Update: Thanks for all the thoughtful questions, everyone!!

I've studied online gamers for over a decade using a variety of tools: online surveys, player interviews, psych experiments in a VR lab, and data-mining server-side data from WoW. I currently work for a game company where I continue my research in understanding gamers. My new book on the psychology of online games is "The Proteus Paradox".

Proof: see bottom of my homepage http://www.nickyee.com

Some highlights of past findings in online games and virtual worlds:

My New Book: "The Proteus Paradox" challenges the myths we have about online gamers and what actually happens in these virtual worlds. The book is available in print and ebook formats: http://www.amazon.com/The-Proteus-Paradox-Online-Virtual/dp/0300190999

One Caveat: I am not in any way representing the game company I work for, and as such, I'd rather steer clear of any questions about specific game titles made by them.

Comments: 87 • Responses: 20  • Date: 

qoobrix12 karma

  1. What are some commons misconception disproved by your studies?
  2. What are some good ways for people to write about videogames in a more scientific and evidence-based manner that you would love to see in the coverage?

Nick_Yee28 karma

Misconceptions debunked:

  • Online gamers are mostly teenagers: No. Their average age is around 30.

  • Online gamers are anti-social: No. 80% of online gamers regularly game with someone they know in the physical world (friend, romantic partner, sibling, spouse).

  • Online gamers spend too much time gaming: Not really. The average MMO player spends about 20 hours each week gaming. The average American watches 33 hours of TV each week.

Writing about Games: I think most news articles about games start from the tacit premise that games are a waste of time, frivolous, or that virtual worlds are not real. So we get stories like: How can someone fall in love with a night elf? Can you believe that the government cares enough to spy in online games? So we get trapped in this cycle of repeating this premise rather than engaging with what happens in games on their own terms, by providing the proper context for why these things make sense if you understand gaming culture.

0nePercenter8 karma

I read your Daedalus project years ago, amazing stuff.

What are your current thoughts on the state of destructively compulsive playing? It seems like the games with long time investments (eg everquest) have gone the way of the dodo for more quick "run the dungeon, get the loot, 1 hour spent" themepark approach? I guess Eve might be an exception to that?

Have you been able to develop a profile for the general personality that is attracted to MMOs?

I think MMOs really expand on the bowling alone phenomena, and seem to isolate us further, in that we derive our sense of "community" from a glowing screen, rather than real-life intimate contacts. Thoughts on that?

Awesome you're doing the AMA, I absolutely will read your book.

One last question, how are you gather your data these days? Are you able to get stats from the businesses, or relying on user-reported data?

Nick_Yee6 karma

Great questions:

On long-term vs. short-term investments: I think this is one of the most interesting trends in MMOs over the past decade, especially comparing the sense of danger in worlds like EverQuest and the rubber-padded nature of WoW and how it impacts the communities that form. For me, I wonder most about whether it's like feeding ice-cream to children and then lamenting that they won't eat carrots. I worry that these trends narrow the possibility of games being made because it severely skews gamers' expectations.

MMO Personality: Good question. I haven't looked too much into this, but I think I've seen a paper on it. I'll dig around and post if I find it.

Bowling Alone: This is very similar to Sherry Turkle's argument in her book "Alone Together". In our work, my colleagues and I have noted how the persistent, social ambiance of online games work like a corner cafe: there's always social buzz, but you can sit in your corner and read a book and it's nice for an afternoon. Dmitri Williams and Constance Steinkuehler have argued that this is more positive than negative: Steinkuehler, C. & D. Williams (2006). Where Everybody Knows Your (Screen) Name: Online Games as 'Third Places.' Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. 11(4).

Data Collection: That's one of the reasons why I decided to work for a game company. Now I have access to all the back-end data. Of course, the trade off is that I'm much more constrained as to what I can publish.

Halbrium8 karma

Have you done any studies on "guild" social dynamics? Not many real world instances exist where you organize a team for the purpose of gaining an intangible reward (loot), which sole purpose to to require more of that reward? I have led a few guilds and to me it felt similar to what I imagine being a cult leader would be like.

Nick_Yee12 karma

When I was at PARC, we did a study on understanding the variables that lead to guild survival (vs. death) over a 6 month period. The most significant factor was managing churn. Players always leave, so the most crucial thing about guild survival is making sure there is a steady stream of new recruits across the levels to replace the churners. (http://nickyee.com/pubs/Ducheneaut,%20Yee,%20Nickell,%20Moore%20-%20Chi%202007.pdf)

I've also interviewed guild leaders and written about how games can end up being a great deal of work. I want to highlight one interview I did was a high-end raid guild leader in WoW, who brings up the (controversial) processes he implemented to manage his guild: http://www.nickyee.com/daedalus/archives/001334.php

CarolinaHillbilly8 karma

What are your thoughts on addiction to playing video games and how common is it among the general player base?

