online life is going to lose
out. However, going online as a general rule--and I’m talking in broad generalities here; your
results may vary--if you go online, you are going to interact with more and different kinds of
people, and you are probably going to have relatively shallower interactions with them, at
the beginning, as compared to the same kind of people you might run into offline.
So since we’re not going to the bar and running into all these different kinds of people,
where you get exposed to people from different races and classes, that is one of the
important functions of going online, in that you are going to expand your social circle. Let’s
say you’re a 40-year-old corporate attorney. Where else are you going to get access to
people who are blue collar and might be from a different race or religion? And what about
age? Which is one of the greatest bands that we all wind up being stuck in, hang out with
people who are plus or minus our age by four or five years. But when you go online, if you’re
playing some game or in Gorean Community or God knows what you’re doing, you’re all
there based on some common interests, not necessarily demographic background.
So let’s say everybody wants to slay the Evil Foo. You got this big dragon up there. Well,
that cuts across a lot of demographic categories. And because you’re bringing these people
together, you’re forming communities that would not have existed before. So that’s the good
side. The bad side is, you’re probably not going to get that same kind of strong social
support that--sorry, _____, I do have to single out the corporate attorney. You’re probably
not going to get the kind of strong social support that you will from people you know face to
face, people who can drive you to the hospital when you get sick, people are going to be
there to be the shoulder to cry on when you break up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, the
things that we would call strong bonding social capital, to use some wonky terminology.
Now, of course, many people will get these functions online, and many people offline will get
variety in their communities. But, as a general rule, as a baseline state, those are kind of the
pros and cons of spending a lot of time in an online space versus an offline one. As time
goes on, it’s less clear. Maybe the online stuff gets better. Maybe it doesn’t. But I continue to
find higher levels of loneliness when studying online populations as opposed to their offline
counterparts. But I also continue to find better levels of diversity and variety. So good news,
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: FoxMarie Tennen asked a question a while ago in backchat that
seems appropriate now, which is, there’s evidence that games are addictive. Or maybe I
should ask that as a question. Is there evidence that games are addictive, or is that just sort
of an urban legend, and is that a concern for the types of cultural effects that you’re looking
DMITRI WILLIAMS: There’s certainly a lot of concern about it because the anecdotal
evidence is vast and thick with people who are online and who are having extremely
negative outcomes. The question, of course: Is there a causal relationship? And, as
everybody who does research knows, when you do a survey and you find a correlation
between two things, it’s very hard to know what causes what. It could be that people with
the problems go online. It could be that people go online and get problems as a result.
There have been a number of studies on this. I wouldn’t say the evidence is particularly
compelling one way or the other.
I’m just finishing up the final touches of a paper that looked at this issue. There’s some
pretty strong data. This is a project done with my collaborator, Scott Kaplan, at the
University of Delaware. He’s actually the lead on this project. And what we did was using
data that I’m sure we’ll talk about in a little while. We looked at the psychological outcomes
of people when they go online. We kind of do it in steps. We say, “All right, number one,
what predicts--so the outcome is bad stuff. Compulsive behavior, preferring to go online
rather than talking to people offline, avoiding problems, not able to stop, those kinds of
things. That’s the outcome stuff.
So the prediction stuff is: How much time do you spend online? What kind of things do you
do when you go online? And then what kind of gaming things do you do? So we did that in
this kind of step by step [chunk thing?]. And when we say, “Do you go online,” that explains
about ten, 15 percent of the outcomes. And when we say, “What do you do when you go
online, and how much of it is social,” and we find out that the social stuff actually is the hook
that winds up causing a lot of the problems. And so I would need to--basically the Facebook
phenomenon, people who can’t stop checking it or can’t stop looking at it or updating it or
doing things on it. And, if it wasn’t social, they wouldn’t feel those hooks. So those social
hooks wind up being about another 20 percent or so.
