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.