Nick_Yee11 karma

I think it's a genuine concern--some gamers do spend so much time playing games that it has a negative impact on their work/school/relationships, but I feel that the media and many psychologists tend to frame it as a technology problem rather than a psychological problem.

Studies have repeatedly shown that it is people who are already suffering from depression, social anxiety, or stress that tend to develop problematic gaming issues. So in this sense, it's a failed attempt at self-treatment. Or put another way, taking the game away in and of itself doesn't solve the problem.

I would argue that the technological framing mistakes the symptom for the cause, and in the end creates more confusion over this issue.

Right now, it's hard to put a number on how common this problem is because it's hard to study this highly politicized topic. Whether we can assign "gaming addiction" by simply borrowing a scale from alcoholism or gambling is one of these issues. How do we compare a social community (virtual worlds) with an ingested substance? Or should we to begin with?

Thenervemann7 karma

Is there any type of game where people with higher IQ's are usually playing?

Nick_Yee9 karma

I've not researched this particular issue. I also just did a quick journal search and didn't turn up anything. I did run across these two studies on links between personality and gaming, but as you'll see, neither has a fully fleshed out sense of game genres:

AubreyPlazasButtHair7 karma

What is 1 positive thing and 1 negative thing you've learned about gamers?

Also, what is your favorite Christmas song?

Nick_Yee11 karma

1 positive thing: With online gamers who have participated in my studies in particular, their willingness to share their own stories, honestly and articulately, which helps show why these virtual worlds are so interesting. Here's an example asking for players' most memorable in-game experiences: http://www.nickyee.com/daedalus/archives/001587.php

1 negative thing: The way that game devs are singled out and threatened for game changes is really scary: http://kotaku.com/5904367/another-day-another-death-threat-from-gamers-to-the-people-who-make-video-games

Christmas Song: Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas"

Mugiwara045 karma

You can infer someone's personality from their WoW Armory stats. Players who are less conscientious in real life are more likely to fall to death from high places in WoW

This is my absolute most favourite statistic now. Do you have any more off the top of your head that people might never really put together on their own?

What do you think about the whole micro-transaction/pay-to-win thing? Some MMOs have cash shops for cosmetics, some for cosmetics and slightly useful things (like GW2s unbreakable mining pick), and some now just let you buy yourself to level cap (or will be doing this eventually). I'm not creative enough to be a researcher so I can't think of how I'd run a survey about this but I would be very curious to see a proper research-y breakdown of who pays for what in games.

Nick_Yee6 karma

  • People who are more imaginative and creative have more characters and tend to have characters on different servers.
  • People who are organized and disciplined spend more time fishing.

Microtransactions: Of course, games have to make money to survive. And it's a tough balancing act: creating virtual things that players would want to purchase vs. virtual items that unbalance the game. We have a GDC presentation still under review on this topic that we're hoping to present at GDC 2014.

Funksultan5 karma

Not sure if you follow League of Legends, but did the details of TheOddOne contracting scurvy surprise you? Have you heard other tales of gamers neglecting their health to this extent (or worse)?

Nick_Yee4 karma

I think we've seen stories like this regularly over the past decade. There was the infamous story of the Chinese gamer who seemed to die in a net cafe, etc.

I think it highlights that everything in life is about moderation. Gaming can be a positive part of a healthy life palette. I like Dmitri William's phrase: "the rich get richer; the poor get poorer."

NinjaParadigm4 karma

What is the most surprising thing you have found about a gamers psychology?

Nick_Yee15 karma

One finding from MMOs: I was studying players who have a physical, real world relationship with someone they had met in an MMO. One finding that jumped out at me was that 60% of these players said that the relationship wouldn't have happened if they had first met face-to-face in the physical world. The predominant reason was a physical trait; the other person wasn't their physical "type": too tall, too short, too blue-collar, too pale, too old, etc. It was because they met in an MMO without the distraction of physical appearances that allowed them to get to know the other person before making that snap judgment. So we often think that it's difficult to get to know a person in a fantasy world where everyone is pretending to be someone else, but less can be more in this case.

One meta-finding from my research: Because MMO gamers are used to text chat, they are incredibly articulate and thoughtful in online surveys. Over the years, I've been able to accumulate some really insightful and powerful player narratives because of this.

NinjaParadigm5 karma

That's actually really interesting. Do you think that online dating is/would be similarly affected?

Nick_Yee11 karma

No. I think online dating is the exact opposite:

1) People are specifically looking to date on online dating sites. In my surveys of people who have fallen in love in MMOs, none of them were looking for love. I think this is important. Not looking for love means you are more open to getting to know another person for who they are.

2) Online dating sites makes it particularly easy to filter people based on physical traits. It makes it easier to put on your blinders as to what makes relationships work.

3) Online dating sites work on the myth that love is just a big checklist of common traits. Psychology studies have shown that the impact of similarity is overblown in romantic relationships. (Eli J. Finkel et al., ‘‘Online Dating: A Critical Analysis from the Perspective of Psychological Science,’’ Psychological Science in the Public Interest 13 (2012): 3–66.)

