Virtual World Exploratorium

Virtual Worlds ExploratoriumThe Virtual Worlds Exploratorium (VWE)* is a multidisciplinary project that seeks to generate insights about human behavior and society through the study of Massive Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs). MMOGs are a giant industry with millions of players from around the world participating in a variety of formats. These games generate vast amounts of data about play and players that can be used for research. A multi-disciplinary team of scholars from I-CHASS and NCSA at Illinois, Northwestern University, University of Minnesota, and University of Southern California has been investigating MMOGs for five years, generating over fifty research papers and reports. Scholars on the team are drawn from the disciplines of communication, sociology, anthropology and computer science.

Study of MMOGs by the VWE will contribute to knowledge in two ways. First, people spend a great amount of time in MMOGs and understanding their experience and patterns of play in these virtual worlds is important. MMOGs, for example, serve as important “third places” where people gather when not at home or at work. As such they provide opportunities for socializing, for building relationships, for hobbies, and for many other game pursuits. They also offer participants recreation and opportunities for achievement in terms of success in game activities such as exploration, battle, craftwork, commerce, diplomacy, and politics. Understanding how players pursue these activities helps us grasp an important social phenomenon and also enhances our understanding of virtual environments in general. Second, activities in games parallel many real world activities and so the game can be used as a source of data to understand phenomena such as teamwork, leadership, interpersonal relationships, communication and social networks, and economic exchanges.

The project utilizes data obtained from the databases underlying the MMOGs. This is truly “Big Data,” consisting of records for hundreds of thousands of players over months or years. The data is recorded automatically so it provides a complete, detailed record of activity to the hundredth of a second. To protect subjects all data is “anonymized” so no actual player is identified and no content of messages is included in the databases. Currently the project has four game databases totaling over 4 Terabytes of raw data and 25 Terabytes of tables and processed data. In addition, surveys of 7,000 and 23,000 players have been obtained for two of the games measuring personal characteristics, personality, political ideology, play habits and motivations, and other variables.

Projects conducted under the umbrella of the VWE include analysis of economic flows in the game, prediction of real-world characteristics such as political ideology and gender based on in game characteristics and behavior, studies of largescale dynamic networks, research on team effectiveness, studies of trust, mentoring, and other interpersonal behaviors, and studies of game dynamics such as player turnover and illicit activities such as goldfarming. The VWE has also led to insights in computer science including novel analytics and modeling techniques for large datasets. Finally, the VWE group has been working on theory and models for data-driven social science, a new frontier for inquiry.

This project has been funded by the National Science Foundation and by a contract from Bolt Baranek and Newman, and has received additional support from XSEDE.

For more information contact Scott Poole, mspoole@illinois.edu.

Project Website

*Project also known as the Virtual Worlds Observatory