And then, what’s left are the gaming variables. So how much does that explain? Well, we
look at how much time people were in a game, all their motivations for playing and whether
or not they use voice chat, all the gaming things we can come up with. That only explained
about two percent more. So we get 36 percent of the results get explained by all these
non-gaming things that are that have to do with social life and what you’re like offline, your
personality, and then just this tiny little fraction left over, the [end-base?] stuff. Which tells us
that it’s probably problems people are bringing to these spaces that are the source of
issues, and that’s probably where our attention, our focus, ought to be for thinking clinically.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: I’d like to change gears just a little bit. Maybe it’s not changing
gears too much, but it’s adding in a term that was new to me, which is “cultivation theory.”
Also in 2006, you published a lot of papers in 2006. This is from Journal of Communication,
and you published a study on virtual cultivation which examines--you take this cultivation
theory that’s usually applied to TV and movies, and you apply that to gaming. So I guess,
first, for those of us who don’t study media, what is cultivation theory?
DMITRI WILLIAMS: Cultivation is one of the oldest media theories, and it’s probably the
one with the most intuitive appeal that I can think of, as far as explaining what are the
effects of television. The idea behind cultivation is that, if you watch a lot of TV, you will start
to think that the Real World is like the world you see on TV. So theoretically, if you watched
a lot of television where people were very friendly, you would think that in the Real World
people were more friendly. They might not actually be friendly, but you might think they are.
A classic case of this is that people who watch a lot of television are assumed to watch a fair
amount of violence, and therefore, if people do watch high levels, we would expect them to
overestimate how violent the Real World is, with the epitome being, people who watch local
news, which is pretty well drenched in violence and local crime reporting. And, in fact, that's
what a lot of the early studies seemed to show was that people who watched a lot of TV had
This became really, really controversial, and people published some fairly damning
counter-evidence that said you can actually predict the outcomes better by their astrological
sign. It’s just a brutal academic pie-fighting going on. But the idea’s always had a lot of
appeal. But one of the problems was, television isn’t a consistent set of symbols. So if you
just look at how much TV someone’s watching, it’s hard to say that that affected the world
view because all TV’s not the same. And one of the things that I thought is, well, if people
are spending a lot of time in a video game, that is a pretty consistent set of symbols, and it
might be a good place to test this theory that, if you spend 30 hours watching TV, it’s all
over the place. But, if you spend 25 or 30 hours in MMO, you’re really seeing the same stuff
over and over and over, and therefore, you could predict that maybe there would be a
cultivation approach where, if there was something--
Oh, my god! Somebody in the audience has a giant sword. Which is a great cue. It’s
frightening. It’s like an Everquest Fay with a massive final fantasy sword.
If somebody was constantly seeing the same thing over and over and over in a virtual
space, then you might be more inclined to think that that thing existed in real space. Even
though, of course, we all know that Virtual Worlds are fake and Real Worlds are real, that
sometimes there’s this carryover just because of the way the human mind works. And, in
fact, that is one of the things I found. One of the things we asked is, we said, “How often are
the following things likely to happen in the Real World? How often do people get murdered?
How often do people get raped? How often are they robbed? How often are they robbed
with a weapon?” Now, of those four things, really the only thing with a strong virtual
correlate is the weaponry. So I’m glad the monster sword walked in. That was a great cue.
All those other things, they don’t really have an in-world correlate. People die, but they come
back to life. People aren’t really robbed, unless you’re playing some very, very hardcore
Shadowbane type game. And there’s certainly no rape. So the only possible effect that
could bleed over into the Real World would be this robbery with a weapon, and, in fact, of all
those measures, the other three have no outcomes. And the robbery with a weapon, we find
that people who play the game I was studying, were more likely to think that they would be
robbed in their lifetime by someone with a weapon in the Real World. So that’s a cultivation
impact. And it also shows that it’s not a broad things; it’s a very specific thing. If you keep
seeing this one dedicated specific thing over and over and over, you will think about that
specific dedicated thing in real space.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: And I just have to say, as someone who does a lot of
experiments, it’s always very compelling to see that type of interactive result where you get
the treatment effect where you think it should happen, and you don’t get it where you think it
shouldn’t happen, and so it’s not just some very secular result that could be explained by
some alternative theory.
