October 7, 2005

Role-playing games offer alternative to sleeping, eating

Last weekend, I called my nephew and asked what he was doing.

“Well, I’m killing things, selling things, and talking about things,” he told me.

At first, the response startled to me—but when I visited his house later that day, I realized he wasn’t joking. He was, in fact, killing, trading, and talking. He was performing these actions in a parallel digital universe—the universe of a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG).

Like him, millions of people are interacting every day through MMORPGs. (World of Warcraft, the most successful MMORPG, has 1.5 millions users to date.) These people get in groups and hunt animals. They hang around cities and talk. They trade items they find on corpses. They use an impressive array of virtual emotions (over 50 in the case of Star Wars: Galaxies) such as blinking, snoring, and scowling to express their feelings. In fact, these players mimic almost every aspect of modern society—only they do so in worlds whose foundations are numeric variables. Providing these worlds is big business. Conducting research with these games might be even bigger.

The companies that make MMORPGs do their best to create and sustain a fantastical world for a growing population of players across the globe. Currently, the sole clientele for these companies are the faithful gamers who pay an average of $15 per month to have game-world servers maintained. But perhaps these MMORPG companies would do better to hawk their most unique commodity—a self-sustained, free-market socio-economic community—to market-research firms.

MMORPGs, thanks to the millions that play them, could be a viable alternative (if not replacement) to traditional market research. In the digital realm, every character action and trade can be monitored in a setting that is natural for the player. This overcomes two problems simultaneously: It abolishes the contrived and often unsettling method of the traditional survey while still allowing data to be collected. The underlying result is extensive data of a free-market economy in action. As Dr. Timothy Burke, a sociologist at Swarthmore, writes: “Virtual worlds tend also to have an organicism to them, an unplanned character, that even the richest and most complex artificial society models still lack.” This potential for experimentation is another notable characteristic of virtual worlds.

Gaming companies often force players to download patches. These usually modify existing game files to make the game more balanced. Occasionally, the patch will include new items. For researchers, this would be an ideal system for product analysis: the researcher could manipulate the game world and immediately obtain results. Another appeal to this type of research is cost. Digital items are, well, digital items. The production costs of these items are merely the time it takes to code them and the server support it takes to digitally render them for a computer user. Although gaming companies such as Blizzard Entertainment do not currently approve of using MMORPG environments as “digital ant farms,” it does seem logical that these virtual worlds could one day be open. Approaching the subject from a larger perspective lends credence to this notion.

Little scholarly research of modern MMORPGs exists, but Nick Yee, a graduate student at Stanford University, is changing that. With the help of players in his ongoing “Daedalus Project,” Nick is performing significant social research concerning MMORPGs. Worth noting in his studies, is how MMORPGs “blur the distinction between work and play.”

Yee says sweatshops in certain nations “hire youths to generate profit by accumulating these virtual goods and currency and selling them for real-life currency” to prove that, in certain cases, the line between work and play can be entirely obliterated. Another interesting study, performed by Dr. Edward Castronova of Indiana University, suggests that the 79th richest country on earth is the digital world of Everquest. Players, however, are not the only ones who stand who accumulate profit from this digital world.

Neopets has a network of over 70 million virtual pet owners across the world. The site tries to integrate learning into its virtual environment by giving Neopet owners, mainly children, points for playing games like “Chemistry the Pteri” and “Biology the JubJub.” But Neopets isn’t just the physical sciences. Neopet owners can just as easily score Neo Points by recovering “healthy McDonalds meals in Neopia” from a hungry Grarrl. This type of integrated advertising—already common in movies—could be a warning of what is to come for MMORPGs looking to increase revenues. The heightened level of potential interaction in MMORPGS, however, makes them not only perfect for ad placements but also ideal for market research. Neopets is a mere glimpse of this potential. In the MMORPG universe, players are capable of not just seeing ads, but interacting with them in ways that could give marketers deeper insight into ad effectiveness.

“Nah, I don’t feel like doing a quest to capture the Coca-Cola Bottle of Youth” is a comment that might seem quite normal in MMORPGs of the future.

Like newspapers, MMORPGs of the future might find it necessary to integrate ads (Anarchy Online is already doing this on an experimental basis) into their systems to lower the initial and monthly costs of their games. Of course, users might pay more to keep their games ad-free, but should ads become more subtle, integration would be less discernible.

For better or worse, MMORPGs could become the most important research tools of the future.