Video Games

How People Behave in Virtual Worlds: A Review of The Proteus Paradox

Down on the collective gold farm.


The Proteus Paradox: How Online Games and Virtual Worlds Change Us—and How They Don't, by Nick Yee, Yale University Press, 2014, $28. 

In January, nearly 8,000 people waged a vast interstellar battle. Players of the space-opera game EVE Online spent 22 hours destroying the fruits of years of collaborative labor, not to mention $300,000 in real-world money, in a struggle over a small simulated deep-space base. Millions of men and women spend industrial-scale hours and dollars on this and other massively multiplayer online games (MMOs), virtual worlds ranging from superhero-infested cities to Tolkien-style fantasy continents. Why would so many people commit so much time and currency to such a pursuit?

Nick Yee, a researcher at the international gaming company Ubisoft, has spent years finding out. As part of a investigation dubbed the Daedalus Project, Yee interviewed MMO players from around the world about their pastime, posting the results in a Web-based archive and resource hub. The Proteus Paradox is a book-length summary of this research, organized with an eye to the larger question of how human beings behave online. It is the most important, challenging, and accessible study yet done into the rich, sprawling culture the players have built. It is also a fine way for nonplayers to learn what players actually do.

For that matter, it's a fine way to learn who the players are. The book's discussion of MMO demographics contradicts several stereotypes. Rather than slacker teens, most MMO players are adults. In some games, Yee notes, "a player group may span a sixty-year age difference….[T]here are college students, early adult professionals, and homemakers in their thirties, as well as war veterans and retirees." Most have jobs. Unlike the rest of the gaming world, a majority (80 percent) of MMO players are male. People play for various reasons, boiled down to "achievement, social interaction, and immersion," plus the pleasure of storytelling.

Once in that world, players sometimes create superstitions to better understand it, especially as game designers' intentions are often (perhaps necessarily) opaque. Some gamers will insist on bringing or modifying certain items on missions for good luck, negotiating with inanimate objects, or performing online tasks according to lucky lunar phases. I especially enjoyed reading about the fortune-summoning ritual dances that some players perform in EverQuest and World of Warcraft. None of these actually work with their games' rules or underlying code, yet players find them meaningful and even efficacious. Yee explains this in terms of Skinnerian psychology, as players interpret events as behavior-linked stimuli. He also sees a benefit for game businesses: "superstitions are free content for game developers; they are stories that require no additional resources or effort to create." As in the offline world, some people find superstition meaningful.

Indeed, players tend to reproduce a lot of offline behaviors online, no matter how fantastic, imaginative, and unearthly the game world might be. Sometimes the results are pretty bleak. "Instead of an escape from the drudgeries of the physical world," Yee writes, "many online gamers describe their gameplay as an unpaid second job."

A chapter sadly titled "The Labor of Fun" describes players putting in extensive hours at often unrewarding work ("grinding" being the well-suited word of choice), submitting themselves to "increasing amounts of centralized command, discipline, and obedience." While individual players may explore in a leisurely, ludic way, an MMO's complexity, challenges, and rewards elicit demanding practices from those who would take the game more seriously. "[F]or younger gamers," Yee writes, "these games may give them their first taste of being a cog in a large, structured organization that slowly burns them out."

Some of that business practice involves more than office drone work. In one Star Wars game, Yee found himself engrossed not in lightsaber battles but in competitive marketing operations for an interplanetary pharmaceutical start-up. Perhaps MMOs are an inside-out image of gamification.

Racism is another grim import from the real world. Online gaming has seen the rise of "gold farming," whereby users rapidly play a game to a successful level in order to sell the results to other players not willing to invest the time. In short, players outsource the grinding. A skilled gold farmer can simultaneously take a game character to a very high level on one computer while churning out valuable magic items on another. Proteus Paradox doesn't dwell on the economics of gold farming, but it notes that most gold farmers are Chinese—and also that other players tend to dislike them. Anti-Chinese racism surfaces in hostile in-game interactions and in YouTube rants.