DMITRI WILLIAMS: No. No. And there’s a control group in this case too.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Now a couple weeks ago we had law professor Joshua Fairfield
on to talk about some of the issues, particularly in violence in games. He had had a
conference at Washington and Lee University. One of the cases that we talked about was
Devin Moore, who is a young man who played Grand Theft Auto over and over and over, for
hours and hours, when he was underage. It’s a game rated Mature. And he was too young
to legally be playing it. He stole a car, and then, after he was arrested, he took a gun from a
holster and shot three police officers in the head, which seemed to be replicating game
behavior. I’m wondering, does cultivation theory, can that take us from--I mean you’ve
emphasized what people believe is happening out in the world. I’m wondering if we can
extend this also to behavior.
DMITRI WILLIAMS: Well, first of all, cultivation is about perceptions, not about your own
cognitive processes or your actions. That’s a different kind of mental mechanism, and there
is, of course, a ton of research on this kind of aggression effect work. The Moore case
actually I’m somewhat familiar with. In that same testimony, one of the survivors, of the
people that Moore shot, testified right before me. It was a Reverend. I got the pleasure of
going after someone talking about their relative being killed, you know, “Yeah, defend
games now, you bastard.” So it was a great setup.
The research, as I said before, is somewhat inconclusive about the actual direct mental
effects. The model that is put forward, which is pretty reasonable from what we’ve seen in
television research is that, if you observe a lot of aggressive behavior, you now acquire the
knowledge that it’s possible. You get a script that, okay, that’s one particular set of actions
that you could engage in. And you also believe that maybe it’s more normative, more
acceptable. So [AUDIO GLITCH] about how accessible that script is in your head when
you’re confronted with some kind of aggravating response. Typically someone who’s testing
this will stage something where there’s an altercation or something that makes the person in
the study angry or anxious, and they’ll see if they access this script, and it’s more likely.
No one really has a problem with this model, and me saying I have issues with the lack of
long-term research is very different than me saying that these kinds of outcomes are not
possible. Saying that they haven’t been proved is very different than saying they don’t exist.
So I make myself neutral at best on this. In the case of Devin Moore, I don’t know enough
about what’s going on with him. And the one thing I would say as sort of a word of caution is
that we very frequently look to technology as convenient answers for what are often very
complex and disturbing problems. We’d much rather focus on the bogie man of The Other
or The Toy rather than think about the systemic problems that often lead to violent
People don’t want to talk about poverty, malnutrition, physical abuse from relatives. We
want to talk about the bogie man. So that doesn’t mean there is no bogie man. That doesn’t
mean games don’t cause an effect, but I’m always very hesitant to say that must have been
the thing. People didn’t blow up Columbine because they were playing Doom. Those kids
were messed up, and that’s where the discussion isn’t, but often should be.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Let’s move on to a little more focus of the technology in these
virtual environments and how they affect the experience of players or, in Second Life, I think
we’d be better off calling them residents. So one of the things that you have looked at in
some detail is alliances, and guilds and alliances. It’s not just a matter of, say, in World of
Warcraft, that people form groups and do stuff together. There are actually tools built into
the software that allow them to do that. So you have a paper, From the Treehouse to the
Barracks, which focuses on some of the technologies that are used by guilds. Can you talk
a little bit about your research philosophy and direction there and what you’re finding?
DMITRI WILLIAMS: Sure, I can do that. And you want to key to extraneous comments in
the field. I actually can talk about players and fitness and fat, if anybody’s interested in it
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Yeah, we’ll definitely get to that shortly.
DMITRI WILLIAMS: We’ll bookmark that one because that’s a fun finding. So the guild
paper was an interview project where we worked with a team of social networks folks,
Nick Duchenault and his team from Park Xerox, to help derive the sample of people, to
make sure we had a representative group of people. And then we went in and interviewed
all these folks for an hour apiece, to ask them about their experiences in Warcraft and how
they used technology and how they interacted with each other, to find out sort of how social
they were. This was a very qualitative approach to the problem. It was guided by a rigorous
quantitative sampling method but really trying to get in, get a little more touchy-feely, to talk
to these folks and figure out what meanings they make, what kind of social context they’re
in. Because I normally do a lot of experiments and surveys, and sometimes you do need to
go talk to people.
