Socializing in Online Gaming Communities

Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOG) predate the current interest in virtual community, but are largely similar in that the players of such games interact with one another socially as well as cooperatively to accomplish goals (albeit in the context of the game). Studies have presented evidence that the social interaction among players is one of the reasons that individuals remain engaged in these games for longer periods of time than single-player games of a similar nature.

In reaction to these studies, developers have capitalized on the interest in sociability by designing games encourage more social interaction and more complex social actions, such as scenarios the depend on cooperative activity and even trust among players in order to achieve a goal within the game, and seek to leverage the social element to maintain and increase demand for their products.


Research into social interactions in online games have largely been limited to the consideration of in-game chatter: the frequency of communication and, in some instances, the nature of communication (interesting note: the most common "interactive" gestures in games tend to be friendly rather than hostile: smile, cheer, clap, wave, grin, etc.), which is a rather limited approach to measuring social interaction.

Others have attempted indirect measures, such as asking gamers to participate in surveys about their use and perception of "socialization" in gaming situations, which revealed that there were a significant number of gamers who felt that the ability to interact with other players was a significant factor in choosing a game ( "socializing" and "competing" were differentiated).

Qualitative research has been done by observation (ethnography) of the interactions among members of gaming "guilds" - which, interestingly enough, had a similar structure to the "mafia stereotype" in which a player's reputation is used to gain access to a guild and he increased in status by his reputation and service.

However, the existing literature has been inadequate in its consideration of social interaction in online gaming, and the present article suggests a different approach in order to more accurately consider the nuances of interaction among players, based on the theory of symbolic interaction, and uses World of Warcraft (WOW) as a specific example of a MMOG.


The context on online gaming is fragmentary and anonymous. "Fragmentation" pertains to the fluid nature of interaction: players may be online in different arenas, at different times. So unless there is a pre-existing relationship that enables them to arrange to meet online, it is unlikely two individuals will have sufficient interaction to form a connection.

Also, players may have a compendium of characters that go by different names, so the identity of a single individual may be fragmented among a dozen or so different online personas, making it difficult for another person to recognize them as being the same "person" behind multiple characters.

Anonymity becomes a problem in that it undermines trust. Under the guise of an avatar, a person may not be truthful about their identity, and it has been observed that players seek to gain esteem by bragging (sometimes telling blatant lies) about their in-game accomplishments. Also, since most MMOG are role-playing games, part of the "fantasy" element of the game is in the desire of the player to assume an alternate identity that is disconnected from their "real" self, so some degree of deception is inherent in the milieu.

The theory of symbolic interaction maintains that individuals communicate meaning through a variety of methods (verbal, nonverbal, formal, and informal) and receive meaning from others who use the same methods to communicate to them. Communication within a community is dependent on the common understanding of the "symbols" that are conveyed by various means - which is to say that a player's ability to speak the language makes them a part of the community, regardless of their apparent identity at any given time.


The author focuses in this article on player-versus-player environments, where competition among players is understood - though the author notes that it is seldom a fair fight, and that in-game "competition" most often resembles "petty muggings" or the bullying of weaker players.

(EN: The author describes in-game chat - statements made to the public, made to a specific group, or made to a specific listener. The level of detail is a bit too granular and presumes the reader has no sense of online chat at all, so I'm skipping much.)

The author notes that the language used in WOW is two degrees removed from normal English, in that it uses jargon and shortcuts typical to online chat, then adds another layer of jargon specific to the game

Interaction among players in the context of the game is affected by the "arena" in which they are located. Within the game, there are virtual spaces in which interaction of a specific type is expected (a place where people "just chat," trade items, engage in cooperative play, duel with one another, etc.) and in some instances, enforced (goofing around in a combat zone will get you killed, annoying people with requests to trade in a chat area will get you muted, etc.).

Aside of impromptu interaction with "strangers," there are formal interaction groups called "guilds," composed of players who have decided to band together cooperatively. While earlier forms of "gilding" were informal and a player could easily pretend to belong to a guild merely by adding the guild name to his avatar, WOW provides support for guilds, which enables an individual to maintain and administer a guild to prevent impostors as well as providing resources for guild members. Anecdotal evidence is presented to suggest that membership in the guild increases the "level of enjoyment and commitment to the game": provided that the guild is supportive of its members, and that membership in the guild encourages supportive behavior.

It's also noted that the interaction among guild members takes on a more social nature. The typical modes of chat that occur during the game (general, trade, cooperative play) are generally purpose driven and lack "small talk," whereas guild members engage in conversations that often have little to do with the game at hand, and more to do with connecting as individuals.

In the context of a guild, it's recognized that a player's in-game level is less important than their behavior with the game - or more aptly, their ability to interact with other players in the "correct" way, given their in-game role, and their willingness to be helpful to others rather than exploitive of them.

In contrast, a character with a high in-game level often draws beggars (those looking for gifts of items or assistance in quests) and leeches (those who will tag along with a high-level player to "loot" areas of the map he has cleared or attempt to take "drops" when he kills an opponent).

Another attribute of a player is their "PVP" rank (reputation for their tendency to combat other players and their success at doing so). A low tendency to duel with other players engenders trust among those who wish to play cooperatively. A high tendency to duel will lead other players to avoid them (if their in-game level is higher) or even attack them (if their level is low) - though high/low is relative to the observing player and the levels of other players encountered in the game.

In WOW particularly, server maturity is considered (a "new" server is a fresh start, with everyone at the lowest level). In the first days of the new server, there is often competition among players to be the "first" to achieve certain goals. Later, players act in a more cooperative manner. As the server ages further, there are many high-level players and few unfulfilled quests, which often results in a return to competition among players.


This article has been an examination of some of the interactions among players in MMOG, largely based on anecdote and ethnography, and it's conceded that additional research can be done to better identify the kinds of interactions and their impact on players.