Proteus also outlines how male players denigrate, harass, and drive off female would-be gamers. But Yee offers two twists to this sadly familiar story. First, MMOs offer a pedagogical benefit of sorts to male gamers who play under female avatars and experience the kinds of sexual harassment that real-world women know. Second, women report wanting to play for many of the same reasons men do: achievement, social interaction, and immersion.

After these dark chapters, Proteus shifts to more optimistic ground. The book explores the romances that begin when people fall in love in MMOs. It addresses the ways players collaborate both within and outside of the game world. Yee shares stories of players assisting each other and taking time to help new players, usually without having met one another in person. Dealing with a character's death often spurs cooperation too, as still-living players help the stricken avatar's player get back into the game. For all the criticisms that can be made of gamers' behavior, these worlds are not bleak places entirely devoid of pleasure and fellow-feeling. People play games for good reasons, starting with imaginative fun.

Yee concludes by challenging us to play more creatively, while calling on game designers to make worlds that are more open to such creative behavior. His book is a useful, accessible, and sometimes counterintuitive account of important research, and it deserves a wide readership.

NEXT: Why I Founded C-SPAN: Brian Lamb Tells All (Including His Crush on Brenda Lee)

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  1. This article reminded of all the reasons why I don’t play MMORPGs. Who on earth wants to play a game that feels like a second job?

    They’re a great concept but too many of them degenerate into constant boring grinding? Even worse it’s constant boring grinding you have to pay a monthly subscription for.

    I’m cautiously optimistic for the Elder Scrolls Online, it looks like they might be doing MMORPG thing right, but I don’t know.

    1. 1. TESO? No, they’re not doing the MMO thing right with this. Its still full of grind. Doubly so since the single-player games are mostly without it.

      2. If you’re paying a subscription you’re doing it wrong. Only the newest of the top-end of MMO’s even try to foist subscriptions off on the public. Most have realized that F2P is the way to make money. Wait a year and TESO will make the transition.

      3. I agree with the 2nd job thing. Eve Online has some great aspects, but to really get into the game you’ve got constantly spend time in it. Don’t show up for a week – someone’s infiltrated your corporation using social engineering, gotten a position of trust, and then nicked all your stuff and run off.

    2. EVE is better described as a hobby instead of a game. While there are times when it certainly feels like a second job, the same holds true for many time intensive hobbies.

      EVE doesn’t require much of a grind in order to enjoy, but if you make enough game currency (ISK) you can use it to pay for your monthly subscription by purchasing an item off the in-game market called PLEX which can be redeemed for 30 days of game time.

  2. Proteus Paradox doesn’t dwell on the economics of gold farming, but it notes that most gold farmers are Chinese?and also that other players tend to dislike them. Anti-Chinese racism surfaces in hostile in-game interactions and in YouTube rants.

    It’s terrible to see otherwise sophisticated YouTube commenters engage in such reprehensible behavior.

    Proteus also outlines how male players denigrate, harass, and drive off female would-be gamers.

    It’s terrible to see otherwise sophisticated MMO player engage in such reprehensible behavior. I’m sure they’d never call each other icky names.

    1. Its not that players hate Gold-farmers because they’re Chinese.

      Its players hate the Chinese because they’re gold-farmers.

      The first is classic racism.

      The second is normal stereotyping.

    2. Proteus also outlines how male players denigrate, harass, and drive off female would-be gamers.

      The female gamers are all yentas playing Candy Crush Saga on Facebook.

      1. I’ll remember that when I’ve finished the second season of The Walking Dead.

        1. The Telltale Games version? That’s a pretty chickish, relationship-heavy game.

    3. Its not racism!

      China is just filled with scam artists who ruin gaming. If they aren’t gold farming, hacking accounts, they are plagiarizing and making clone games. Their culture is bankrupt.

      No one minds the real gamers from China.

      I don’t know why these liberals expect people to endure countless moments of abuse and corruption from foreign gamers and we aren’t supposed to complain about that problem.

      If 80% of the Brazilians who claim to be Brazilian are stupid, nasty, and uncooperative, why I am supposed to not groan when some guy types “Hue Hue Hue” into chats and starts speaking into Portuguese?