And we found out a lot of interesting things where these folks were highly social, and some
of the more interesting findings I thought were that guilds are really made up of little clusters
of pre-existing communities, usually offline. So the typical rating guild is made up of eight or
nine little cliques of three or four people apiece that were college roommates or high school
friends or are co-workers or are part of the same family now. Where these people came
from and how they actually play was an important addition into not just thinking all the time
about what do these games do to you, but also think about how do people use the games,
what are they using them for.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: One of the technologies that is particularly, I think, interesting to
people in Second Life is voice. You looked at voice in the framework of guilds, and then you
also have a paper, Can You Hear Me Now?, where you looked specifically at how voice
technology affects interactions among players. Can you walk us through that?
DMITRI WILLIAMS: Sure, I sure can. And, by the way, almost all these papers, they’re up
on my website on the research page, where I kind of [AUDIO GLITCH] the copyright laws by
making a prepublication version available. So I see that comments going up there, “Not
available.” Well, if you ask nicely, it actually is up there. Your question was what do we find
with voice and whether it applies to Second Life and what’s going on there. Is that what’s
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Yeah. If you start just by describing your research study and then
maybe you can make some conjectures about what effects you think it might in Second Life.
DMITRI WILLIAMS: Sure. The research on computer media communication suggest that
the richer the medium, the deeper the interaction will be. That people will, over time, rise
above the medium. If you have a relatively limited medium like text chat, that people will find
a way to work through it. They’ll invent modicums. They’ll talk for longer, and they’ll
eventually catch up with the richer media. But, all else equal, the same amount of time,
generally speaking, you would expect people who are using the richer medium to wind up
communicating in more depth. That means that they will wind up not only sharing things
about themselves at a greater level, but revealing more things about themselves.
So you can imagine the difference between someone who is typing to someone only versus
someone who is also speaking with voice versus somebody who also has video versus then
somebody who’s face to face. As you move along that kind of spectrum, from poorer to
richer media, you give away more about yourself. One of the rules about human
relationships and communities is that you don’t get real depth unless you wind up sharing.
And if you constantly hide who you are and don’t say much about yourself, you wind up
getting a decent deep relationship that winds up being relatively shallow. So that’s why face
to face is always a standard. In addition, of course, us being biological and wanting to have
sex with each other, you’ve got to able to see what someone looks like to know what gender
they are. You’ve got to hear their voice to know for sure if you trust them. And so we
hypothesize as we move farther along the spectrum from text to voice that we would have
more sharing and more openness and then also this would manifest itself in trust.
So what we did was, we did a study over a month where we measured people at the
beginning two weeks in and then another two weeks in, to find out how much they trusted
each other. One group of people, the control group, they were guilds, they just stayed
playing Warcraft the way they were. And then the second group, the treatment group, we
also gave them headsets and free access to voice servers and just looked at the trust
difference. You could see, over time, that the people who had voice wound up maintaining
about the same level of trust. They didn’t have a game, but they were buffeted from any
losses; whereas, the people who were in text wound up trusting each other less often.
This has been a particularly fractious time in the development of World of Warcraft so the
guilds were subjected to a lot of extra external stresses. So it’s not surprising that the control
condition went down a little bit, but it was sort of nice to see that the voice condition
maintained the quality and that they didn’t stop trusting each other anymore. So is this a
takeaway point that voice is always better in every situation? No, absolutely not. Some
people don’t want to share much about themselves. Some people prefer the anonymity and
what it enables. But it reminds me that you’ve got to give to get, and, if you don’t share of
yourself, you’re going to have relatively limited relationships and self-select. Choose what
you will. Just be advised that these are the outcomes.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: This discussion of voice certainly fired up a lot of text chat in the
DMITRI WILLIAMS: It sure did.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: And now I have to find who it was who suggested this. It’s been
going by so quickly, it’s been a little bit tough to track, but someone is saying--oh,
Rubustus Hax, that his impression is that griefing has gone down in Second Life since voice
came about. It sounds like that would be at least consistent with the type of story you’re
DMITRI WILLIAMS: Yeah, that is pretty consistent because, when you’re relatively
anonymous, there are fewer repercussions for your actions. It’s less personal. But, if you
have to out yourself, then it’s harder to hide. And it’s harder also to be someone you’re not.
