Sociology in Fantasia

Death, love, and dancing in online realms


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

Millions of men and women spend industrial-scale hours and dollars in massively multiplayer online games (MMOs). They stalk orcs, battle superheroes and supervillains, build up interstellar alliances, and market pharmaceutical enterprises. Why do they throw themselves so deeply into online gaming, and how do they live in these virtual worlds?

Nick Yee, a researcher at the international gaming company Ubisoft, has spent years finding out. As part of an investigation dubbed the Daedalus Project, Yee interviewed MMO players from around the world about their pastime, posting the results in an online 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 conducted on the rich, sprawling culture the players have built. It is also a fine way for nonplayers to learn what gamers actually do.

Learning who those players actually are contradicts several stereotypes right off the bat. In some games, Yee notes, "a player group may span a sixty-year age difference….There 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. Especially delightful are the fortune-summoning ritual dances some players perform in EverQuest and World of Warcraft, whereby avatars jump, make figure eights, display certain items, or crouch dramatically.

None of these maneuvers 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 the 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.

Players tend to reproduce many 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."

Some put in extensive hours at often unrewarding work ("grinding" being the well-suited in-game descriptor of choice), submitting themselves to "increasing amounts of centralized command, discipline, and obedience," Yee notes in a chapter with the sad title of "The Labor of Fun." 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.

"For 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 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.

And then there are the ever-elusive lady gamers. Proteus outlines how male players denigrate, harass, and drive off female players. But Yee offers two twists to this sadly familiar story. First, women report wanting to play for many of the same reasons men do-achievement, social interaction, and immersion-going against essentialist expectations of gender behavior difference. And second, MMOs offer a pedagogical benefit of sorts to male gamers who play under female avatars.

Males do this switching with some frequency-"men gender-bend roughly three to four times more than women"-mostly to enjoy the eye candy of an attractive female avatar displayed in a game's third-person perspective. That gaze is then reversed, as it were, as other players ogle the same avatar from their own avatars' perspectives. It's a surprising opportunity to experience the kinds of sexual harassment that real-world women know too well.

Game life, like real life, is more than just blood, racism, and drudgery, however. Proteus explores the romances that begin when people fall in love in MMOs. Some players meet for the first time in-world, get to know each other by text- or audio-based conversation, and later shift to out-of-game social media where the initial attraction blooms. Others connect by helping each other with game functions, like healing or giving advice.

Yee builds on these connections to show the ways players collaborate both within and outside of the game world. He shares stories of players assisting each other and taking time to help newbies, 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.