I had invited T. L. Taylor to participate in the social computing symposium, but she had a prior E3 commitment. Much to my delight, Tamara Pesik snagged her to speak in the MSR speaker series this week, so I get a chance to hear a presentation from her today about her research! Yay!
There's a good turnout, which is nice to see.
She starts by painting a basic picture of MMOG environments, including the software and service model associated with them, noting "breakthrough" titles such as Ultima Online (1997), EverQuest (1999), and World of Warcraft (2004).
Shows an excellent chart from mmogchart.com showing subscription data (how does he get this?). The WoW curve is pretty astounding (and it's six months out of date, showing 5 million rather than 6.5 millions WoW subscribers).
She's interested generally in the relationship between social and technological artifacts, and sees games as an excellent context in which to "unpack" that relationship.
Becoming a player involves a great deal of socialization--norms, practices, social regulation. There's a lot of 'indeterminacy' -- things that aren't specified in the manual, that users have to make sense of and create through social practice. She uses "trains" in EverQuest as an example of how practice and lore develop around technical phenomenon. (She mentions use of trains for grief play, and this spurs an interesting side discussion, one that I refrain from responding to because this is a particularly sore spot for me in WoW right now.) Excellent point here -- "you can't look at a train and figure out what it means; you need to look at the context to understand it."
Next she talks about guilds, and points out how different they are. Family guilds, professional guilds, raiding guilds, casual guilds, age-based guilds, and many others. Most involve trust, responsibility, accountability, and reputation. At the highest levels of most games, it's almost impossible to play without having been socialized into a guild structure.
Shows a social network graph showing relationships among members of a family guild, differentiating between RL and RP (role playing) relationships. (Nice line: "Friends are the ultimate exploit.") Notes the extent to which people share characters, which is technically a bannable offense--but an example of how users co-opt aspects of a system in ways devs may not expect or want.
Some discussion of the external databases of player-created information about the game. The examples she shows require explicit input by users, but many of the WoW sites now use add-ons to automatically update (like thottbot.com, or auctioneer).
Interesting question from the audience--how much of the reward for playing comes from system-based rewards (levels, xp, honor) and how much comes from social interaction (reputation, etc).
Shows a raid-leader's screen, with mods everywhere. Wow. I've not seen this before. It does change the experience. She notes the social impact, as well, since these mods often show explicitly the micro-level contributions of each player.
Talks about some "persistent critical issues." She mentions a variety of RMT issues--selling accounts, buying gold, etc. Public vs private sources of control. She shows the warrior protest in IronForge, and the "bullhorn-like" response by Blizzard. (Found the story and the screenshots; scroll down to bottom for system message.) Talks about the GLBT-friendly guild issue, as well, and the whole "should real life come into gaming environments" issue.
Discussion (as is typical at MSR talks) is intelligent and wide-ranging, so I'm not going to try to distill it. The most interesting surrounds the issue of "addiction." This is clearly a divisive issue, and TL handles it quite well. She reminds people of the moral panic over the introduction of childrens' literature, and talks about the increasing number of people playing with their kids.
Interesting question--"is there a takeaway from your book for designers of social spaces?" Makes me think there's a hunger for this right now, for lessons we can bring from these increasingly important and influential spaces of play into other contexts.