  3. I’m quite fond of tea-bagging in my first person shooters. The response is usually anger but for other victims it’s laughter. An interesting dichotomy; DISCUSS!

  4. For my money, playing WoW for too long turns too many players into entitled shits who think you owe it to them to play the game their way. Especially in the 5-mans. They’re designed to be played by a variety of classes and builds but…”OMG dude you’re supposed to have 3 points in Veteran of the Third War man WTF!!??” followed by an immediate bump.

    Don’t even get me started on loot rolls…

    1. When I played, I pretty much only raided/PVP’d with my IRL friends for that reason. I got sick of the grinding, though, so I quit.

      1. I tend to think its partly due to the cognitive dissonance when you’ve got to remind yourself that the ferocious bearded warrior is really some 12-year old from Topeka.

        I did Heroics a lot in Wrath and Cata and for most players I rolled with it was more about sticking to a strict script than playing organically. It stops being fun after that.

        1. Yeah, u need to find a relaxed guild. Some of them are complete fascists

          1. pandaria had really nice graphics and more options-little childish but still pretty cool. The new xp looks really good though.

            1. My beef with MoP is that the story is so aggressively linear. Play it once, it really is good but if you’ve got a cadre of alts it gets old real fast.

        2. Well, to be fair when you’re doing some of the tougher raids, you pretty much HAVE to stick to the plan or shit goes all pear shaped real fast unless you’re massively overgeared; playing organically isn’t really possible, by design. But some people get way too invested in it.

          1. I like to pvp and then do lower level raids for the mogs and mounts. I generally don’t get psyched over the newest raid content.

          2. I only did a couple of raids for the Champion of the Frozen Wastes achieve and yes there’s a routine and structure in the 10/25 mans. But there’s no sane reason to blow up if you don’t have the “right” profession in Utegarde.

            1. …yeah, picking the right profession can help but it’s not raid-breaking by any means.

      2. I still play WOW, you’re right about the grinding. But, what’s cool about it is that they have so much content that the grinding can be done in so many ways that it stays fresh; so for instance have one toon grind and send the mats to your other toon and have him/her use the mats to level up their professions which makes them more valuable by selling things on the auction house etc etc. In other words if you want to mitigate grinding, simply wed it to a goal of progression; either economic, achievments or as a way to level other player’s profs.

        1. My problem is I simply didn’t have enough time to invest. I felt like I was always way behind everyone else, both with gear and leveling my professions, and it started getting onerous.

          1. just pvp then, and do older raids on your time with a high level toon.

            1. what did u roll?

              1. My main toons were a troll hunter, orc dk and a tauren pally. I think my hunter was an engineer/leatherworker, my pally did blacksmithing and jewelcrafting, and my dk was my miner/skinner.

                1. Damn, forgot I also had a tauren druid in there, too. I think he did leatherworking/skinning, and my hunter had engineering/mining instead….been too long, lol.

                  1. everyone forgets the tauren druids.

                  2. im alliance

                    nelf hunter
                    dran mage/priest
                    dwarf sham

            2. I never really liked PVPing, and I ran into the same problems there, anyway.

              1. oh

        2. That’s what I enjoyed the most. Since I never actually the endgame content at, say, The Berlin Wall I was cool with ignoring the WoW endgames. 😉

          Ultimately, I think it’s the utter lack of accountability that makes people such pricks in online gaming. You’re free to unleash your id and nothing really bad will ever happen to you. I wonder if the book being reviewed has the stories of all the crap that happens on EVE.

    2. I wanted to get into WoW, but it felt like 85% of the game was that spot in a single player game where you realize the designers ran out of plot line but still want 40+ hours of playability and they’re just treading water until the last area.

      1. Which is why imma gonna cry if they bring out HL3 as a MMORPG

    3. Geez Susan – don’t you even understand about the *meta-game*?!

      1. I’m talking more about peoples shitty attitudes. It’s not a friendly piece of advice that bothers me but some dipshit throwing a tantrum like I’ve somehow cheated him by not having the specs that he thinks are ideal.


    heres that eve online battle they are talking about. Anyone play eve?