One of the sort of underlying things we find from all this research over time is that people
don’t really role-play that much. People are really, over time, they’re themselves. There
really isn’t a whole lot of hiding. There’s that famous cartoon on the internet, “No one knows
that you’re a dog,” and it’s this dog sitting there. Sooner or later you got to bark. I mean you
are who you are, and you can only hide it for so long. Most people don’t even think to.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Yeah. In Second Life, of course, and I do see a fair bit of the
discussion here in backchat has turned to sex and there sure is a lot of that sort of activity I
am told in Second Life. For people who are being a gender they are not, voice is not
necessarily good for business.
DMITRI WILLIAMS: Sure. Well, that’s certainly revealing--you’re kind of backstage right
there. You can hardly role-play somebody else. There’s this great video that was called
Avatars Offline. There’s this wonderful line in it where this guy says, “You’re this beautiful
wood elf made in Everquest, but you’re really this hairy guy from New Jersey.” He says,
“Well, everybody’s upset that, ‘Oh, no, this person’s been role-playing,’ that this beautiful elf
and really this guy, and he says, ‘Well, elves aren’t real.’”
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Yeah, “Did you think I was an elf?”
DMITRI WILLIAMS: Exactly. It is whatever it is. And if you decide that you want it to be
more fictitious, then two consenting adults, they could do whatever they want. It’s a guy and
a girl, and they’re both gender swapping, and they’re playing the other side, that’s what they
need to do to maintain that illusion, then more power to them. But that’s very different than
establishing a relationship based on trust and forming long-term community. Those are two
radically different functions. I haven’t done the research on the sex. That sounds like
something good for after tenure.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Pebbles Hannya, who is a marketing researcher in Second Life,
is asking whether anyone who’s looked into the relationship between voice and multitasking.
She continues, “My guess is the fact that many people who like to multitask limits their
enthusiasm for voice.” Is that anything you’ve looked at?
DMITRI WILLIAMS: No, I haven’t, and I don’t know anybody who has. There really is very
little research on voice. This is me doing one study of one game for one month, and, again,
you have to be somewhat limited in conclusions. I don’t even know if these findings apply to
Second Life. All I could say is, to make an educated guess, a voice uses more of your own
mental bandwidth, and therefore, you would have fewer cognitive resources left over for
other things. And you have to attend to the task when the social cue is given, and you have
less flexibility than you do with text, where you can have a little bit more time to wait and let
your brain go back and reprocess something. So I would assume that it would make it
harder to multitask. But, for my money, most of the people’s reluctance for getting into voice
is more about their level of personal disclosure that they want to share with rather than
cognitive processing power.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Let’s move on to your most recent set of studies. You were part
of a set of NSF grants where you got huge amounts of data from Sony Online Entertainment
that you can use to shed some light on who actually is playing games. And I guess this will
eventually take us to the questions about, for example, as you mentioned before, someone
was asking about weight. Are all gamers underperformers, living in their parents’ basement
and so on. So I guess, first of all, can you just talk about the data that you had and how you
DMITRI WILLIAMS: First, I’m afraid that someone’s going to respond to Crap Mariner’s
question about driving, and I don’t want to be sued, so I’m just not going to touch that. The
data from Sony, they’re a few different kinds of data. But basically, the promise of this
research is that normally in social science we have to ask people what they did, “How much
did you play? What did you do?” And they give us bad data in return. They either tell us
things that they think we want to hear or make them feel better about themselves, or they’re
often incorrect with their recollections. If you say, “How many hours did you engage in
Second Life last week?” to this audience here, everyone’s going to give me a wrong answer.
