UC Irvine received a $100,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for an ethnographic study earlier this month on “World of Warcraft,” (WoW) a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) with over 10 million subscribers.
UCI Professor of Information and Computer Sciences Bonnie Nardi and doctoral student Yong Ming Kow will analyze how players engage in creative collaboration in this virtual 3-D universe. Nardi, a researcher interested in ground-breaking social uses of cyberspace, will focus her research on cultural modifications to the game and how different forms of collaboration can affect how individual players experience and learn the game. The research will take a closer look at the relationship between strangers and friends in WoW.
In particular, Nardi will be looking at the differences between Chinese gamers and American gamers and which details are paid more attention by each group. The research will also determine what significance the differing ratio of male to female players has in both countries.
Produced by Irvine-based Blizzard Entertainment, WoW now has more than 10 million monthly subscribers and currently holds the Guinness World Record for the largest online multiplayer game. Around five million of these players are Chinese, while only half of the remaining 5 million are American. However, Americans develop more modifications to the game to improve their gaming experience.
NSF is an independent federal agency created by Congress that provides approximately 20 percent of all federally funded research in colleges and universities across the nation. Keeping in mind the goal of ensuring that the United States is at the head of innovative discoveries, NSF often supports projects that initially seem to be nothing more than science fiction, but have the promise to yield promising finds.
Although the argument could be made that putting aside such a large sum of money for researching a game is a waste of tax dollars, academic research on WoW and other games is quite a common anthropological tool. On September 13th, 2005, Blizzard Entertainment introduced a new dungeon with an enemy that infected players with a condition called “corrupted blood.” A glitch caused the infection to spread outside the dungeon, resulting in a mass infection of players across the gaming world. Players reacted by avoiding high-density areas such as cities until Blizzard Entertainment fixed the condition. Scientists contributing to the Lancet Infectious Diseases medical journal have used this event as grounds to study online games for social reactions to future digital infectious epidemics.
With WoW, researchers have gone as far as holding a scientific conference within the virtual world. At the May 2008 conference, where Nardi was also present, researchers discussed the relationship between the real world and the virtual world as well as the future of virtual worlds. The conference was held in Bladefist Bay on the coast of Durotar. Instructions for attending the conference read “Go East past Zep tower to shore, then swim a short distance North.”
Graduate student Loren Eason commented on the unique nature of this anthropological study.
“Anthropologists study the way different cultures interact…all the time. What makes it more difficult for some people to see here is just that the players are interacting in a virtual world, so it looks more like a sort of costume party than a normal social interaction,” Eason said.