    1. Tried it. I think they should rename it “Interstellar Accountant”.

      1. lol

        yeah i’ve heard that, it’s slow right?

        1. Slow isn’t necessarily bad. But EVE draws the teeth of the phrase “game that’s like a second job”. People seem to like it but it’s just not my speed. Which is odd since up till WoW I really had no interest in the sword-and-sorcery stuff and I’m a huge fan of sci-fi.

          1. For a long time – like three years worth – I played EVE and enjoyed it. It had all kinds of little dimensions and ways you could go. Got in with a good bunch of guys and had some fun. I even enjoyed the space accountant part at times. But once it became a second job I walked away from it quick with only a couple of looks back.

            I think EVE attracts a more aspie type personality and too each there own.

            1. I played UO when it first came out in the 90’s. It was awesome until the SKs took over. Couldn’t enjoy the game when you were constantly being annihilated by roving Korean PVP gangs.

              This was well before the advent of any kind of controls on behavior.

              1. koreans are the mongols of the virtual world

          2. Slow isn’t necessarily bad.

            I can only get high-speed internet via satellite living in the middle of nowhere, so I couldn’t do MMORPGs even if I wanted to. My online game of choice is go, which can be slow if you want and quite the mental workout, or blitz it you don’t have latency issues like I do.

            I just wish I were better at it. 🙁

            1. I can only get high-speed internet via satellite

              That’s terrible. I’m so sorry to hear that.

            2. Supposedly you can get a T1 line installed anywhere. It’s expensive but you’re allowed to resell access to your neighbors.

        2. Can be – small scale combat can be fast and involves a lot of pre-combat understanding of the mechanics. Optimal ranges for your weapons, tracking speed, etc – to set up the distance you want the engagement to take place.

          Large scale combat gets caught up in time dilation – everything is slowed down to keep the game running smoothly without the danger of people getting fragged because of lag.

          Those massive ship battles can take *hours* of real time to play out 10 minutes or so of actual combat (if it was running at 1:1).

          Eve is popular less for the *game* itself and more for the *meta-game*.

          Real-world negotiations, intrigue, and backstabbing that plays out across the pretty background hidden by open spreadsheets.

          1. Eve also has one of my favorite combat builds ever –

            The Dickstar

            Take a ship or base, load it down with hardeners (improves armor/shields) and ECM.

            90% of the time the enemy can’t even target you and the damage done in the remaining 10% is healed as fast as its done.

            1. The battle is over when the attacker gets bored and goes to troll somewhere else.

    2. I waited five years to play eve because the PC I had wasn’t up to it. I finally got a new PC, played the two week free trial, never went back.

    3. Yup. Started in 2007 with an alliance gearing up for a push into sov, which eventually got crushed and folded.

      Started against last June and I’ve been playing since. You really need to be involved with a community to get the most out of the game, but it’s entirely possible to have a lot of fun with a relatively small group of dudes.

  6. Like any microcosm you have a variety of play styles and attitudes. Factor in the game is over represented by male, achievement oriented (that’s how the reward structure “catches” folks), youth/young adults and that explains the attitudes and blow ups? That doesn’t mean you can’t find a good guild/group that can both hit current content and be “casual”. The primarily “adult” guild I’m in (with the mix noted in the article –teens to grandmother) has to pug one or two for raids (because of absences that aren’t held against the person?RL comes first), we often do not even have all “8” primary raid buffs (as our composition is “organic” depending who is available that day). We are still in the top 20 (yes, we’ll never ever be 1 with our casualness) for our realm and on heroic current content. Like society ? it is part who you associate with.

    As for the grind ? WoW now allows you to “boost” , for a fee ($60), a toon to 90 (and if they were already 60 their professions will all go to 600) just for the busy professional so you can decide whether to grind out real cash and pay or grind your toon to 90?. .

    1. As for the grind ? WoW now allows you to “boost” , for a fee ($60), a toon to 90 (and if they were already 60 their professions will all go to 600) just for the busy professional so you can decide whether to grind out real cash and pay or grind your toon to 90?. .

      Really? I guess they got sick of people selling their leveled toons.