Maybe you’re going to be off by five percent. Maybe you’re off by 30 percent. But no one’s
going to get it right. And a lot of the reasons you’re going to get it wrong, you don’t want to
be thought of as a Second Life addict, or you might want to claim that you are when you
really aren’t. There are all these social desirability reasons to give the wrong numbers, in
addition to the recall problem.
But, if you have the logs that tell how long they’ve been logged in, you just know. So that’s
the great thing about data from virtual spaces is that it’s unobtrusive. That is, the person
we’re collecting the data on is unaware of it. And so if we want to say, “How many times did
you do X, Y or Z?” we just know it. And that’s fantastic for social science. It also raises a lot
of ethical questions that we have to be very careful with and be sensitive to the anonymity of
the people. But when combined with regular data from surveys, it’s really nice to be able to
know not only what people did, but who they are and why they did it. So we can get at this
demographic, psychological and behavioral stuff and roll it all into one ball in a way that we
never can in regular social science research offline. It’s really nice. So that’s where the data
come from. I mean that’s the kind of data we have, and these come from one of Sony
Online’s games called Everquest II, [creatively the title’s cool?] to Everquest I. It used to be
a big game before Warcraft. It’s still a big game. It’s just that there this 800-pound gorilla in
the room. So it’s your standard MMO RPG fantasy title, which is probably about 90 percent
of the market, so it’s reasonably representative.
So we have lots of studies coming out based on the survey that we did with Sony. We
surveyed about 7,000 people, with Sony’s help, to find out who plays, how much they play,
and why they play, and that’s the first paper that came out a little while ago. But also, a lot of
stuff about their psychological motivators, the thing I mentioned before about the
problematic use outcomes, the addiction stuff. I have a paper on gender differences which
should be coming out pretty soon, why men and women are different when they play these
things. I’m finishing up a paper on role players. And then we’re going to be digging into a lot
of stuff on their behaviors in the worlds. The very first paper that should come out on this, if
things go well, is a paper on economic flows within Everquest, macroeconomic analysis
paper that’s all behavioral data entirely. So lots of different projects. And we know a lot more
about the people than we did a few months ago.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: So going to the question of: Are gamers disproportionately likely
to be fat, socially inept teenagers living in their mother’s basement?
DMITRI WILLIAMS: Yeah, not so much. It turns, with the exception of gender, you know,
Second Life is an unusual virtual space because it’s pretty balanced for gender. And, of
course, MMOs seem like they’re a whole lot more male, and that’s, in fact, what we find. We
find it’s about 80-20 male split. But, other than that, the gamers in the MMO space, at least
on the EQ II side, are very, very close to the U.S. population as determined by census data.
There are some discrepancies based on socioeconomic status and race because, of
course, access to computing power is going to be highly correlated with how much money
you make, which is going to be correlated with race and class.
But the people who are in these spaces, they’re us. I mean they don’t look a whole lot
different. And we have all kinds of fun and quirky “man bites dog” kind of questions that we
think we got answered. One of the ones was about their physical fitness, and it turns out
that the gamers are fitter than the U.S. population. Now this does not mean that gamers are
fit. It means they are less unfit, if you follow me. We ask people their height and their weight
in the same way that the National Institute of health ask people their height and their weight.
We use the same exact questions, and that lets us get their BMI, their body mass index,
which is a not perfect but rough indicator of overall health. And it turns out that the players,
especially the female players, and especially the older female players, are substantially fitter
or less unfit than their Real World U.S. census counterparts, which we found pretty
The best explanation for that, that we’ve found, is that it’s not necessarily related to screen
time and being sedentary because, of course, gamers are sitting in front of their screens a
whole lot. But it’s probably about the fact that, when they’re watching screens, they’re
playing games, and they’re not watching TV. And, because they’re not watching TV, they’re
not seeing advertisements. And, because they’re not seeing advertisements, they’re
probably not as driven to consumption figuratively and, of course, literally. That’s my best
explanation I’ve seen for these findings.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Well, for what it’s worth, I would say, if you’ve got one hand on
the mouse and you’re trying to kill some awful creature and people are trying to eat you,
you’re less likely to be using your other hand for a bag of potato chips.