NotSureWhatToBe3 karma

How can I enjoy my gaming more?

Nick_Yee3 karma

Tell me more. Do you mean you find yourself experiencing less enjoyment when gaming than you have in the past / or you should? Or in general, how to make the most of your gaming?

NotSureWhatToBe3 karma

How to get the most out of my gaming.

I find that I thoroughly enjoy a game then once I am done with it, I move onto the next and never return. GTA V is a prefect example. I lost interest and now have it collecting dust.

Nick_Yee13 karma

Figure out other ways to play the game. I think we often approach a game and see one path to completion or winning. And we play that path and we're done. I think one way to replay games is to set up different goals (even goals that aren't tracked explicitly by the game).

In Dark Age of Camelot, a group of players created a singing/dancing group. They would go into PvP areas and just sing/dance. If they were killed, they just came back. Eventually people stopped killing them. And they were having fun and people watching them were having fun.

So I guess the broader message is that the most obvious way of having fun in a game is not the only way of having fun.

imba83 karma

What made you get into the field? Would you consider yourself a gamer?

Nick_Yee3 karma

A Gamer? I've played games ever since I had a computer. I remember playing the original SimCity on floppy disks. I'm more a strategic/management gamer, so I love the Civ series, the Master of Orion series, the turn-based X-Com series, Europa Universalis. In terms of MMOs, I've had high or max-level characters in: EverQuest, Dark Age of Camelot, Star Wars Galaxies, Ragnarok Online, City of Heroes, World of Warcraft, The Secret World. I think games are their own culture and it's hard to know the right questions to ask if you don't speak the local language and understand the context.

How I Got Interested: During my junior year in college, two seniors a year ahead of me did their theses on the personality differences among gamers of different video game genres. One of those genres was the MMO. And so the department went out and got us a copy so we could try it out. I was the lab techie then and installed the game for them. The year was 1999 and the game was EverQuest, which at that point had been out for a little over a year. For some reason, I was the only one of the three who enjoyed playing the game. It was playing EverQuest that made me realize how interesting these online communities are.

360walkaway3 karma

What's your reaction to the recent discovery that the NSA was heavily monitoring MMO's for terrorist activity?


Nick_Yee3 karma

Given all the due and undue hoopla around virtual worlds circa 2007-2009, it would actually only be surprising if the NSA were not there. Also see Wagner James Au's point that there were credible threats: http://nwn.blogs.com/nwn/2013/12/second-life-nsa-spying.html

Virtual worlds are a new communication platform, with its own affordances and opportunities. What does it mean to interact using avatars? How is it different from talking using typed chat alone? What makes an avatar persuasive?

These are all valid scientific questions with few empirical answers in that era. So it makes sense that intelligence agencies would be intrigued. Their initial efforts may seem naive, but it would be more alarming if these new communication platforms emerged and intelligence agencies just ignored them.

manixb2 karma


Nick_Yee3 karma

In college, I majored in Psychology with a minor in Computer Science. I completed my Ph.S. in Communication.

It depends on what part of the game industry you are interested in. For analyzing game data, I would suggest a mix of a social science background (psych/socio/anthro/econ etc.) with some computer science skills (particularly big data related, such as SQL, Hadoop, machine learning).

FreeOnes_Petra2 karma

I remember participating in a survey you did for Everquest players years ago. ;-)

Anyways, have you studied any other type of gamers (board, table top RPG or larpers) or only computer gamers?

Nick_Yee2 karma

My very first study of gamers was actually of table-top RPG gamers (from 1999): http://www.nickyee.com/rpg/start.html

But it's true that my main focus is computer games.

thombudsman2 karma

What insights into human nature have you gained from your observations?

Edit: just a sentence or two based on your reflections, please.

Nick_Yee3 karma

Virtual worlds tend to encourage us to replicate the real world (stereotypes, social norms, prejudices) rather than truly allowing us to escape and reinvent ourselves.

Odinman2 karma

You mentioned mmo player getting real world relationships from playing, what's the most interesting story you've ever heard from this?

Nick_Yee3 karma

Here's an online article where I wrote about players falling in love in MMOs with lots of player stories: http://www.nickyee.com/daedalus/archives/001534.php

Illbjammin2 karma

1.What is your favorite game.2. What is the most addictive game you have come across?

Nick_Yee3 karma

  1. I feel like I always go back for a game of Civ 5 when I'm "in-between" games. I think the recent expansion really helped flesh the game out, and it's the right balance of casual vs. engagement and megalomania for me.

  2. I'll do a meta-answer instead: I think games that become too "addictive" become quick-burn and quick-churn. It's easy to create a game structure that is appealing for the first 30 minutes, but it's hard to maintain mid- and long-term engagement.

steve_99942 karma

What is your favorite video game as a child?

Nick_Yee4 karma

As a child ... I'm going to have to say the Civ series. I played the original and every sequel in the franchise.