      1. no its to prep for their new expansion coming out

        1. Oh, I’m sure that’s how they justified it, but that’s going to take a huge chunk out of the somewhat illicit leveled toon selling scene.

  7. Oh and regards to the lack of accountability — 3rd party solutions, entrepreneurship is fixing. There’s now OpenRaid (website) where you go to sign up for raids etc. Everyone in that raid rates you (attitude, performance, timeliness,…) so if you are a jerk, tool, … it goes into your ratings which is a differentiator when being selected for a raid. So you are held accountable.

  8. my co-worker’s step-mother makes $63 every hour on the computer . She has been laid off for 6 months but last month her pay was $18624 just working on the computer for a few hours. i was reading this…….

  9. “… not to mention $300,000 in real-world money …”

    Should read “… not to mention the equivalent of $300,000 in real world money… ”

    While the currency in EVE does have an indirect floating exchange rate against the dollar, pound, and euro, it is decidedly one way… you cannot take RL currency out once it has been placed into the game economy without violating the terms of service, and not all in game currency is the result of RL cash infusions.

  10. Start earning with Google. Just work for few hours and have more time with friends and family. I earn up to $500 per week. Its actually the nicest job Ive had. Linked Here

  11. MMORPGs still don’t seem to have tapped into the full potential of having a massive network of individuals playing it. I mean, here you have a grand canvas for people to paint their own stories and interact in myriads of different ways, but most games just want to channel people into one direction or the other.

    EVE is infuriating to me. I know behind all the spreadsheets that there’s an actual complex network of wars, trade, narratives, et al, but IT SUCKS TO PLAY.

    Star Wars Galaxies got close to what I wanted in the early days, and so did UO – but they turned their backs on it to become more like WoW.

    I have some hope for The Repopulation though.

    1. The core problem with this is that a lot of people want to do stuff that fucks over other people. Then those other people bitch and moan and stop p(l)aying.

      One paying guy who like breaking other people’s shit can keep a dozen others from paying.

      So most games cater to the one’s who don’t like their shit being broken.

      Its the price you pay for the freedom to do what you want – others can too. Games like Eve thrive because, right from the get-go, they unapologetically tell you to nut up. That guy broke your internet spaceship, get some friends and break his, *don’t* come whining to us because your lax security and gullibility got your guild robbed – not our problem. Go get some friends together and fuck his shit up.

      Its empowering in a way, once you get passed the frustrating early stuff, to actually be responsible for taking care of yourself. Its almost a commentary on the state of humanity that most people want someone else to make sure everything is ‘fair’.

      1. I was more talking about the themeparkization that occurred to the MMORPG industry after WoW’s runaway success, but I agree with you.

        Still can’t stand the sheer volume of menus in EVE – I like stuff that’s easy to pick up and hard to master.

  12. Gaming is also interesting in that playing correctly means never engaging in the Genovese effect*. If the poor peasants are being ground under by a fascist dictatorship, or even if it’s just some asshole robbing an old lady, that’s your cue to jump in and kick ass.

    Often, the narrative holds the ethic of justice being more important than law, and the idea that one person CAN make a difference.

    That’s an ethic we could use more of nowadays.


  13. Anyone still playing Diablo 2?

  14. Leeeeeeeerroy-a-Jennnkinns!!!

  15. In Runescape (based in .uk), the entire narrative of the story is based on differentiating races of creatures and which God’s religion they follow, but discussing religion or ethnicity is very prohibited. At the same time, the game also has a city called Al Kharid, which is as stereotypical of an Arab Middle East city with its greedy dishonest turban wearing camel owners named Al as you could get.

    The owners outright directly accused Chinese people of being gold farmers and encouraging people to “report” them, especially if their character named looked Chinese. My female acquaintance from Singapore who is Chinese had some real problems with their attitude.

    About 6 months ago, they totally killed off the bots, gold selling and “cheating”. After they banned the low hanging fruit and seized their “property” from the “economy”, they found that 40% of the remaining players, including most of the highest rated players were buyers of gold from third parties.

    Runescape now pretty directly sells XP (Experience Points) directly for real world money. So now the cheaters are gone and the ethical purists are disgusted.

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