I see we’re just about out of time, and I’d just like to close with a couple questions. One of
which comes from Tizzers Foxchase. Could you tell us a little bit about your experience
working with Cory Ondrejka when he became part of the Annenberg program on virtual
communities last spring? For those who don’t know, he’s the former technology officer of
Linden Lab, hence the interest from our audience.
DMITRI WILLIAMS: Right. And Cory’s now off saving the world for music. Cory’s fantastic.
We co-did a couple lectures together, but I’ve known Cory for a while, and it was just more
of the same. He’s just a great guy. We weren’t doing active research projects, but it’s so
nice, as an academic, to be around somebody from industry. It’s always a great gut check,
get some life blood in the ivory tower. He’s just a fun guy to be around. He taught a great
class in our APOC sequence. Our Masters students loved him. I sat in on a couple of those
classes. He also helped teach some seminars to the faculty directly, and everybody enjoyed
it. We were really sorry that we couldn’t keep him around, but, of course, this was a
one-shot thing. You can’t keep Cory pinned down.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Was there any particular surprise given that he comes from
industry with such a different focus? Was there one big moment where you said, “Aha. I’m
such an academic”?
DMITRI WILLIAMS: No. Not really. I’m a fairly industry-focused person. I spend a lot of time
listening and talking to people in industry so I try very hard not to be cloistered. I go to the
Game Developer Conference. I go to their panels. I try to network with people, and, in
working with Sony, I’m listening to business development people and game developers all
the time. And likewise, there are a handful of really excellent people in the Virtual World
community and in games more generally, who are this very thoughtful, slightly eggheaded,
academically oriented crew. You could put Will Wright, Richard Bartle, Raph Koster and
certainly Cory in this crowd. They’re just very thoughtful people who are not just thinking
about the nuts and bolts in the daily operations, but thinking about the larger meanings and
the human experience. So in that sense, there’s plenty of middle ground when someone like
Cory and someone like me get together. It’s always a pleasure.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Okay. Last question is, I believe this is an upcoming book chapter
called Herding Cats Online, where you talk about your experience trying to convince people
that research on games in Virtual Worlds is worthwhile. Overall, it sounds like it’s not
something for the researcher who’s faint of heart.
DMITRI WILLIAMS: Yeah, not so much.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: So with just closing words because we’re basically out of time:
What advice would you give to the young researchers that I know watch Metanomics, trying
to figure out whether there’s an academic career for them in this space? What would you tell
DMITRI WILLIAMS: They get their own turf driven by their own interests. Don’t copy things
other people are doing. Try to get the help of a company, if at all possible, by listening to
them, thinking about what you could deliver to them and speaking their language, realizing
that they could care less about tenure and publications and what not. Learning their
language is really important. Those are the good ones. Those are two that I don’t see
enough of, but that I think are the necessary ingredients. Too many people call up
companies and say, “What can you do for me, and can you help me?” That’s not the way
you do business.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to appear on
Metanomics and tell us about your research program. I look forward to having you back on
when you can tell us more about the results that you got from that incredible data set from
DMITRI WILLIAMS: Happy to do that.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: So congratulations on nabbing that.
DMITRI WILLIAMS: That’ll keep us busy for a couple years. I’m sorry we couldn’t get to all
the great questions. I was watching them scroll by. I wanted to talk to all of them. There’s
some really smart questions out there.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Well, I need to talk with SLCN about making this a longer show,
but you TV broadcasters, they want to keep it short and snappy.
DMITRI WILLIAMS: It’s all good.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Work within the medium. Okay, thank you, Dmitri Williams. Next
week we are having a representative of the World Bank, that now has a presence in Second
Life, and so we will be devoting part of our show to understanding why the World Bank is in
Second Life. Part of our show on the substance of their most recent report, Doing Business,
which looks at the challenges of doing business in countries around the world. So we have a
little of Virtual and a little bit of Real World economics coming up next week on Metanomics.
See you all then. Bye bye.
Transcribed by: http://www.hiredhand.com
Second Life Avatar: Transcriptionist Writer