Interesting Paper – Behind the Avatar

Dmitri Williams of USC recently got his paper “Behind the Avatar: The Patterns, Practices and Functions of Role Playing in MMOs.” and linked to it from a Terra Nova post. It appears to build on Nick Yee’s earlier observations about roleplayers and the immersion motive. The paper is a 30 page word doc and as a warning, it is a social sciences academic paper; which means a low information to text ratio (disclaimer: my academic background is in the physical sciences, where the style is very different). I’m also skeptical of the choice of world; Everquest 2. Who in their right mind will even attempt to RP on a mass market, AAA diku? Yes, I do know that there are RP guilds in WoW and that some people I played with back in my NWN days are now in WoW RP guilds. However, it appears that Dr. Williams was able to find enough roleplayers to do meaningful research and the paper is a fascinating read I and I’d put it – along with Yee’s original Daedalus Project research into roleplayers – into the must read category for anyone building or running an RP world.

Most of Dr. William’s observations are consistent with what most RPers already know anecdotally.

The results suggested that role players are a relatively small fraction of the game world’s population, and that they skew younger and more female than the general EQII population. Role players also tend to come from marginalized offline groups and to have a disproportionately high level of psychosocial and health problems. They appear to role play more to express their true, often suppressed, identities than to negotiate new ones. In keeping with their desire for immersion, they use voice communication less than others. On closer examination, these players also have a rich social fabric in which they display significant creativity. Role players use their spaces as a therapeutic release from their daily lives, and often build genuine communities. Despite this and despite the choice of studied world being EQ2

The hints of lower mental health give me pause as that confirms a negative stereotype that roleplayers have. As far as I’m aware, I’m perfectly mentally healthy. However, twenty years ago, I was a shy, socially awkward teenager for whom reading science fiction and creating DnD settings was a form of escapism. It would be interesting to see how the mental health indicators compare with age within the roleplaying population. Also, I’d be interested in seeing the differences between self identified dramists and simulationists; both of whom regard immersion as a motivator and would be drawn to roleplay.

I have only one quibble that seems to have been missed by the peer reviewers. One of the statistical observations that Williams makes is that roleplayers spend less time logged into the game than non-roleplayers. However, in his discussion section, he adds:

By spending less time in offline social life, these players gain acceptance amongst each other, but perhaps at the cost of integration into the larger society. In turn, social diversity may suffer if these groups leave the mainstream.

This passage suggests that roleplayers are in fact spending less time sequestered from offline society than their mainstream peers. It could also be that roleplayers are sequestered from offline society more than average, but not as much as the non-roleplayers. It is minor, but it is an unclear issue.


About Dave

I’m a 38 year old American who has lived the past 9 years in Germany and India.
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2 Responses to Interesting Paper – Behind the Avatar

  1. Pingback: More on Williams’ roleplayer survey « Dancing Elephants

  2. morrighu says:

    I think that RP esp for a lot of the younger peeps, works like RP with a therapist. It lets them try out various modes of dealing with situations and people in order to find one that works for them. I would argue that it integrates them into real life better because they get time to practice those skills in a non-threatening environment will little to no real world consequences.

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